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Charlie Robison Q&A
Charlie Robison Q&A
By Richard Skanse
Jun 2009

Although it's hardly out of the ordinary these days, going five years between albums really is pushing it. Five years pretty much covered the Beatles' entire career back in the '60s. Creedence Clearwater Revival knocked out three records in 1969 alone, and every one of them was a classic. Even the biggest rock bands in the '70s could be counted on to crank out a new platter every 12 months or so, and not even Willie can keep track of how many records he typically polishes off in a five-year span. So, before welcoming Mr. Charlie Robison and his new album, Beautiful Day, back into the limelight with open arms, a quick tsk-tsk is somewhat in order. Honestly, Chuck, what the hell have you been up to in the five long years since you unveiled Good Times ?

Oh. Right. Yikes! Rough stretch there, huh?

OK, so it turns out Robison's last half decade was a bit complicated. Going by the sunshiny title alone, the uninitiated might make the mistake of assuming that Beautiful Day picks up right where 2004's Good Times left off. Not quite. Between then and now, Robison and his wife Emily of the Dixie Chicks went their separate ways, finalizing their divorce just last August. Robison began writing the new album in the thick of the split, which officially marks it as the Bandera-raised songwriter's “divorce album.” As such, it's also far and away the most personal collection of songs he's ever committed to disc — even though four of the 10 songs are covers. It's also his first self-produced album, and decidedly (and unapologetically) his least “country” sounding record. His best? Certainly up there. Most surprising of all, though, is the fact that it's undoubtedly his most uplifting album. Not in the carefree manner of Life of the Party Step Right Up and Good Times , of course, but far from the embittered tears-in-beer fest that the term “divorce album” might suggest. In his new press bio for the album, Robison states that the end of the marriage “was a completely amicable thing” and that he and Emily “get along better now than we had the last four years of our marriage.” So although there's still plenty of heartache to be heard on Beautiful Day , the moral of the album is life goes on, healing eventually sets in, and, as little orphan Annie put it in another song, the sun will come up tomorrow. Just like the one on the album cover.

Calling LoneStarMusic.com from his home in San Antone on the last Friday afternoon in May, Robison sounds very much like a man good and ready to greet that sun and beautiful new day with open arms … after he finds his shades, a pot of black coffee and maybe a decent Bloody Mary.

It's been a while.

It sure has.

The last time we talked was right before your birthday five years ago. Obviously a lot's happened between then and now. But life aside, does Good Times seem that long ago to you?

Yes and no. Some parts of it seem like they were just yesterday.

When did you start writing this one?

I guess I started it about two years ago, something like that. It actually didn't take too long to do it, but there was a bunch of stuff going on with the record label, and just, oh, all sorts of other things closer to home I had to deal with. But it feels great to finally be in the home stretch with it, to finally have it all printed and ready to have out. Out of all the records I've ever made, this is by far my favorite.

Any regrets yet of having it branded as “the divorce album”? That could prove to be a lot of baggage to carry around with it.

But you know, that's what it is . I've always been real protective of everything in my personal life, but with all I was going through at the time, I really had no other choice than to write about it. A lot of people have gone through a divorce, and the thing about it is, no matter how much you may know that sometimes it's the best thing to do, that you need to move on, it still really, reallysucks. It's a really long process to go through, especially with kids, losing that place that you call home — just the whole deal of having to start over again. And the record matches all the peaks and valleys that I was going through at the time. Because there was no way that I could spend those days and nights in the emotional state that I was in and write a song like “Good Times,” or something like that. That just wouldn't be possible.

You've gone on record since the divorce saying that you and Emily remain on friendly terms. But at some point I imagine she must have been aware that you were writing “a divorce record.” Did that conversation ever come up?

Well, from the first songs I wrote, I told her . . . and we weren't, I mean, we had ups and downs as far as how we were getting along. But I told her from the beginning, “There's going to be a lot of personal stuff on this record. Nothing that's vindictive or anything like that, but people are going to be able to tell a lot about what happened in our relationship.” And I think if I was going out with someone who was not a songwriter herself, there probably would have been a bit more trepidation there. But I mean, especially with her coming off that [Dixie Chicks] record where they were like, you know, “Not Ready to Make Nice” — as much emotion as they took on in that record, I think she understood. She'd be doing the same thing if she was writing a record at the same time. So she was like, “Of course you're going to write about that stuff.” So I don't think there was any trepidation on her part at all.

In your new bio for the album, you talk about how this was pretty much the first time you weren't writing in character; you were writing in first person. You say you didn't have a choice. Can you expound on that some?

Yeah. To me, when I was writing the songs, it was like talking to my brother. As I was going through the divorce, just like when I've gone through all the other greatest times and the worst times in my life, he's who I'd share stuff with. So I just kind of felt like the songs were like talking to him. I was like, “I really can't bullshit myself into acting like this is about somebody else.” It was just very obvious from day one that it was me talking. There was no way of getting around that.

How does that apply to a song like “Beautiful Day”? The main character in that one is a woman. Is that Emily, or is “woman” actually you, or is it some kind of combination of you both?

