LINDA RONSTADT: STILL WITHIN THE SOUND OF HER VOICE

May 14, 2009 – 4:13 am

Linda Ronstadt doesn’t look like one of those artistes who will do a lot of press but she did consent to meet up with Gerrie Lim when she released her 1993 album, Winter Light. As Gerrie says, on this album, Ronstadt has recaptured pop with an ethereal shimmer. This article was published in BigO #98 (February 1994).

Linda Ronstadt has, for 26 years now, been the consummate musical adventuress. Albums beyond the LA folk-rock that so defined her sound in the ’70s, she’s since charted territories that could have (and surely must have) single-handedly killed the careers of lesser singers - early ’80s new wave, ’40s torch songs (with the late Nelson Riddle), contemporary Latin jazz (with orchestrator Ray Santos), modern classical music (with minimalist composer Philip Glass) and the definitive expression of her heritage, the mariachi of Mexico and the legacy of Lola Beltran, the greatest of ranchera vocalists, the very one who’d first inspired Ronstadt to sing.

And so, it should come as no surprise to anyone (though it probably did) that Ronstadt, at age 47, should emerge from recent seclusion (in the chic Pacific Heights area of Son Francisco, where she now lives, having left LA five years ago), to cut a new album of pop songs penned by some of her favourite songwriters - from Jimmy Webb (whose excellent, underrated new album, Suspending Disbelief, she’d coproduced) to Brian Wilson to Emmylou Harris to Tish Hinojosa to Burt Bacharach/Hal David and Carole King/Gerry Goffin; with its first single, the (Kate and Anna) McGarrigles’ Heartbeats Accelerating, as a lovelorn ballad to warm the frostiest mid-winter heart.

Coming four years after her collaboration with Aaron Neville, the massively successful Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind, this new album of mostly chestnuts has been touted by some as Ronstadt’s “return to pop” (not entirely correct, may I add - she’d sung harmonies on much of her old pal Neil Young’s Harvest Moon) but, in my assessment, it’s more fittingly seen as another hallmark of Ronstadt’s keen insistence on capturing, like no one else, the music that she passionately loves for posterity.

Few pop albums have been as masterfully recorded and so lovingly rendered, and (as you can tell) I could rave on and on about it, but Ronstadt herself says it all best. She left me, after we’d spoken, with the impression of someone who stays in constant touch with her muse, wherever it may lead. This then is the essential question, that her own German-Mexican lineage posits: What else is there, if you should not follow your heart? Her art, it remains, reminds us so.

You’re now in the 26th year of your career, and I was wondering if you’ve had any thoughts on reflecting upon your longevity and your very eclectic choice of material, especially with the last few albums.

Well, I just never listen to them after I put them out… Maybe that’s the secret! (laughs) The thing is that all this music came from the living room in my house in Tucson, Arizona, when I was growing up and, if I didn’t hear it by the time I was nine years old, I don’t mess with it.

The only stuff that I’ve ever recorded that wasn’t from that place in my heart were the records I did with Philip Glass and some other outside projects that weren’t my own projects. But the Mexican stuff and the tropical stuff and the voice choir stuff and the operetta and opera stuff and the stuff with Nelson Riddle, they have all been from there. My brother was in a really fine world-class voice choir, he was their soloist, so I got a lot of influence vocally from that.

So you’re always reverting to your roots, in a way?

Well, the thing is, I never really went away from it. The music that I perform in public is such a tiny, tiny, little, narrow part of my music, just a sliver of it. The rest of it is equally if not more meaningful to me - the music I use at home when I have my hands in the dishwater or whatever, the music that we really have a need for to get us through our daily lives and help us identify our feelings. That music has always been with me. It’s not performance-ready, and when I want to take it out to the public I have to do a lot of grinding and polishing to get it up to a professional standard. But it’s there all the time.

How do you see yourself in the context of the current music scene, including the alternative music “post-Nirvana industry” that’s becoming a new mainstream of sorts? What do you think of what you’re hearing out there these days, and do you have any thoughts on the current music scene?

Well, I don’t. (laughs) I mean, I’d love to give you some kind of brilliant, dazzling quote about it, but I don’t have any thoughts. I never listen to the radio, and when I was making this record, people were suggesting things to me and half the stuff they were describing I’d never ever heard of. The formats that we have in American radio, I haven’t got a clue about what they are.

So I take it you’re not going to do a grunge album?!

I don’t even know what that is! (laughs) I’ve never heard Nirvana. I’ve heard of them, as I have Pearl Jam but only because they’ve recorded in the same studio, and people there were telling me about Pearl Jam and I thought they were a local band from the way they were being described, like they were their little friends, but I’ve never heard them. I have no idea what it sounds like.

At home, I listen to Maria Callas almost exclusively, and I listen to a lot of traditional Mexican music and Irish music, which I love, and almost nothing else. I don’t have time. When I’m working on a project, I fill myself up with the music that I have to do, to research for that. For this record, I listened to a lot of Gregorian chants and I listened to a lot of Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick.

