• By: OLM Staff

Life after Sugar Man: in conversation with Rodriguez

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When talking with the once thought to be dead Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez you don’t know what to expect. I mean, for starters, the man is very much alive. However, due to a 2021 Oscar winning documentary, the musician has also seen a career resurrection long after the final nails were presumably hammered into its coffin. He is unlike anything that’s happened in music before.

For those who haven’t seen Searching For Sugarman, here’s a quick primer. After releasing two critically acclaimed but otherwise unsuccessful albums (Cold Fact [1970] and Coming from Reality [1971]) in the opening years of the 1970s, the man known as Rodriguez walked off into the sunset having played his best hand. Some presumed he’d committed suicide, distraught over the turn his career had taken. Zip ahead to his music being discovered by the South African masses, record sales that would outnumber Elvis and songs that gave power to a revolution. Zip even further ahead to learn that the man lived with no knowledge of his fame on the other side of the planet. Then came the tours, the album re-releases, the film, the Academy Award and a generation of new fans flocking to see him out of curiosity at first but staying for the strength that remains in music now over four decades ago.

"My world has changed so much. Upside down, you know," Rodriguez tells Ottawa Life ahead of his Sunday night show to close out the 2017 CityFolk Festival. 

Obviously, we’re leaving lots of gaps in the extraordinary story of this self-proclaimed solid 75-year-old with a “senior advantage". Through all the mysteries and misconceptions, however, one thing is exceptionally clear even a few short moments into a conversation with Rodriguez. Though his life has become a whirlwind over the last ten years, he hasn’t lost his want to keep hold of the simpler things in life. There’s a warmth in his voice that occasionally shows hints that he still himself can’t believe where the road has taken him.

We walk down it a little ways with Rodriguez, curious still about his future plans, his second chances, his music and his life after Sugerman.

Ottawa Life: I kind of find it ironic that your second album is called Coming From Reality. Then there’s this four decade gap before the movie. While I understand the film had to establish a narrative byway of how the filmmakers wanted to tell your story, I wonder, from your perspective, did you find it portrayed your reality accurately with what it included and also choose to omit?

Rodriguez: I think it covered a lot of subjects. It won an Academy Award for Documentary of the Year and countless awards in Moscow and Australia. He covered a lot of turf. It was a rags to riches story. I think that was one of the draws. I got a lot of mileage through that film. I also want to credit Sony Pictures Classics, Sony Legacy and Sony Home Video because that was the frame work and certainly the Sundance Film Festival. It was introduced at a high level and it stayed that way.

You mention it being a rags to riches tale but I would also say they portrayed it as sort of a mystery. What did you think of your life being shown that way?

I had nothing to do with the portrayal. I didn’t have much to do with the making of the film. I’d leave it at that.

What was shocking for me, well I’m sure for many, who discovered you via the film, was how your music didn’t seem to take off or resonate with a larger American audience until the movie brought it more to light. As the soundtrack and your album reissues started to sell was their sort of a vindication for you, like you were just waiting for people to catch up to the songs you always believed in?

Oh yes. I think it was a vindication. It’s recognizable in its success. 

Why do you feel so many people are drawn to the music now it being so many decades later after the original releases?

There are things that were happening in society, all those questions happening in society, I think still take shape in today’s contemporary world. For example, in Venezuela there’s a general strike. A dictator there wants to rewrite the constitution. That’s not an exaggeration. It’s happening today. And all the things happening in Washington and so forth. It’s government oppression.

It is very interesting to see lines from your songs that still apply very much to today’s political spectrum.

I feel that way too. What draws them is all the curious. We get now the percentage of curious over what I’m all about. I’m for peace on Earth, power to the people. That is the way I frame it.

What do you feel changed most for you after the film’s success?

It’s good to have a couple of bucks in your pocket. It’s clear that any kind of bond is a bond. Any kind of flavor is a flavor. Even economic flavor. With all that, getting free economically is real. We get good offers from Europe, we’ll be heading there. Things like that. That was unheard of before. The film certainly helped my career. That wasn’t there before.

Yeah, the film’s success has given you the ability to travel more. However, you opted to remain in the home you’ve had for forty years. What keeps you in Detroit? Is it a muse for you?

