Friday, July 16, 2010

An EXCLUSIVE interview with JIMMY WEBB!

Jimmy Webb

The Legendary Songwriter Comes Home

An Exclusive Interview by Stephen SPAZ Schnee

“By The Time I Get To Phoenix”. “Up, Up & Away”. “Wichita Lineman”. “McArthur Park”. “Galveston”. “Didn’t We?”. “The Highwayman”. Songwriting doesn’t get much better than this. Say what you will about certain renditions of these songs, but there’s no denying the power and the majestic beauty of the words and melodies themselves. These are songs that will outlive us all. Your great, great, great grandchildren may not know much about you many years down the line, but they most certainly will know all the lyrics to “Wichita Lineman”. And they may even have already deciphered the meaning of the rain-soaked cake in “McArthur Park” by then!

So, when I got a call to interview Jimmy Webb, the man who wrote these classic songs, I had to pinch myself. Me? Interview THE Jimmy Webb? Hell, yeah! The following day, his 2010 album Just Across The River, showed up on my desk and it never left my side for at least a week. This glorious album finds Webb revisiting some of his finest songs, aided and abetted by some of Nashville’s finest players… and some of his famous friends such Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, Mark Knopfler, Michael McDonald, Vince Gill and Linda Ronstadt. The album is warm, organic, sincere and uplifting and an absolute must-have for any real music fan.
It was an honor to speak with Jimmy Webb (THE Jimmy Webb) about this new album and much more. Jimmy is one of our nation’s greatest living songwriters yet he remains humble and very personable. That, in itself, is a rarity in this business that tends to add extra helium into the over-inflated egos of less talented mortals.

SPAZ: How did you come up with the concept for Just Across The River?
JIMMY WEBB: My producer, Freddie Mollin, who did a great album with me about 10 years ago called Ten Easy Pieces. We actually did it up in Toronto and it was a real departure for me… away from heavily produced things: orchestrated, sustained guitars… I really came from the L.A. school, you know. He did this nice little album called Ten Easy Pieces and it really became kind of a minor classic. It’s still being manufactured, it’s still being sold. Actually, EMI is re-releasing it in about two weeks. It’s such a special album. He called me up last year and he said “I want you to come to Nashville. I want you to have the most wonderful experience of your life working with the top line of the session musicians, the guys that I’ve been working with here that are all anxious to do an album with you. They’re all calling me and saying when are we going to do a Jimmy Webb record!” Believe it or not, this is really what happened! He said we’ll take two days, we’ll cut a dozen, 13 tracks. Believe me, you’ll be transported. You’ll have an epiphany. You’ll actually have some fun making this record.
And you know, that’s exactly what happened! I went down, we didn’t have much of a budget, it was a low budget album, but some wonderful people that are on that record: Chuck Mitchell, who loved the idea and wanted to help as much as possible within the ‘new’ financial picture in the record business is quite different from the way it was years ago…..they offered us everything they could and believed in us. So, really, that’s the way it got started. We cut 13 tracks in two days and every track, to my ear, was more beautiful than the one before. I kept crying. I kept laughing. I didn’t play a lot of piano on this record. I ended up only doing one piano track on the JD Souther track. I was too busy. I sort of put that one together. Mostly, I just listened to these guys play and marveled at the consistency of the musicianship and they way they listened to each other and they way they related to each other’ playing in a kind of awe. From the first moment of the first note of the first track, there was something special about this project. It just seemed to be a communicable disease that everybody caught who became involved as we moved down the line.
I wouldn’t want anybody to think that we intended to create a celebrity album. That was the last thing on our list. We didn’t think we could afford it and it wasn’t what we set out to do. But celebrity artists began to become involved. Lucinda Williams sort of asked if she could be involved in the song “Galveston” because it meant so much to her personally. Of course, I was honored. I’ve always had an idea that “Galveston” would make a great duet, that it’d be a great dialog between a man and a woman. The man being a soldier, far away from home and the woman at home giving her side of things, waiting to see if this guys gonna come back. So, that worked. That came off so beautifully.
Other people fell into place. Guys like Vince Gill, who I have a long-standing friendship with and we’re both Oklahomans, we wrote the Centennial state song for Oklahoma in 2007. Vince and I wrote that together and we performed quite a few engagements together. We got to know each other. Amy (Grant) and I knew each other for years. She sang the part of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in this cantata I wrote called ‘The Animals’ Christmas’, so I’ve known her for a long time.
It was like bits and pieces of family coming together and saying “Oh, you’re doing this. I wouldn’t mind being asked! I sure love that ‘Oklahoma Nights’!”
There were occasions where actual love affairs where already in place. Jackson Browne loved “P.F. Sloan”. Lucinda loved “Galveston”. Billy Joel has made no secret that he is a special fan of “Wichita Lineman” and I’ve heard him do it a coupla times: one time when they gave me the Johnny Mercer Award at the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame. Bit by bit, in dribs and drabs, these things came together. I’ve worked with Michael McDonald on many many albums and it just wouldn’t have been right to do it without him. He just proved once more that he’s just the greatest background singer in the world, never mind that he’s a superstar! There’s just nobody who can touch him when he does all those parts.
In so much that we were conscious of it, we did not contrive to make a celebrity album. It was something that just kind of evolved as a labor of love and people stopped by the studio.
Willie Nelson stopped by the studio to do the song that had been recorded years ago by Waylon Jennings called “If You See Me Getting Smaller”. It was one of the funniest things in the world. Willie came into the studio and Freddie Molin was there and Willie said “Hi!” and Freddie said “Hi!” And he (Willie) says “Where’s the mic?” then he went in and sang a couple of takes and then he said “What do ya think?”. And Freddie says “I think it’s great!” and Willie says, “If you see me getting smaller, I’m leaving! Tell Jimmie I love him!” and he walks out and his bus was parked outside the studio!
So many cool things happened making this record. It was just a great thing. If nothing ever happened at all to make this album popular or successful, I’d be happy with this whole experience. It’s just been so great.