So are you being merely selective about your listening or is it something more, that has to compel you musically?

There are a lot of kinds of musics that have been in the past, and will come in the future, that are very, very worthy kinds of music, but they don’t necessarily apply to my particular culture. I listen to things that apply to my life and my culture and my little, tiny part of the universe that I’m experiencing right now. That’s what’s appropriate for me to listen to. I would never listen to something just to try to keep up with fashion. Fashion in music is not relevant.

Stephen Holden once wrote, in the New York Times, that you said half-jokingly that you “sang like a German and thought like a Mexican and wished it were the other way around.” (Ronstadt’s father is Mexican-English-German, her mother English-Dutch-German)

(laughs) No, what I think I said to him was I try to sing like a Mexican and think like a German and sometimes I get it mixed up. (laughs) But lately I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s better. I’m starting to really love German opera. And I really like thinking like a Mexican. I’m starting to really live my life more like where I do one thing then I do the next thing. I’m trying not to do things like, I have to do this by Monday or I have to be there by two o’clock.” I do something and I try to really keep all my attention into it until I’m finished.

Whether I’m down on the floor scrubbing spots or if I’m sorting my laundry or just sitting down reading a book, I try to not think, “Oh, I can only do 15 mins of this, because I have to get to the next thing.” There’s an old Latin motto which basically says: “Do what you’re doing.” I’ve started to try to live my life like that. I think it’s a real correct way to approach it.

Carlene Carter told me that you changed her life - when she saw you here in LA, at the Troubadour, when she was 13. She said she saw you up there and she said to herself: ‘I know what I want to be. I want to be a singer.’ She said you sang in such a way that she believed everything you sang.

Oh, that’s great! I remember Carlene being there because she was with her dad (Johnny Cash). I used to do The Johnny Cash Show. Johnny and June (Carter) came to see my show, and I remember them being there. This was a long time ago, around 1970. And I remember my guitar player going, (mimics panting) ‘God, they have the most beautiful daughter!’ He was just in love! (laughs)

But how do you do it, how do you think it is that you can perform in such an inspirational way?

I don’t know. (laughs) I mean, I’m not a very good performer. I don’t think I am. All I ever do is just stand up there and sing. That’s Carlene’s experience, and I know people that have influenced me in that way. Like Lola Beltran, she was the person that I’d heard that made me sing the way I sing. She’s kind of like the Mexican Edith Piaf, she’s the greatest ranchera singer of Mexico. That was it! I heard that and went, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ And I eventually was able to do it. It’s great to have inspiration.

My main impression of your new album, Winter Light, is that it has a very defined sound, in terms of the fidelity of the recording. It’s very lush, and unlike any others you’ve done. Am I correct and did this emanate from some concept?

Yes. I was producing Jimmy Webb’s record (Suspending Disbelief) and there’s a song on there called Postcard From Paris that sort of sprung the concept for me for the new record. We were sitting in my living room and Jimmy was playing it on the piano, and I thought, ‘This has to have a very lush setting.’ And I started thinking about it, and I thought, ‘How are we going to afford an orchestra on everything?!!’

And we worked out a way where we could record an orchestra on five songs in one session, by piggybacking onto some Randy Newman session that Peter Asher was producing. So we actually worked out a way to get our money to stretch really far with the orchestra. But we still couldn’t afford it for this one song, Postcard From Paris!

And I thought, well, maybe it doesn’t really need an orchestra and, since I’m the producer, I’m always there and so my services are free, in a limited sort of way, so I thought, well, I’ll just sing the parts! So we started getting into the idea of these orchestrated vocal pads (overdubbing vocals). And we wound up doing a little bit of that and using some synthesizers. But thinking about that made me see what I could do with my record, so I started designing my whole record around that, this new idea that I had, which was to just laminate vocal and sometimes instruments.

There’s an interesting sound on Heartbeats Accelerating, from an unusual instrument. What is it?

It’s called a glass armonica. For years and years, I’d been dreaming about working with this instrument. It was invented in the 18th century by Benjamin Franklin. Mozart wrote a lot of music for this instrument, and in Mozart’s time they used to have these tables full of leaded-crystal water tumblers, and you dip your fingers and run your fingers around the edge of the glass.

And then Benjamin Franklin invented this way of mechanising it, where he stacked these larger-to-smaller crystal bowls, turned them over sideways to make a cylinder, and attached a sewing machine treadle so that they’d spin, and you can play them like a piano. You could play ten notes at a time. You just run your fingers around the edges, the rims, of these crystal bowls, and it’s the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard.

I’d heard one years ago and I’d never been able to find one since. And when I finally did find this guy who could play one, I found out the reason - in the 19th century, the instrument was completely banned because the people that were playing them for several years would go insane! They thought it had something to do with the sound.

