We wrote our first song together on the road in 1980. I showed him a melody I had written, and he immediately started working on lyrics, right there in the hotel lobby. That was “Summertime,” which he didn’t record -- it’s very much from a woman’s point of view -- but Diana Ross and Roberta Flack did. After that, he started to learn more about my songwriting, and I guess he thought I was good enough at it to be someone he’d want to work with. He loved the old soul and blues masters, and I think he loved me bringing soul music into his style.
After that, we wrote “Everybody Knows.” His lyrics pretty much start out as poetry, and you really have to study the meaning to figure out how it should be put into the form of a song. I’d never take apart his stanzas, but maybe I’d move something from one place to another. I remember coming up with a couple of different ideas, and he picked one and just said, “This is perfect.” We came up with the chorus, musically, together, after I brought in a basic vibe. You know, it’s a protest song, a tough song. It’s not pretty or feminine in any way, and I had to come up with music that was in that spirit. The boldness in those lyrics -- all his songs have a certain kind of boldness to them, but especially this one. And it has held up through the years; it maintains a relevance in our lives.
Our writing process in general [Robinson co-wrote 2001’s Ten New Songs] applied to almost everything we worked on. He’d present lyrics to me, I’d work on some music, then I’d go meet him at his house in Los Angeles. He’d make me something to eat first; tuna salad, or he’d scramble up some eggs, or egg salad. He made a great egg salad. Oh, and a roasted chicken! He loved roasted chicken and cauliflower. He’d done a lot of cooking at the Zen monastery. He had a certain very refined sense of hospitality, and he enjoyed when people would come by. Then there would be some discussion of his latest ideas that he was investigating about life and religion and philosophy. Or we’d talk about family and friends. There were these long periods of sort of setting the tone for the work. And then he’d listen to the music, several times, before deciding whether it was something we wanted to move forward with.
We studied Zen together, and there were often just quiet moments, with incense and no words. He called me his “dharma sister.” We toured for so long together, and sometimes it felt like we were soldiers preparing for battle. But traveling with Leonard, there’s a quiet, monastic tone to the whole thing. You’re just respectful of his space and his sense of contemplation. He would carry his own guitar; sit in the front of the bus, or the middle of the plane; sometimes he would write, but there wasn’t a lot of hoopla going on. We benefited from his aura. Still, he would always tell jokes -- some were pretty corny, pretty dry and always with a twist. Even though his image is that of the very dark, solemn poet, Leonard loved to laugh.
Before the concerts, we had these rituals that Leonard sort of designed. A half hour before the show, the band would gather in the green room and he would put essential oil on our wrists. Sometimes there were beverages, smoothies passed around. And we would do a chant as we walked to the stage, singing this Latin folk song as a round. We walked slowly, as if we were monks. But it was all designed to bring us together for the performance. Leonard always encouraged me not to look to other people for guidance, but to do what I felt in my heart. He told me, “You know what to do.”
A longtime collaborator and friend, singer JENNIFER WARNES remembers the “teacher” she met at just 22. As told to Frank DiGiacomo.