|Linda Ronstadt Interview
17 June 1998
at Linda's home in Tucson, Arizona
© Debbie Kruger
You are a performer who has covered the most diverse range of genres in popular music, and they are all listed on your bio country, rock, big band, jazz, opera, Broadway, Mexican and Afro-Cuban, plus there's children's lullabies... is there anything you've done that's been left off that list?
Well, choral music. There's actually a rhyme and reason here. I don't record anything that I didn't hear in my family's living room by the time I was 10. It just is my rule that I don't break because, I mean I'll record it on somebody else's record, but my own stuff I don't attempt that because I can't, I can't do it authentically. I really think that you're just hardwiring synapsis in your brain up until the age of maybe 12 or 10, and there are certain things you can't learn in an authentic way after that, you know like a language or math or music or something like that. You pretty much had to be doing it by the time you were 10. So all the things that I did were in my living room in one way or another. I mean, the radio of course was one of the things that really brought an enormous amount of stuff in, but at home my favorite music to this day... I don't like recorded music that much and I don't listen to much of it, but I like music that's made in intimate surroundings that's live, and if it's chamber music or if it's music in a small theater that's an appropriate size for music, like up to maybe 1200 seats but not above that. I mean, that's what I like and enjoy.
So when we were kids, we always sang, everyone in my family sings and, everyone does. It just didn't occur to me that anybody had a family that that didn't happen and you know really it shouldn't be that way. It's not such a special thing. Everyone is able to do music and everyone is able to do art, it's a part of how we're made. And it's a part of how we make order out of chaos and it's a part of how we identify our feelings, and it's a part of how we transcend emotional excursions, positive or negative, it's a way that you can celebrate; joy is really a transcendence over all kinds of things, not just happiness. Joy is transcendence over pain or transcendence over problems, or you know, transcendence over getting through the year, if you want to apply it to New Year's Eve, I don't know. So music is a really important part of that and I just don't think it's arbitrary and I just don't think it's for aesthetics or for making money or for anything I think it's biologically imperative that we have music. So people should do it, you know, and we always did, and my brother was in a real class boy's chorus and he was their soloist and he was a fine fine boy soprano, I've hardly heard his equal. He was chief of police here for years, and very very well liked. But he's very musical, he's very musical. Probably the most talented of all of us in the family. I have good ears for harmonies, and I do a lot of harmony arranging. He's better than I am and that pisses me off, but it's a fact. I'm good for basic simple stuff and a little bit of complicated stuff, and he's really good at complicated stuff. He can do all the jazz stuff, you know, the very close harmony stuff like I did with Nelson Riddle. But I can do some of it, but he can do it better and faster than I can. It pisses me off but it's a fact. And my sister is a wonderful singer, she's very good, pretty nice alto voice, and real in tune. My younger brother Mike sings very wide range, sings tenor, sings bass, whatever you need. So it's nice. Then I have a couple of cousins who are really good singers, too, so... My mother really loved operetta and she played it on the piano a lot, she played Gilbert & Sullivan, we had the book of all the Gilbert & Sullivan stuff. And then my brother was chosen for a part in.. the NBC opera company did a, back in the days when television still had quality stuff on - didn't matter because the medium is terrible for music - but he used to sing it. Actually he was chosen to sing the part for NBC Opera but then his voice changed just as he was learning the part. But while he was learning the part, I learned the part. Then my grandmother loved opera and she had Maria Callas blasting 24 hours a day which I just love to this day. So it was there.
My father of course, the first music that we heard was Mexican folk music, and it was on records and it was being sung by everyone in the family, and it's what we did at every family celebration. And that includes all Mexican traditional musics are divided into a lot of categories, there's a lot of ethnic streams that feed that, but one of them is African, because the east coast, the Carribean side absorbed a lot of African stuff. So I learned those rhythms. The Mexican music that I've recorded has not been those particularly. I've used the Indian rhythms more, the indigenous Mexican, the pre-Columbian rhythms I've used more. And some of the German stuff that went in there, which is the polkas and waltzes. But I learned about the African thing, it's five-beat and it underpins everything that goes on in Cuba and New Orleans and it underpins all of jazz, and it's good that I had an understanding of it when I went to work with Nelson Riddle to do the jazz standards because based on that rhythm even though it's very very far removed from it by now, all these centuries have brought it a long way but it was helpful, and when I went to record a collection of more Carribean songs in Spanish, it was there. And it underpins a lot of doo-wop stuff, too.
What was hard for me to understand, what was hard for me in pop music I think, was because I had this funny infrastructure. The female singer that influenced me the most was a Mexican singer named Lola Beltran. And she is the queen of all, she is it, she's like what Billie Holliday is to us and Edith Piaf is to France. And her style is what influenced my rock and roll style. My rock and roll style is not based on, and it's based on this indigenous Mexican rhythm the feeling of that, and American rock and roll is based on gospel, black music, a Protestant black music. Not Catholic. The Catholic stuff is what Aaron Neville does, and it has the African underpinning, but the Protestant stuff is another step removed from that, and everything's on the back beat, it doesn't have that five-beat underpinning. So that was the thing I came to last in life and that was the hardest for me to understand. So rock and roll is really my hardest thing. And it took me a long time to figure out how to integrate what I knew and make it my own style, because I didn't have a blues background. And where blues is based ultimately on that five-beat African thing it's so far removed, and it's got so much taken into the Baptist Gospel thing that it has the backbeat. It's harder for me. By the time white people got finished with it, it was pretty hard to find it. So I had to figure out how to reconnect it to Africa before I could figure out how to sing rock and roll. You know? (laughing) And now I know I get it better. But I had to connect it to African through Mexico.
Well you kind of came to rock and roll through folk, didn't you? It was the whole thing of singing folk and singing at the Troubadour, where rock and roll was developing in that atmosphere. Had you perhaps gone and sung in another club in another part of the country you might have gone off in a completely different direction.
Well I went over to California because The Byrds were already doing folk-rock and it was the first I ever heard of it, they were using 12-string guitar, and I knew Chris Hillman as a mandolin player, as a bluegrass player, so I thought, well if Chris can figure out a way to make this work, we can figure it out, too, we'll have to try. But it was very hard for me, it wasn't Rock and roll was not my first instinct. I heard it before I was 10, I think it was on the radio when I was eight... I was born in 1946, so.... yeah, it was on the radio in 1952 or 1954, I think. There wasn't much of it, but it was there. And there was a lot of it by 1956 when I was 10, so it was happening. But it wasn't what influenced me the strongest.
Getting back to what you started off by saying, which is that we missed out on the choral, when you say choral are you referring to the vocal work you were doing with your family?
Well the fact that my brother was singing in this choral group and I would go to those concerts all the time and always go to their rehearsals and I love boys choir, it has its own sort of thing that happens, a very ethereal. So I've been haunted by that and I wanted to do something
When you were living in San Francisco did you go and see Chanticleer?
Oh yes of course, I saw them play, they're fabulous.
I wondered why you never did anything with them.
Well I always wanted to.
They want to do something with you.
Really? God I'd love to do stuff with them, they blew me away. I saw them at the Mission Dolores, I loved it so much. ...When I saw them they did only Gregorian Chant, it was two hours, it killed me, everybody that was there was transfixed, I've never seen anything like it, and they did such a good job. 'Cause I grew up Catholic, so Gregorian Chants are right up my alley. In fact I sing with I'm not very religious, I call myself a roaming Catholic or a recovering Catholic
I'm a Jaded Jew.
[Laughs] Well I could be Jewish before I could be Christian. But see Mexicans have a different kind of Christianity because
They're Catholic aren't they?
Well, they're really not. They're really pagans. They said, it was like, "Oh, you're gonna kill us if we're not Catholics? Okay, we're Catholics. You have a virgin? Okay, we have a virgin, too." The Virgin of Guadalupe, she is not a Christian, she is their major deity, she is a pagan goddess. They got her through, they had to. She's our favorite person around here, we like the Virgin Guadalupe, but she's an Aztec goddess, she's La Nina, she's the girl in the skirt of jade, it's her whole thing. I've got books on that, that's all fascinating, that history. It's a different kind of Catholicism around Mexico, Mexican Catholics... Even the Pope said, when he came to visit Mexico because you know the Pope wasn't even allowed to visit Mexico for a long time, they threw the Church out, that's what the revolution was all about, the first revolution, not their civil war, but the revolution against Europe, and they threw all the priests out but one of the things that the Pope said when he came to visit, he said that Mexico's really not, they're not Papists, he said they're Guadalupists. And he knows, he has no control over them, they do what they please. But there's this beautiful little chapel down the way that has an order of Benedictine nuns, and they still sing and chant, it's not Gregorian chant, it's modern chant, but I go and sing with them vespers, cause it's so nice, and it's a very female, it's completely written for female voice, and I love to sing with them, and there's this fabulous little enlightened order of very liberal-minded women down there.
Well one of the things that I had read in many of the interviews you had done was that you had always wanted to do a choral album. And Chanticleer will do it with you.
I may have to call them up and see what they've got. Because when I was in San Francisco I scratched around and found choirs that I could find, that I could work with.
The other one that's really lovely if you wanted to work with a female choir is Anonymous 4; they just do medieval chant music, and there's just four of them, based in New York, and if you want to talk about ethereal and heaven
You would do me a great service if you could put me in touch with them in some way or another, if they have recordings I could listen to.
