Born: 1958 Primary Instrument: Vocalist
A gorgeous, soulful alto that envelopes hooks and harmonies; a musically gifted mind that collaborates with Leonard Cohen; a pop sensibility that earns a GRAMMY Award with Patti LaBelle (“New Attitude”)–that’s Sharon Robinson: singer, songwriter, producer and artist.
Sharon’s 2008 debut solo album, “Everybody Knows,” received rave reviews in the US and UK from outlets such as Mojo, Jazziz, The Independent (UK) and the San Francisco Bay Guardian; eventually selling 15,000 units on a shoestring marketing budget—no small feat for an indie release in today’s world of shrinking sales. The set–which Leonard Cohen calls “a masterful work”–includes seven of her own compositions and three songs co-written with Cohen: the classics “Everybody Knows” and “Summertime” along with “Alexandra Leaving” from Ten New Songs, the critically acclaimed 2001 Cohen album which 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.
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 Award 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 long-time friend and collaborator Cohen is never far out of the picture. Beginning in 2008, Robinson was a featured background vocalist on Cohen’s nearly three-year international tour; his first run of live performances since 1993. The set list for the show included five songs she co-wrote with Cohen, and showcased her arrangements of 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, encouraging 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 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 went 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 my next solo release.”
“One of 100 Best Albums of the Decade” – Rolling Stone, December 2009
” After a half-decade on a Zen mountain, this bard of Montreal finds new insight within ordinary junk. The sound is electronica without beats; the lyrics are unfussily profound. The subject? Nothing heavy. Just life and death.” — Ann Powers, New York Times
10 Best Albums of 2001 “3. Ten New Songs: Leonard Cohen (Columbia): …a quiet stunner…. It includes two of the most seductive songs you’ll hear this year: “In My Secret Life,” about being haunted by romance past, and “The Land of Plenty….” – David Browne, Entertainment Weekly
Best Albums of 2001 “6. Leonard Cohen: Ten New Songs” – Eric Alterman, MSNBC
“Ten New Songs manages to sustain loss’s fragile beauty like never before and might just be Cohen’s most exquisite ode yet to the midnight hour.” – Rolling Stone
“…It is a studio that could be used to record quiet music only at off hours, which is why Cohen worked on monk time. But producer Robinson created such a rich tableau of music and vocals, the record sounds like it was recorded in a cathedral, not this modest backyard aerie…” – San Francisco Chronicle
“…thanks to Sharon Robinson, who sets Cohen’s charmingly hoarse whisper to cozy electronic pop, he’s never sounded more sensuous. His first new album in nearly a decade, Ten New Songs, has a powerful, hushed intimacy…Grade: A-” – Entertainment Weekly
“…In the album “Ten New Songs” Cohen again displays the insight and grace that have been his forte since the ’60s when he gave us such hauntingly personal songs as “Bird on a Wire” and “Suzanne.” – Los Angeles Times
“On this pretty collection of new tunes, Cohen is lyrically sharp… their natural grace and elegance wrap themselves around the listener… the only way to find out how good songs like “That Don’t Make It Junk,” “By the Rivers Dark” and “Love Itself” are is to put your money on the counter.” – New York Post
“Leonard Cohen returns with a masterpiece of wry romanticism.” – New York Daily News
“He mentions “You Have Loved Enough” as an example of this subterfuge. It’s a stately processional, not unlike others in the Cohen catalog – except there’s a little bit of R&B swagger in the drum programming, and there’s beautiful solo guitar running underneath, and Cohen’s jagged voice is smoothed over by Robinson’s layered harmonies.” – Philadelphia Inquirer
“Cohen’s music retains a trademark sensitivity and is given some hope amid the darkness by the gently soulful backing vocals of Sharon Robinson, who also plays most of the instruments and does the computer programming that gives many tracks a haunting, ambient feel.” – The Boston Globe
“Ten New Songs … an R&B-inflected Zen pop album that, on the surface, is as soothing, sensuous and accessible as a Sade record. Ms. Robinson wrote “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Everybody Knows” with Mr. Cohen, but her involvement on Ten New Songs is significant. She is credited as Mr. Cohen’s co-writer, as the album’s producer, and with arranging, programming and performing the lion’s share of the synthesizer- and keyboard-dominated music. “This record wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Sharon,” said Mr. Cohen, who included Ms. Robinson on the album’s cover.
Mr. Cohen has never been much for collaboration or sharing the spotlight. But, he said, “Sharon so deeply understands the tone of my own work that she was able to, I think, miraculously produce tracks that fit very harmoniously with the rest of my work.”
And Ms. Robinson’s gorgeous alto adds a cool, creamy counterpoint to the charcoal smudge that Mr. Cohen’s voice has become…” – The New York Observer
“The album’s tone is one of luxurious solitude. Like a Zen koan, In My Secret Life goes behind the lines of a heart that’s “crowded and cold,” and tries to warm the soul. By the Rivers Dark plays as a slow drip of narcotic confession from the depths of Babylon. And the album’s masterpiece is an ancient-mariner elegy on unrealized love called A Thousand Kisses Deep — a phrase that describes the sea-cave timbre of Cohen’s voice throughout the record. Sinking through uncharted octaves, like a free-diver setting a new record, he finds a register that is low, even for him, a sepulchral rapture of the deep.
Ten New Songs may not be his swan song, but, like Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, it would do the job nicely, as a coda for a brilliant career.” – Macleans
“They’re as powerful as any he’s written.” Grade: A- – The Villiage Voice
“…In My Secret Life sets the uniform mood, Cohen’s wise, weighty baritone sweetened by Robinson’s soulful cooing, the soft synths and beatbox recalling Springsteen’s Streets Of Philadelphia. There’s little to support Cohen’s claim that Zen has zapped his depression, but this arguably his best record in 20 years.” – Q Magazine
Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas (Columbia, 2012)
Leonard Cohen, Songs from the Road (Columbia, 2010)
Leonard Cohen, Live in London (Columbia, 2009)
Sharon Robinson Everybody Knows (Freeworld Records, 2008)
Leonard Cohen, Dear Heather (Columbia, 2004)
Leonard Cohen, Ten New Songs (Columbia, 2001)
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