It's about … you know, it's about a certain couple of weeks of time going through our divorce, and it's about the two of us. It's completely full of metaphors. When I wrote the record, I wasn't going to be that specific; I was still going to use my imagination, because I wasn't going to have everything be completelypersonal. But still, it's a record where the songs are all about pretty much exactly what was going on at the time.

When you wrote that song in particular, were you at the point of seeing the light yet, or were you trying to think positive through the darkness?

It was right about half and half. Pretty much all the songs were about half and half. There's days where it was like, that's why I called the record Beautiful Day . And then there are days I'll look back on and think it could have very easily been called That Terrible Two Fucking Years! But there's definitely, I think, a stronger redemptive quality to the record than there is a negative. It's got the heartbreak and all the things that go along with that, but I feel like overall, it comes out like, “Man, this shit sucks, but it's all going to be OK.”

The divorce angle is probably going to get noticed the most, but it also really strikes me as a very California-sounding record. Is that off the mark?

Not at all. Not at all. I don't know what it was, but I just really had … this record more than any of my records, emotionally I could really feel a common thread of music throughout the whole thing. I was kind of like, “What's the tone of this?” I didn't want to make it a real country record, you know, do the obvious …

Tear-in-beer thing.

Yeah. Because the person who I feel has always written the clearest kind of sad-but-happy kind of breakup songs is Tom Petty. So I think anybody with half a musical brain is going to be able to tell there's a big Tom Petty influence on this record. And even though he's from Florida, his music to me has always sounded very Californian, because of the big Byrds influence and all that. So if you trace all that stuff back, you're pretty on the mark.

Are you familiar with Petty's divorce record, Echo ?

Oh yeah. But you know, another one of my biggest influences on this record was Willie Nelson's Phases and StagesWhen I was real small and my parents were going through a divorce, they didn't tell me shit about it, and I didn't know what was going on … divorce was still something that was pretty taboo back then. But I remember when Phases and Stages came out — I mean, it had been out for a couple of years, but when I heard it — it really explained things to me when I was a kid. One side was written from the man's point of view, and the other side's written from the woman's point of view. Of course, this record's pretty much all from the man's point of view, but that was still definitely a big influence as far as, you know, one song being very sad and the next one being redemptive.

You said you didn't really want to make this a country record. Do you still think of yourself as a country artist at all? Or, more to the point, did you ever?

I've never really put myself in a box, you know? Now that I've finally figured out how to work my iPod, if I give it to someone while I'm driving or something, people that maybe don't know me real well will go through it and be like, “Man, I would have never, ever thought that you'd be into this stuff.” I consider myself a country artist, I consider myself a rock artist, I consider myself an Americana artist. Doug Sahm was … I keep going back to influences, but how would you classify him? I think being somewhat unclassifiable is probably the greatest compliment I could get as a musician. So I kind of like that, and I certainly can't classify myself, because I never know what's coming out next.

The real heart of this record, or at least my favorite part, is that four-song stretch on the second half between “Feelin' Good” through “She's So Fine.” The songs really work together as a suite, not just lyrically, but musically. They all fit together kind of like side two of Abbey Road .

Right. Those were written in a day-and-a-half span, and they went together really well. “If the Rain Don't Stop” seemed like it should segue into “Middle of the Night,” kind of like a “Day in the Life” kind of thing. That's the redemptive part of the record — that was part of the good stretch of road I was on during the whole thing.

The flip side of that then would be first half of the album. But after the first two songs, “Beautiful Day” and “Yellow Blues,” both of which you wrote, the three songs that sound the most like “divorce songs” are actually all covers. [Keith Gattis penned “Down Again” and (with Charles Brocco) “Reconsider,” and Bobby Bare Jr. wrote “Nothin' Better to Do.”] All three songs express things you'd probably feel or say going through that situation, but it's almost like you dodged having to write the more bitter stuff yourself.

You know, in a way, yes. But in another way, I really wanted this record to convey exactly what was going on, and I'm such a fan of those songs … they're all basically obscure songs, and it was like, God, I just really didn't feel like I could write a song that could be any better at expressing what those songs express. So it was an easy decision to put those songs on there. And yeah, it might have been a dodge … I won't say that it was and I won't say that it wasn't, because I really don't know, but the decision to do those was a pretty easy one.

Those Keith Gattis songs always seem to fit you like a glove.

They sure have. And I never would have thought that. But I love his stuff so much. On the Good Times record, I had done the basic tracks for “El Cerrito Place,” and it just didn't sound good; the way I was singing it at first and the whole feel of it just didn't sound right. So I had pretty much decided to leave it off the record. But then I decided to try it more my own way — we did that wall-of-sound kind of thing, and I found my own vocal place on it. That really taught me a lot about production. It was definitely kind of a big artistic change for me to be able to go from the kind of music I'd been doing to covering a Keith Gattis song and being able to do a good job of it. It was definitely a good experience. And I knew the backstory of where he wrote those songs from, and it was exactly the same place where I was. So that was a big part of it as well.

The other cover song on the album is Bruce Springsteen's “Racing in the Street.” Apart from it being a great song, what made it a song you wanted to end this record with?

