An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
One of the industry’s most respected and beloved artists, Linda Ronstadt’s music has touched millions of people in so many different ways. Mention her name to anyone older than 21 years of age and you’re likely going to get a different response from each of them. There are those that remember her magnificent voice on her many hits in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Others may have been impressed with her restless musical spirit – tackling a myriad of genres including Folk, Pop, New Wave, Rock, Country, Big Band, and more. Then there are the fans that have assimilated her music into their own lives, creating a soundtrack to the highs and lows of their journey through this world – her Canciones De Mi Padre and Mas Canciones albums have become classics for Mexican-American families while her albums of standards with Nelson Riddle brought generations together in musical harmony. Not many artists have been able to move through genres so effortlessly, but Linda’s love of the song made it seem so simple, yet so beautiful. Her constant support of musicians and songwriters - including Andrew Gold and Warren Zevon – brought much-needed attention to the talents of some amazing artists who were able to pursue their own successful careers thanks to Ronstadt. On top of all that, Ronstadt charted 38 Billboard Hot 100 singles, with 21 of them reaching the top 40. Surprisingly, she’s only had one #1 hit, “You’re No Good,” but did manage to reach #2 three separate times. And I haven’t even mentioned the numerous Grammys and other awards she’s won over the years. To say that Linda Ronstadt is a musical icon is putting it mildly while calling her a ‘legend’ is an understatement.
In April of 2014, Linda was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though she was eligible to be inducted many years ago, the folks that run the Hall of Fame finally saw the error of their ways and made sure she was part of this year’s ceremony. Unfortunately, Linda was not able to make it to the induction due to health reasons – in 2013, she revealed that she has Parkinson’s disease and can no longer sing or perform. While there are many artists who may feel they deserve a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ronstadt has remained humble and down-to-earth, not putting a lot of emphasis on her place in music history. For Linda, it’s always been about singing and the song – the two things she always felt the most passionate about. To coincide with the Hall of Fame festivities, Rhino Records has released Duets, a compilation of collaborations that she has recorded over the years. While the Aaron Neville duets may be her most successful, the collection is filled with equally exciting vocal performances with the likes of Ann Savoy, James Ingram, Frank Sinatra, Bette Midler, James Taylor, Dolly Parton, Don Henley, Emmylou Harris, and others. There is also a previously unreleased duet with Laurie Lewis that is magical. Duets is a great reminder of just a fraction of her amazing catalog. Perhaps its time to follow Linda’s lead and focus on the music again and Duets does just that.
A few days after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Awards show was held, Stephen SPAZ Schnee was lucky enough to spend a few moments chatting to Linda Ronstadt about Duets, her award, and so much more…
LINDA RONSTADT: (Laughing) It’s kind of going on without me. I’m not taking a very active roll with it. I sequenced the Duets record. That was hard to do. I always do my own sequencing anyway, but then I realized as I was struggling with it. Who cares about a sequence because everybody has downloads anyway, you know? I mean, the way that records come out - it’s just so different from the last time I even put a record out (2006).
SPAZ: I thought it flowed very well because it almost takes you from one mood to the next.
LINDA: Well, that’s what I’d hoped to do. I tried to make it so that the most traditional stuff began and then as things got more complicated in music - and wound up with the orchestral stuff. There was a sort of a musical evolution. I had a lot of pressure to put the hits up front.
SPAZ: I thought the recordings you did with Ann Savoy (for the 2006 album Adieu False Heart) are fantastic. How did that particular project come about?
LINDA: We’re just buddies. Ann is the reigning queen of Cajun music down in Louisiana. She’s a wonderful person. She’s also a folklorist and her husband is one of the great accordion players, and he also makes the best, this particular kind of french accordion, The Acadian it’s called, and it’s the one that’s the most prized by people that play Cajun music and French music. It’s a particular kind of accordion, and it’s all made by hand. Beautifully, beautifully crafted. And he just sits there – he has a farm, and he makes those accordions, and they play music all day long. When you come up to their little farmhouse, it’s like the place is rocking on the foundation. (Laughing) Talking about having a band - Ann said, “Well, I had to give birth to my band.” Her sons are just outrageously talented musicians. Their two girls are also musical and they’re all very artistic. They’re Cajun, so they speak French all day to each other. They’re just fabulous people. I love that place. Anyway, Ann finds just beautiful songs. She doesn’t think in terms of commercial value at all. It can be a little frustrating because when you think about making a record, you think well, somebody’s got to want to buy this, but her songs are all so beautiful - I always fall in love with them and just want to record those. So that’s what we did on that record. We didn’t give it over to commercial stuff. We picked songs we loved.
