Rodriguez (Photo by Hal Wilson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

When I interviewed Searching for Sugar Man filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, he recounted for me the Detroit mythology of singer/songwriter Rodriguez: “The people in Detroit, who were talking about this shadow man walking around dressed in black in the night, with his guitar on his back, never talking to anybody. He was the most intriguing person I’d ever heard about.” Rodriguez’s songs are consummately poetic, and often deeply bittersweet, both in the lyrics as well as in the arrangements and instrumentation. That mixed sense of lyricism, insight, and disillusionment was reflected in my time with Rodriguez, along with a sense of optimism that at the age of seventy, he may continue to get the long-delayed recognition he deserves for the two seminal albums he released in the early 1970s. Searching for Sugar Man is the documentary about the too-bizarre-to-be-believed tale of Rodriguez’s two albums being quickly forgotten in America, but going on to sell millions in South Africa. Rodriguez became a national hero and a figurehead of the anti-apartheid movement, but didn’t find out until decades after the fact. After winning awards at Sundance, Tribeca, and the Los Angeles Film Festival, Searching for Sugar Man opens in Los Angeles and New York on July 27th, before expanding nationwide. The soundtrack arrived in stores on July 24th, and Rodriguez plays the legendary Newport Folk Festival on the 29th before embarking on a national tour. When I recently had a chance to speak with Rodriguez, here’s what he shared with me about developing his perspective as a writer, the production of his seminal albums, and revisiting his classic songs on the road.

Jackson Truax: You have such a distinct style as an artist and as a performer. What do you think that style is, and how has it evolved in your decades of performing?

Rodriguez: My style is musical/political. I make musical statements in my songs, social comments… I do covers. I try and sound like the other artists I cover. I cover Sinatra. I cover Ray Charles. I try, not just the guitar parts, but I try the nasal sound of Dylan. My feeling is, in this business, if you have a vocal signature that’s your own identifiable [sound], then you’ve got it. As soon as you hear Sinatra, you know that’s Sinatra… Other artists, Louis Armstrong…and Ray Charles, instantly, you know that’s Ray Charles. I like his chord changes. So I do covers to develop my skills and vocals… Sinatra sang, he was a singer. I try and be clear in my delivery.

JT: What about as a lyricist? How did you find or develop your perspective as a writer?

Rodriguez: I like the word “poetry.” I can write a ballad that has form, a verse, chorus, verse. However the style is. Sometimes it’s different kinds of approaches to it. I try and keep the pieces short. Two-and-a-half, three minutes, because once you add the musicians, it stretches out. Because you want to show their lead or their riff… But I write the stuff. And I have sung it. And I play guitar on it. That’s my style of music.

JT: “I Wonder” is a really interesting song, because it’s fun and flirty, but also has some very political lyrics. How did you come to combine the socially relevant and the sexual themes?

Rodriguez: Usually, you have three verses in a song. And then maybe you transgress into some other riff and then you come back… With that, I try and do the general statement and a personal statement and then try and wrap it up somehow. It’s like you make your statement, you restate it, and then you come back and restate it again. It’s just an idea of an approach, to write… But it’s a consciousness thing. You try and match the words and match the thought.

JT: The lyrics to “This is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues” feel just as timely and relevant as I’m sure they did in 1970. Has it always felt that relevant, or has the song had any sort of resurgence in recent years?

Rodriguez: When I did it, I described it; it’s not a song. It’s an outburst. One writer said it was like a rant. I said, “exactly.” A rant. R-A-N-T… You’re ticked off. That kind of thing. Another song I wrote is “A Most Disgusting Song.” There, I try to do what McCartney did with “Rocky Raccoon.” “Rocky Raccoon, stepped into the room, only to find Gideon’s Bible.” He’s setting us up, and putting this collage of things together. That’s what I was trying to do with “A Most Disgusting Song,” trying to put people in a club in an inner-city. I had fun. That’s a part of writing as well. You try and place this here, place that here. I was successful, I think, in the fifty songs that I’ve written. That’s all I’ve written that I’ve finished, completed.

JT: You worked with some great producers on your albums. “Cause” and “Sandrevan Lullaby” from your second album, Coming from Reality, are examples of songs that have a lot of production value. How involved were you in the arrangements and in the production of the songs on your albums? 

Rodriguez: The second album was recorded in London, England. It was produced by Steve Rowland, who lives in Palm Springs here, in California… He wanted to produce me. So it was all set up. He set up the arrangers. He set up all the musicians on that second album, cellos, violas, full violin sections, a harp. The guy who played bongos, [Tony Carr]; he played with Donovan. Chris Spedding is on lead guitar. Steve Rowland had all that production. He’s an actor turned music producer. He’s [worked] with The Cure…a lot of people, Jerry Lee Lewis. His family founded Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer. He sings. He was in the Wyatt Earp series, the old cowboy series. He was in The Thin Red Line, a…war movie that was a conscientious objector kind of movie. He hung out with Elvis Presley. He has his own Hollywood career. I didn’t know all that stuff about him. It’s a different kind of production. It’s a richer production than the rhythm sections of the Cold Fact [album]. I was growing. I thought that was the way to go. He wanted to do this. He did quality so well. I think that’s why it still holds today. It cost twenty-six grand to put that together.

JT: Your approach to songwriting feels very eclectic. You have songs that are very chorus-structured and feel very pop-oriented, and music that feels very folk-oriented. Was this just a culmination of sounds you heard growing up in Detroit? Did you strive to be eclectic, or was it more subconscious than that? 

Rodriguez: I think…you want to touch all bases, as with any emotional range. You want to do something. And you’re caught by whatever else is playing as well. And the different genres of music are enough that you can find space to do this. Whether it’s…jazz or classical with the instrumentations. Country music has been described to me…as being three chords and the truth. And I like that expression, because in country, there seems to be a lot of that sincerity in lyric… It’s not just songs, it serious stuff, but in a good, light way.

JT: In the decades since the first shows in South Africa, when you go back to play there or when you tour Australia or now in getting ready to go play shows again, do you ever reinvent the songs or the arrangements at all? 

Rodriguez: When we do the sets, we try and keep it real close to the [records]. With live music, as you know, you have a little more space up there. So, I hear [the musicians] do the number as it goes, and they go ahead and expand on the theme or expand on the lead part, which I enjoy. Because I’m listening to them play… If they’re going to interpret it, I let them do it. Because that’s what they do. They’re being guitar players or keyboard players or percussion players. It’s a living art. You’re creating and recreating up there. And each night it’s different. I have twelve bands all over the world. They’re all good musicians. It cuts down on airfare.

JT: What are your current plans with your music after the release of the film? Do you plan on playing more concerts or touring? Do you plan on recording again?

Rodriguez: Following the screenings…I am going to pursue my musical career. This next month, I’m going to play Jersey, England… It’s a five thousand seat-er…Van Morrison is going to be there… And Ray Davies from The Kinks is going to be there. We’re on the main stage. Then we come back and continue touring with the film. It’s going to be showing in eighty-four cities. And if I had been in eighty-four jukeboxes I would have been blown-away. But this thing is so huge now. And it’s because Sony Pictures Classics and Sony Legacy picked it up… We got lucky.

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