Chris Robinson, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood and The Black Crowes

Toward the end of my conversation with Chris Robinson, we talked about his reading habits. In my almost 200 interviews for this site, I've learned that songwriters are voracious readers. But I was not prepared for the onslaught of titles that Robinson threw at me. I have a Ph.D. in English Literature and consider myself pretty well read, but not compared to Robinson. He reads so much that I don't know where the man finds time to write. And while most songwriters stick to a genre or two, Robinson sticks to nothing. He wants to be exposed to everything. So he reads some Beat poets, then some Baudelaire. He'll move to Gene Wolfe then Knut Hamsun. Then it might be time for H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, moving on after that to Israel Regardi's The Golden Dawn or The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon, then some non-fiction by Mary Beard.  His current favorite is Brian Calling. “You can’t be an adept lyricist without having knowledge of other people’s writing,” Robinson told me. 

Robinson is the frontman and leader of The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, a band he begin in 2011. They've put out six albums in that time, the latest being 2017's Barefoot in the Head. From 1989 to 2015, Robinson fronted the Black Crowes. Besides their great music - their debut Shake Your Money Maker has not one bad song - the Black Crowes were an incredible live band. I can attest to that: I first saw them in 1990 at a club in Grand Rapids, Michigan right after Shake Your Money Maker was released. The buzz around the band had just started, and that show still stands as one of the best I've ever seen. 

Robinson has been writing ever since he was a kid. He was diagnosed with dyslexia as a young boy, and songwriting was an outlet for him to express himself. He always loved to write, even seriously considering creative writing programs in college. He ultimately chose songwriting because it best suited his creative energy and fit his personality as an outsider. Robinson tries to write every day, not just because he’s a songwriter, but because it’s his “spiritual practice.”

As an artist, Robinson also recognizes that his creative world can’t stop at the written word. He’s got stacks and stacks of journals filled with words and drawings, sometimes overlaying his drawings with words. He also collages. He takes in all sorts of art as well: Robinson is a huge fan of filmmakers like Robert Altman, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Philippe Garrel. And if he can’t get to an art museum, he’ll open one of his many books on visual art.

As you’ll read in our interview below, Robinson’s quest to become a better artist is never ending. “In my world, I have yet to write a really good song,” he told me. And while I’d argue that he’s already written several,  Robinson knows that this quest involves constant exposure to art in all its forms.

How much writing do you do outside of songwriting?

Nothing focused. I'm always writing, though. I keep tons of notebooks and I'm always stringing random ideas together. And there's always some little chord structure or riff following me around.
It changes with time and experience. When I was younger, I would write whole songs in one sitting. I still have moments when things just pour out fully formed, or at least the meat of the song happens in a spontaneous combustion of ideas. But as I get older, I find that songs take longer. Not because I'm slower, but because I like to take more time with them.
You told me earlier that the goal with your site is to treat songwriters the same way we treat poets or playwrights or any other type of writer. I like that association. That's the fringe element, the outsider. That's the person who does not comply with the system he's given regarding language and manipulation of words. I like to see songwriters that way too.

I'd like to ask about those notebooks. What's in them? Journaling, song lyrics, random ideas?

Anything. It could be the name of a river I see when I'm on the bus, it could be a line from a conversation, it could be a list. It could even be a collage or a drawing. It's more about being active with the muse in any form. So much of my work is about juxtaposition of ideas, and by always picking up ideas here and there, you create a tapestry that keeps you active with the muse.
I don't write songs because it's a chore. Growing up as a little dyslexic kid who always felt like he was on the outside, writing was another tentacle for me to have in the water. It was another way to deal with life when I wasn't getting things done in other areas. I still have that connection today from when I was an adolescent: as I get older and life creeps in with other responsibilities, I've always maintained a space, like a spiritual practice, in which to write. The difference is that it's dogma free, except for one rule: you should never write songs on your laptop or your phone. That's my only dogmatic principle. Laughs. Songs should be written, not typed.

Are you particular to a certain type of pen and paper?

Absolutely. I need Moleskin notebooks and thin-tipped Sharpies. But it's funny, I'm still one of those guys who also loves to write on hotel stationery and envelopes. It's too bad that hotels don't have as much as they used to, but I've probably written half my songs on hotel stationery.

