Interview: Robert Randolph — "Hearing how all these guys got their stuff from these artists on the 40's and 50's and then hearing those artists; it’s kind of mind-blowing."
Fri, 18 Jun 2010 11:01:09
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Growing up playing his Sacred Steel in church, Robert Randolph discovered the power music had to move people at an early age. Honing his skills on gospel and 70's funk music, it wasn’t long before this pedal steel guitar virtuoso latched onto the sweet sounds of blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan. The rest, as they say, is history.
With his pedal steel on his lap and a desire to touch people’s lives with his music, Randolph and his Family Band (drummer Marcus Randolph, bassist Danyel Morgan, and vocalist Lenesha Randolph) hit the road at the turn of the century, taking their unique blend of funk, soul and blues to the masses. Among those masses were the likes of Eric Clapton and Dave Matthews (among others), who took an immediate liking to what the young musician had to offer. Critical acclaim and mainstream acceptance soon followed as Robert Randolph & The Family Band carved a path through the heart of popular music by daring to be themselves and delivering unforgettable live performances (including a show-stopping display of pedal steel pyrotechnics at Clapton’s inaugural Crossroads Guitar Festival).
With the success of his third album, Colorblind, Randolph had become a bonafide star in the eyes of music fans worldwide; his music and message broadcast on televisions and stages across the globe. Not one to rest on his laurels, Robert dug deeper into his roots than ever before and, with the guidance of legendary producer T-Bone Burnett, recorded an album that encompasses an entire century of Americana. Inspired by the gospel recordings of the early 1900's, We Walk This Road is an album that serves as the missing link between the genesis of American blues/folk music and the smoothest sounds of today. The end result is one of the most diverse and uplifting albums to see the light of day in years. As he readied himself for the unveiling of what promises to be his career-defining release, Robert Randolph took ARTISTdirect.com’s Ryan Ogle on a walk down a road paved in history.
We Walk This Road was recorded over the course of two years. Do you usually spend that long to finish an album?
No, I’ve never spent that much time on an album before, but if you want to achieve greatness or really make the most out of working with a guy like [producer] T-Bone Burnett, you want to make the most of it.
Well, the end result was great. How did working on this album differ from your previous two?
Working with T-Bone and just sitting down and talking with him – when you have the opportunity to make music with and take in all the knowledge this guy has who understands the roots of American history. [He understands] how it all came from the old gospel recordings and the old field recordings from back in the day. This all came from the church and working with a producer like T-Bone, we could tie it all in and make a record that speaks to the people that understand who Robert Randolph is. I would say, "Let’s make a rock song," or "Let’s make a blues song." T-Bone would just say, "Let’s make music." And that was it. He would tell me to just make music and write lyrics that would inspire people and tell them who Robert Randolph really is. That’s what separates you and makes you different.
A lot of these songs, like you said, are rooted in the music of 1920's and 30's; which is a bit of different direction for you. Was it T-Bone that got you to explore this side of your musical heritage?
Yeah, he was the one that got me to go in and dig into those archives. Songs like “Traveling Shoes” and “Dry Bones,” those were all songs I heard growing up in church and had been redone into several gospel songs already. I had already had the opportunity to hear the recordings made in the 60's and 70's, but not the originals that were done in the 20's. To be able to hear that stuff and to sit down with all these great musicians and to be able re-write our own lyrics according those songs was such a great thing.
Was it a challenge to re-work those songs into something that would catch the ear of today’s listener?
I don’t think of it as a challenge, we just wanted to make sure we had the right things to say. In this day and age, people just want to hear the right thing. In this day and age, with people losing their jobs, not knowing what’s going to happen, stock market crashing and everything. Especially while we were making this record, there was so much going on. As a young artist who was working with this great producer, I felt it was my responsibility to take these old gospel, low lyrics and use the knowledge of all these great people I was working with and really speak to people; especially the younger music fans. There are all these young music fans, people starting bands asking, "What should we listen to? What should we do?" Now, I can just tell them, "You need to go back and listen to this." That’s where it all starts from and, to me, that’s where you gain the most creativity; from listening to that older stuff.
That makes sense. If you go back to the beginning you can work it into your own thing as you go through the timeline of music.