SPAZ: What was the inspiration behind covering “Walk Away Renee?” I’ve always felt that song has one of the most beautiful melodies, but so many versions don’t really get to the heart of the melody. I felt that your version was probably one of the best versions I’ve heard.
LINDA: Oh wow, I’m so glad you think that. I’ve never heard any other version but The Left Banke. I’ve loved the song my whole life and never could understand the words. You know, we got together and we’d sit around and say we’ll do all traditional stuff and we won’t do any kind of current modern stuff. And then we went, let’s do “Walk Away Renee.” It was like that. We were just playing to it on the guitar and we started going through the chord progression. Ann’s a good musician. She plays accordion and fiddle and guitar and everything, banjo, if she wants. We were running through the chord changes of that song and we said that’s so beautiful, we have to learn it. And we have the internet now – we can get the lyrics, which was fantastic! If I had the lyrics in the ‘60s, I would’ve known what the song was about!
SPAZ: Sometimes it’s the melody that speaks louder than the words.
LINDA: And the way the chords are voiced - it gets you in like the first two chords, just to have some kind of note in the bass that is in an unusual place and you start crying, you know? I love that.
LINDA: Well, that was a project that never got off the ground. Somebody was trying to do a project that was a tribute album to Hazel Dickens. She’s a traditional singer, and I think they just never found a deal. It was about the time that all record companies collapsed when they were shopping for a deal with that. And, it just never quite materialized. In the meantime, the track was languishing for years and I finally said, “Can I have that track and put it on my record because I like it?” (Laughs) So, we made arrangements to get it from the producer and make sure he got paid. It was an easy track because there are only two voices. I like it. I thought it came out really good. I love singing with Laurie Lewis. Singing with somebody like Laurie or Ricky Skaggs - they know all those strange Bluegrass curly Qs and you just have to learn ‘em and sing right along with ‘em and then you sound like you’re singing it, too. You sound like you know what to do, which I don’t. I do the best I can!
SPAZ: The most commercially successful tracks on Duets were the songs you recorded with Aaron Neville. Your voices just work so beautifully together. Was that something that you were hoping would work or had you sung with him before you actually recorded the album?
LINDA: I just thought Aaron Neville was one of the best singers I’ve ever heard. “Tell It Like It Is” – it’s one of the most beautiful vocal performances of any in the history of Pop music. It’s just an incredible thing. Everybody that sings loves to listen to Aaron sing. When he and the Neville Brothers would come to LA, we’d just go hear them all the time. We’d all go hear him, but I never had the nerve to go and meet him. I was intimidated. So I was in New Orleans and we were playing the World’s Fair down there with Nelson Riddle. Plas Johnson (saxophonist) is from Louisiana, and he said “Hey, the Neville Brothers are playing,” so immediately the whole band, all the roadies, everybody, the crew – we all went to hear them. So we walked in and sat down and they start playing and then he sang “Arianne” and he dedicated it to me. I was amazed. I didn’t think he’d ever heard of me. But he asked would I come up and sing. So, I just did what I never will do – is just to go up on stage without rehearsal…and I just walked up on stage like a little zombie and he said we’re gonna sing some Doo Wops, and I said fine. I can Doo Wop. Because it’s basically singing in a soprano register, which is where I work and that’s where he goes too, way up high, in a falsetto. So we started doing that and I thought, well, we sound pretty good together, you know. I climbed into my bed that night at the Royal Orleans and I thought, “God, we sounded great together,” and the next morning I woke up and I thought “You idiot, everybody thinks they sound great when they sing with Aaron Neville!” So, I just thought I can’t really think of making a record with him because I’m sure everybody wants to make a record with him. But then he invited me to come sing with him about three months later at this benefit he did for the Hunger and Homelessness in New Orleans. It’s the only money there is for it because they don’t have a state tax there so…. They have property tax, so there is no money for people who are hungry and poor except for when they do this stuff. So, I went back there and sang with him and we went, “Okay, we gotta make a record together.” That’s what we did.
SPAZ: These days, with collaborations, it seems easy. Somebody records something, sends a file, and somebody a thousand miles away will record their part. Were most of your duets recorded together in the same studio?