Well here's what I've been doing now there are two things that are going to keep me up at night if I don't you know, I think of things, I'm 52 now, so I think of things that I'm going to take into my old age, cause I'm now in my second trimester of middle-age, the third trimester being in the sixties.
When does middle-age begin?
Forties, I think.
Like the age of 40?
That's considered middle-age. That's your first trimester of middle age.
I always thought 50. You're early middle-age.
Well because we don't like to mature here in this country, we like to stay being adolescents forever, but it's not really a good idea, I've discovered. But I'm a person who always wanted to be right at my age. Except when I was a kid I cheated forward a little bit so I could play in the clubs. But it's very important for me to not have my middle-age be a repeat of my youth, and my old age to not be a repeat of my middle-age. Whatever it is, there's blessings and there's disadvantages of all those things, and I want the genuine blessings. You have to take the real disadvantages if you're going to get the genuine blessings of each age, I think. You can't screw around with it too much. You certainly can't pretend. I never understood what the point is, but it seems to be important in this culture. I don't get it. But I know that there are certain things that I must do so that I won't be kept awake late at night when I'm in my sixties and my seventies saying I wish I'd done that, you know. And the two things that I really know will bother me is if I don't make a glass record, the other thing that I've been obsessed with are these glass instruments from the 18th century, I just love them. And there are so few people that can play them in the world, and I have one, a friend of mine who's one of the only world-class players of glass instruments.
Is this the person who played on Dedicated?
Yeah, Dennis James. And he played on the three albums that I made before that, too. He played on Winter Light and Feels Like Home. Oh, and I'm including the Trio record that I used. But you haven't heard the Trio record yet because we haven't released it yet. But I think the glass stuff that's on there was on Feels Like Home, anyway. So we're going to try to reassemble that record and get it out if we can. So at any rate, the glass thing I've just got to do. So Sony has asked me to produce a glass record for their Sony Classical label, I'm going to do that with Dennis. But I've decided that I can combine my choral interests and my glass interests and do a Christmas record and do ancient music all the way up to the present time. Because you can put a lot of titles on a Christmas record, cause you don't have to pay the publishing, because it's public domain.
You could then get guest appearances from different choirs.
It would just be great. That's exactly what I intend to do. I have local voices, I've found the voices. And it's a question of kind of laminating on vocals with glass and of course the glass is so perfect for Christmas music, it's just an exquisite sound, and I'm doing it this winter. I tried to do it last year and I was just too sick, I just couldn't do it. I have an auto-immune disease, so I don't work very much, an auto-immune thyroid disease, and it's really a pain in the ass.
I heard that you cancelled your tour last year.
It's the only time that I've ever cancelled performances.
I have not seen you live since 1984. I was in the front row of one of the Sydney performance of the Nelson Riddle concert. I took my Dad.
Well things are different now. I think I can sing all that material better. I think I'm singing better than I was then. But it'll only be for a few more years. I think I'm in my best decade right now for singing, and then after that it's bound to drop off. I watch my friends sing, some people sing through to their sixties, I know my heredity's good for it, but I know my desire to be out there performing is not, because I never liked performing, it's never what I wanted to do. I always wanted to do the music. So I've decided that I'll do whatever I want to do, and I've always tried not to have commercial considerations, but they were considered for me even more than I might have done on my own, and maybe that's a good thing and maybe not, but it was hard, I wasn't always real satisfied with the music I made. So now I really, you know I'm going to sing with Emmylou Harris because she's my singing sister and I want to make music with her. And she and I, that's what we want to do, we've earned the right to do what we, we've made what money we're going to make out there I think, and we're trying not to consider that, and hope that we have enough money to, you know, Emmy still works.
She came to Australia last year, she did the Wrecking Ball thing, and she played a nice small hall, and I had never seen her live, and she was exquisite, she was exquisite to look at, she was exquisite to listen to, she was like this angel just walked out on the stage and transfixed everybody.
And everything she does is like a prayer. I know, nobody realises. She plays to small audiences, and of course that's the best way to see her, but people don't realise. Her fans realise it, but on a worldwide level and her fans realise it on a worldwide level, but
I think Wrecking Ball took her to a new audience, because of the Daniel Lanois connection. It's interesting that she won the Grammy for contemporary folk, because I didn't think of it as a folk album, I thought of it as a very classy country album.
And I thought of it as a pure pop record. But she's the best. There's just nobody that sings like Emmy. There's nobody that sings like her. Her voice is like cracked crystal, it's just this beautiful light airy beautiful translucent thing that all of a sudden has this grit in it. There's nobody I like better to listen to. There's people I like as much, which are my favorite singers, which are Maria Callas, mainly my favorite singer, and Lola Beltran. But she's just a great singer. And I'm so happy when I get to sing with her, we have a great time, we completely see eye to eye, we can finish each other's sentences, we have completely similar ideas about... you know our sensibilities are very matched, and that makes it easy for us to record together. With Dolly it was more difficult because our sensibilities weren't matched, but we all had great admiration for each other's talent, and our voices were great together.
Well the work that you have done with Dolly, both vocally and the material of hers that you've recorded, it's beautiful.
She can sing that Appalachian stuff with complete authenticity because that's where she grew up. And I, when we're working together I stand back and let her do it, because that's what she does well, and I try to sing harmonies, which is what I'm good at, and it's harder for me to find leads to sing in that configuration. Which is fine with me. But with Emmy it's more of a duet. And we're going to sing... we'll probably use the McGarrigle sisters on some things.
I did want to ask you about the McGarrigles. See, I discovered a lot of artists through my love of your work, because I've been buying your records since the early '70s and so I discovered people like the McGarrigles and John David Souther through the fact that you were recording their work, and then I went and found their work. The Matapedia album, oh my god.
I love that. Do you like Dancer With A Bruised Knee? Have you ever listened to that one?
I haven't got that one.
You should listen to that. Matapedia's really good, too. Dancer With A Bruised Knee is a real killer, it's got some French stuff on it that... and the one that has "Heartbeats Accelerating" on it, that's got a beautiful song "St James Infirmary" and also the one about the little girl that gets killed down, she goes on a trip and they find her, like "poor Pinocchio," there's a line in there.
Their stuff is often very heartbreaking and it's not music you can just put on in the background. I have to actually stop and sit and listen, and that's not always easy.
The first time I ever heard the McGarrigle sisters song called "Talk To Me of Mendocino", I was in the car, and she sent that to me on a tape, and I picked it up at my manager's and I was driving home, and I had to pull over and stop, it made me cry. And I'm not... I don't cry that easily, music makes me cry, and it made me cry so much that I couldn't record it for years. I just had to wait until I thought I could walk past it.
When I first went to Mendocino I just kept hearing it over and over in my head.
What a beautiful song. And they just throw them out there and they're so funny, they're just as casual as they can be, and they're very bright, you know both those girls are just, they're brilliant girls, and they're very what they are, and they make no bones about it, and Anna, who's the shier of the two Kate's the more outgoing one when she gets in possession of a very strong emotion she simply rolls her eyes up like window shades and just slams her eyes shut. And that's when you know she's experiencing a strong emotion. Otherwise her face is just I wanna get into a card game with this girl. And Kate is more the other way. But I always know, I go oooh, and it's always the part where the dagger hits your heart, and then they just kind of go on, chatting away, and, just like you were chewing gum or something. And Emmy and I are just lying in shreds on the floor bleeding, it's just amazing. But we've been working together... Even when we talk on the phone, Emmy and I, you know she'll say, did you hear this latest song by Kate, and she'll start singing it on the phone and I'll sing harmony, and we'll sing over the phone, you know. So we'll do some stuff of theirs. We found a Leonard Cohen song, actually, that I think we might do with the McGarrigles, and that's going to be pretty. Also Emmy and the McGarrigles have written something together, and then there's some things, like this song "I Eat Dinner," do you know that one? We're thinking about doing "I Eat Dinner" it's so much our lives, you know!
I wondered, just talking about the Mexican, I've read often that the Mexican work you've been doing is really where your heart is.
It's my soul. My soul's there. But that's my father's side of the soul. My mother's side of my soul was the Nelson Riddle stuff. And I had to do them both in order to re-establish who I was, because rock and roll is so not who I was. You know, rock and roll is who my culture was that I was born into. But you're not always matched with your culture; sometimes you're matched with another century, and I think I'm a better match with a different... I've always loved the turn of the century, 1905, but I think I could also have maybe hung out in the 18th century a little better than I thought, once I started to study it I realised how much of me was really a part of that, too. I think you get genetic I'm not a believer in reincarnation, as much as I'm a believer in genetic memory, and I think you get a download of certain genetic information and it doesn't always come from your mother and father, lots of times it comes from a great grandparent. And I got so much from my grandparents that I know I did, I just did, my sensibilities are so much more matched to my grandparents than they were to my parents. But I think I got something from somebody way back there, too, musically, that keeps ringing a bell in my head.
