T h e S a n F r a n c i s c o C h r o n i c l e M a r c h 1 9, 1995
J O E L S E L V I N, C H R O N I C L E S T A F F W R I T E R
Linda Ronstadt settled comfortably into a couch in her record company offices. The cream-colored ensemble she was wearing emphasized her preternaturally translucent skin. She has come a long way from pinup girl of '70s country- rock.
Against all advice and all so-called conventional wisdom, Ronstadt has established her artistic self-determination during the past decade or so by insisting on pursuing projects she was told would not succeed -- singing Gilbert and Sullivan on Broadway, recording pop standards with arranger Nelson Riddle, cutting Mexican mariachi music in Spanish, doing an album of duets with then-unknown vocalist Aaron Neville, making an album of Appalachian folk music with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.
She now qualifies as probably the sole female record producer of any significance in an industry that pays a lot of lip service to the notion of women's equality. Women serve in virtually every position of influence and importance through the ranks of the record industry. But the recording studio remains the last bastion of male supremacy.
Her position is not mere window dressing. She commands enough authority to have spent more than a million dollars recording her new album, "Feels Like Home," a work likely to be greeted enthusiastically as a return to her trademark country-rock style. Released this week, it was recorded during nine grueling months last year in Bay Area studios. In addition to her own recent records, she has supervised albums by Neville, David Lindley and Jimmy Webb. Still, even people who should know better often act as if she earned the title by sitting around and staring off into space.
"What a producer does is listen to sound in great detail," she said, "and make thoughtful corrections. Or sometimes, to have the sense to make no corrections. That's a very broad description of what a producer does. I realized one time when I was rehearsing two new bands right in a row, one rock-and-roll band and one Mexican band, they didn't realize that I knew all the intricacies of the arrangements because the arrangements were mine. They were little lines and stuff that I had written myself. So I think it is still kind of a thing like guys being under the hood."
Ronstadt, 48, is far from the caricature of the "chick singer" -- as she has often been portrayed. She is a bright, articulate professional who speaks in a soft tumble of carefully chosen words. She attended to every detail of the production of her new album, from song selection and arrangement, to casting the instrumental and supporting vocal roles, to the scrupulous and frequently tedious process of multitrack recording and mixing. She has even developed a process of recording vocal parts that she calls "laminated vocals" by singing orchestral parts and overdubbing unison parts played on glass armonica, a little-known instrument that rings with the application of moist fingers to the rims of drinking glasses. The results are like shimmering sheets of sound hung as a backdrop.
"I can hear sound in great detail," she said. "After that, it's the choices you make. But I can hear sound in fine detail. It's just like what they say about people who live in the rain forest -- 'Gee, they're sitting there eating their dinner and all of a sudden they hear a sound that no one else can hear and they pick up their spears and they bring home tomorrow's dinner.' It's the same thing. It's learning to listen to the relationship of something within something else. Or you do it visually. If you're a hunter, you would see the way the animal moved against the landscape. There's nothing supernatural about it in the rain forest the way those guys learned. That's just how they learned, how they grew up. They grew up listening like that.
"If I'm sitting in my house, I mind what colors the walls are a lot. I mind where there's light. I mind if there's a lot of clutter in my vision. I mind what it looks like a lot. If I'm sitting in the studio, I don't care. I can stay in there 15 hours at a stretch with no windows. I don't care if there's a jumble of wires on the floor. I care if the couch I'm sitting on is comfortable and that's about it. And I care if I can hear.
"Everything becomes a visual soundscape. I see everything visually, even though I'm not very good at things that are visual. I can't draw. But I can draw with sound. That's the most useful thing I learned in terms of what my craft is.''
Ronstadt, who keeps a home in San Francisco but has been spending most of her time since finishing the album living with her family in Tuscon, Ariz., looks perfectly at home in some anonymous, glass-walled chamber in the Elektra Records suite of offices, as well she should. Ronstadt came to Asylum Records more than 20 years ago. It was a little boutique label started by the former William Morris booking agent, David Geffen, and was at first associated with and later swallowed by Elektra.
