Chris Robinson is on the deck of his mother-in-law’s Malibu Beach house watching dolphins splash gracefully in and out of the Pacific. It’s 1 p.m. Western Daylight Time on a day that is, in the words of the former Black Crowes shouter, beautiful.
That term, “beautiful,” floats often from Robinson’s mouth. And why not? The feathery wisp of a man appears to have it all: a lovely wife in Kate Hudson; rock-star cash flow; an updated hippie-meets-Japanese art aesthetic that reveals in conversation a kind of fresh enlightenment. He comes across as a floppy-fringed bodhisattva grateful for his situation, grateful for his lot in life. And he can step back and joke about it.
“It might make some people ill,” he says in a wild, braying laugh. “The thing that’s funny to me is I know who my wife is and I know what she does. Now, am I not going to go to premieres with her? Can I stop people from taking pictures? I’m with my wife. I don’t think they are taking pictures of me for People magazine, fucking paparazzi people. It’s never like ‘Oh, wow, I’m exploiting my famous wife and our big celebrity relationship.’”
The soon-to-be father is gifted with the one of most alluring rock ’n’ roll voices since Faces-era Rod. He never goes on the defensive for anything. And he shouldn’t ever have to.
After six studio and two live albums with the Black Crowes, Robinson’s debut solo record, last year’s New Earth Mud, was in many ways brave and courageous. For starters, Robinson didn’t sell out. He went the other way.
No irony, no hype-machine vanity, the record’s highest points (“Silver Car,” “Safe in the Arms of Love,” “Katie Dear” and “She’s On Her Way”) just ache — measured melancholic testimonials of love for his wife, for beauty in dark recesses, of embracing life without regret. All from a man who’s confident enough to take risks, a man whose life has shifted, and who is secure in his wife’s fame.
The record sounds like transcendence. It has the immediate and personal hum of someone offering himself up — accompanied by acoustic guitar, piano and organ — in your living room without sounding precious or embarrassing.
“One of the only reasons I could write a song like ‘Katie Dear’ — which some people just can’t stand — is because I know that people, no matter what their jobs are, no matter how their lives are, they have had the time to have an intimate moment, to look at the person they love sleeping or whatever. In this universe with all the chaos, people have been feeling and thinking these things forever.”
New Earth Mud was an overlooked gem of 2002; and it’s no surprise, really, as it requires personal attention from the listener.
“I can’t set the bar lower to be commercial,” he continues. “Setting the bar high has nothing to do with ego, it has nothing to do with talent, it has to do with my pursuit or my interest to try and create something beautiful. At the end of the day, beauty can represent many different things, strange things, the sadness.”
He lived the rigmarole of major media in early life, so Robinson can now draw his own conclusions about the music business — conclusions that, for better or worse, were informed by millions of records sold, dark drug days, and verified by an unhealthy level of celebrity.
Would he be making the same sort of decisions about his life had the Crowes thing never happened, if he were some guy working in a used-record store?
“It’s hard to say. That’s a hard call because life is made up of all these things that happened to you, and that you’re happening with. I choose music as the thing to commit all this energy to, and that energy and philosophy is still important to me. Either way, it’s a pretty wild trip to be on. So I don’t think it would be very different.
“I’m not complaining, trust me. It was a spectacular ride to get to that place, to have those kinds of problems. It’s incredible that we were lucky enough to have that kind of situation.”
It’s not that Robinson has escaped the bleak hue of pop culture and the peripheral gleam it splays across our consciousness; rather, he’s learned, and been allowed to — for lack of a less cheesy word — evolve. And it is no easy deed to reap wisdom from stardom and years in the record business. Robinson says he has proper management now, and is about to do another major-label record deal that will see a new, more electric record early next year.
True, it may be easier for a man in Robinson’s shoes to make undiluted music the way he hears it in his head; after all, it’s supposed to be “all about the music.”
“It’s funny, because to say ‘it’s all about the music’ has become like everything else, speaking of clichés. I wouldn’t know any other way to go about this except that I have convictions and I am respectful and humble of the tradition that I work in as an artist, a writer, a performer, a musician.”
Chris Robinson will open for Elvis Costello on Tuesday, July 15, at Freedom Hill Amphitheater (14900 Metro Parkway, Sterling Heights). For information, call 586-268-5100.Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]