But the glass music, and I can't for this day remember, because my memory's so bad, or God only knows what we were doing that day, but my memory is that I was with Lowell George and Van Dyke Parkes at a recording studio at Hollywood, a big one, where they were on a scoring stage and they were scoring a film, and that's when I first heard the glass armonica. But it could have been that I heard it some place and then I was talking to Lowell and Van Dyke about it, because they were both enthusiasts of glass music, too, and this would have been in the early '70s. So, I don't remember to this day where I first heard it, but I do remember the sound as being absolutely... I never heard music the same after that. It was one of those experiences that just changes your perception of everything. I felt the same way after I came back from Africa, I've been all over Africa and things aren't the same after you go there, it's just different, you know, cause that's one place where the wilderness really overwhelms civilization. You know it used to here in this country but it doesn't any more. But you go and see something like that and it changes your perceptions of everything. Or having lived through a war. Or having had a grave illness. But this was one of those musical transitions. And I searched for it always after that, I'd say, 'Do you know anybody that can play this?' cause I'd just kind of say it on my travels, and I wasn't on a track that would run me into a glass armonica, I was on a track that would run me into a guitar player. And we worked so much and at such a ferocious rate, and any little foray off course I was kind of corrected pretty fast.
Well in those days it was an album a year. An album, a tour, an album, a tour. I mean even today you are quite prolific in your output compared to most artists who think nothing of taking three to five years off between an album. Natalie Merchant's just finally put out another album and it's well over three years since Tigerlily.... Who knows when Alanis Morissette will put out a new album. Not that I necessarily want to hear it. But it's been three years since she had hers out. Whereas you're still putting them out every couple of years, something is coming out.
Well I feel like I've really slowed down, and it's very deliberate, and I almost felt kind of lazy when I was working, and like I wasn't doing enough. But you know we worked so hard, and when I look back on it I just see that we were like blurs, you know, our hair was sticking out. But at any rate, running around and rounding up glass music wasn't on the agenda, you know, so I wrote this song for a film called Secret Garden directed by Agnieszka Hollander, the music was written by a Polish guy, a really good composer, I just can't remember his name right now, I can't remember anything any more! But anyway, they had various people writing songs for this and the studio over here was really pressuring them to have like a formula sort of a hit song, and the guy who was producing it is a good friend of mine, and he Agnieszka is this Polish director, she makes European art films, she did Europa Europa, she did that film. I was writing this thing. They finally called up and said look, we've had three writers on this and we can't, she hates to have a pop song at the end because she thinks it trivialises her picture, and I had a conversation with her and I said look, give me an opportunity to try to write this out of something I can pull out of the soundtrack that's already written so that it sounds like the rest of the movie, and I'll try to put a song together out of this soundtrack. And I got my friend Eric Kaz and we sweated and slaved and we came up with a song called "Winter Light." And that's what they had. And she loved it, she was just thrilled. But the whole time we were doing it I was going, and I made the track in little layers and from scratch, and I kept saying 'God this song makes me want to have a glass armonica!" So we started searching and I said I've been procrastinating about finding a glass armonica all my life, I need to do it before I do, I need to do it, let's find it. Well the guy who runs the studio up in North California where we record all the time just happened to know this guy in Paolo Alto, at the Site up there where we record, and damned if he didn't find us this glass armonicist, and I was so thrilled. But we didn't get him in time to use it on the track for "Winter Light," cause we had to hurry it so that they could have it for their picture. We had three days to write it and record it, it was really writing under a deadline, but we just really did it. So it went off to the movie without any glass. But I put textures on ti that were the closest that I could come to generating them myself. And then we found the glass and then I used it on the rest of the record. And then I started using it just whenever I could cause I love it so much, but I'm fitting it into that mould, and what I want to do is a record that's made for glass, you know, so that it's a glass record instead of fitting it in.
But that glass music, boy, it just kills me, it's so beautiful. And you know what I like about it? I always say the future belongs to the small. You know the small will survive the year 2000. Because we've done everything so big, we have these bloated economies, our children are big, we've put growth hormones in the milk and it's in the, we grow our cattle really big and we grow the biggest ears of corn, and we grow great big tomatoes that don't taste like anything and we grow huge strawberries, and everything is big, these companies are multinational and they're huge, and everybody's doing a merger. And I truly believe that the little bank that only does banking and the person that makes a shoe, and the person that makes a sweatshirt, or whatever, does it small, and just makes enough to make a profit, is going to survive the economy in the future, I think all the rest of the stuff is going to collapse. And music has just gotten the sound is huge it used to be that rock and roll was Chuck Berry, and it was acoustic instruments, except for the guitar, because the guitar didn't make enough noise in the ensemble to come out above the piano and the sax and the drums and the bass, which were all acoustic, it was all string bass, originally with those early records, and it was piano and sax-driven, the saxes took the solos. So the guitar got an amplifier and then everybody heard Chuck Berry and went ooh, we like that, we gotta do more of that, so they got a bigger amplifier, and then they got greedy and they wanted to get into bigger spaces for concerts and we went into those arenas and the only thing you could hear was the guitar, and it was very mushy, but also you could hear the guitar that was playing last week, the concert that was in last week because this decay was so long that it was still rumbling along in the attic, you know. And it just wrecked the music. The music got huge, rock and roll turned into ROCK, it became big, and it's not pleasing to listen to. ...And it wasn't any fun any more.
See, the thing is, we stopped going to see each other when everybody got into the arenas; I used to go see every show that Jackson Browne did, I used to go see every show that Joni Mitchell did, I used to go see every show that James Taylor did, they'd play at the Troubadour. They'd play in there for two weeks or a week, you'd see every show including the night they did three on Saturday, you'd see the double show, they'd do two shows on week nights and three on Saturdays. And we'd see them all. So we really got to know each other's music really well. And as soon as they went to the arenas, unless you were on the double bill with them, maybe you'd stand in the back and watch them for a couple of times I watched all of Neil Young's shows when I toured with him, I always stayed and watched all of the show, I just loved it, and I watched it from the back and I couldn't hear it but I loved it and I still sing with him, because I learned his music. But he's the only arena artist I really learned cause I was on tour with him. The other ones I didn't go and park and that sea of people and go into those big arenas and listen to crappy sound, it just wasn't my piece of cake.
So glass music in that way is really the opposite of what we did in this century, because instead of being the thing that just blows into your face, is very aggressive, it lures you in and... glass music, as soon as I heard the armonica live, it was like somebody was playing angelic music in the attic and you thought you could hear it and you're not quite sure, and you think you're hearing something, it's like the old lady that spins in Sleeping Beauty, and Sleeping Beauty is drawn to this place in her attic where she must, it's part of her fate, she has to find it, and that's what I felt about the glass music, that it can't I suppose it could cut your finger, it wouldn't prick your finger, but I suppose it could cut your hand but you know it's there in the attic, it was in my brain somewhere and I kept hearing it, it was calling me calling me calling me. And it's the kind of music where if you even do it in a concert you have to light it with candles because electric light is too harsh to shine on it. It has to be a candle-lit concert, and it has to be in a place that's suitable for it that will enhance the sound. You don't want to amplify it, you just want to allow it to bloom in the appropriate space, so it would have to be in a place like the Mission Dolores, or a tiny tiny exclusive little place that was normally reserved for chamber music, a 300-seat hall as opposed to a 1200-seat hall. Because it does carry, there's in physics, I guess you would compare it to you know, in physics there's four forces in physics, there's gravity, there's electromagnetism, and there's the strong force and the weak force. And the strong force is what happens when you have an explosion, it goes "kwammo!" real fast with a lot of strength but it doesn't get out very far, dynamite only goes "kabooey!". But an atomic explosion is a good example of what the weak force is because even though there's a strong force explosion to start with, fall-out is really an example of the weak force, because it's the molecules that get set in motion and they start to fly out and maybe after 20 months they've only moved an inch, but in 20,000 years they've continued to move, and 20-60,000 years later they're way out there, so that in that way the weak force is really the strong force. And I think about glass music like that sometimes that the weak force is really the most seductive thing or it's the strongest thing or it's the most long-lasting thing, because the strong thing just blows you away and it just lasts for a second, you know.
Speaking of glass, one of the things I wanted to ask you was about the other Glass; I was interested in some of the projects you've worked on of other people's, like Philip Glass. And it seems to me with things like that, and doing Randy Newman's Faust, that while from their point of view you're probably doing them a huge favor, but I got the impression that from your point of view you were really doing it because there was this joy in doing something different.
Well you have to mark me down as a drooling slobbering Randy Newman fan. And I don't think Randy even likes vocal music. You know, I think he just got me because I have a wide enough range to sing his song. He could have gotten Jennifer Warnes just as easily, probably could do it better than I can, and there are a lot of singers out there that can sing his stuff, you have to have a really wide range, you have to understand his point of view. His stuff is really hard to sing because it has so many layers, and his writing is doing the commenting, is doing the 19 layers that's making a fool of the primary voice or, I don't know, showing that it's, or feeling sorry for it or whatever it is. But it's, that's how he casts me I think in his singing. But his stuff is just too complex for one singer. Randy's the only one that can really deliver it, it's so complicated...
Philip Glass I find to be a very interesting composer and one of the only modern composers that I would bother to listen to. I don't say that I play it around the house a lot. When I found out that he used to be a cab driver for a living it all made total sense because it's like "doodalidoodalidoodalidoodalidoodali," it's like when you drive really fast in the city in New York and you're driving really fast through Manhattan and all of a sudden you hit a bunch of traffic and it's just "Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm" for a really long time, and then as soon as there's an opening that you can close it's "doodalidoodalidoodalidoodali" fast then "Mmmmmmmmmmmmm" you know, so that's his music, it's very cab driver. And it's quite wonderful, but whenever I've met him and heard him I also wish he was composing for glass, I wish he'd written glass music [laughs] real glass music. But I loved working with him and I found, I grew to appreciate his music from learning to sing it. But it must have been very frustrating for him, because I don't read. And he writes stuff that is not singerly.