One of the stories behind that song is, 15 years ago, I was in Nashville making this terrible record for Warner Bros. that thank God never came out, and I was kind of miserable. But I did get to hang out with Townes [Van Zandt] and Guy [Clark] while I was out there. We'd hang out and get hammered at Guy's house, just sitting around and singing songs. I'd do that Springsteen song, and Guy always made me promise that someday I would record it. And I said, “OK, I will.” But it never seemed to fit anywhere until I got to this record. I kind of felt like I had already said everything I wanted to say on it, but it still needed something. I always love to have at least one kind of narrative song on my records, something along the lines of “John O'Reilly” or a “Loving County.” Also, I wrote the whole thing during the summer time, while I was trying to get away from things with some friends of mine, just driving out to the coast. And that song all of a sudden came to mind and seemed like such a perfect summer song, and it hit on a lot of the things I'd been going through and had that narrative quality to it, too. So all those things came together at once …and it allowed me to fulfill my promise to Guy at the same time.

It's interesting to hear you have that kind of history with the song, because it really does feel lived in.

Yeah, I had lived with it for a while. After getting hammered with Townes and Guy and singing that song many, many times with them, and listening to them sing it, too, you definitely get a different take on it. So when I hear it or sing it, I always think of being in that room with them at Guy's house, rather than of Springsteen — or at least I think of them just as much as I think of Springsteen.

You produced this album yourself. How did that decision come about? Was there ever any question of anyone else doing it?

There was never any doubt at all. I really had all the production ideas in mind going into it. And I really didn't feel like … I mean, I knew exactly what I wanted, and I didn't think that I could convey that to any kind of co-producer because I had such a tunnel vision of how I wanted it to sound.

That makes sense. Plus, producing it yourself fits with the whole idea of the record being so personal to begin with.

Exactly. There were just a lot of things production wise that I felt someone else might have said, “Oh, I'm not sure that's a good idea,” or, “That doesn't really sound like you.” But I didn't want it to sound like me. I wanted it to sound different. That's one of the reasons I brought Charlie Sexton in. Charlie and I had wanted to work together for a really long time, and his stamp on there is really amazing. That was another decision that I'd made really early on; when I was writing the songs, I thought, “I really want Sexton to play guitar on this, because it's going to really drive this thing.” But there were a lot of different things that I just felt like I couldn't really explain to anybody — like the beats I wanted to use for “Yellow Blues.” In fact, when I'd go into the studio and play stuff for the band members for the first time, they'd look at me like I was crazy. I was like, “Just trust me.” And they did, and it worked out. It was pretty scary going into it; with the whole emotional aspect of the record on top of producing it, the whole project felt like something brand new to me. But that's why I liked it so much.

You mentioned talking to your brother [fellow songwriter Bruce Robison] a lot while you were writing these songs and going through your divorce, and you recorded the album at his Premium Sound Studios in Austin. But he's not playing on the album. Outside of doing a few shows together, do the two of you ever write or record together?

We've written together a few times, and when we do, usually something good comes out of it. But at the end of the day, we are brothers, and we still revert back to when we were 8 and 10 years old; we still fight like that and we can still get on each other's nerves. So I mean, even though we've talked about making a record together, we both know how hard that'd be for us. So let's just say that our musical relationship has stayed platonic.

I guess it would have been far too obvious for you to cover his song “Desperately” on this record.

Yeah, exactly.

Both you and Bruce have been on the Texas and even national scene for years, but your sister, Robyn Ludwick, seemed to come out of nowhere recently. I really thought her last record , Too Much Desire , was fantastic. Are there any other siblings waiting in the wings we should know about?

Well, my middle sister, she just turned 40 today, and she hasn't shown any musical interest yet, and I've never heard her say anything, so I think it's probably safe to say she's past that. But you know, Bruce and I and the whole family were really just as surprised as everybody else was when Robyn started playing shows and writing songs. Nobody had any idea she was going to do that, because she didn't tell any of us, either. So that was a really great surprise, because she's so good.

With all you've been through in the past couple of years, now that this record is finally done and ready for release, does it feel like a load's been lifted off your shoulders?

Yeah. I feel like I've finished my time in therapy, like I've gotten that out of the way. I have no idea what the next record will be about, but musically, this record's opened up a whole lot of new opportunities for me just in terms of sounds and stuff like that. It's given me a lot of confidence, from getting over my fear of writing in first person to all kinds of production ideas, and I'm definitely going to be drawing on all those things the next time I start recording. I kind of feel like the sky's the limit right now.

I hate to end on a downer then, but I gotta ask this. Last time we talked, you said that you were a bigger Spurs fan than Jack Nicholson's a Lakers fan. Are you over the shock yet of seeing the Spurs go down this year in the first round of the playoffs?

You know what? I'll put it like this: I think the only thing better than a Spurs win is a Lakers loss. [ Laughs ] We hate our Lakers down here as much as we love our Spurs, so it's not over yet — I feel like I still have a vested interest in the playoffs. As long as the Lakers don't win … there's always next year.




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