Sharon Robinson was just a backup singer when she caught the ear of folk legend Leonard Cohen in 1980.
Seated at a piano in a hotel lobby, the aspiring songwriter asked Cohen if he'd like to hear a melody she wrote that still needed words.
"He said, 'Yes,' and I played it for him and he really liked it," Robinson recalls. "He immediately started sort of looking up at the ceiling and brainstorming for a lyric. That was really thrilling."
Nearly 30 years later, Robinson is much more than a supporting voice in Cohen's dark and poetic repertoire, which comes to the Rosemont Theatre tonight, as his lead songwriting and singing partner.
This is the second leg of their first tour together since 1980, and Cohen's first in the continental United States in more than 15 years. Robinson says she's surprised by the tour's "tremendous reception" so far.
"I'm not saying I didn't expect it, but the level it's at is something of a surprise, I think to all of us," she says of the tour, which came to Chicago twice last spring and was subsequently extended due to demand.
Robinson, who grew up in Los Angeles, began studying classical piano at age 12, and by 16 had recorded a demo inspired by the folk and soul music she listened to at home in the 1960s and '70s.
After touring several years with a backup band and performing as a session singer in Ann Margret's Las Vegas revue, Robinson first took the stage with Cohen on his 1979 "Field Commander Cohen Tour."
It was on the second leg of that tour when Robinson and Cohen began working in a hotel lobby on the song "Summertime," later recorded by Roberta Flack and Diana Ross.
The collaboration would be the start of a decades-long partnership with Cohen that produced his critically acclaimed release, "Ten New Songs," in 2001, and ultimately bolstered Robinson's career as a producer and solo artist.
"I'm very proud of the work I've done with Leonard," she says, "and I'm honored to be his collaborator. It's only enhanced my songwriting career. People representing songwriters and all that, they're more interested in my work than they were before."
Among Robinson's achievements are songwriting credits for the Grammy-winning "New Attitude," recorded by Patti LaBelle for the soundtrack to "Beverly Hills Cop" in 1985. Her compositions also have been featured in films such as "Wonder Boys," "Pump Up the Volume" and "Natural Born Killers."
Last year, Robinson recorded and released her first solo album, taking the title track "Everybody Knows" from her songbook with Cohen who generated a portrait of her on his computer for the cover.
Robinson says the two were working on additional material when Cohen, now 75, asked her to join him on tour again, a move prompted after Cohen's manager was fired and absconded with $9.5 million of his money, according to news reports.
She says she hopes to continue writing with Cohen once the tour is over, and also return to her solo efforts, which are a "completely different process."
"Working with Leonard on 'Ten New Songs,' I was able to figure out how to tap into my own voice," she says. "It was a new thing for me to do, really. I mean I've written for myself before but, you know, in days past it was a different goal. When you're a mature artist and you really want to get to the heart of things, it's a different goal, a different ideal."
Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Road, Rosemont
Today at at 8 p.m.
Call: (630) 671-5100