How did you do that?
His producer tried to teach it to me and took a long time cause it's hard. It's perversely unsingerly. And sometimes I think about that kind of music the same way that I think about some very modern ballet, that they're determined to use what hasn't already been used in classic ballet; in other words it's the steps that would be lying around on the rehearsal floor that have been discarded. So I think that about modern stuff a lot. But you know Philip's stuff really did seduce me finally. It put me in a trance when I was going to sing it, and it put me into a place, it got me into a Gregorian chant place. I felt that it was very valid. But it must have been hard for them. They were very nice to me, they really were. And they picked me as a non-reader, I mean they write stuff that hard and they get a non-reader...
But a lot of artists of your stature and working in the kind of areas that you'd been working in wouldn't have even bothered, and I always enjoyed the fact that you were always doing the unexpected, obviously to stimulate yourself more than to stimulate anyone else, perhaps.
But then I always wanted to produce a record for him, you know. And I would say let me produce a track, come on, I want to do this. But you know, he'd use synthesizers always, but I was the one who always wanted to laminate them onto real. I like his synth work, but I always wanted to laminate them onto these real sounds. I just can't help it.
Getting back to the jazz stuff, did you ever consider exploring more pure jazz than what you were doing with Nelson Riddle? I read that Betty Carter was one of the artists you admired; did you ever test your voice to see how far you could go down that path?
No, because I don't think I can authentically, that's not what I do, I'm a ballad singer, and I understand the rhythms to a degree, but they are a different kind of singer from me. They're more improvisatory singers, that's part and parcel of what they do, and what I do is, I like to respect the song that the composer wrote, because they're brilliantly well-crafted, and it was a lesson I learned from Ella Fitzgerald, really, cause she always will address it before she takes off on it, she'll always establish whatever the composer had in mind first. And I think that of course during the time that that work was being explored by all these singers, a lot of people just sang the text, and so by the '50s people were taking off on it like crazy, like Sarah Vaughan, in the '40s even, I mean they were just taking off on it like mad, they had to change it in order to put their stamp on it. But my purpose because then it had gotten sentenced to elevators for a long time, this music, and of course it's worthy of much more than that my intent was simply to re-establish it as written sing the ink, they call it and let it be evocative and let it evoke what your story is or what my story is, but not to rewrite it musically. And where I admire Sarah Vaughan and think she's wonderful, but in her era that was appropriate, in my era I had to do what I wanted to do, so, and I am a more folkie singer, you know.
Nelson Riddle died not long after completion of the Round Midnight trilogy. Was there any sense that his work with you was some kind of completion for him, did he indicate any such notion to you?
He liked it that he... Well first of all he was writing at the top of his talent when he wrote those charts, he never had a dip. You know, like some artists like Bob Dylan will be here now and then 30 years later he's down here, and then maybe he gets up here, but Nelson wrote like this [raises hand across top of head in straight line], like that you know. And he liked the fact that... I think the fact that rock and roll just drove all that stuff out of the water in such an evil way, and the only person that could survive it was Frank Sinatra cause he simply is the best pop singer we have had in this century and there's nobody even in his category. But even his best stuff didn't survive, even Sinatra would tell you that "My Way" was horrible and those later hits that he had, they certainly weren't his favorite, he never liked "My Way." It was a great song when it was still in French, but it didn't survive the American interpretation of that melody. So even his best stuff got driven out of him. But for Nelson, he was just so, all of that whole body of work, and all of that style of music was just so brutally cast aside by rock and roll, and I think he felt and he still worked of course, because he was the best too but they were so demoted and I think that he felt that he had reasserted that what they did was finer. He knew it, but it was more publicly declared, and I didn't do it as well as the people of his, you know I don't sing that material as well as Rosemary Clooney does. But I was able to establish it for myself.
You must have felt blessed getting that opportunity to do that with him before he went.
I remember waking up in the morning the morning that he was going to come over and we were going to start working on the arrangements for What's New. He didn't live very far from me in Brentwood. And I remember waking up at about nine o'clock in the morning in my bed, and just going, what am I going to do today? You know, that first minute you come to consciousness. And I thought to myself, Nelson Riddle is coming to my house today, we're going to sit down at the piano, and we're going to work out an arrangement for "What'll I Do?" which I consider to be one of the exquisitely perfect songs ever written. And I'd never had a chance to sing it, and I was going to actually get to sing it that morning, that was going to be what I did that morning. And I've never had a better feeling waking up, ever, about anything that I've ever done, was the fact that Nelson was going to come over. And Nelson used to tell me stories about Rosemary Clooney, cause he'd had a relationship with her and that was like what we shared. And after he died Rosemary wrote me a note and that's how Rosemary and I became friends. And I wrote back and said, I can't wait to talk to you! Because Nelson had told me lots and lots of things about how he felt about her. I just needed to tell them to her, you know, she just needed to know them, too. Cause he really adored her, I think she was the love of his life. But working with him was just such a privilege, and I really felt way out of my league but I just decided that it was a chance that was thrown my way and I'd be an idiot not to take advantage of it.
From the perspective of somebody who was a fan of yours and very open-minded musically, that was my main introduction to that music, What's New. It came out, a new Linda Ronstadt album, and it was played on Top 40 radio in Australia because you were still a Top 40 artist. And when I went and saw you do that concert, because I hadn't seen Rosemary or Frank or any of those artists, to me ti wasn't about , Oh is she doing this as well as everyone else, it was like, wow, what a revelation, how wonderful she's singing this music and how wonderful I'm learning all these songs.
Well, and I can do them better now, I really can. Going on the road with him and taking that music on the road... but when I met Rosemary and I started to sing with Rosemary, that's when I really started refining, because her diction I'd always had good diction for rock and roll, but boy, when I listened to her sing, I went man, my diction sucks. And that's what I've been working on since I met her. It's better, I've improved it, and that's gratifying. I mean, "Lush Life" is one of those songs, I sing it every chance I get, and every single time I sing it I think it's a privilege, and I think okay, I'm going to work on one more little aspect of this to try to develop and improve it. It's just one of those really profound songs, it's a whole lifetime of work just to sing that song. And that's okay with me. I didn't sing it that well on the record, although the chart was perfection. But I can sing it better now so that makes me feel good.
I'd love to hear you sing all that stuff again.
Well I do it from time to time. I'm going to go to New Orleans to do it with just piano; I've finally gotten the nerve to try to sing it just with piano now, and I did this little Mother's Day concert here, it was just the piano and it was really fun in a little hall. Before I wouldn't have thought I'd ever have the nerve just to get up on stage with a piano, it's hard to do, it's being very exposed, but I felt like the music was sturdy enough, so.. It's interesting to me to try to get smaller and smaller, I really believe in it, I just think it's what we should do. I want to do the opposite of everything I've done.
It's just so difficult when you are an artist of a certain stature and you have so many people who want to see you and you want to play in a hall where only that many people can see you and it becomes difficult to cater to the demand.
Well I want to figure out a way we can play 10 days in that hall, you know that's what I'd like to do. But the cost, it's the cost. It costs a lot of money to put on a show like that in such a tiny place, you can hardly recoup the cost. Because I have to put something into the show, even if it's just me and some singers and the piano, it still has to be lit and you have to charge a pretty high ticket for that if you play that small. You know I'm talking about just to clear a profit, I'm not talking about making trillions of money, because that's not even a consideration any more. But you know when you're talking about a small place... The only way we can make tons of money is by going into an arena, and I just hate it, I hate it. To play with an orchestra it demands that, because the orchestra costs a fortune.
When I saw you in Sydney with Nelson and his orchestra it was a 3,000 seater and I was in the front row so it was fine. When I saw you in Sydney in 1979 with the band with Waddy and the guys doing the Living in the USA tour you were playing to 40,000 people in an open stadium and I was reasonably close to the front, but it's not the way I would have liked to hear you play even that material.
Was I wearing those weird fishnet stockings and dressed like a hooker? [giggles]
I don't know about the hooker part. No, you weren't wearing fishnets, you were wearing I took snapshots on my little 110 camera and you were wearing black... it was during the Olivia Newton-John Grease days so everyone was wearing black lycra leggings, and you were wearing that and a little off-the-shoulder top thing, your hair was all short and shaggy, and it was the rock and roll thing. And it was the first time you'd come to Australia, and all your fans were there. Thousands and thousands. I enjoyed seeing you more with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra because it was more intimate. But I would love to see you at the Troubadour.
Yeah! I'd rather play the Troubadour!
I think you should sneak into LA and just book a few nights at the Troubadour, and they'll sell out overnight, and just enjoy it, play to 300 people a night, and do the material...
It's hard to afford it. You see the problem is the weeks of preparation, and you have to pay for that, you have to pay people to rehearse and stuff like that. It's very hard. We've been trying to cost out doing a show here for 10 days or maybe doing a place like the Wiltern, that's a good size.
That's where Don Henley put on his Stormy Weather benefit with all those women singer, like Natalie Cole and Sheryl Crow singing standards. I wondered why you weren't on the bill.
No, they know not to call me. I don't want to travel, I don't want to work mainly, but if I did I would work in a small place. But I don't want to be on a show with a million other people, I just don't.
Unless it's a benefit like Nicolette's.
She was a good friend, and that was, I had to do that. But man, I didn't want to go.
I spoke to people who went to that concert who told me that when you came out and sang their jaws just dropped, the whole hall.
