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.”
That second album, “Caffeine,” is slated for completion by the end of 2015. And with her extensive list of achievements and eclectic experiences, Robinson has a pretty good head start on this next artistic journey.