The 70-year-old singer-songwriter from Detroit has been touring regularly since the beginning of the year, playing festivals in North America and Europe. He recently took the stage as the opening act for Animal Collective. He also just appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman, performing with a 10-piece orchestra. And he will soon be the subject of a lengthy feature on 60 Minutes.
It’s a remarkable run for any musician. But when you consider Rodriguez hasn’t released any new music in more than four decades, the attention he’s now receiving feels downright miraculous.
“This is beyond anything I would have imagined,” says Rodriguez, speaking from his home in Michigan. “It’s almost grotesque, a huge leap from here to way over there. Top o’ the world, Ma!”
To be fair, that huge leap didn’t happen out of thin air. All of this chatter was stirred up by the release of Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary about the unusual trajectory of the septuagenarian musician’s career.
A quick rundown: In the early 1970s, Rodriguez released two albums of Dylan/Donovan-influenced psych folk, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality. Both were commercial flops in the U.S. Soured from the experience, Rodriguez stopped making music completely. Yet, unbeknownst to the man who created them, both LPs found a huge audience in South Africa, where his songs of personal and class struggle became anthems for the anti-apartheid movement. In the late ’90s, a record-store owner and a reporter managed to track down the enigmatic songwriter, bring him the news of his success overseas, and eventually coax him out of retirement to play some well-received concerts.
A great story, to be sure, but one that did have some missing pieces that didn’t fit Bendjelloul’s tidy narrative. Rodriguez did do some touring in Australia—another country where his albums were beloved—in 1979 and 1981. And there’s no mention that he’s a cult favorite here in the U.S., especially after both albums were reissued recently by Seattle label Light in the Attic.
Of course, none of that should diminish the fact that such a career resurrection is encouraging and exciting. In that respect, though, you’d expect the man himself to sound a little more cocksure about finally getting his due. While he is happy for the attention, Rodriguez is entirely pragmatic about it.
“The success of this is out of our hands,” he says. “The success is really due to a powerful group of people. Sony Pictures Classics has done a lot. They picked up the tab for the orchestra, and they’ve spent $80,000 in advertising for the film.”
From anyone else, that would come across as false humility. But having been burned by the music industry before, Rodriguez understands how fleeting success can be—even on this small scale.
“I never left music. It was the music scene I left,” he says of his decision to end his recording career in the early ’70s. “Trying to be noticed, to be at the right place, and get the right shot—I didn’t miss that as much.”
As thrilling as the next year is looking for Rodriguez—sold-out dates in London, a showcase at the 2013 Coachella festival, and a gig at Carnegie Hall in April—there’s a tone to his weathered voice suggesting he hasn’t forgotten that as recently as a decade ago, he was working in demolition and construction around Detroit, trudging on foot between various job sites.
“So much of this is out of my hands,” he says. “But, you know, I’m happy to be a part of it, even at this late date.”
SEE IT: Rodriguez plays Wonder Ballroom, 128 NE Russell St., on Saturday, Oct. 13. 9 pm. $13 advance, $15 day of show. 21+.