Well see again the problem is when I'm not singing and I hadn't been singing really since June before that, so when I'm not singing regularly I just don't feel that I can do my best.
People said you were stunning. Stunning.
Well I only had to sing a few sings so that was good.
It must have been such an emotional night.
It was hard, I was very close to Nicci. We used to be roommates, and her child's my god-daughter. There was one time when Elsie was sitting in the wings and the light hit her face and it just picked up the angles in her face that are Nicolette's. Cause Elsie's face is Nicci's face right here, in the middle, and this part around here is it's Nicci's face and Russ's head. And it just showed the face part and it was Nicci, and it was the weirdest thing to see her there. And Nicci was devoted to Elsie, I mean, she was a, she didn't have any help to help her, she was home with her, and it was just Elsie and Nicci mostly, because Russ is on the road all the time, and she was really devoted to that little girl. Ah, it was just the saddest thing, I can't imagine that happening.
Are there any other plans to do a follow-up to Dedicated to the One I Love? I get the feeling with that that it could be an eternal project, you could constantly be re-inventing songs in that style.
Again what I loved about that was the opposite of how it's usually sung. It's usually sung [belts out in song]: "This is dedicated" you know, and to sing it really in a whisper
I mean the whole album.
I love that idea. It was really disciplined to have to whisper it, because I kept wanting to sing, but I kept not doing it. But the reason I'd love to have another one of those is because my children demand it nightly and that's what they want to hear, and I'd love to hear some different songs.
Isn't that lovely that they want to hear your stuff?
Well they like that record, it makes them sleepy. They know it's me but I don't know how they quite connect that it's me.
You made it obviously as a children's record, but I think adults can relate to it on other levels as well. It's just really nice for something soft and soothing at the end of the day.
Oddly enough the letters that I've gotten is that it's a record that's used [pauses and lowers voice] when people are dying. I've gotten these amazing letters, but a lot of people I know, even people I've known personally, that that's been something for them to ride out on. It was certainly not my intention, but it's interesting what happens. I only allowed sound on it that did certain things to my brain, I call it brain-tinkling, I think it changes your brainwaves but it kind of trances you in a way where your eyes go out of focus and you're starting to fall asleep. And if it didn't make my eyes go out of focus I would take it off so I would only allow those sounds. And the harp does that and the flute did that, and that tone of voice and that texture, that's all I used. So my children get dazed, that's what they go to sleep to. I have that and I have two other records that I use, but that's the one they want. But there are some beautiful beautiful lullabies that were written to be lullabies that do that, too, that do that just in the writing. There's a real favorite of mine that's written in Portuguese, and there's some in Spanish that are just gorgeous, and I'd love to do that at some point with a harp, and I may well do it, you know. Cause harp is what you need to go to sleep. It worked for King David and it works for us. Again these things are not arbitrary, there are biological reasons for these things to happen, and the biological stuff that comes out of glass is really something but it's subtle. But it's there, like I said, it's like the weak force. So I'm just so fascinated with it. And I love to do I call it sound laminates but I love to, the glass is a very flattering frequency, obviously for voice, it also is really terrific with the viola to layer it and it's really good with flute, and what I've been doing with it is using five passes of the glass, synchronous passes where they're basically playing the same thing, and then two or three passes of viola or the flute playing the same thing, and then the vocal, and then doing them triple laminating them on together as three different textures that are already in themselves layered, and it makes an incredible sound, it becomes a hybrid, but it's really beautiful sound. So I wanted to do a lot of that on this glass record and on my Christmas record.
After Dedicated To The One I Love, which I believe you won a Grammy for We Ran seems like quite an about-face; you've returned to a style you're probably best-known for, yet for anyone following your career closely, it might appear to be the least expected move. How did this project come about? What motivated you to do a rock album again?
What I set out to do was a rock and roll record that was more footed in the period between 1948 and 1954 or 1956. And I was going to have it be the original rock and roll thing when it just crawled out from saloon songs and crawled out from doo-wop and it was sax-driven and it was acoustic-based and the only electric things on it were going to be two New Orleans thing on there, "Ruler of My Heart" and "Cry til My Tears Run Dry". So those were going to be the electric things and everything else was going to be acoustic. But with that sax player who I played with on the Nelson things, is THE guy for 1958 rock and roll, 1956 rock and roll. He was the doo-wop guy and he was the guy you got, he was on all those early rock and roll records, every single one of them, was Plas [Johnson], and he defined that style, and I set out to make a record with Plas and some other guys, you know. And I started recording, but I was too sick. I have this auto-immune disease and I just was a wreck. And my kids were a lot younger then, too, my little boy was three, he was two, he just turned three maybe. So I was just crawling around on my hands and knees, and it was just too hard for me, I just couldn't do it. And I had already started recording and I had studio time booked that I was going to eat and I was just in a panic and I was just going to lose this huge amount of studio time and money so I said, have to fix this. So I just called my friend Glyn Johns, I just called him out of the blue. Cause I'd known him for years, and he was literally the only person that I could think of that I already knew, whose work I admired, that I could just call and say, can you come and save my bacon out here, I'm really in a lot of trouble.
So you were producing yourself at the time?
Yeah. And George wasn't able to work on it with me, George had to do something else, so I was really sort of doing it by myself, and it was really hard and I was just too sick. So I called Glyn and I said, look, I need some help here. And we talked and we discussed it, and having been a producer myself and having produced Jimmy's stuff, Jimmy Webb's stuff, and having produced Aaron's stuff, and having produced David Lindley's stuff he's my cousin, incidentally, I don't know if you know that I know enough about what it's like to be on that side of the glass with the artist facing you going make it right, you know, so I thought, I could have gotten really... I'd never worked with Glyn before, I'd heard he kind of has a tendency to kind of take over and I never would have been able to work with someone like him before but... I was really surprised at quite how much he did take over, but I decided to let him, I mean that was after all why I hired him, and I decided to just let him go with his instincts about what musicians to bring, because I thought one of the things he could bring to this project was something I'd never worked with before, like Andy Fairweather Low, and Bernie of course is an old pal of mine and Glyn always works with Bernie, and then the Petty guys, Glyn has worked with a lot, but Petty's my favorite band, see, they're my favorite rock and roll band, that's it for me, I think they're the best rock and roll band. So that was great that he got those guys involved.
And so it became an electric album.
Yeah. And he's a guitar guy, I mean Glyn is Mr Guitar. The funniest thing is Randy Newman called me up and asked me to produce a track for him and I said, Randy why are you asking me to do this, you're so good at this, why aren't you doing your own? And he said, well I think you understand bass and guitars better than I do. And the day before I've been long-distance on the phone to Glyn saying, you know Glyn I think you understand bass and guitars better than I do. And I said that's what I just said to Glyn, I don't know. And in the end I didn't do this track with Randy, I just don't think I could have served him properly. But it was so funny.
Well when you decided you needed help, why did you choose Glyn? All his credits listed here, such as Stevie Nicks and Eric Clapton and The Stones. When I think of Glyn Johns I think of the early Eagles albums, and I found that ironic that you'd gone back to a producer who'd produced those first couple of Eagles albums, and they were the band that had stemmed from your backing group. So why did you choose him when you had to ring somebody?
Because he was a pal and because as a producer I admire his productions. Maybe part of me wanted to really figure out how he miked his drums, you know, learn it first hand. I learned how to do those multi track vocal recordings from Brian Wilson, I always thought they were doubled, well they're not, they're quintupled, and they're balanced just a certain way and I learned it from Brian first-hand by recording with him. But it's really guy music. Glyn, you know, I just really admire him, he does things completely the opposite from the way that I do them. I craft things, I sweat over them, I take a long time, he just records them and says get on with it, and some of me doesn't agree with that. I'm a better singer when I have time with my vocals. It takes me that to get loose, I can be more spontaneous in an overdub than I ever am when I'm singing live, because I have to watch out what I sing when I'm singing live in case we use that track. And also I get tired because you have to sing all day long. "We Ran" is a live vocal and it should have been re-recorded. But I was tired by the time I got to that, I'd been singing all day long and my voice was worn out, and it also wasn't recorded very well, and Glyn was the first person to admit that, but the front of it was so good we didn't want to replace it, the rest of it should have been replaced, but we couldn't match the sound because his engineer wasn't used to our vocal set-up the way that we had it in the studio, and it didn't get to tape right, so there are those things that happened. But it still came out a pretty good vocal, but it should have been better recorded, and the second verse on I should have re-done, I should have re-done the ending. I thought of so many things I could have done after I listened to it, but as it was I was just getting through it and tracking, we were tracking and I'd never worked with Glyn professionally before and I didn't want to complain and have him think I was whiner, cause I am a whiner.
But don't you earn the right to be pedantic when you've been in the business so long and have been so successful?