LINDA: Yeah. A lot of the stuff we worked out in the living room for hours and hours before we did it. But, the one with Frank Sinatra, obviously, a guy at that age would be going in day after day and laying those parts in kind of carefully. He was very, very far advanced in age and seeing vocal deterioration by the time he got to that. But, as Rosemary Clooney would say, “He was still dangerous.” He was such a great singer. I knew the song (“Moonlight In Vermont”) as a child because I had sung along with this recording of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong for years and years. So, I knew the song, I knew the melody, and I knew a lot of the things that you could do with it from Louis Armstrong playing, improvising on his horn plus Ella Fitzgerald singing all over the place. You knew where you could go with it. I just decided to improvise and just sing - try to sing all around and make a little sound halo that would go all around his voice and kind of prop him up where he needed propping up. Because I know what it’s like. I mean, at that time I was at the peak of my vocal power. I could sing pretty much anything I wanted. But he was at the end of his. Looking back, now that I can’t sing, I really appreciate what he was doing because I’m sure he had to really fight for every note at that point.
SPAZ: Apart from the people you sang with, you also collaborated with a lot of talented people – Andrew Gold was part of your band and you covered Warren Zevon songs…
LINDA: I loved Warren Zevon’s music. I just loved it. It wasn’t necessarily appropriate for me to sing “Carmelita.” I’m like this girl that likes to have nice china and (laughs) putting on a linen tablecloth… and then I’m singing “Carmelita, I think I’m all strung out on heroin on outskirts of town.” I mean, I just like the song. I wanted to sing it so… I’ve never been a heroin addict, I have to say. I just felt like I was doing journalism, you know?
SPAZ: You know, I thought there was a lot of camaraderie and mutual respect back in the ‘70s between the musicians because you’ve always spoken so highly of your contemporaries, but that doesn’t really seem to be that common these days…
LINDA: Well, I don’t know the culture these days. I don’t know these kids that are doing stuff. They make records in a totally different way. We made them in a lot more organic way. I mean, I’m for overdubbing. I did my best vocals overdubbing in little tiny pieces because I could get the most vocal freedom that way. If it sounded good, you kept it. If it didn’t sound good, nobody’s ever gonna hear it again so you didn’t have to worry – you just sang. I could do as much wildcat singing as I wanted and not have to worry about disgracing myself. So, the earlier stuff that we did where all the vocals were live, I had to sing a lot more carefully and my voice would get tired, and I was just too constrained, you know? I think my singing got better as the years went on.
SPAZ: Once you became a successful solo star, it was so interesting to hear what you were gonna do next. Was it going to be Rock? Country? New Wave? Did you choose which direction you were going to go in or were they dictated by the label?
LINDA: The label never picked anything. In fact, the label used to just go white at the gills. They would just go, “My God, what’s she going to do now?” And they were nice about it. I mean, at some point they couldn’t stop me, so I just kept going (laughs). But they were justifiably concerned when I said I’m going to do a record of old Mexican songs that nobody’s heard for the last 50 years… and it will be all in Spanish (laughs). I didn’t have any idea that I could even sell that kind of a record in Mexico, let alone the United States. I wasn’t thinking about it. But, as it turned out, people underestimate the Mexican-American market up here. I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t even know it existed. That was before we found out that the station that had the most listeners in LA was the Banda station! I knew what Banda music was, but I didn’t know it was on the radio. That’s how dumb I was. (laughs)
SPAZ: Out of all the music you’ve touched on over the years, is there a style that you preferred over any?
LINDA: I really was set free and liberated when I got to sing American Standards. I just love those songs and they just liberated my voice. I could belt, I could croon, I could sing to my heart’s content. And I could improvise or not or respect the melody and the melodies were so good you didn’t have to mess with them too much. But, the way that I felt my most authentically true self was singing harmonies with my brothers or with whoever I could find in the band that could sing well. When I was traveling with the Mexican music, that’s what I loved. I loved that.
SPAZ: If given the opportunity, is there anybody today that you would collaborate with?
LINDA: Oh, I’d love to sing with Little Joe y La Familia. I wish I could’ve just followed him around for a couple of years because he really does all the stuff that I did. He does Standards. He does real Rock and Roll – like traditional Rock and Roll. And he does Mexican music. He knows how to do Rancheras. He can sing Boleros. You know, he was at the same musical combo – he came from the same musical bowl of menudo that I did. The other guy is from Los Lobos, David Hildago. We sang together a little bit right at the end when my voice had already tanked, and it was nothing but an exercise in frustration for me because I think that I could really sing with him. I know where he comes from really well, and I know sort of what his influences are, and I think we could sing together, and we did talk about recording together at some point, but it was just …. I couldn’t do it, you know? That just broke my heart. I love his singing.
