Ronstadt: The Gamble Pays Off Big
an exclusive interview
January 8, 1984
Like many rock stars, Linda Ronstadt has made her share of headlines that have had little to do with music. Whether running off for a well-publicized 1979 African vacation with then-California Gov. Jerry Brown, or candidly admitting to "recreational" drug use, she's sometimes seemed the very picture of the lost soul. Yet recently she took a bold step in a different direction: At the risk of turning some rock fans off, she recorded What's New (Elektra/Asylum), a collection of pop standards arranged by orchestra leader Nelson Riddle, who worked for many years with Sinatra. At 37, has Ronstadt suddenly come of middle age? As well as her fans? Whatever the explanation, What's New has become her fastest-selling album ever. Her plans now include cutting a follow-up of oldies and a starring role as Mimi in a production of the opera La Bohème in New York City. Recently, over lunch at a Manhattan restaurant, Ronstadt talked about her music and her life with FAMILY WEEKLY Associate Editor Mary Ellin Bruns.
Bruns: I understand your father introduced you to the songs on your new album.
Ronstadt: He did. My father, Gilbert, is a wonderful crooner and also sings Mexican music really well [he is part Mexican]; he actually made a living at it at some point, but then he went back to work at my grandfather's hardware store, because that made more sense if you wanted to eat. I remember my father buying my older sister, Suzi, a Billie Holiday record, and he used to sing "What'll I Do" and "Someone to Watch Over Me."
Ronstadt (center) at a 1983 Radio City Music Hall concert: the new direction.
Q: What else do you remember about the songs?
Ronstadt: I remember one time I was out driving and heard Frank Sinatra singing "What's New" on the radio, and I almost drove off the road. I said, "That's the most beautiful song I've ever heard. I'm just dying to learn that." I've always loved those songs. It's just that I never quite had the nerve to record them. I mean, they're very, very difficult. You can't cheat. You have to know what you're doing.
Q: So you're happy with the way What's New turned out?
Ronstadt: Yes, I'm very proud of it. I'm more proud of it than of any album I've ever made. I don't listen to my records just to listen to them; I don't think very many singers do that. If they do, maybe there's something wrong with them, a strange kind of narcissism. To hear one of my records just drives me crazy; I have to put my fingers in my ears. But this record actually didn't bother me. I had to listen to it a lot and it didn't make me throw up, so I know that's a good sign.
Q: Was your father helpful on the project?
Ronstadt: Oh extremely, because he's so musical and talented that I value his opinion. He's not very generous with his compliments, which is not to say he's stingy, but he just doesn't tell you he likes something unless he does, and when he does tell me he likes something, I'm really pleased. He heard the album in all of its stages: I played it over the phone for him. I'd call him and say, "I got the orchestra in here today. Listen to this." Then I'd crank it up. The first time he heard it, he went, "Boy, you've been listening to Billie Holiday," and I went, "Uh-oh, I'd better tone it down," because I didn't want to copy too much. I've always liked singing with my father and with my brothers and sisters.
Q: Do you still do that?
Ronstadt: Every time the family gathers in Tucson [Ariz.], we sing together, and the new ones are coming up, too, my sister's and my brother's kids. My older brother Peter's little girl has just got a beautiful voice, and the last time I was home, she became the new addition to the family harmony configurations. My older brother and his daughter and I were singing trios, and it was just great. My younger brother, Mikey, sings and runs the family hardware store now and invents things. My maternal grandfather was also an inventor.
Q: What was he like?
Ronstadt: He used to hide under the table and grab our toes; I was terrified of him. He was such a nice man, but he was very explosive and he'd get really excited and carried away. He used to lock himself in the basement for a week at a time. My grandmother would bring him his meals and he'd be down there inventing the grease gun or something like that. He was one of the pioneers in developing latex. I remember the latex: We used to tie each other up with it - you couldn't get out no matter what. It cut the circulation off. He tried to invent runproof stockings one time by dipping them in rubber and baking them in an oven. And my mother [Ruthmary] would have to go to school in these beautiful silk stockings that had been baked into this smelly thing that wouldn't run and looked, kind of like you had an artificial leg - my poor mom!