Well, but where you get in trouble is where you don't know what you're talking about... But I just didn't want to bother him. I was really sick and I was sicker than I wanted him to know, because I was afraid if he knew how sick I was that he wouldn't want to do it. And I felt like it was my job to show up and get it done, and not make excuses, and so I did. And also as a fellow producer I didn't want to get in his way. I just decided to let go of the control and let his ideas come out. And the only place that I actually of course the two New Orleans tracks were me and George, even though Peter was involved in the production but they were basically me and George, so they're our production, so I didn't need to take credit for it just cause it got too complicated after a while and I just thought my picture's on the front, I'm not going to do it, but a lot of it I recorded by myself, neither George nor Peter were there at the time, but that was before Glyn came on board, we finished those tracks. And then the things I did with Waddy I did with Waddy, but, and also George's fingerprints are all over one of those Waddy Wachtel tracks, "I Go To Pieces" is really George's concept sound-wise, but he didn't take credit for that because Glyn mixed it, you know what I mean, it gets complicated. The only one that I actually took the bull by the horns and sort of, was "Give Me A Reason". I just took that over. I needed to, because it was a Caribbean rhythm and it was going off into a blues direction and it wasn't appropriate. But otherwise I just let Glyn rock, and he did a great job. That Bruce Springsteen song is pure Glyn, it was his concept. See, he's not like me, I sing arrangements, I sing notes for people, I clap rhythms, I sing notes, I play parts on the emulator for the strings, very controlled all the way through the arrangement. He doesn't. He casts the players, and he lets them blow, but he pushes them in certain directions. But that whole thing where it was just that featherlight little track with that organ thing and just that little rhythm pulse which he had Carlos do by slapping his chest, it was all Glyn, he just thought that stuff and I thought it was wonderful.
Does Carlos have a credit?
Oh not my baby Carlos! My Carlos is named after that Carlos. That Carlos unfortunately died just recently, he was the best there is, he was a great drummer, but he was there
Carlos Vega died?
Yeah, he did.
Cause I also noticed on "Ruler of My Heart" that Don Grolnick was playing piano so you must have recorded that quite early on, and he must have died very soon after that.
He died several years after that.
So you recorded that track quite a while ago?
Oh it was a long time ago. I recorded it while I was recording Aaron Neville's record. "Cry Til My Tears Run Dry" I recorded at The Site, I actually produced that by myself but I don't know who I gave credit for that, I gave George credit for it, he mixed it, I cut the track by myself.
Cause the piano on "Ruler of My Heart" is very distinctive.
That's some of Don's best work.
And when I was listening to it I wondered if earlier on he had also been an influence when you were going into the jazz stuff.
No. Well, we got Don to do it because Don's such a great player. But that was my own... Cause Don likes to play modern jazz, he was a very modern jazz player, he wasn't that. But he could play it very well.
There have been comparisons with this record to your work in the mid to late 70s, and the album this most recalls for me is Hasten Down The Wind, but does that in itself annoy you, that people just have to make comparisons, that when you have had a long and productive career it's harder for each new piece of work to be accepted as a completely new and original and separate entity?
First of all I can't remember what's on Hasten Down The Wind cause I haven't listened to it since I made it, and second of all, I think the stuff I did with Glyn is way more raw and spontaneous than any of the stuff I did with Peter. But that's just Glyn's style and approach. I think the similarity is that it's more hard driving, I think there the similarity ends. There was plenty of that kind of stuff even on Feels Like Home and Winter Light. I would compare them more to Feels Like Home and Winter Light than I would to those records.
I find We Ran very much an amalgamation of a lot of the stuff you'd been doing until now; I think everything you do is obviously
I would compare that more to "The Waiting" than I would to stuff I did back in the '70s. But, you know, I'm just not the person to ask.
Does it annoy you that people even want to make those comparisons?
Well I would. I would. I mean, you know it's just natural for people to try. I don't remember how that stuff sounds on record.
You've never listened to that stuff since you recorded it?
Never. I never listen to it. The only record I've ever listened to after the fact was this baby record that I made because my kids put it on every night. And my little girl actually plays a part on it, I don't know if you know this but she plays her pacifier. She did that for us. [Laughs] I have a picture of her recording and it's so cute, we had to stand her up on a little stool, and she took it very seriously.
Did she know what she was doing? Does she know now when she listens?
Yeah we told her, we had the earphones for her so she could hear it. And then my son was making all this, we gave him earphones and he could hear the echo, and so he still thinks of the record as the echo noise. He was only little, he was only two when we did it.
Well I love the album. I think it's a beautiful collection of songs with so many lovely moments. I found the Springsteen and Dylan choices really inspired. Have they heard the tracks and have you had any feedback from either of them?
No. I usually don't get feedback. The only, the record that I got feedback on was Winter Light, I got lots of feedback from the writers, I got letters from Burt Bacharach.
What did he think of your "Anyone Who Had A Heart"? Cause that's my favorite cover of an older song that you've ever done.
He loved it. He wrote to me. See to me, I went back to gritty singing for that record, so to me I would compare that more... and of course I'm more familiar with that record because I produced it and I heard it more and it's more recent.
But also I got letters from... I got a letter from the guy who wrote "We Will Rock You" saying that
I was going to ask, had you heard from Brian May!
He told me that that was what he originally had in mind, that he thought of it as a lullaby, his concept of it was as a lullaby. When I heard the lyrics... because you see I used to sing to my son, I used to sit in that rocking chair and sing "we will we will rock you" I would sing, and I would rock right in that rhythm, and it was perfect, and I don't know why I sang that, it was just what I sang for him, and I also sang a bunch of Beach Boys songs, you know, "Surfer Girl" I used to sing, cause it was the right rhythm for the rocking chair. And that's where the concept for the record came from. But I'd never listened to the lyrics of it, I'd never bothered, it was just a song I heard on the radio, I knew the chorus sort of because it had filtered in by osmosis. I mean that's a great band, but you know... that's Queen, right? They're fabulous, you know, they're fabulous. But I just knew, I just kind of knew it by osmosis like everybody else does. And so I asked the publishing company to send the lyric, and man when I read the lyric I went, wow! Because I'd also determined not to change any of the lyrics, that that would be too cloying if I did, and that everything that I recorded... Cause I was going to do "Don't Worry Baby", you know that Beach Boys song? Cause I also used to sing that to Carlos. But the lyrics just wouldn't have worked.
"In My Room" was much
"In My Room" was perfect. I still have yet to get that child into his own room. His bed is there, and he sleeps in my bed, now Mary sleeps in his bed and Carlos sleeps in my bed.
Carlos showed me his bed and told me there used to be a buffalo on it.
Did he show you his bed? He's very proud of it. But he doesn't sleep in it. He sleeps in my bed.
So Brian May wrote to you.
He did, and I was so pleased, you know. I've never gotten letters from writers, I mean that just doesn't happen.
Because of the different producers on the album I find it quite a textured album, and one of the criticisms you seemed to get in the '70s was that Peter's work with you was predictable and flat, which I didn't agree with, but that was some of the stuff that I was reading. The only other album that I can think of that had several different producers on different tracks was Don't Cry Now but that was for completely different reasons because of all the relationships going on in your life at the time
My life in chaos, yeah.
What I'm trying to say is for all the different producers and the different time line, because you were obviously recording these tracks at different times, it comes across as very relaxed and comfortable and flowing and self assured. Is that just a reflection of your life now and the way you're feeling about yourself?
There just wasn't any other choice, you know, we just had to do it like that. George feels to this day and so does Glyn I think, that the New Orleans tracks that we did together really don't belong on this record, that they're stylistically so different, but I like the way that they worked in the sequence finally as period pieces. "Cry Til My Tears Run Dry" is kind of lumped in with that Bob Dylan song and it's a very '60s sounding thing. I set out to do a very '60s-sounding song and I recorded it exactly that way, I've got guitar textures that came right out of "A Man and a Woman," you know, it's really that era. So I feel good about it. But it's a bit of a cringe for Glyn and for George I think. And of course the sound on the vocal is very echoey, and the sound on stuff I do with Glyn is bone dry, so it's very different, you know.
The Dylan song is a song I wanted to do forever. I just kept recording, I just recorded it on every project. I started recording it for Cry Like A Rainstorm, and I just kept going, and I finally said to Glyn, you know, I'm going to get this song. And I always tried to do it very arty, my concept of that song was going to be to do it the way Ry Cooder does the soundtrack for a movie. Did you ever hear Paris, Texas or any of those movies? Well it's just kind of wry and it's very raw and it's kind of very free form, very rabado, kind of just textures going on, I'd basically be singing it kind of a cappella and there'd be textures going on and it was going to be very arty and I kept trying to do it and falling on my face. [Laughs] It just came out hopeless, it didn't work at all. Finally I said to Glyn, I kind of want to do this, see if you can help me get it right. Oh, it's a Bob Dylan song, no problem! Why is it so hard? Piece of cake! And I'm going well I'm trying to do this arty thing to it and he'd go, roll his eyes, so he said, I've got the guys to do Bob Dylan, so he got the Petty guys and of course they went, oh Bob Dylan, easy. They love Bob Dylan. Doesn't get any better than this, they'd say. So I just had to sing it that way and it was fine. I said if I don't put it on this record and use this track I'll have to try it for my next project, but my next project is a Christmas record, and it's got this reference to Easter [laughs], and it'd be hard to do it. But the running joke of the album was that if I didn't get it on that one I was going to put it onto the Christmas record, but I love the track he got. I wish that I'd sung it a little better now, because when I finally sang it on the record I was kind of, I still had one foot in the arty world and the other foot in the singing a little bit harder. And if I had it to do over again I'd be freer with the vocal. But that's hindsight, you know.
My favorite track is "Damage" which I think is totally stunning.
Oh I'm glad.
And "Ruler of My Heart"
"Ruler of My Heart"'s my favorite.
And "Heartbreak Kind" I love because it's like you're really pulling back on that one and your voice is so even with Bernie's.
It's a good track. That's what Glyn does well, that's a really good track. It wasn't much for me to sing, of course.
