Lifetime Award Honoree Robbie Robertson On His Career-Long Quest To 'Do Something Magical'

Robbie Robertson
Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Robertson is composing music for Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film The Irishman.

At 75, Robbie Robertson is as busy as ever. He’s scoring a film, finishing a solo release, writing another memoir and planning for a 50th-anniversary album reissue from The Band, the revered quintet that rose to fame backing Bob Dylan. On May 9, Robertson will pause to collect a lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame.

He will be honored at the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Awards, part of Canadian Music Week, which takes place in Toronto May 6-12. It’s the latest of many accolades that Robertson and his Band mates have received over the past 25 years.

“They say there’s never too many awards,” says Robertson. “I always feel a sense of gratitude that people acknowledge your work and what you’ve done. Sometimes I think, in Canada, they would have run out of things by now,” he adds with a laugh.

Born to a father from Toronto and a mother of Mohawk descent, Robertson was a guitar prodigy. He joined his first band at age 14 and was recruited at 17 by rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins for his backing band, The Hawks.

The Hawks broke with Hawkins in 1963 and changed their name to The Band. Within two years Dylan recruited the group to bring his groundbreaking rock songs to concert audiences on a two-year world tour. In 1968 The Band recorded its seminal debut album, Music From Big Pink.

Over the course of seven studio albums, Robertson penned such classics as “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Acadian Driftwood” and “It Makes No Difference.” The Band’s 1976 farewell concert was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as The Last Waltz.

The relationship with “Marty,” as Robertson calls him, has continued. The director hired Robertson to compose music for such films as Raging Bull, The Color of Money, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street -- and this year’s upcoming true-life mob story The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel.

Robertson, who plans to release his sixth solo album later this year, speaks on The Band’s upcoming anniversary album, his love of storytelling and his lifelong goal “to do something magical.”

What explains your varied career?

I’m following a path of inspiration. I’m trying to challenge myself all the time. I go into projects, still after all this time, thinking, “Oh, my God, how am I going to do this? I’ve got to figure this out.” It’s like a blank canvas. Even though it’s all got a connection to music, there are so many variables in it. Sometimes it’s a little stressful, but for the most part it just makes you want to do something magical.

Why has your relationship with Martin Scorsese lasted so long?

It’s important [to me] that Marty feels like I still have this thing of embracing the unexpected. We love to throw the dice together and see what comes up. I just finished working on a piece of music for The Irishman, and I started on this particular piece thinking, “I have no idea what to do here. I don’t know what they want.” Like I said, a blank canvas. And then you go in, you do something, and you think, “Whoa.”

Does your film work influence your solo recordings?

What I have found, in the case of this [new] album and with this movie, is it’s impossible to not let one thing bleed over into the other. There’s something about the particular story of the movie that gets under my skin and influences me in the songs that I’m writing for it. I have found, without thinking about it that much, that a lot of this record is, like the film’s storytelling in it, quite violent.

What has inspired your new songs?

I’m writing about things reflective of my growing up -- a very tough street education, where you didn’t know whether you’re going to end up with nothing on the streets, in jail [or] doing something successful. I have one song on the record that very much addresses that, and because I’m [writing] volume two of my memoir, other things have bled over, too.

This September marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Band’s self-titled album. What’s planned for the rerelease?

We’re exploring different things and trying to make it a celebration of that piece of work, which, after all this time, is influential in this story of music. [Keyboardist-accordionist Garth Hudson is the only other surviving member of The Band.] It was one of those records which was revolutionary when it came out. People were like, “What is going on here now?” It had a much bigger effect than what we ever dreamt -- on music, the culture and even fashion. To this day, so many musicians tell me how that [album] “changed my life.” That’s something I do feel proud of. 

This article originally appeared in the April 27 issue of Billboard.