Sharon Robinson has been in the music industry for a long time, songwriting for and performing with Leonard Cohen primarily, as well as Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Don Henley, Michael Bolton and others. It's only in the last decade that she's gotten around to building a solo portfolio, however, which she adds to with Caffeine, her 2015 release. She joined Music Times to discuss the big issues—from unleashing yourself as a solo performer to the positives and negatives of Starbucks coffee.
Music Times: I hate to start here—I'm sure everybody does—but even your press kit for Caffeine first mentions is your time working with Leonard Cohen. I'm wondering if you ever get frustrated, always being lumped in with Leonard?
Sharon Robinson: (laughs) No, I mean...he's not a bad person to get lumped in with, right? My association with him has been extremely helpful in terms of bringing attention to my own work. So no, it doesn't bother me. Not at all. I am making good progress in making my own artist image and all that so it's all working out.
That said, you didn't put out your first solo album until 2008. What made that a good time to break off on your own with your own record?
As you know, a few years earlier I had made that record with Leonard, 10 New Songs, and after that I was doing some other things that I had been doing before in the business, background producing, working with labels in terms of developing new artists and things like that. Nothing was really panning out that well, and I just decided at one point that I just wanted to make my own record. I wanted to have a project in my hands that I owned and that I could get behind myself as an artist. Having made that record with Leonard, because of the way we made that record, there was no reason not to just go ahead and make my own. It wasn't about waiting for a label or a record deal or anything like that. I had my own studio and I just decided to go for it.
Obviously there's a bit of a gap between Everybody Knows and Caffeine, nearly seven years later...
What was the thought process going into the new record?
As you know, I was on the road with Leonard for six years. In 2008 we started that mega-tour-we now call it the "Grand Tour." That was very time-consuming work, that tour. I didn't really have an opportunity to make another record until that was winding down, which it did in 2013. It was then that I just had the time to go and put my energy into making the record. I had been working on the songs, gathering ideas in bits and pieces while I was on tour. So you could say that I was working on it, in a way.
When I look at Sharon Robinson, she's gotten so much attention for, not only performing onstage with Leonard Cohen, but for songwriting for him along with many other artists. When you go into your own solo project, is there a conscious effort to do something different when you're performing for yourself versus others?
Sure. Every artist has to find their own voice. I've always been somewhat of a chameleon...putting myself in the shoes of other artists and figuring out what their voice is and what they might want to say next. Doing it for yourself is a whole different ballgame. So yeah, it is very different. It's a real soul-searching kind of thing (laughs).
What did you find in that soul-search?
Taking some cures from some of the people that I've worked with, not the least of which is Leonard. Just finding ways to honor your own instincts, I guess you could say. Your impulses. Just being true to that artist inside you that is saying "get out!" It's easy to start thinking about what other people might be expecting of you or something you've done before, or something like that but you really have to get into the zen of it and just find that honest place from which to speak.
Could you tell me a bit about the title? Listening to it, I guess the go-to term that music critics would use would be quote-smoldering-end quote.
(laughs) That's a good term!
It's not something that makes me think of drinking Red Bull per se, so I'm curious about the Caffeine title.
It's another word for an intense...intense and romantic, but maybe short-lived, relationship. It's just a metaphor for a lost weekend. It starts with two people having coffee, then one thing leads to another. That person becomes nicknamed "Caffeine," if you will.
Got it. So having coffee leads to "having coffee."
You could say that, yeah. That's good. Can I quote that?
You may. I'll allow it. Going back to the strictly beverage form of caffeine, do you have a source of choice?
No...I'm often criticized for this but I definitely like Starbucks coffee. Sorry.
Criticized on what grounds?
Certain coffee aficionados have really scoffed at that. I'm not sure what their favorite choice is but...I mean, I like intelligentsia coffee, but I don't tend to bother with it. I just go with the easy one more frequently.
Ah. I know a lot of people are up in arms about them using GMO's. I think that's Neil Young's big thing right now.
Oh, yeah...I'm very sympathetic to all those causes but I haven't had the wherewithal so far to get behind them. That's not an excuse...just my truth right now (laughs).
You and me both. Are you looking to take Caffeine on tour in the United States soon?
Yeah. As you may know, I just did a run in Europe and that was very successful. I am looking forward to doing some dates in the U.S. and then I'm looking forward to going back to Europe later in the year. All those plans are being worked on as we speak. I'm excited about it...it's a lot of fun. I like being in business for myself and doing my own shows. I've found that I really enjoy it, so I wanna do more.
Do you have a particular kind of venue in mind? It's obviously got the atmosphere of a smoky nightclub but...
It's interesting you say that because the room that I did in Dublin [The Button Factory], it was kind of a small, smoky nightclub atmosphere, which was the way the promoter referred to it. But he told me 'you should be in much bigger rooms.' So I don't know. Hopefully he's right!
It's hard to find those venues legally anymore, what with smoking bans.
Right. Maybe in Amsterdam.
It might be too soon to think about this, but can we expect chapter three of your solo career sooner than the seven years we waited for this one?
Oh, absolutely. I'm really looking forward to doing some more writing. It's definitely not going to be another seven years. I love writing songs more than almost anything and I don't feel right when I'm not doing it, so I'll definitely be doing more of that.
Relatively recently you had a book of your photography published of the tour with Leonard. Do you have any other photography projects in mind?
I don't, but I've got my eyes and ears open for the next idea because I really would like to do another book. I've got a new iPhone, and I'm looking at new cameras...we'll see. I'm definitely not ruling that out.
Set up a selfie-stick on the piano or something?
(laughs) I don't know...there's just so much negative energy around selfie-sticks...but I am drawn to them (laughs harder).
Fair enough. I don't know if you actively follow concert photography, but ideally, who would you have shooting you on tour?
Oh gosh. Are we talking like Annie Leibovitz?
Sure. I did say 'ideal.'
There are a lot of great photographers, and I wouldn't mind if any of them gave me the chance to be the subject. I'd be thrilled. I recently had a photo session with Timothy White [an acclaimed celebrity photographer]...I haven't seen his photos yet, but he took some terrific pictures. Looking for the right way to publish those. I happen to know a few great photographers so that's always a possibility. Anyone who'd like to burn some film on my behalf would be welcome.
Caffeine is due out for physical release May 19 and is currently available for digital purchase on iTunes. In celebration, Sharon Robinson has partnered with Music Times to give away five copies of the album.
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