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A gorgeous, soulful alto that envelops hooks and harmonies; a musically gifted mind that collaborates with Leonard Cohen; a pop sensibility that earns a Grammy with Patti LaBelle (“New Attitude”) – that’s SHARON ROBINSON: singer, songwriter, producer, and now artist, with the release of her debut solo recording effort, Everybody Knows.
The set – which Cohen calls “brilliant, a masterpiece” – includes three songs co-written with the legendary artist: the classics “Everybody Knows” and “Summertime” along with “Alexandra Leaving” from Ten New Songs, the critically acclaimed 2001 Cohen album that Robinson produced. The seductive electronic production of Ten New Songs is a through-line for Everybody Knows, linking memorable melodies and complex emotional themes on the five new compositions and five favorite existing songs.
While the inclusion of the Cohen songs may draw inevitable comparison to the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famer’s work, Robinson’s creative signature is immediately evident in the sensuous rhythms and haunting aura of the album’s opening track, “Invisible Tattoo,” and the gothic-soul anthem, “Party for the Lonely.” Intertwining electronica beats with soulful bass grooves and moody, jazzy textures sculpted on guitar, piano, synth, and Fender Rhodes, its enrapturing blend of instrumentation provides the perfect sonic bed for her inviting, sultry voice, which evokes feelings of hope, romance, and sorrow all in the same breath.
Robinson notes, “I created most of the record by layering parts one at a time, similarly to the way I did Ten New Songs. I wanted it to have an edgy and contemplative vibe, so I stayed away from the idea of tracking with studio musicians. I needed the freedom to find what I was looking for – a sound that was uniquely mine – before bringing in players for overdubs to add color, scope, and dimension.”
Although Everybody Knows comes in the third decade of her career, Robinson’s talent and versatility behind the scenes as a music producer, songwriter, and background vocalist have allowed her to work with a diverse roster of notable artists including Stevie Nicks, Aaron Neville, Morris Day, Robbie Kreiger, Thelma Houston, Brenda Russell, Jennifer Warnes, Randy Crawford, Hamish Stuart, and Matthew Wilder. Her co-write of the Top-10 hit “New Attitude” for Patti LaBelle led to three Grammy nominations and a win for Best Soundtrack Album (Beverly Hills Cop) in 1985. Her original compositions have also been featured in films such as Wonder Boys, Natural Born Killers, Pump Up The Volume, Stakeout, and Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty. But regardless of what project she’s involved with, her longtime friend and collaborator Cohen is never far out of the picture. This year, Robinson will be a featured background vocalist on his upcoming spring/summer international tour, his first run of live performances since 1993. The set list for the show includes five songs she co-wrote with Cohen, and showcases her arrangements on these co-written works.
It’s not surprising that Robinson has worked with such diverse personalities and in so many genres. Her affinity for all kinds of music developed at an early age. Born in San Francisco, her family moved to Los Angeles when she was five. A year later she began studying classical piano, and at age 12 started writing and recording her own songs. As a teenager, she devoured a steady diet of Motown and Atlantic radio hits while working at the family restaurant, and while at home, she listened to such greats as Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Stan Getz, and Joni Mitchell. The influence of this musical stew led to Robinson recording a demo at the age of 16, which landed her a recording contract with a label that folded before her album was made. But there was a silver lining. The backing band for her demo was the Jazz Crusaders; and its legendary leader Joe Sample witnessed her ability and encouraged her to continue writing.
While she would eventually heed that advice, Robinson excelled in school as well, and as a National Merit semi-finalist she earned a scholarship to Salem College in West Virginia. Halfway to her degree, money and music proved a stronger draw, so she left school to front a touring Top-40 band for several years. Burnout on the road brought her back to college; this time to the prestigious California Institute of the Arts to study music. A year later, she went pro again as a session singer and then singer/dancer for nine years in Ann-Margret’s Las Vegas revue.
Those countless sessions proved fruitful when a recommendation from a fellow singer led to Cohen hiring her as a background vocalist for the famous 1979 “Field Commander Cohen Tour.” Cohen himself dubbed it his best trek ever. While on the road together, he and Robinson co-wrote “Summertime,” a song subsequently recorded by both Diana Ross and Roberta Flack. It was with this composition that she had suddenly elevated herself to the level Sample had envisioned years earlier…officially joining the auteur club that created lasting art beyond fleeting recordings and live shows.
When you’re good at what you do, and you do it for others, their success becomes your reward, your place in the mix. It can be a great place to be. For Sharon Robinson, it has been both gratifying and fun. With Everybody Knows, she’s going to another place – out in front.
“Writing for other people over the years, there's been an increasing sense of an underlying style or voice in my work,” Robinson notes. “This album gave me the chance to explore that voice and find out more about it. It’s been very fulfilling, and I’m looking forward to taking it further with future projects as well.”
And with her extensive list of achievements and eclectic experiences, Robinson has a pretty good head start on this next artistic journey.