With her longtime manager Peter Asher, once half of the British Invasion duo Peter and Gordon and very nearly Paul McCartney's brother-in-law, producing her records, Ronstadt not only cut a streak of eight Top 10 hits in less than six years, but helped define the country-influenced rock-pop studio sound emanating from Hollywood in the '70s. At Asylum, Ronstadt did her work at the very epicenter of this sleek, studio-conceived sound alongside Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and a group composed of former Ronstadt backup musicians who called themselves the Eagles.
"Some of the guys who became the Eagles used to be in a band called Shiloh," she said, "and I walked into the Troubadour one night and they were doing my version of 'Silver Threads and Golden Needles' and the steel player was copying that harmonic solo exactly. My manager said, 'You can hire this band -- they already know the arrangement.' And I did."
At the height of her commercial success, Ronstadt snapped it off to spend a year singing in the Joseph Papp production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, "Pirates of Penzance," a daring move for someone without the slightest training in the rigorous discipline.
"I went and worked on Broadway for what a Broadway salary is," she said, "which, compared to what I could earn going out for three months on a rock-and- roll tour, was ludicrously small. I just didn't want to play in sporting arenas, places I considered inappropriate for music. I wanted to play in a proscenium theater, a place where you were prepared by going into the lobby that a magical event was about to take place. I was absolutely locked out of that area by virtue of what I did, which was that I was a rock-and-roll singer.
"And I was locked into this idea that vocals didn't count, melodies didn't count, songwriting craftsmanship didn't count. The only thing that counted was high arching guitar solos, which was the only thing that can cut through in one of those big sporting arenas. So I was working in a medium that was more and more dominated by this guitar sound that I didn't even find pleasant or seductive in any kind of way, losing all the rhythmic nuances. Over the years as an artist and as a person who was learning the art of music from my childhood, I was having to let go of stuff that I thought was world-class and way better than the genre I was working with.''
After spending a year on Broadway, Ronstadt did not return ready to strap up the old team of horses and start plowing those Top 40 fields again. Instead she had another idea that wasn't going to make any money. She wanted to do an album of old-fashioned pop standards, using the venerable Nelson Riddle as her arranger and conductor.
"The president of my record company and my manager both -- they just went nuts.''
Her label chief balked at the idea, finally allowing the project as a personal favor to Ronstadt, but warning her it would poison her career.
"I didn't care," Ronstadt said. "It wasn't a matter I had a choice in. When I was in New York, I wanted to learn more about phrasing. I just felt that my musicianship was embarrassingly lacking in certain kinds of skills, abilities and backgrounds. I felt very humbled when I went to New York and every chorus girl there could read and sing and dance and act and I was just kind of stumbling around the stage. I also had been frustrated for a long time with my rock-and-roll singing because I was stuck in these horrible places.''
"What's New," the first of three albums she recorded with Riddle, sold more than 2 million copies and went all the way to No. 3 on the charts. Some poison.
She followed the pop standards in 1987 with two more noncommercial albums, "Trio," a set of largely acoustic folk songs sung with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris that her label complained would not get played on the radio, and "Canciones de mi Padre," a set of traditional Mexican songs done in Spanish. Both albums sold in excess of a million copies apiece.
Her next terrible idea was only to work with one of the greatest rhythm-and-blues vocalists ever. Although known to every professional musician, Aaron Neville was still largely unknown to the general public when Ronstadt unveiled "Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind" in 1989. Her record company wondered aloud why she would want to record with someone who wasn't nearly as well-known as she was. Not only did their album of duets launch two No. 1 adult contemporary radio hits and sell more than 2 million copies, but Ronstadt's subsequent 1991 production of the Aaron Neville solo album "Warm Your Heart" gave Neville his first Top 10 hit since "Tell It Like It Is" in 1966.