Compared to something like "Damage" which is very Linda Ronstadt.
That's more of a vocal. Of Waddy's stuff I love "I Fall To Pieces," that one kills me.
But "Heartbreak Kind" is like you're holding the reins and you're sitting back on the horse and you're just kind of kicking back and cruising along and I just got into it.
It's a good track. Well that's a real good example of what Glyn does, he can get that rhythm track sound like nobody else can. It's 100% organic, it's absolutely spontaneous and it's pure Glyn Johns.
Where did you find it though? Sometimes you find these songs by unknown writers and I think, where does she find this stuff?
Emmy's ex-husband wrote it. Paul Kennerly. It was a song we considered for the Trio record a couple of times, it really wasn't appropriate for the Trio record.
So you're happy with the album basically?
I guess. You know, I don't listen to it.
Because it is going to be the one where Linda Ronstadt returns to rock, more so than Feels Like Home which I heard more as a country album.
Well you see Feels Like Home started out to be the Trio record, and then it became a country record and then it became something else, and then they released it as a pop record.
I used to play "Walk On" as the radio track.
Yeah, that's right, that was very country, wasn't it. Cause I did "The Waiting" as a bluegrass sort of acoustic thing to start with and then it came... I'm just trying to remember the arrangements....
Okay, I want to ask you about some of the songwriters you've worked with. I want to actually ask you about your own songwriting, because you talked about the writing of "Winter Light" and I always thought "Try Me Again" was a great piece of work, totally heart wrenching stuff. But your songwriting credits have been so rare.
I just don't do it. I just don't sit down and put pen to paper, it just doesn't happen. I write a letter occasionally. "Try Me Again" came out in one piece, it wasn't anything I could, I didn't craft it, and I didn't try to write it.
Is that something you'd done, you were doing drive-bys?
I drove and it wrote itself, and I wrote it down as I was driving and I needed a bridge and I actually got down in my living room with a guitar and tried to write a bridge and couldn't. Next day I got in the car and there was the bridge. I just wrote it down. But I couldn't play the chords on the guitar so I had Andrew play the piano, but he didn't write any of the song, he just played the bridge for me.
But he got the songwriting credit with you.
Yeah, that was just the custom in those days.
I wondered if it was a conscious choice to focus on being a singer and an interpreter rather than a storyteller of your own stories.
It wasn't a choice, it just is what I am. I'm a singer not a composer, you know I think they're two very different gifts and I think that it's unusual that the 70s was such a singer/songwriter market, in the '50s nobody ever would have commented on that, I mean nobody every commented that Ella Fitzgerald wasn't a writer, for instance.
Nobody comments that Barbra Streisand's not a writer either. It's just probably the community of musicians that you came from.
Right. I was immersed in that community, but that was an unusual bubble I think.
But you drew off their work, anyway.
Yeah, it was an unusual thing. And a lot of singers came to writing, like Bonnie's writing stuff now, but she never wrote before, but she's come to writing stuff now, and that's really fabulous. Emmy's writing Emmy always wrote well, but she wrote infrequently. But man, she wrote some great stuff for this new record.
When you're a beautiful singer and you have access to any work you want
Yeah, why limit yourself?
I just connected with "Try Me Again," that's one of my favorite tracks from Hasten Down The Wind, and
I think it's a pretty well-written song.
And I though, wow, if she can do that, why doesn't she do it again?
I don't know, I've often thought, why don't I? I think it's because I don't play an instrument. I don't play any instruments very well. I'm not a very good guitar player and I'm not much of a piano player. If I had sat down and sort of worked on that I probably would have written more.
Talk to me a little bit about Jimmy Webb because I've read that you feel that he's the greatest songwriter of the second half of the 20th century.
I do. I think he and Randy are the guys. I like Paul Simon.
Jimmy came out to Australia last year with the Ten Easy Pieces tour and he did the little clubs.
Did he? Wasn't that a great record? I think it's a better record than the one I produced for him, I hate to say it but I do. It's fabulous.
I said to him, listen, I love everything that Linda' ever recorded of yours, but most of it had always been recorded by someone else previously. Who recorded "I Keep It Hid"?
And he said, "Oh no-one ever recorded that, she found that in a bunch of demo tapes that I had in my basement."
I got it from Ray Charles.
Why didn't he tell me that? He said no-one had ever recorded it and that you'd discovered it. Cause it's like dated 1967.
He was probably drunk. He might have genuinely thought that too. I mean, "Adios" I found in a bunch of demos, that had never been recorded. And "Adios" was another one of those songs like "Talk to me of Mendocino" where I could not listen to it without crying and could not dare try to sing it. And it just kills me to this day, that's a great song. That Jimmy, he just kills you.
Well "I Keep It Hid" is my favorite of all the Jimmy Webb songs that you've done.
I just love it. And I didn't get a great track of that.
You don't think so?
Cause you know Russ was supposed to play on that, and we were working on it the night before, and then he had to leave town, so actually I think Carlos played on that and he didn't feel that song as well as Russ did. If we'd had Russ we would have nailed it, but that was just not, we didn't get a good track on that. I can really do that much better now live, it's much much better live. That's a great song, though.
And I really got the feeling that that was something you were really singing from the heart, that you had probably had that experience.
All of them I do. I mean it's always about something that's just happened, it's just not always as literally that thing. Although that was. A song like "Round Midnight" for example, cause I like to read, and I was reading a book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by this Czech author, and it was about the Prague Spring, you know, the tanks rolling into Prague, and what that did to that culture and what that did to their community and what that did to their relationships and it just blew me away this book, and I was reading it I always have something to read when I'm recording because you're always standing out there while someone's tuning, and I can't be standing bored, so I read while they're tuning, I'm standing there waiting to sing. I mean most of the time I'm on the other side of the glass listening anyway so I don't read then, but I read during the takes because there's so much time in between and that's what "Round Midnight" really was about, it was about that feeling that I was getting from that book. But it might be about something that happened to somebody else that I just heard about, or I heard about five years ago, but it's always about something very, it always has very exact applications to me when I'm recording it, they're just not always, it's not always literally what you think it might be.
Are you still delving into the Jimmy Webb archives to see what other amazing pieces he's got?
[Nodding] Oh he's got a new song that he wrote, god it's called I cut a track for it for this record but it didn't fit and I didn't get a good enough track.
Cause it's one of the first things that you've done... Well, I guess you didn't have any Jimmy Webb on Feels Like Home, either, did you?
No, there isn't one of his songs on there.
Ever since the early '80s there had to be at least one Jimmy Webb.
That was one of the things that was wrong with Feels Like Home is that I didn't have one of Jimmy's songs on, I tried to get one on. What is the new song called? It's called... boy it's awful when you get old and you can't remember anything. It's just terrible, my brain has gone. I can't remember the title. It'll come around to me in a moment, I'm sure. I remember everything about it, but I can't... Oh, I know why, because I was going to change the title to "Breath After Breath." The title wasn't decided yet. I think he calls it "Breath After Breath" or he calls it "Is There Love After You" but the lyric is, "Is there life after death, is there breath after breath, is there love after you." Oh, it's a great song, it's as good as Jimmy's ever written.
He's a great raconteur as well. Did you see him do the Ten Easy Pieces concert?
Yes, isn't he a great storyteller? It's just like having him in the living room, it really is. He kills me. Jimmy's just the best. The best.
What about Karla Bonoff?
Well Karla's still writing stuff, I see her from time to time.
I'm more interested in your feelings about the work you've done of hers and her talents.
Oh she's a wonderful writer, I love Karla's stuff. She's more of a, she works hard on her songs. She's more of an off-the-cuff writer than Jimmy is.
She and the McGarrigles seem to be the only female songwriters whose work you've drawn on consistently. I mean, there's the odd Tracy Nelson or something like that but you largely record
There's so many good girl writers around, too. Emmy's the one that knows the good female songwriters. Like this girl...um... I can't remember either of their names, there's two really good ones...
How about Gillian Welch?
That's one I was trying to think of. We're working on one of her songs for this record, I don't know if it's going to be on there. There was a song we tried to include on the Trio record, written by her, but then Dolly didn't quite get it. And Emmy sings her stuff great. But I love Gillian Welch, I love the way she sings her own stuff. And then there's another singer, what's her name, Patti Griffin? We're going to do one of her things on this new record, I just love her stuff.
There are so many female singer /songwriters around at the moment.
Chrissie Hynde, ooh, she's fabulous. Who else is good? There's good people out there. I like Sinead O'Connor.
Oh man, I think she is the voice of the century.
I really do. I just think, I just don't think there is anybody that can quite do what she does in that way that she does it. I haven't listened to her albums that much. I think "Nothing Compares To You" is one of the great pop vocals of all time, though. If I had to rate vocals in the second half of the century, Sinead's would be one or two, I think. She's just great. She's out there, I saw her sing one time and I was just so blown away I couldn't even believe it. I mean she certainly is... I put her down as a person with panic attacks, that's what I figure, that she's very scared, and I think maturity will help her, because she's a great singer, just one of the best singers I've ever heard. And she can write, too, I think. She writes pretty well. Emmy and I are going to do one of her songs on this new record.
**[Here the tape recorded failed to record but I recall the following:]
On JD Souther and why she doesn't record his material any more.