That’s what Bob Dylan did. That’s what Led Zeppelin did. They would listen to the early stuff, like Robert Johnson, and that’s what helps inspire this God-given creative mind we all have. Some people call it stealing or using it as inspiration to make your own music; whatever. That’s the best way to get creative; listening to where it all came from.
Growing up a Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton fan, did you find that exploring some of their earliest influences might have given you a fresh start, so to speak, as a musician?
Oh yeah! Not only that, but with Stevie Ray, I got hip to Albert King knowing that Stevie Ray got a lot his stuff from Albert. This was like going to music college. Walking into the studio with all these guys and hearing how they got their stuff from these artists on the 40s and 50s and then hearing those artists; it’s kind of mind-blowing. That really took me to a whole new level.
You also covered some more contemporary tunes. You made some interesting choices too. I never would have thought I’d hear Dylan, John Lennon and Prince redone on the same album.
[Laughs] It just goes to show you how iconic those three guys are. When you talk about messages and trying to get a point across, I’ve got to give credit to a guy named Lenny Walker who was there when Prince recorded that song [“Walk Not Walk”]. He knew the kind of record we were making. He said, ‘Robert, check this song out. I think this might be something you want to record.’ I heard it and immediately fell in love with it. I knew we could make a great Robert Randolph & The Family Band version of that song. Also, it had all the right things to say so we could tell all these young people, "Look, this message is out there."
It’s almost rare to hear a real and positive message in mainstream music these days.
If you look at “Walk Don’t Walk,” that song was recorded twenty years ago, but it still applies today. That’s the great thing about it.
One of my favorite songs on the album is “If I Had My Way.” I understand that almost didn’t make it on the album until Ben Harper came in and got involved.
T-Bone had this vision for these songs where he thought everyone should come in and jam on them. We didn’t know where they would go, but maybe something would happen. Maybe somebody will say something or play something that will take us somewhere and just use everything around us as inspiration. So, we’d get in there and start jamming, playing, singing, writing lyrics, but what we had at the time [for this song] just wasn’t good enough for any of us. I just decided I was beat down and wanted to walk away from the song for awhile. Four months later, I’m texting Ben Harper, "Hey why don’t you come down to the studio? We’re just hanging out and making music." So Ben comes down and asks to hear something. I played him “If I Had My Way” and his eyes just lit up like a kid in a candy store. He ran into the vocal booth and just starting singing those lyrics; making them up right there. We thought, "Wow! Now we’ve got something to write to. Let’s do this thing." It just turned into such a great event. You’re not the only one that likes that one. It’s everybody’s favorite. That’s why we decided to release that one first. That song really tells the story of the record. When you’re talking about the first day I talked to T-Bone about how we could make this record special, this song has Jim Keltner [Bob Dylan] playing drums, my sister and cousins singing, Ben Harper singing and T-Bone playing guitar. It’s just a story, you know?
It was right around 2000 – 2001 when you first started touring around and getting your name out there. Things seemed to take off fairly quickly for you. Within three years you were singed to Warner Bros. and playing with guys like Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana. Was everything hard to take in at first?
No, the funny thing is that it was all very easy. Coming from the church, my family and growing up in the inner-city while playing steel-guitar for the church and seeing how this music moved everybody; it was just a lot of fun. Guys like Clapton would go, "Wow! Where’d you get that from? We thought we’d heard it all by now." We just kept going with it. It was just a lot of fun.
I’m just thinking about all of these great musicians you’ve worked and jammed with so early in your career. That must have been a huge learning experience for you.
You know what? You can go down and say that every one of these guys is different, but when you’re around them and you don’t understand that they have just have this God-given talent and learn from what they’re doing and not doing; then you’re a fool. To be around them so much, you just have to tell yourself to step up or tell yourself to keep doing what you’re doing, but take in all of these things around you at the same time. You see these guys who have been playing music for thirty years and that’s what we want to do. It’s very cool to be a part of it all.
You have fans of all ages and walks of life. What do you think it is about your music that appeals to such a wide variety of fans?
I guess it’s just that we have a different sound and that we have these gospel roots. We really latched on to those roots, be it the chants or the lyrics or whatever. Deep down, it’s a part of all of us. It’s cool if you want to go see a rock back or a singer/songwriter, but like T-Bone said, "This record is going to show people what Robert Randolph is all about and it’s going to be different and make people happy. This is what people are always going to want to see from Robert Randolph & Family Band."