Tim Robbins

No rogue ambition 

By Naila Francis

Tim Robbins is well aware of the perception.

The last few years, after all, have ushered a crossover flurry among stars successful in one area of the arts making the leap to another.

Yet “Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band,” the Oscar-winning actor and director’s debut album, is no vanity project.

First, there’s his pedigree to consider. Robbins’ father, Gilbert, was a member of the 1960s folk group The Highwaymen and also managed the Gaslight Café, a popular Greenwich Village folk club, where his young son would often watch him play, with a giddy appreciation for the communion between artist and audience. Robbins’ mother Mary was a flute player who met his dad while studying music at the University of California, Los Angeles, and performed professionally in the ‘50s.

“With my mom and dad being musicians, I have respect for the process of creating a piece of music,” says Robbins, who brings his North American tour in support of his eponymous project to Sellersville Theater on Thursday. “I would come home from school and my dad would be writing musical notes on composition paper of an oratorio he’s working on and he’d be working on it for a month and a half. That’s not something you take lightly.

“The good news is, growing up with musicians, you realize it is a legitimate way to pursue your life.”

Music was always a close companion. Robbins has been writing and performing songs for years, toting his guitar to bars and small clubs on location during film projects, and appearing, perhaps most notably, as the opener for Pearl Jam during John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. He’s even contributed original material to some of his films, such as his 1992 directorial debut “Bob Roberts” — which he also wrote and starred in — about a conservative folk singer who runs for the U.S. Senate.

Robbins was approached as early as then to make an album. But the star of films such as “Bull Durham,” “Mystic River” and “The Shawshank Redemption” was cautiously reluctant.

“It’s an intoxicating kind of seduction,” he says, acknowledging the pretension in even considering such an opportunity. “At the time I remember thinking, ‘The world is my oyster right now. I could do this, but I don’t know that I have anything to say.’ I knew what I was saying with ‘Bob Roberts’ — that was a satire story — but I didn’t have an album of things I wanted to say.”

As with many songwriters, life’s struggles and disappointments ultimately delivered him to an inspirational fount. The collapse of a film he was putting together and the dissolution of his longtime relationship with actress Susan Sarandon marked a turbulent period from which he emerged determined to live with less regret.

And so he began to record the songs he’d been writing.

“I realized I was the only one who knew these songs, and I just wanted to make sure the tunes were there somewhere,” says Robbins.

He didn’t consider an album until he shared a demo of about 16 songs with friend and producer Hal Wilner, known for his recorded and concert tributes to artists such as Leonard Cohen, Kurt Weill and Randy Newman, as well as his production work with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Lou Reed and Marianne Faithful.

“Hal Wilner essentially told me to do this,” says Robbins. “He told me, ‘I believe this is a really good album,’ and that he had the perfect musicians for it.”

Wilner invited him to join his Rogues Gallery ensemble, featuring keyboard player Roger Eno, saw player David Coulter and multi-instrumentalist Kate St. John, on a three-week tour of the U.K. Robbins recorded his album live with the band on a two-day break from the road. A few overdubs and backing vocals, including those of Joan as Policewoman, were added in New York.

The Americana collection of dusty folk rockers and spectral ballads offers an indirect glimpse of the bleak and beautiful in his life.

“It’s definitely a moment in time,” says Robbins of the album, which was released July 19 on 429 Records. “Everything that’s coming out of that recording is reflective of themes running through my life, both in personal ways and in the kind of stories presenting themselves to me.”

Some draw directly on the latter, such as “Time to Kill,” which recounts the turmoil of an Iraq war veteran with whom he struck up a conversation in Colorado, and “Crush on You,” inspired by news reports of an openly gay teen shot in the head and killed in a suburban California classroom.

But mostly, Robbins relies on metaphor and illusory snapshots, and a cast of women shrouded in peril, abandoned dreams and fractured promise. He even paints an elegiac portrait of Mary Magdalene, whom he imagines as one of Jesus’ devoted disciples in opening track “Book of Josie.”

“It’s the same thing as when I write for the film or the stage,” he says of the disc’s nine songs. “You start with an idea and an idea of what the characters are and then you hope that the Muse strikes and you can fill this out with words. …It’s either a conversation with a friend about an experience that friend has had and how that led to something that was damaging or, in another case, led to something that was exalted, and then you’re making it up. You create the story of the song.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that this is not a literal form. Songwriting should be … images rather than reportage,” he says. “If I had done a literal translation of what the experiences were that led to those songs, they would not have been born.”

While most of the tunes were written in the months leading up to recording the album, “Dreams,” a meditation on the solace of enduring love, is the first song he ever penned, at the age of 24. All these years later, performing it in many ways epitomizes what he’s loved most about music.

“I remember the moment I wrote it in. I think that’s the key,” he says. “It’s also the difference between doing a piece of theater that someone else has written or a movie that someone else has written. What you’re bringing is the moment you wrote the song to people and how you felt at that moment. I remember the moment being one of very deep love but also of a kind of doubt of the idea of what is life, being completely broke and barely getting by and eating peanut butter sandwiches, you know, and the idea that when you’re in a situation like that and you are blessed with love, it makes it easier. I don’t think that ever changes.”

That quality of unvarnished and immediate emotion is what he gravitated to in the music of influences like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

“The kind of songwriters I’ve always been drawn to are the ones who can take you to a place in four minutes that you haven’t been to,” says Robbins. “With that kind of storytelling, unlike acting, you get to choose how the story unfolds, you get to choose the colors, the cast, you get to direct it, imagine where it’s taking place… It’s its own challenge.”

At heart, whether he’s behind or in front of the camera, working with his theater company The Actors’ Gang or rendering his songs onstage, Robbins remains a storyteller. But some mediums, he admits, are more exhilarating than others. Having previously toured Europe and Australia in support of the album, he appreciates that each performance offers a singular encounter.

“It’s a beautiful opportunity to have an experience with a room full of strangers. I love that about live theater as well,” says Robbins. “Ideally you can create an alchemy in a room through storytelling. That’s why I’m doing this. That’s why I wanted to do this with my life. The problem with films is you lose that sense of community. You don’t have a direct experience with people or that sense of immediacy.

“With this, every audience is a different chemistry. Every audience is a different possibility. To be able to go out there and figure that out, to arrange a set in a different way, to improvise, lose a song, add a song… you’re really taking audiences on this journey and it’s a great, humbling experience.”

Still, he won’t be hanging up his directing or acting hats any time soon. Earlier this year, he appeared in “Green Lantern” opposite Ryan Reynolds and the HBO film “Cinema Verite.” He has at least two movies, “Thanks for Sharing” and “Keeper of the Pinstripes,” set for release next year. And in between touring to promote his album, he’s mounted a production of “Break the Whip” with his Actors’ Gang company and directed an episode for the HBO series “Treme.”

“I’m having a blast,” says Robbins. “I kind of did all the disciplines last year. That was a lot of fun.”

– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer