Published Sep 18, 2019Early on in charting the story of his life and work with The Band in new documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, Robbie Robertson reveals to viewers that an important part of his creative process is the ability to catch himself off guard. It's exactly what happened when it came to his recent slate of creative projects, all of which had a hand in inspiring new album Sinematic, Robertson's first solo LP since 2011.
"I do like to go into this dark room of the imagination, and I can't see, so I feel my way around," Robertson explains to Exclaim! in a new interview. "I start feeling my way through a sound, through music and composition, and then a story starts to appear. I have no idea where I'm going!"
Robertson's reflections, first captured in 2016 memoir Testimony, served as the basis for the aforementioned Once Were Brothers. Then, while composing music for the latter — and, simultaneously, composing a score for The Irishman, a forthcoming film from director Martin Scorsese — the dramatic through-lines of these works began to spur ideas for what Robertson calls "songs about haunting and violent and beautiful things.
"So much of it is this discovery, and I can't wait to see what's going to be revealed next. I follow that path until it takes me to a place where I can visualize another little movie."
With his effortlessly cool croon, Robertson is both reflective and resolute in his storytelling over Sinematic's 13 tracks. The Van Morrison-assisted "I Hear You Paint Houses" — its title a mob code for a hired hitman — tells the story of Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran that will soon be explored in Scorsese's film. On "Let Love Reign," Glen Hansard joins Robertson to appeal for peace of mind in "this beautiful broken world." He also turns the lens on himself with "Once Were Brothers," an elegiac look at the dissolution of The Band on which he sings, "When the light goes out / And you can't go on / You miss your brothers / But now they're gone."
While this brotherhood is captured both in song and onscreen, Robertson's confluence of creative endeavours is also a celebration of his friendship and work with Scorsese, who also served as an executive producer on Once Were Brothers. Their relationship has lasted 40 years, and Robertson expresses that the pair's creative connection feels similar to the one shared with his former bandmates.
"When we go into a project, it always feels to me like, 'This is such an exciting challenge. We're starting from scratch. We've got to do something amazing' — all of those similar ambitions that I felt when I was very young, and when The Band was just about to arrive," Robertson recalls.
"There was a sense of that in making The Last Waltz, like, 'We've got to do something really, really above and beyond. We have to make this so magical, so beautiful!' When he asked me to do the music for Raging Bull, I felt the same feelings. We've just finished the music for The Irishman and I felt the same thing. 'What'll we do this time, what can we make?' And the pieces eventually start to fit together."
The interconnectedness of Robertson's workload also resulted in a visual art series set to accompany Sinematic's physical editions: one piece for each track on the album. Of the works, which include painting and experimental photography, Robertson recalls, "I would sit down and start creating an image that was influenced by that piece of music. Sometimes, that vision influenced the music in return."
Autobiographical album cut "Dead End Kid," on which Robertson recounts his naysayers as a half-Mohawk, half-Jewish Canadian growing up in Toronto, came together while writing a follow-up to Testimony. The forthcoming book is another project that Robertson notes is "revealing itself" to him the further his guiding process goes.
"A lot of people from my generation, they don't write anymore. Some of them go tour and all of that, but for me it's the creative process, that's what makes my blood flow," Robertson says. "The way all of these things were contributing to one another in these works, I've never had that happen before, and I'm finding that it feels very rewarding."
That said, he admits bouts of hesitance. But he always finds his way back.
"Sometimes you think, 'Oh my god, I've bitten off more than I want to chew.' But most of the time, I'm just passionately involved in where this is taking me, and that's what makes me not know how to stop."
Sinematic is out September 20 courtesy of Universal Music Canada.