"The difference between Aaron Neville and what we would think of as a rhythm-and-blues singer is that rhythm and blues in New Orleans is Catholic," Ronstadt said. "The style of singing that Aaron does, which is a falsetto style, is rooted in French baroque opera, where the tenors always sang in falsetto. The kind of embellishments that he does all come from that time. The differ ence between him and Wilson Pickett is Wilson is a Baptist and he is a belter. All the Baptists are belters.
"The way Aaron embellishes and the way that he sings in the very delicate way that he does is completely Creole. And it has a five-beat, which is the clave that comes out of the cinquillo, as they call it in Latin America, that comes from West Africa. The cinquillo underlines everything that is in New Orleans music; that's why jazz has the West African background. Everything that Aaron did had that underneath it or else it was 'Ave Maria,' which was the song of his heart, the center of his sort of Catholicism and religious belief."
Now comes "Feels Like Home," an album many will hail as a return to the California pop-folk roots where it all started for Ronstadt. Certainly her stunning re-creation of the Tom Petty hit "The Waiting" will draw considerable attention, with acoustic guitars and mandolins replacing the electrics of the Petty originals and bluegrass vocal harmonies on the chorus.
"This record has been such a strange journey," Ronstadt said. "It started out being a record with me and Emmy. Emmylou Harris is one of the great song finders in the whole world. She always has her hands on the most quality material. She called and said let's do a record of weird stuff that we like -- McGarrigle Sisters songs and strange Irish songs that Emmy finds all the time."
Dolly Parton piped up and suggested they make it another trio record. "Meanwhile, Emmy and I had this little pile of tunes that we didn't want to let go of," Ronstadt said, "that weren't really right for the trio, but that we were trying to figure out a way to bend them and cut off an ear or tail here and there to make them fit. So we were struggling with that one when it became apparent that our schedules could never be reconciled. We would nail something down in blood and stone and Emmy and I would be standing there holding the bag. So we finally gave up and we took the record apart. We gave Emmy her tracks, gave Dolly some tracks and I took the rest."
Every day for nine months last year, Ronstadt would report to work at the San Rafael recording studio called The Site and etch away at the project with engineer and co-producer George Massenburg. To alleviate the tedium of laying down track upon track of vocal parts, building those shimmering walls of laminated vocals, she baked bread. As the project changed from a duo to trio to solo album, different songs took different shapes.
"The continuous theme that ran through the record, for me anyway, was the mandolin," she said. "David Grisman played such brilliant things. He understood that we didn't need bluegrass. We needed old-timey, which is parlor music. It has nuance in phrasing and internal harmony ideas that are way closer really to classical mandolin playing, that kind of flutter stuff and tremelo that he does."
After the collaborations vanished, Ronstadt found herself alone with material she never intended to record by herself. " 'Blue Train' and the Neil Young song, 'After the Gold Rush,' are very much what I discovered doing the vocal laminates on my last album," she said. "It's a corridor I could walk down and never come back. We did little sound pastiches. We were screwing with the music, doing little glass things, little vocal things, synth stuff. George would twiddle knobs and I'd remember something else and he'd twiddle another knob. We have a great partnership that way.''
On a piece such as "Walk On," Ronstadt indulged her fascination with what she called "the spaghetti western guitar sound," stacking up as many as 15 guitar parts on the same track. The entire album grew to become an exercise in her prowess as a producer and she is uncertain of the reception waiting for her.
"I may not get any airplay because it doesn't have all those crappy toy drum sounds like they do in Nashville," she said.
So what is the next noncommercial idea she wants to try?
"I want to get the chance to do a choral record," she said, "especially since I am able to do all these strange vocal laminates. I can combine that with choral music and small instrumental stuff, string quartets, harp and woodwinds, harp and cello and flute, whatever I like.
"I want to make a quote-unquote Christmas record, although there is not a religious bone in my body. I consider Christmas only the Christian expression of the winter solstice. There is a lot of winter solstice music out there -- Greek Orthodox, Jewish music.
"At that time of year, people seem to want to come together and sing in groups. They want to sing in groups and they want to sing in parts. I don't know what it is."