Q: When sitting down to figure out which songs to choose for the album, what was your criteria?
JW: Well, I wasn’t the one picking. It was really up to Fred. His philosophic picture of this album was very clear. This is, to him, Jimmy Webb comes home. He puts all those high falutin city airs behind him and he’s not singing for crowds at the Regency Hotel. He’s coming home to get back to where he came from, vocally. And I think that’s pretty much right. The first cut on the album says “Put the top down on this ol’ mustang and I’ll buy you a bottle of wine. We’ll head down south to see the old gang, I wanna see some friends of mine”. That was pretty much the philosophy of the album in a phrase. And he followed that line with consummate skill in picking the songs because there’s almost a kind of meandering story that kind of holds this whole thing together. To my mind, and I’ve deliberately made a lot of concept albums, this one seems to hold together in a very nice way right up until the moment when Linda Ronstadt and I sing “I Love You And That’s All I Know”. She was officially retired. She had had a press conference and said “I’m not going to sing anymore”. And this is because of some problems I still don’t feel comfortable talking about because to me, it’s just a tragedy. It’s a modern day tragedy. I can weep over the fact that Linda has had some vocal problems and she feels like she doesn’t want to burden the public with her vocal problems. And so she had officially hung it up, which I think is a tragedy in the history of American Pop music. Yet, when she heard the track that we had prepared with just this simple guitar, I said “Freddie, I can’t ask Linda to do this. I can’t and I won’t because I know how she feels. This is not a good time. “ Freddie said “What would you say to sending her the guitar track?” I said “I think that would be cool. I think that is the only way that you can approach it, frankly” And he MP3’d the file out to her and a couple of days later, she e-mailed back and said “I have to try this. If you’ll come to San Francisco and record me, I’ll try to do this but I’m not sure that I’ll be able to”. I think what we got from her is just as pure and precious as anything Linda ever sang. I’m hoping that that will be an encouragement to her and that in some way, it helps her resume her career. That’s what I’d like to see. It certainly is the capper on the album for me. Its just a moment when you kind of pause and you think about some of the tracks you’ve heard and you think about Michael McDonald. You think about Vince Gill on “Oklahoma Nights”. You think about Mark Knopfler on “The Highwayman”. And it seems like some of those things were meant to be. They don’t sound forced. They don’t sound like someone trying to ram a square peg into a round hole. I think we were lucky but we were also dealing with consummate talent. We weren’t dealing with people who….this wasn’t their first rodeo, you know? There’s something to be said for experience and we had plenty of it on that album.

SPAZ: When an artist goes in and revisits their back catalog, may times it does sound forced, as if the artist is just going through the motions… but I never sensed that on this album. It all sounds so natural. Billy Joel sounds better than he has in decades.
JW: I’m so pleased to hear you say that. When he comes in (on the second verse), I start crying.