How important is the writing ritual to you?

In the CRB we're lucky because we invent our mythology as we dream it up on the run, so we don't have any nostalgic expectations. That gives us great opportunity to express ourselves. The ritualistic part of it is about always being involved in creating. Not letting a day go by without thinking about how your interactions affect you. And that interaction can be anything: a conversation, a picture, a line. I was on a plane recently and the woman across the aisle had three hats in her lap. And I thought Oooh that could be a song. A woman with three hats in her lap. The average person may not notice something like that. But for me, something like that could set the scene for a song. It's about being involved with your environment every waking moment. Sometimes that emotional connection can be pretty abstract, so you have to really search for the meaning. 

You have to be hypersensitive to your environment, I would imagine. 

If I'm highly agitated or when the stimulation is appropriate, I'm going to be more in tune with what's around me. Laughs. The artist's main job in life is recognizing things that are holy and recognizing things that are magic. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the other part of my ritual is that I write most of my songs on my 1959 Martin D 18 that I've had for years. When I pull that guitar out of its case and start plucking, songs fall out. 
 photos by Jay Blakesburg

photos by Jay Blakesburg

A couple of months ago I interviewed Robyn Hitchcock and he told me that, as a songwriter, he needs a certain amount of discomfort to be able to write. 

Well, he's English as well, so we understand that they all need that. Laughs. I always like to think about how I'm relating to my environment. There are many ways to do that. I write songs when I feel good, but I also write songs when I feel shitty. It's my job to translate those emotions into an artistic medium. When I was a kid, lyrics were the only thing I could hang my hat on. It was the only thing I felt I could contribute. I was told I couldn't sing or play instruments, but at least I knew I could write. 
That's the essence of how I got started on this whole trip. I liked how people thought rock and roll was low rent. It was also the easiest and quickest way to communicate without having to deal with other people. I had an interview at Bennington College for their creative writing program out of high school because I thought that was my trajectory. I loved to write and was hugely interested in literature. But I realized that I could take all of that creative energy and put it into this lawless, ruleless rock and roll context. 
I was hugely influenced towards that direction by certain writers. Jack Kerouac sent my head spinning. So did Nelson Algren. It was all antithetical to my parents' suburban way of life. 

Do you do any of that kind of prose writing anymore?

I do a little stuff here and there, but not too much. I'm 51, and people have asked me if I'd be interested in writing a book, but it would be so silly and so flat:. And then I got a record deal. And then we went to the studio. And then I met Jimmy Page. Blah blah blah. My memories and my expressionist art are too ethereal and too abstract to be able to lay out some square narrative about how I got from point A to point B. I don't think my songs mean anything, but I imagine anything you ever want to know about me can be gleaned through my songs. I enjoy the nebulous command of that aspect of my songwriting.

I want to read you this quote by Ernest Hemingway that I read today. He said, "I learn as much from painters about how to write as I do from writers." What do you think about that?

I agree. and I'd say the same thing about how much I learn from Robert Altman or Tarkovsky films. Or the avant garde films of Philippe Garrel. It's almost like science and religion: there's no integration of the spiritual and the mystic with the pragmatic. But there should be an integration of it all in this dynamic wheel. For me, writing songs is a testament to my interest in something that I don't really want to know the dynamics of. I don't want to know the magic behind it. I'm happy with the moments of inspiration where what comes out is exactly what I wanted to say. But that moment goes away instantly. And in my world, I still have yet to write a very good song. I'm always trying to get better: maybe I can be more nuanced, maybe I can be more dynamic.

Is there a time and place where you do get your best writing done?

Now, it's all about the mornings. I can write at other times, but I have to wake up and start writing before anything else creeps in. I don't want to hear about the parent/teacher conferences, I don't want to hear about my buddy's hangover, I don't give a fuck about anything else. Nothing. I need those three or four hours. And often it's not even about writing because I'll be reading or looking at books of art. That's part of my writing process too. It's about opening up your space and allowing the muse to enter and paying your respects to it. The incense we burn allows that entrance. When that smoke from the incense goes away and dissipates into an apparition, it's the same thing as the muse disappearing. So when it hits, you want to be prepared. 