Q: What sort of person was she?
Ronstadt: Oh, she was wonderful. [She died two years ago.] All she hoped for, I think, was that one of her four children would be a scholar, and we're not scholars. She taught us all to read before we went to school - thank goodness. We never would have learned otherwise. My older brother was the only one who graduated from high school even. He's chief of police in Tucson. The rest of us are just hopeless. And Mom was always interested in everything but herself. She was never vain, although she was very attractive when she was younger. She liked to learn about bugs; she wanted to be a forest ranger. It makes me kind of sad. I saw a thing on television, a profile of some girl forest ranger who lives up in the Yukon somewhere. I thought how my mother would have liked doing that, but instead she got us. My dad was such a cowboy - a real cowboy, but one who was cute and educated and could read and sing. Well, my mother never had a chance once she saw him. He roped her, she was snagged and she didn't get to be a forest ranger because she was wrangling children.
The Ronstadts gather for a barbecue in 1950 at their Arizona home: (from right) Linda, Suzi, Ruthmary, Gilbert, Peter.
Q: Do you think your siblings ever envy your way of life?
Ronstadt: My little brother was a professional musician for a while, and he does a lot of recording in Tucson now. I think he has a much better time in the music business than I do, because he's got all the comforts of living near his family in the place where he grew up, and he gets to tinker and putter with music. He doesn't care whether he's in the greater part of the world of the music business.
Q: Do you envy your siblings' settled, family-oriented lives?
Ronstadt: I do sometimes, but I would never have been happy like that; I was too restless. I was restless when I was born: I came out of the womb saying, "When's the next bus? When's the next event? What are we going to do now?"
Vocalizing with brother Peter, now Tucson's chief of police.
Q: Do you remember singing as a toddler?
Ronstadt: The first words that I was able to muster out of my mouth were those asking my mother and father to play their instruments - my father to play his guitar and my mother to play her ukulele. I always sang, I sang harmonies. I was only 3. My brother taught me how to do it. He said, "Listen to this. This is the harmony." I was singing the melody, but he said, "This is the harmony. Put that in." I went, "Oh, wow, that's great. Is this how you do it?" Then I could sing the harmony.
Q: What was school like?
Ronstadt: Sometimes it was nice and sometimes it was horrible. One of the schools I went to was never pleasant, and then I went to another school for a year. It had a different order of nuns that were a little bit better educated, and that was really great. That's my one good memory of what school could be if you really liked it. I remember everything from that year, and that was fifth grade. I remember the report I did on the Middle Ages. I remember all my book reports. Everything was fun all of a sudden, but then, for some reason - I think it had to do with some strange kind of loyalty to my best friend, whom I had left back at the other school - I went back to the first school and was promptly miserable again, I mean miserable. It was really an unpleasant experience, that school was.
Q: What about high school?
Ronstadt: I didn't like high school. I went at a time when Tucson was experiencing a real boom-town mentality, and there were a lot of weirdo East Coasters moving in. And it was a pretty racy high school; the social thing was very heavy. I never really was very good at being a socialite. I remember high school as being a tremendous amount of pressure, social pressure.
Q: To be cool?
Ronstadt: Yeah, and I remember not wanting to have to cater to it.
Q: What did "cool" people do?
Ronstadt: They wore Capezio shoes and lambswool sweaters and went to all the football games and got really emotional about it. I could never really get behind that idea of getting so hysterical about the football team. And I wasn't learning. It was frustrating.
Q: Did being so close to your family make it hard to leave home?
Ronstadt: It was very hard, and I remember I just did it all in one day. I just said, "I have to go." They weren't mean about it or anything like that, they were sad. My mother was very worried. I was 17.
Q: At the beginning of your career, you were romantically involved with some of your producers. Did that cause problems?
