Analogue Music | Robert Randolph

Robert Randolph

By Matt Conner

It's taken a few musical turns for Robert Randolph to arrive at his destination: right back where he began.

The three-time Grammy nominated artist is back with his sixth studio album, Brighter Days, and the territory is familiar with a unabashedly gospel-centric approach on several tracks. Working with producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton), Randolph said it was time to embrace his story, his voice, and release an album that returns to his roots.

According to Randolph, it helped to have Cobb at the helm, who himself grew up in a Pentecostal setting. Together, the pair created an irresistible, uplifting release that's both spirited (and Spirited).

We recently caught Randolph between tour dates to hear more about the newest album, his role as an artist, and the last time music lifted him in the same way he encourages others.

Analogue: You're really back to your gospel roots on this latest album. What was the inspiration there to circle back?

Robert Randolph: Well, I wanted to add some different elements, which is that sort of gospel flavor, like adding a choir on a few songs. But really, it was accepting the role of being the guy who comes to inspire people, to lift people up, to bring joy. Many times I write songs of all different kinds but this time I wanted to focus this one as this uplifting record where we use a lot of slogans, titles and things that I was accustomed to growing up in church. Not only that, I worked with a producer, Dave Cobb, who was also born and raised in a Pentecostal church.

One of the things that gets left out a lot of times these days when you record music... years ago, when you had Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Al Green, Ray Charles and all those guys, when somebody said, 'Hey, I want to add these elements of gospel,' even The Rolling Stones, people knew what that meant. Today, you might work with a producer or songwriter or collaborator and they may go, 'Oh, I don't know why you'd want to do that?'

That's something that's gotten lost in music. Which all of those guys knew, but that's the history of blues turning into rock and roll which has turned into so many other things. All of these titles were coming from gospel music, were coming from church. That's why it was important to add a lot of that stuff, and I was glad to be able to work with someone who knows how to tie it all together.

You say the term gospel and sometimes people get turned off, but everybody wants to be uplifted. Everybody wants the good word. Everybody wants to have joy in their lives—at least the majority of people that I know from traveling around the world and seeing the fans. Don't forget, you've got bands The Grateful Dead that was a very uplifting band. They wanted to go out, make music and create a following that didn't want to stand for the status quo. They've brought joy to millions of people. To me, that's what music is and that's the role I've come to accept.

Analogue: That implies there was a period you didn't want that role. Is that true?

Robert: Well, I wouldn't say I didn't want it. Sometimes you venture out and do these other things. All of us artists are sort of guilty of listening to another artist or band and going, 'Oh, let me try to do that.' Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. It's a learning curve. You get older, wiser and more mature. That's important for me to be this guy who is an uplifter through music. Loving blues and loving rock and roll and jam bands and all these different things helped me tie it all together. At the end of the day, it's all just music.

'Brighter Days'
'Brighter Days'

Analogue: This idea of a joyous record—how much of that is in response to our present cultural climate?

Robert: It's critical. If you listen to mainstream music, these messages and titles and songs that are saying we're all here to help each other, we're all here doing these things, they aren't really around any more. You gotta try to find them. So everybody else can be who they are, but it's important for me to be the guy who I am. You can't escape it. Once we start playing live, the music brings joy and we've always had that.

Analogue: So the uplifting mission you had with these songs is working out in the live setting?

Robert: Yeah, man. The shows have been really great. You see people feel the joy. They sense it and feel uplifted. You can see the smiles on their faces. They're dancing and it's satisfying to me to be able to write songs and make music and construct these puzzle pieces together. At the end of the day, all of us guitar players and musicians can't wait to perform these songs live to see the reaction. Nothing is more gratifying than to see the weight being lifted off of people's shoulders. That's the best part of it all.

Analogue: You said the word gospel is a hurdle for some folks. How do you contend with that?

Robert: Well, it's just the way things are, y'know? No matter which time we were in, people always say, 'I just want to get back to this.' I don't know what we're getting back to. The world has always been this ever-evolving place. There's always been evil around. It just seems like it's magnified because we have social media, but this country has had racism and lynchings and hangings and all kinds of things. It just seems a little different now in that everybody is like, 'We gotta get back to this place.' No, we don't. This world is always evolving.

Nothing is more gratifying than to see the weight being lifted off of people's shoulders. That's the best part of it all.

When you look back at a certain time, I want people to be able to say, 'I was feeling this way but Robert Randolph made me feel a certain way and it helped me get through.' It's the same thing as Stevie Wonder or Bob Marley or The Beatles. People wrote songs in those days to get through those times and the same was true before that. Music has always helped us get along.

Analogue: When was the last time a piece of music reached you in that same way?

Robert: I think it happened to me recently. I listened to Bad Company for the first time a couple months ago. That's been my inspiration, listening to Bad Company and their big catalog.

Analogue: What else is coming up for you later this winter and beyond?

Robert: Right now is a slow season. We've got some Allman Brothers tribute shows. We've got this orchestra thing that's happening. Then in 2020, we go in with a bunch of things hitting the schedule. It's going to be a great year.

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