I'd like you to define morning, because morning can be noon for some songwriters.

If I'm taking a kid to school, I'll start as soon as I get back. But ideally I'd love to just roll out of bed, get a cup of tea, and grab the guitar. 

We have four kids, so I know what that's like. But having kids has made me more disciplined as a writer.

It definitely changed my perspective as far as drafts and working songs over and over. I may not have as much open time to sit with a song. But this process could change. I might wake up one day and only want to write at night. Part of being dyslexic and being an artist is about being adaptable to my environment. I'm a writer because I don't have much control over my environment. Life is a series of random and chaotic events. The only constant for me is the writing. 

Do you do much drawing still?

I go in cycles. Lately, not as much. But it changes and then I'll start drawing, painting, making collages. 

Does your visual art and songwriting ever overlap in terms of process?

I don't just do it out of compulsion. Theres's definitely an energy in the visual image. If I'm goofing around in my notebook by making collages then writing over them, that total image becomes much more alive. 

How much do you revise your lyrics?

More than I used to, but still not too much. It's more about working on songs longer by going through multiple drafts. It's funny, because I say all this bullshit, but then I just wrote a song for Joe Perry a couple of months ago. It was the first kickass rock n' roll song I'd written in a while. I wrote the whole thing in twenty minutes. Laughs. 

You mentioned your notebooks earlier. Do you ever go back through them for song ideas?

All the time. I have years of notebooks. There’s volumes of shit in there that I’ll go back and rediscover. Lots of stuff that’s fallen through the cracks.

From the sounds of it, you’re a voracious reader. Who do you like to read, and how has that influenced your writing process?

I don’t think you can be an adept lyricist without having knowledge of other people’s work. If we’re talking poetry, I still love Baudelaire. I still love the Beat poets, people like Gregory Corso. My favorite Beat poet is a little more obscure, Bob Kaufman.

But I read everything. I'll read fantasy stuff like Gene Wolfe then I’ll read Knut Hamsun's Growth of the Soil, then Jean Giono then Gustave Flaubert. I don’t restrict myself to anything. I’m all over the place: H.P Lovecraft and Arthur Machen. I would have equal time to read Israel Regardi’s The Golden Dawn as I would read Francis Pryor’s Britain B.C.

I can never do this, but many songwriters tell me that they can read several books simultaneously. Can you do that?

I can if they’re on different topics. If I’m reading Mary Beard’s A Revisionist History of Rome, I can read some fiction like The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon or something by Michael Moorcock. One author I’ve really been into lately is Brian Catling, a British artist who wrote a book called The Erstwhile. Mind-blowingly good shit.

In your career as a songwriter, does one song stand out as being the easiest to write, and was one your favorite?

The easiest song to write was “She Talks to Angels,” but my favorite song, the one I’m most proud of, is on our last album and it’s called “She Shares My Blanket.” In my mind, it’s a cinematic song: what if McCabe and Mrs. Miller, that Robert Altman movie, was about a couple of kids who took their pot money and bought a cabin and had a love affair? I wanted it to be scenes as a series of cutaways without clear direction. I think that device works. Of course, compared to “She Talks to Angels,” no one will ever give a shit about “She Shares My Blanket.” Laughs. But going from the almost teenager who wrote “Angels” to the grown adult—though the jury is still out on that—who wrote “She Shares My Blanket,” I think there’s a through line. Literary aspiration has always been there.

What about the most difficult song to write?

The title track to the Black Crowes album “By Your Side,” was first called “If It Ever Stops Raining.” Some asshole at the record company said he didn’t understand what I was saying. I’ve gotten myself in trouble for being too opinionated in the past, but I know one thing: no one will ever fucking tell me what to write. That’s the reason I became a songwriter in the first place. My bandmates and everyone else looked at me and said. “Just do it, man. What’s the big deal?” So as a cynical aside, I wrote “By Your Side” as a way of saying Thanks for nothing, you bunch of pricks. And that's the song that ended up on the album. 

That must have been cathartic.

It actually broke my heart. It was sad, a real learning moment about people and art and who I was. Something that is still difficult for people to understand, those people who just want to be famous and make money, is that for some of us there's a connection to something that is far deeper.