By Rex Rutkoski
The view from the Malibu beach house that Chris Robinson finds himself standing in this morning may be stunning.
These days, though, the musician, best known for leading The Black Crowes on a sometimes-tumultuous rock’n’roll journey, seems to find beauty anywhere he looks. Geography, unless it happens to be of the interior kind, has nothing to do with it.
So it is, it appears, that Chris Robinson, the former "Bad boy of rock," is at a peaceful place in his life and his career.
"I would say that’s the summation these days," Robinson agrees. "I don’t know. Maybe it coincides obviously with being in love (he is married to actress Kate Hudson) and probably just getting older."
And, he adds, it’s because of the direction in which he finds his career going, and the work itself. "To be in a place I still feel comfortable in is almost like a small victory. I’ve maintained a level in this industry where I haven’t had to become somebody I don’t want to be."
He hasn’t had to make concessions, he says. Topping it all off, he suggests, is that he really likes the way his solo debut CD, "New Earth Mud," sounds. "It feels that way because I was allowed to do it that way."
With The Black Crowes on an indefinite hiatus, the singer-songwriter stands at a crossroads. It’s a safe assumption he’ll be continuing on the road less traveled.
"In terms of not being in the Black Crowes right now, it definitely leaves it open to a lot more options. I look at it as a more liquid situation," Robinson says.
There is less pressure, he says, in the sense he can be involved in more projects, more collaborations. "I can put songs into soundtracks and hopefully work more in that area, and put together different groups of musicians with different dynamics for different projects. There is the freedom aspect now."
As he turns 36, Robinson uses that freedom to explore what he is all about.
"On one level it’s about communication, it’s about soul. I think it’s about, at least the things I want to convey through the music, being multi-dimensional. It happens more in your mind and heart than something that is maybe obvious. The obvious things can keep you from having an experience that means more than just ‘I was entertained.’ Everyone wants to be entertained, but it should also move into another realm of experience. I honestly look for that experience and those moments and look to share those things whether on CD or in concert."
He says it feels like he has waited a lifetime to make his solo record.
"I wanted to start with something a little more understated than the Crowes were. It’s just the mood I’m in. How do I find the meeting point of a singer-songwriter with a roots side and an R&B side and a soul side and, along with my interest in, psychedelic music side?"
His thing is just to find that common thread that runs through it, he says. To Robinson, that is the greatest accomplishment of the record. "All these influences lay side by side, all these things make up really who I am. In a sense, that’s what the title ‘New Earth Mud’ means. It’s past, present and future all in one, living in the now."
The CD was recorded in less than a month in Paris in the spring of this year. "I knew it was important to me not to edit myself in terms of how I feel," he explains. Robinson wanted a very intimate sounding record.
"I see a lot of people talk about how their music changed after 9/11 or whatever. I hate the fact people use that as ‘Listen to my record because of 9/11.’ If anything that whole experience of watching that in the human condition made me steadfast in who I am and what I do. I can’t be distracted or edit myself. I want to bring things down to the bare essence. I believe we all experience the same things. That’s what makes it easy to tap into and all be a part."
Robinson does not believe his motivation has changed.
"It’s my work. I write songs. I go out and like to sing them," he says. His motivation behind that, he says, is to be part of the artistic tradition. "I look at it as a tradition, not just being a musician, being an artist, someone interested and inspired by other people’s creative endeavors also, not just my own."
He tries to find beauty in the most mundane things, he says, as well as the most spectacular. "And it’s realizing there’s probably something to say about the little things that go on. That’s the stuff that keeps us, the common thread of all of us."
He strives to strip away any pretense. "I can’t make records that sound like everybody else’s now. I’m not into formatting myself or being genre specific. I want a place to create music and make music I like and which hopefully translates to other people’s likes. Things don’t have to be dark to be underground. It’s the stance you take. Even in the heights of the Black Crowes’ success I felt we were a very underground and deep group, working in the mainstream sense. In a sense it was ‘us versus them.’ I like that idea."
He is proud of the Crowes’ contributions.
"It spoke to people. They are great songs in there. I hope I can use that superlative. Number two, it was the drama. Getting into a band was kind of like a soap opera. If that’s your favorite band, you know what everyone is going through and you go see them live. The Crowes had a lot of drama and a lot of that came through in the playing
"At the end of the ‘Three Snakes’ tour, at the end of 1996, as cliche as it seems drugs and things opened up a lot of places for us to experiment, and a lot of expression. It also took its toll on people’s personal lives and what not.
"I like to think the Crowes were in the tradition of a long line of uncompromising musicians and bands like the Grateful Dead, and Little Feat would have been when Lowell George was alive, and Neil Young and Dylan. People liked us for that, a band that celebrated its individuality, as opposed to turning into something corporate."
What does he think the public perception of him is?
"Without sounding horrible, I really don’t care," he replies. "If I had to worry too much about it I’d be a pop singer. We live in an era where no one wants to really say how they feel because it may make somebody not like them or affect their record sales. If I don’t say what I feel or behave the way I want, then who am I? What am I protecting? The best record of the year is not the most popular record of the year. I don’t see things that way. I’m not that kind of man and not that kind of artist."
Robinson hopes he will pick up Crowes’ fans for his solo work. "A band like the Black Crowes was always a big part of my life, and it’s still there for us to explore if it feels right and we have something to say musically.
"I want to make music I hope appeals to Black Crowes’ fans. A lot of the Crowes was my vibe I brought to it. And I hope my music also is far reaching and people can get into this that maybe didn’t even like the Crowes, because it is different."
He hopes people respect him for that. "I’m sure a lot don’t. The inherent nature of things is being misunderstood. When I was in my early 20s, and when I’m labeled a ‘bad boy’ or something like that…I’m from the south. If someone gets in my face, I didn’t turn the other cheek when I was younger. I’m not proud of that, but we live in America. It’s a rough country. I see myself as much more sensitive than just that rock’n’roll persona."
"It has to be my ideas, the things within me. Hopefully I have a voice pleasing to people and they say ‘That guy can really sing.’ And I write lyrics that make people feel hopefully some inspiration, no matter how cryptic I get "