Chris Robinson Gets Earthy

Black Crowes frontman mellows out on solo debut

Since they announced last winter that the band they founded together nearly twenty years ago, the Black Crowes, was on indefinite hiatus, brothers Chris and Rich Robinson have been working at vastly different projects. Rich has looked backward to put together the Crowes' excellent first live set, which captures better than any of their studio records exactly what made them a worthwhile outfit in the first place -- their infallible instinct for epic, low-down rock jams -- and re-staked the band's claim to Zeppelin's legacy. Chris, meanwhile, broke off in the opposite direction, and went about clearing himself a fresh piece of land. He spent the spring and summer bumping around Europe and the U.S., doing small scale shows to hone the material on his new debut solo record, New Earth Mud.

Mud, which Robinson made with his good friend producer Paul Stacey, is a return to his folksy roots, and could hardly be more different than his collaborations with his brother. The set's best songs, like "Katie Dear" -- an ode to his wife, actress Kate Hudson -- are as subtle and sensitive as Crowes songs like "Girl From a Pawnshop," Live's highlight, are flamboyant and grandiose.

After so many years of working so closely with a band, especially one that includes your brother, how comfortable are you out on your own?

It's something that couldn't be cooler -- it just feels natural. The Black Crowes was always a collaboration, of me doing the lyrics and arranging to Rich's music. I think I've written one complete song on a Black Crowes record. So this is all my thing, the way I feel -- things I probably brought to the Black Crowes but now are able to come to the front in the lyrics and just the vibe.

How is that audible?

It's really soulful and rootsy . . . it's definitely more subdued -- either funky sounding Neil Young or folksy Steely Dan. The kind of the stuff I've always liked is of course what's going to come out of me. And I like always liked all forms of traditional music: from singer-songwriter stuff to English folk music and English electric folk music. But I'm playing with guys who are really immersed in jazz. So I'm bringing rootsy stuff to guys who have a jazz ear, and that comes out when you go back and forth over arrangements.

And it's not like you were working with complete strangers . . . My friend Paul Stacey co-produced the record, and I also wrote a bunch of stuff with him. He's based in London, and we recorded in Paris, so that worked out best for the two of us, too. It's just me and him working together, and on two occasions brought other people over from London, including his twin brother. So I worked with all English guys. We only worked three and a half weeks when I was there, and we recorded twenty songs -- so it was really quick. Then we went to see Bob Dylan for two nights at the Zenith [in Paris] and came back and did even more work because he was so inspiring. He has like 150 albums out. I have six. Get to work! The time we spent in Paris was just really nice and really easy.

Apart from the writing you did with Paul, where did most of the material come from?

None of the material is old. I've always written a lot of songs and just kind of let them go by the wayside. But this group of songs I really started writing at the end of the Crowes' last tour, and I wrote a couple pieces in the studio.

I know your tours for this album have certainly been different than the Crowes'.

After we finished in Paris, we did a few shows in Europe -- Paul and I just kind of got into a van and got a soundman and took two acoustic guitars and did a few gigs without really knowing what it would be like. In certain circles -- I guess within folk music -- people kind of know what to expect, but in rock & roll, if it's not being used to sell something like an unplugged record, people don't know where it's coming from. It's just a good way to hear the songs before I put the band together.

Have you enjoyed that kind of touring, where you can just kind of play a show and see what happens, as opposed to working with a full band and having a set list?

I like to go out without a huge plan. And Paul is equally the same way. I just like each night to take on its own personality, and you can build from that. But obviously there's a little bit of a framework, so it doesn't totally fall to pieces. But the acoustic thing was so much fun. I like the idea that if I'm setting off for something new, that it starts with me and Paul just getting in a van. We lug our own equipment, and you can get out and see shit. Low-maintenance touring.

It sounds like you're having fun, at least.

As proud as I am of what the Black Crowes did, I can't really say that it was always fun. And this time it was -- it was just really easy to write these songs, to sing these songs. I couldn't be happier with it. I'm anxious for people to hear it, people who just really like music, to see if it makes them feel the same things that I feel.

What about people who like the Black Crowes?

I'm not sure. In a way, that would really be limiting myself, and I'd almost rather make music that appeals to people who didn't like the Black Crowes -- again, without compromising the way I feel about music.

What about the references to your personal life on this record, and the songs about your wife?

Of course she's going to be in it. I don't edit myself. I think it's an important thing, especially in this age of megalomania, when everything's huge, that I not be afraid of intimacy. To say, "This is how I feel. This is how a lot of people feel. And it's not bad." I can take my lumps. If other people don't understand it . . .

Maybe they're just jealous.

Whatever. Or they don't want to hear these things. But I think that attitude is going to be very passe as we move along.

Have you and Kate ever written together?

We've done a couple things together, and those have been very fun. She plays piano, and guitar, and I think people would be very surprised with the musical ideas she has. She loves music more than anything. She just has good musical instincts. And she can really sing -- which pisses me off, to be honest.

What you've got there is a backup singer.

Yeah, right. But I do think she'll probably get into some stuff, and if she wants my help, it's always there. Her independence, and her creative spirit, is one of the things I love so much about her. Just to be able to sit back and watch that.

It's interesting how easily people seem to go from music to movies, but how difficult it is to go the other way.

I think it's that personality transfers onto movies. Actors are great, let's face it, because they fake things. And that obviously is a lot harder to do in music.