It was just that I moved off in different directions with Nelson Riddle and jazz and Mexican and Spanish.... He still sends me songs... [Has no particular feelings or recollection of "Faithless Love"; couldn't even recall what album it was on. Agreed that "Prisoner in Disguise" was a good track. Talked bout how JD turned her on to Frank Sinatra and how while everyone else thought it was totally uncool to listen to that music, she and JD would sit at home and really get into that material.]
On Jackson Browne and why she has never recorded any more of his work, particularly stuff from Late For The Sky, for instance.
Because it was always very much is work, very much identified with him. [But is thinking of recording one of his songs from that era.]
George and Ira Gershwin.
[Tape recorder back on:] ***
Sinatra defined the American century in terms of style, he really did, and certainly was the great pop singer in terms of pop I think the American century was, the American century contributed worldwide to culture with the popular song. You know, taking it to an international level. Because there was always the popular song, before that even, there was Broadside ballads and there were, even opera was considered popular in its time. But it really didn't broadcast to the masses, it really was a much more selective thing, because really the masses didn't have radios and they couldn't afford musical instruments, so they had folk instruments and stuff like that, but it wasn't quite like it is now. So that's the contribution of the American century is the popular song. And the Gershwins were the guys who defined the popular song. They wrote movies, with huge casts of ironies and cynicisms and longings and all those things were included. Whereas now, we make good records, I think, the second half of the century's pop music is more has to do with making a good record than it does with making a good record than it has with making a good song. You know we have very well crafted records and they're interesting records and they set a mood and they have an ambience and they have style to them but it doesn't necessarily include a very well-crafted song.
Other than the songwriters I've already mentioned, particularly Jimmy Webb, are there any other more contemporary writers you admire?
Well, John Hiatt is a good song crafter, I think, he can craft a song pretty well.
It took a while for you to get around to recording his stuff though.
Yeah. I met his wife first, I guess that's why. I don't know, it was just so sad, she died, it was just so sad. Oh so sad. And his songs were so sad. I don't know, it's hard. He's very good, I love his work. And singing it made me have even more of an appreciation. A song like "Icy Blue Heart" which also should have had a better vocal on it, unfortunately that was a really tired vocal, but man, what a well crafted song, all those images of the northern lights and just all those cold images that he kept developing. That's great, that's real craftsman stuff, you know, and it just isn't very, the culture doesn't support it. I mean, Sinead, in another century, Sinead born into the 18th century would have been the diva of the century, with her ability to sing and her voice and everything like that. Joni Mitchell, too probably... Her voice is completely different from what it was. It's still a great voice, she was always a great singer, but she's, it's deep now. Cause she's really actually naturally a high soprano. She's a smoker, so.
What do you think of kd lang?
Oh she's a GREAT singer, another one that just, if she had been born in the '40s or the '50s she would have been it, she would have been the top of the heap. She still is in her own way. I'm not saying that she's not successful and that she's not recognised, because she is. But I mean the culture is giving a lot of support to people who are entertainers, but who are... entertainers more, like Madonna, she's more an entertainer than she's a singer.
Mariah Carey, Celine Dion.
Well she's a singer, Celine Dion, but... so what? She's a good singer, she's got a beautiful voice, you can't fault her.
Maybe it's just her material but she just doesn't do anything for me.
But see that's the culture. ... And their sensibility too. But Celine Dion is a voice. Madonna's not much of a singer but she's a stylist, and she does something that's evocative, I can say that I've listened to that record that she made... she had a video where there was a Matador... I can't remember it. I've never had a record of hers in my house, but I have to say that she's evocative, you know. But the singers, there's people that really can sing and Sinead is one of them, boy can she sing, and she can sing way more than the culture shows us and affords us. Whereas Madonna is doing about what she can, you know for this culture, and she's doing quite a lot you know, I mean, she's talented, she has her own little art thing that she does. Whatever it is. But we're getting probably as much as she can crank out, whereas with Sinead, we're hearing a facet, you know, we would have gotten another few facets if she'd been born in another century. God only knows what the future holds; I hope it's not global warfare, which it looks like it's what it's trying to develop into. I think the scary place is in Albania and those Balkan countries. I think it it's going to start it's going to start there.
Did that worry you when you decided to have children?
Well it does worry me but it's not, you know, what can you do? I just finished reading this book on the Russian century; of course all the Russians had this century was war, they call it the cruel century, it was the cruelest, I can't imagine. Human suffering has never been on a larger scale than it was in Russian in this century. 40 million people were dead in the cruelest ways by Stalin's hand alone. And there might be more than that, that's just the people that he personally decided to kill. And then there were the wars and the torture and the horrible stuff that went on between them and the Germans, and the stuff that they did to themselves and to each other, there's never been human suffering on that kind of scale ever in history before, and there's been some pretty bad stuff, the Punic Wars weren't a lot of fun. But that was really something and I keep thinking I hope my children never have to experience that, because that's the worst thing there is. But I just don't know how they'll avoid it, but I hope they don't have to deal with it. And then what I think is well what we teach them is what you bank now, if they can be strong people and keep their humanity intact, even when they're faced with something like that, that's what you hope to give them, is strength, you know. But who know what they'll have to face, I don't like to think about it. You do the best you can every day and think, I hope they'll be okay.
Moving on from songwriters, I wanted to talk about songs themselves. You said once in an interview that it was heartbreaking to want to be able to do a song and not to be able to do it. I can't remember which song you were talking about in particular but it sounded as thought the song just couldn't literally fit into your voice. Are there any songs that you still feel unable to tackle, or do you feel your voice is at a point now where as you were saying, you're in your peak, and do you think now is just the time to tackle everything that you've always wanted to sing?
Well I wish I could, I mean there's all of Rossini, for instance, but I just don't think that's in my future, it just won't happen. I mean I wish I could but I can't. I guess I'm just not trained for it.
Are there any particular songs that you're targeting that you've long cherished and wanted to do and now feel ready to?
Yeah, there are a lot of songs, but I don't know if I'll ever get around to them. One of them is, I started to record it for this record but then I chickened out, it was on my other concept before I got Glyn on board, it's called "As The Years Go Passing By" a song that Albert King recorded. "My love will follow you as the years go passing by." One of these days I swear to god I'm going to get into a club in New Orleans and record it live with a good sax player. But that's one. And there's another song, "A World I Never Made." A good friend of mine wrote it, and I used to talk to him so much before he died, and he really wanted me to sing that song. His name's Doc Pomus, he wrote "Cry Til My Tears Run Dry." He really wanted me to sing "A World I Never Made."
There was a tribute album done to him a few years ago.
Yeah [laughs] I kept thinking I ought to get around to doing a track for it but I didn't.
I was actually wondering why you weren't on the Lowell George tribute album, were you approached about that one?
Yeah, yeah I was. I just, you know, you can only fit so much stuff into your life, and with the children, I won't travel except for when I absolutely have to, there's just this one thing, this Catholic nun made me do it, Sister Jane, I just love her so much and I think what she's doing is so important. But I don't really want to get on a plane and go to New Orleans, you know. I love New Orleans, though.
Does that mean you're just not going to tour again?
I don't want to tour, I can't do it, take my kids with me. I'll do some concerts with Emmy, because I wouldn't record a record with Emmy without honoring it with some shows because we'd have to sell it a little bit. But I, it's going to have to be very easy to do, cause I just can't, children don't want to go to a different city every day. They don't want to do that. You can rationalise it, oh, they'll be on the bus, it'll be so much fun, they'll have such a good time but it's really not safe for them to roll through thousands of miles of highway systems with no seat belts, you know I can't really rationalise that one.
You were saying before about the Rossini. Were there opportunities to do more operatic work?
When I was 17 I could have gone in that direction. I was encouraged to do so.
But after La Boheme?
Oh no, by La Boheme it was already too late. I would have had to start training for that in my 20s. I did that because the guy who hired me to do it was, wanted to hire pop singers, and he'd always loved the opera and so had I, but he doesn't like opera singing. How can you not like opera singing and like La Boheme? La Boheme was written for that style, it wasn't written for the style that I sing. It was Wilfred Leech who was the director. It was his project and his dream and vision, and Joe Papp thought I was just the right person to sing Mimi. And I can sing it but I can't really sing it in the way that it was meant, I can't really sing it as a trained opera singer, because I'm not a trained opera singer, but I understand what it is and I understand what I don't do. I got to sing it one time with Placido Domingo, though, cause he came to our show, he came to our Boheme, and then we did a show together once and I sang the end of Act I with him, and it was beautiful and I just had a great time doing it but you know, I knew I was over my head. But again, it's one of those things, well I have this opportunity and I'm allowed to do it so I want to do it. You know, it's a song we both knew all the words to. It was like when I first sang with Aaron Neville we sang Schubert's "Ave Maria" because we both knew all the words because we're both raised Catholic. You have to do what you know, you have to do what you have in common.
At this point the tape recorded failed to record any more of the interview, but I do remember asking her about songs like "Blue Bayou," which she had no particular fondness for any more, and "Desperado," which drew the response, "Well that's Don's song" and "It got to the point where I just wanted to say, 'Can't somebody else sing it tonight?'" As for the prospect of a reunion with the Eagles, she almost scoffed at the suggestion.
I asked if she ever feel like opting out of the business altogether, and she said yes, certainly, during those difficult '70s, but that there was never anything else she really could have done.
She talked of the disintegration of the second Trio project, and how that not only cost her a lot of money but left her without an income of an entire year.
She talked of looking forward to old age and being totally prepared for it by drawing on the experiences and inspiration of elderly women she knows.
© Debbie Kruger
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