Ronstadt: It really didn't. It's just that people go, "Oh, you know, she's having an affair with the producer." I did very little of that compared to people who marry their managers and stuff like that. The fact remains that those are the people you meet and with whom you have the greatest amount in common. Some fans wonder why movie stars marry movie stars. Well, they meet each other on location. It would have been a little weird for me to have an affair with my dentist, who was probably the only other human being I saw at the time. I didn't have a lot in common with my dentist.
Q: Is it hard adjusting to celebrity?
Ronstadt: Yeah, because your friends say you've changed, but really they've changed. Sometimes they treat you with more deference, and you're indulged in ways that aren't good; and sometimes they treat you with reverse deference and give you a hard time.
Q: Did you ever think, "I can't live up to other people's expectations of me"?
Ronstadt: Oh yeah, I used to think I couldn't live up to them. I couldn't understand why in the world people bought tickets to my concerts.
Q: Is there anything difficult about being a woman in a business dominated by men?
Ronstadt: The world is a business dominated by men. I think that if you're good and reasonable in the way you conduct yourself, you will do well; and if you're not good and unreasonable in the way you conduct yourself, you will have trouble no matter what sex you are.
Q: Touring as much as you do must get rough sometimes. What is it like to be on the road?
Ronstadt: The road is hard; it's not a really healthy place to be. I need a lot of exercise on the road. I run and go to the gym - you have to do it. Half the band goes to the gym, the other half goes to the bar. I'm with the gym half: I take good care of myself.
Q: Does it get lonely?
Ronstadt: It does. It gets boring, too, excruciatingly boring. I started studying languages so I'd have something to do.
Q: Do you still get stage fright?
Ronstadt: Always. I think everybody does, whether they admit it or not. My face twitches. I've seen myself on television, my cheek kind of doing a dance.
Q: You once said that domestic bliss was the highest form of happiness? Do you still feel that way?
Ronstadt: I'm not sure. I'm not saying that it's better than anything else. It is a form of emotional high. So is singing, so is having a rich life and so is not being in a trap. Not being in a trap is a very advanced form of domestic bliss.
Q: You've never married. Does becoming a musician get in the way of forming lasting relationships?
Ronstadt: Maybe it does, but only because choice is the enemy of commitment. And I don't know that other people's marriages last so well when they're staying home. I think marriage is something invented by human beings. It's not a biological institution.
Q: Does it bother you to have the press constantly scrutinizing your love life?
Ronstadt: I think it's stupid. I think, "Who cares?" They don't get it right 95 percent of the time. It's totally beside the point.
Q: Did it annoy you that the media talked about Linda Ronstadt and Mick Jagger, Linda Ronstadt and Jerry-
Ronstadt: I never had a romance with Mick Jagger. You know what I mean? He's a friend of mine; we used to play music together sometimes; I sang with him on stage once.
Q: One music critic said that no matter how much your songs deal with vulnerability, you seem to be a strong person.
Ronstadt: Strong doesn't make you not vulnerable. Sometimes weakness makes you less vulnerable. I was always kind of strong-minded, even when I was 3 years old. I wasn't exactly the kind of person you tried to boss around. I was not inclined to boss other people around, but I was not inclined to be bossed either. And there was nobody to boss me, really: I grew up in the desert.
Q: Where is home for you now?
Ronstadt: I have places in New York City and Los Angeles.
Q: Do you prefer one to the other?
Ronstadt: I don't like either one.
Q: Where would you like to live?
Ronstadt: Nairobi, maybe. Yeah - it felt like home when I was there. I mean, I can't live in Nairobi - they're having a revolution every two or three minutes - but off the top of my head, I would say Nairobi. If you ask me next week, I might say something else.
Q: Do you feel more comfortable with celebrity now?
Ronstadt: I don't think anybody ever gets used to it, but I've learned more sophisticated ways to cope with it. You just learn to do things more quietly.
Q: Are you still restless?
Ronstadt: Yes, but I'm not unhappy, and I enjoy my work. I think there are two major requisites for not being a totally miserable human being, and the first one - absolutely the first one - is to like your work, whatever it is. The other thing is to have nice people to work with. If those two things are O.K. in your life, you've got about 99 percent of it licked.