Well, you got to be from somewhere. I was born in Detroit. I’m urban. I’m comfortable in this city. I know where everything’s at. This is home base.

With that in mind, it’s kind of humorous when in the film they are trying to track you down via your lyrics mentioning other parts of the world.

Yeah. It’s true. You know, I met those gentlemen. It was exciting to meet South Africa and discover it. It’s right there. Cape Town. Johannesburg. I’ve been there, and to Australia, six times. I’m looking forward to tour again. 

It seems your fans really can be divided into these separate group. Those who discovered it initially, your Australian fans, those in South Africa and, of course, those like me who found you via the film. What are your thoughts on these unique fan base and how have you found interacting with them all now on your more recent tours?

Well that’s what I mean. The reach has been global. For sure it’s changed everything. There’s different markets.

What has it been like revisiting your songs now that they are being embraced by that wider audience?

I’m a live musician. To me it’s a live thing.

Again, I think back to the film and think it’s interesting that the film painted you with, say, a shy brush…turning your back to play to the crowd, etc. The recent clips I have seen you performing in showcase comfort, if not joy in performing live.

You are correct about that. So many people just hear recorded music. Sure, that’s good. But a lot of performance comes out live. My concerts are audience generated. We’re rehearsed but we’re not scripted.

What have you enjoyed the most about touring after the film’s release?

The sights and the sounds. It’s all new environments. You get a rush in every new place. We’re looking forward to CityFolk.

Playing for these larger crowds is certainly new. What has it been like transitioning into this kind of fame later in life?

This is major. I liken it to being a parent. Whether a person is young and becomes a parent or old and becomes a parent both are still young parents. Both still have to have that experience. So, this is now that, an experience with these crowds. It’s an amazing time. Festivals are like conferences, too. You get to meet up with other musicians, see their acts.

You said you’ve returned many times to South Africa. The film hits a peak with your first shows there. I wonder what your thoughts are on the people there keeping your music alive all those years and your relationship with the country now?

They pulled me out of the woodwork. So too Australia. Virgin territories I call them. They’re into American music and that’s what I do. That’s my catalogue.

While many would have parlayed all this into another album, you’ve not recorded any new music. Why is that and would you say there may be another album in there for the future?

It’s because I am still in court. I’m still trying to get free from this old situation. I have to get free. I can only do live touring, in a way. It’s a legal thing. I am hoping it will be over this year. It hinders me from really letting go but I plan to. I now do it live.

Who knows, maybe this will all get hashed out in ten years with the release of Searching For Sugarman 2!

(laughs) Who knows! We’ll see if it does.

You’ve said you don’t want a higher education but a fuller one. What advice would you give those seeking to fulfill a similar ideal?

Yeah, a wider one. If you want narrow they’ll try that on you. The world has shrunk. Information may be instantaneous but Marshall McLuhan said it best when he said television shrunk everything. We’re one village. In that perspective it seems small.

What are keys for you to living that fuller life?

Let me reflect on that a minute. It’s like a punch to the stomach. I say if you listen to your mother and father you’ll be alright. I’m a musical political. I think that’s different than somebody singing to glorify music, bring people on that dance floor. That’s cool and great but I have something to say. My descriptions. I just do it though music.

It’s hard to not see the politics laced into your songs. How do you view America currently as we’re into a controversial new government? 

I think it’s been a slow six months. He’s got three investigations on him. He’s got to survive that. He’s failed to pass anything at all. I can’t go any further than that. But that will be his downfall. He’s said too many things outlandishly. It’s almost grotesque the situation in Washington. A rich man telling everybody how to behave.

I’m a music lover who is drawn in by lyrical poetry. I wanted to touch lastly on your lyrics. Take, say, “Crucify Your Mind”, how it seems so free flowing and open to various interpretations. I think of, say, some Dylan and even Springsteen’s first two albums. Or Morrison’s Astral Weeks. It’s like a journey into the poetic sub-conscious. What were you drawing from when you sat down to put pen to the paper?

To me it’s Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, those Canadian artists, they too attacked these ideas and issues. Young with "Ohio" after the Kent State shooting of students protesting the war. This is as fresh today for some. It’s more than a song. It’s freedom of expression. I enjoy what I do and I feel lucky.