SPAZ: There are so many different aspects to your career, which work in your favor because you’ve touched people in different ways throughout the years.
LINDA: That’s a nice thing. I mean, I’m glad somebody liked it. When you start straying so far off the path, you never know who is going to follow (laughs). I wasn’t looking back.
SPAZ: Now, what were your thoughts on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
LINDA: I have to give you a little clue here - I’ve never seen anything to do with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I didn’t even know it was a TV special until last year - somebody told me. So, you know, what do I know? I don’t play music for prizes. It’s not important to me. It’s always nice to be acknowledged and nobody likes to work in a vacuum. With that being said, it was awfully nice of Glenn Frey to put on his clothes and trudge down to Barclays Theater and make a little speech, which he sent to me, and I really appreciated. What a dear soul he is, and for him to say nice things about me is just very touching to me. Otherwise, who cares? (laughs) Well, I don’t know what to say. It’s not a thing I think about. Other people have thought about it 50 million times more than I ever have.
SPAZ: I know that you’ve said that a lot of your music isn’t Rock and Roll, but I think more or less it’s the impact that you’ve had in your career…
LINDA: Well, I’m a ballad singer, and that’s the most I’ll ever do to categorize myself. I like singing ballads for the most part, but I never wanted to be constrained to any one kind of music. I just wanted to do whatever the hell I felt like doing. It’s all swimming a little bit against the current. I didn’t like the way that that whole thing was. People, music critics particularly, kept trying to define what I was. What are you gonna say? Well, only Rock and Roll matters and you’re only cool if you’re The Rolling Stones? What are you going to do with somebody like Leonard Cohen? What are you going to do with somebody like Paul Simon or Randy Newman? Those guys are just brilliant… or Jimmy Webb? I mean, they’re just brilliant, brilliant song craftsmen. And they don’t necessarily write a Chuck Berry song. Chuck Berry was a great American Folk poet, but you don’t have to be Chuck Berry to be hip. I mean, those people like Jann Wenner that would try to define whatever it was, they didn’t know what they were talking about. They didn’t know how to play music, and they didn’t know how to do it. They would categorize it in a way that was so excluding for a lot of people that were doing very worthy things out there. And then those people would become enormously successful, and they’d have to come around and go, “Oh well, these people are actually important.” (Laughs) What do you do? You just play, and you just try to do the best thing that you can do. I’m not in their category at all. I don’t think of myself as a great singer. I think I’m a pretty good singer, and I know what I did well and I know what I didn’t do well (laughs). A lot of my recordings have a good catalog of what I did not do very well because I learned how to do it by recording it and then I’d really perfect it when I’d get it out on the road for a while. It’s just a work in progress. Music is always a work in progress.
SPAZ: What’s next for Linda Ronstadt?
LINDA: Well, I’ll probably be seeing a lot of neurologists (laughs). I don’t have any great plan. I don’t like to travel - it’s really hard for me to do it now. Talking and walking and typing – all those kinds of things - writing with a pencil, I almost pretty much can’t do that anymore. So, I just kind of live my life a day at a time – today, if I can still walk and talk, that’s a good day.
SPAZ: What do you have currently spinning on your CD, DVD, record players?
LINDA: Oh you know who I’ve been listening to is Estrella Morente. I love her. She’s a singer from Spain. She’s a flamenco singer, and she has one of the great voices already of the century. You know, the century’s young, but she’s just an amazing singer. She’s a big star in Spain. She sang for Penelope Cruz in the movie Volver. Everybody thought Penelope Cruz was singing, and I went wow, I didn’t know she could sing like that. And I thought no, she’s not singing, she’s lip synching. Who in the world is that singer? And then you see Estrella Morente and she is just as beautiful as Penelope Cruz, and she’s singing away. She’s this gorgeous woman that just sings her butt off. I listen to her a lot. I spent a year listening to The Comedian Harmonists, this pre-World War II German harmony band – they were driven out of the country by Hitler because three or four of their members were Jewish so they broke ‘em up, unfortunately. They were just a great, great, group. Really incredible harmonies. And I spent about a year listening to Carlo Gesualdo, the Madrigal writer they killed in the 16th century. Amazing modern-feeling harmonies. Just scary weird harmonies. I don’t play it if I’m all by myself at home at night, just with other people around (laughs).
Thanks to Linda Ronstadt