And now, of course, they know that there was such an enormous amount of lead in the environment in Europe and America in those days - everybody had lead paint and lead face powder and lead God knows where - that they got lead poisoning. Their hair would fall out and they would lose their minds. So the instruments are banned, and only a few survive to this day, and there are only three world-class armonicists that I’ve ever been able to hear of. This one guy, Dennis James, we were so lucky to get him. He’s a wonderful musician whose specialty is glass instruments. And so we called him up, he brought it over, and we started to experiment with it.

I love the glass instruments and I want to do a whole record with him, with a glass ensemble. He’s on three cuts here, Heartbeats Accelerating, Tish Hinojosa’s Adonde Voy, and Emmylou Harris’s River For Him. A member of my family actually has one, but no one knows how to play it. It took a long time for us to find Dennis. I’d call up people who were experts in esoteric instruments and ask about the glass armonica and they’d go: “Huh?!!” (laughs)

And you got him to synchronise it with your vocals?

I had heard it in my mind when I was trying to design the sound of the record. I had heard this way of laminating my vocal with the glass. We used a lot of synchronous singing, like I’d do five passes of my vocal, two passes of the glass, and one pass of a recorder or a flute or something like that, and we put it all together, laminated it together, like it was one sound, like one voice. I did a lot of that all over the record, and as I started to get farther into it, I started to see this whole world that lay beyond it - this whole soundscape that lay through that glass door!

Also, years ago when I was a kid I had stumbled into a Phil Spector session at Gold Star (studios). I was just hanging out with a friend and listening to the session, and I took a picture in my brain of that session. I remember it to this day. Because there were like three tambourine players playing three different-sized tambourines, a couple of maracas players and a guy playing trap drums, and there were castanets and a couple of rhythm guitar players on the backbeat. So the sound, the way the percussion and the trap drums and the rhythm guitars were stacked up, is how he made that “wall of sound” thing! Also with a lot of room ambience, a real live room, with a lot of that leakage and stuff like that. I had always wanted to make a record like that.

The Dusty Springfield song, I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself, was the perfect thing for that. You stack the orchestra on top of that and you have this really big sound, so we just went for the livest room sound we could have. So I got my drummer in there with all these different-sized tambourines and we tried all these castanets and I had him playing all this stuff. It was great. That was very different from my glass vision of these stacked vocal parts, so I now have this record that kind of runs the gamut, from the ’60s to somewhere in the future, I hope.

But it’s quite a departure from Cry Like A Rainstorm, even though it’s also a pop album. Overall, the sound of this new album is almost like the Roches-meets-Enya, sort of more fragile, more brittle, I think.

Most of my rock ‘n’ roll and pop music has been aggressive stuff that has big guitar solos that kind of reaches out and pulls you by the collar. What I was trying to do with this record was to make it sound more like phosphorescence than electricity - like the music’s coming from your attic or someplace in your house, and you’re not quite sure where but you want to look for it. And it wants to seduce you. Instead of music that just wants to rattle your cage.

The glass, for me, is music you want to listen to only by candlelight. To turn an electric light on would seem like a hideous cruelty. It’s an exquisite voice, a small voice but not in any way an unimportant voice. A profoundly moving voice, sort of like it doesn’t exert much force real close but it goes on forever, like radiation. Its power, compared to, say, an electric guitar solo that screams out at you in a coliseum, is one that I see as having an equal power in a completely different way.

Almost like chamber music.

Yes, it is chamber music.

You’ve written some music on your records but you’re best known not as a songwriter but as an interpreter of other people’s songs. Are you comfortable with that?

Oh yeah. It’s a very special skill, writing, and I’m just not a writer, you know. That’s just not what I do. It’s like things happen and I watch them. I wish there were more real writers, because what there are are a lot of singer-songwriters and I think that is not a great thing for the music. Because there are some people who write and they are very marginal singers, and there are some people who sing who are very marginal writers, and sometimes you get people who can really do both and that’s a wonderful thing, but it’s very rare.

So what happens is you tend to get the slice in the middle, the people who can kind of do both but not necessarily one extremely well. In the old days, like with the Gershwins, did they give a damn if they could sing as well as Ella Fitzgerald? And did she give a damn if she could write as well as George Gershwin? I don’t think so.

What’s the most important thing about what you do, to you?

(long pause) I don’t know. 1 don’t think of it like that. I like to rehearse, I guess. I love to rehearse. So I guess that the records give me a chance to rehearse! (laughs) Actually, I take it all back - I love to record. Recording is my favorite thing to do, but I like rehearsing better than performing. I still tour, but I tour with a Mexican band, playing mariachi. I don’t tour in English.

So there’ll be no Winter Light tour?

I don’t think so. I’m now going right into making another record with Dolly (Parton) and Emmy(lou Harris). I like that Trio record a lot. I think that’s the best record I ever made - the experience of making that one was the most satisfying for me. And then after that I want to do this glass record - I’m just dying to do the glass record! So I’ve got a lot of records to make. I’d like to be in the studio every day, five days, seven days a week, I just like that a lot. I like to travel, but I’d just as soon stay here and make records.

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