The Oscar-winning actor has just released his self-titled debut folk album, Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band. He opens up to Marlow Stern about why this isn’t his “midlife crisis” album, his disillusionment with the film world, and split from longtime love Susan Sarandon.
It’s been a rough few years for Tim Robbins. He is the recipient of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his riveting portrayal of a sexual abuse victim in 2003’s Mystic River, but his movie career had lost some steam thanks to forgettable roles in films like Catch a Fire, The Lucky Ones, and City of Ember. To make matters worse, Robbins and his partner of 22 years, actress Susan Sarandon—whom he directed to her own Oscar win in Dead Man Walking—split in December 2009.
During an interview last year with Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Robbins said, “I asked myself the question, ‘What is it that will make you happy? What is it you have not done that you will regret not doing?’ He then said that this dark period encouraged him to return to his roots—his parents were staples of the Greenwich Village folk scene and his father, Gil Robbins, was a member of The Highwaymen—and write his own music album. “I was thinking about calling it The Mid-life Crisis Album, but then I thought that’s not going to sell any copies. Then I thought, ‘How about Songs of Love and Misery?’”
Robbins eventually titled the album Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band, and it will be released July 19. The album provides a heavy dose of ballads—some somber, some uplifting—and it’s sound can be characterized as a mixture of The River-era Springsteen with a dash of Tom Waits, punctuated by Robbins’ damaged, delicate vocals. He’s also claimed that the Radio 4 interview was meant to be a big joke and was taken wildly out of context.
On the eve of his album’s release, the actor, who will next star in the sex-addiction drama, Thanks For Sharing, from the makers of The Kids Are All Right, opened up to the Daily Beast about his rumored “midlife crisis” album, his breakup with Susan Sarandon, his disillusionment with the film industry, and what the future holds.
You were raised in the Greenwich Village folk scene and your father was in the band the Highwaymen, so you’ve been around music for quite some time. Why was this the right time to record your debut album?
It didn’t feel right before this. Of course, I was a little busy, too, raising a family and having a film career, and I ran a theater company. Also, I had the opportunity when Bob Roberts came out, there were a few offers to do music, but it felt disingenuous at the time. It didn’t feel like a natural thing to do, just more of an exploratory thing to do. Being raised by musicians, I have a real respect for the process and wanted to do right by it. A couple of years ago, I ran into [legendary music producer] Hal Willner and he asked me what I was doing musically, and I said, “I have something if you want to listen to it.” He listened and thought it was potentially a good album. He had something already lined up and said he had a series of concerts three weeks away with the Rogues Gallery Band, and you could do a few songs a night with them, and then we could go into the studio and see what happens.
Did something happen in your life that motivated this sea change of sorts?
I had been writing songs for the past 26 years, and played small shows for friends, but I never really thought about doing an album. I had a period of time that was difficult. I was trying to put a movie together [to direct] which fell apart, and quite frankly, I have a voice in my head, and my family—my dad’s family and my mom’s family—they were wagoners who traveled cross country, and they said, “If you’re ever in a situation, you need to find a project to do.” When my movie fell apart, my voice was the one that motivated me to go into the studio. It was right around when Wall Street was starting to collapse, and the guy I was counting on lost some of the money, and the project became unfeasible.
This struck me as a very personal, passionate work. As an actor, you’re playing a part, whereas this seems like genuine emotional release.
I would hope as an actor I’m capable of a genuine emotional release. [Laughs] We strive for honesty and truth in what we do. It’s very similar to doing a play. You have to be there in that live moment, with that audience. So, you better know quick how to be honest and truthful in the emotions you play onstage. The difference for me, and what I really love about the music, is in acting you’re telling somebody else’s story, and when you’re doing your own songs you’re telling your story. It’s a much more direct, personal relationship you’re developing with your audience.
In acting you’re telling somebody else’s story, and when you’re doing your own songs you’re telling your story.
You have a reputation in Hollywood as a political activist, and when I heard you were putting out a folk album, which historically is a musical genre associated with protest, I would have imagined there would be some “message” songs, but it’s really a very personal album devoid of politics. Was this a conscious choice?