SPAZ: The way I got into Jimmy Webb was, as a kid, I was a big Glen Campbell fan. In fact, Glen was my first concert back in 1969 or 1970. In the years since then, I’ve heard some of Glen’s live albums where it just sounds like he was sleepwalking through the songs. But when I heard his voice on “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” on Just Across The River, it blew my mind. I don’t think he’s sounded better. He just sounds amazing!
JW: We had done a concert the night before in Nashville with the Nashville Philharmonic and, to tell you the truth, without sounding like I’m bragging too much, it was just one hell of a concert. I came out and I did about 35 or 40 minutes and then he came out and we did all the hits together and we did “McArthur Park” with the full Philharmonic and, believe me, it’s a closer. So, we were on our little puffy white cloud because we had really scored in Nashville… and Nashville is a place where people are pretty discerning about what they listen to…. And we had really done well. There was really good word of mouth on the street about how Glen and I had performed together. And Freddie, that night, before he went to bed, called me up at the hotel and said “Somehow or other, we have to get Glen in the studio tomorrow. You guys have never recorded together. And I started thinking… oh my God, we’ve never recorded together! In all these years, we never recorded together. And he said “This will be an historic moment. You guys were great last night. We have to get this!” So, he called Glen and Glen was there on time. He came walking in and said “Where’s the booth?”. He walked in and listened to me sing the first verse and came in. It was basically a one-taker… we might have had two takes on it, but Glen is phenomenally strong as a vocalist at 74 years of age. He sings like a kid.
Usually, we resign ourselves to a decline in our vocal prowess as we get older. I think it also depends a lot on the way people sing. Some people are really hard on their voices. Some people would say that’s because they don’t sing correctly. I certainly don’t sing correctly and I’m getting stronger as I get older. I think you reach a certain point where you do begin to fall off but Glen Campbell has, by no means, reached a point where he can’t sing anything he wants to sing. He sings all those songs in the original keys as well. The aging singer’s trick is to just to start dropping things down a half step and then a whole step and then two whole steps, but Glen’s never done that. I know his show forwards and backwards and he does everything in the same key he recorded it in. I just find him to be an American treasure. I hope that there are people out there who appreciate and love him as much as I do. I’ve made no secret that I would like to write another Glen Campbell album and do it with him before it’s too late. I don’t know whether we’ll get a chance to do it or not.

SPAZ: Were there any finished recordings that didn’t make the album?
JW: No, there really weren’t. As it was, we were one over and you always have to go back to the record company and bicker around to get that 13th song on the album. In this case, you get your money’s worth.

SPAZ: How does it feel that you are mentioned in the same breath as other songwriters like Burt Bacharach, Richard Rogers, Lennon & McCartney and other legends?
JW: I feel flattered. The night I got the Johnny Mercer Award, it was such an emotional night for me because Billy (Joel) gave it to me. I think that there’s a disbelief…. But I’m certainly flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as Bacharach and Hal David, who I worshipped as a teenager. To me, it’s gratifying and rewarding to see your music last for so many years. I think it would hurt to be 40-50 years old and look around and have no one playing or listening to your music anymore. I think that wouldn’t feel good. I’ve been blessed to see my music performed right up to the present day. I’ve been blessed to be able to get away with this for so long without anyone saying “He doesn’t really know how to do this!”

SPAZ: What’s next for Jimmy Webb?
JW: Right now, I’m writing my first ground-up Broadway show, which is an idea that I’ve actually been working on in the back of my mind for many many years and I finally just decided that I’m not going to get any younger… and its never going to get any easier to get a Broadway show on. I’ve written several and I’ve had several failed attempts to get these shows on but this is a dream of mine, something I really want to do. I’m doing that…and pecking away at my memoirs. I’ve got an offer to tell these wacky stories, I’ve got thousands of them. The first two chapters of this book, I’ve pretty much devoted to my father and my grandfather because I felt like there’s not point in writing a book about me without telling you where this all comes from. Sometimes you get a little resistance there from the publisher: “Can’t we get into some sex and Rock ‘n’ Roll right away? Maybe on the first page?” (all laugh)

SPAZ: You should just a glossary at the beginning that sez ‘Sex with so-and-so: Page 17!”
JW: (laughing) That’s a good idea!

SPAZ: What is currently spinning in your CD and DVD players?
JW: In my car is Chopin’s Piano Concerto #1. In my house, I have a boombox. I don’t have a big fancy stereo at all. And, believe it or not, Just Across The River is in my boombox (laughs). I haven’t heard it in a few days, but I cannot deny that I like to listen to it. Some of my albums, I just didn’t listen to because I didn’t like ‘em! (laughs).

Thanks to Jimmy Webb
Special thanks to Robin Siegel, Tony Pellegrino and Mike Logan

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