I learned a while back not to define myself by how others define me. I’ve never really thought of myself as a political animal, and I’ve been called all kinds of things, but it’s just other people’s misinterpretation of what I do, and marginalization. Coming out against the Iraq War and saying, “I think we should take some time before we invade. Shouldn’t we find more evidence of WMDs?” I remember after that being called a “radical” and a “Saddam lover.” That’s not the truth. That’s radicalization and marginalization. They can say whatever they want; it does not make it true. I believe I’ve always approached my work with a sense of fairness in what you’re doing, and finding the different points of view in a story; Dead Man Walking is an example of that. In my career, I’ve done two overtly political pieces—Bob Roberts and [the play] Embedded—but I’ve also done love stories. I can’t get into the whole idea that people are surprised that I don’t have that thing in my album. Music can stir emotions in our hearts, and compassion in our souls, and it’s what’s beautiful and unique about a song.
I noticed hints of Springsteen and Muddy Waters in your album. What artists influenced you?
Those two, definitely. Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne. In our set, we do some Billie Holliday and we do a Warren Zevon song. I’m a big fan of songwriters that take you to places that you might not have gone. I love a story song. I love a song that you listen to and can see a movie in your head. The great thing about songs is everyone sees their own movie. As a filmmaker, I have to make a choice about what everyone wears, where they’re playing the scene. When making a song, the audience gets the choice to create their own reality.
You toured with Pearl Jam quite a bit during John Kerry’s failed presidential campaign back in 2004. How did that experience change your attitude toward music?
I had been performing with [Pearl Jam] before that and Eddie invited us out to open for them. Honestly, I’ve been doing music for as long as I can remember. That was an opportunity to get out on large stages. I remember before the first show we did at the Fleet Center in Boston, I looked out at the crowd and remember thinking, “Now, it’s time to put up or shut up.” That’s where my acting training really helped. I said, “Just for now, until you know how to do this better, you’re going to play a rock star.”
In the liner notes on the album, you mention you were going through a very dark time prior to and during recording this album. Was this an emotional catharsis for you?
It is a personal record, and everything you hear on that record—98 percent of it—was done in a live setting, and all the vocals are original vocals from a set in London. I didn’t want to change things to make it more perfect. I like mistakes, and think perfection in music is boring. We did add some trumpets in “Lightning Calls,” but what I really like about the album is, it captures an honest moment, and the musicians were able to reflect the emotions in the songs in a genuine, visceral way. Hal and I, a couple months later, were listening to it and when we heard it again, it just felt right. It felt like a moment in time we captured.
People are going to read into the lyrics of some of these songs given that you’re a public figure. “Book of Josie” really struck me as the most heartbreaking ballad on the album, about a girl who loses everything and takes a guy’s heart with her. It’s the first song on the album, which is an interesting choice—almost like you’re purging at the start on your way to a rebirth, with the final song “Lightning Calls.”
Who knows where words come from. At their best, songs are metaphors, and it’s not a literal representation. No one is really interested in that. It’s not a documentary, it’s supposed to be a poem. The period of time I wrote [“Book of Josie”], I was on the road with a movie, and it seemed to come real quickly. I guess you could say you’re inspired by parts of yourself, but I never really analyzed it that way. There’s a reason why that’s the first song and “Lightning Calls” is the last one. It opens up to a new dawn. A life past the storm. That was written after I met Nelson Mandela and was doing a movie called To Catch a Fire down [in South Africa]. I thought I was going to meet him with a couple hundred other people, but I wound up having lunch with Nelson Mandela and one other person. I got to ask him about the transition process and where his inspiration came from. It was a miracle.
Since this is such a personal, somewhat somber album, the big elephant in the room is your recent split from Susan Sarandon, since you two formed one of the more revered Hollywood couples for quite some time, and its effect on you. How did it affect the content of the album?
For 22 years, I was asked questions about my relationship, and for 22 years I’ve never answered questions about that. I want to respect the time [Susan and I] had together, and I wouldn’t want to imply that any of the songs had anything to do with my relationship. I think I’m a better writer than that. These stories are unique to themselves. Believe me, I’ve written poems that are directly related to [the end of the relationship] but I’d never put those out. I respect her too much and respect my family too much to want to do some kind of public, psychoanalytical explanation.
As far as the “new dawn” referred to at the end of your album, what does the future hold for you?
What does the future hold? It’s just a wide-open road for me at this point filled with beautiful possibilities. I just finished playing a festival in Quebec City and it was beautiful weather, and really fun to do. It’s been a great time.