By Ken Sharp
While she wasn’t a songwriter per se, Linda Ronstadt, blessed with one of music’s most extraordinary voices, shone as a masterful stylist and interpreter, expertly navigating her way through a rich and diverse songbook. Today, sadly, Linda can no longer sing, a result of her suffering from the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. However, with the release of her first live album ever, Live in Hollywood, fans can revel in that beautiful and robust voice once more. The album finds Linda and a stellar band featuring guitarists Danny Kortchmar and Kenny Edwards, drummer Russ Kunkel, pedal steel guitarist Dan Dugmore, bassist Bob Glaub, Little Feat keyboardist Billy Payne and singers Wendy Waldman and Ronstadt producer Peter Asher, delivering a passionate and heartfelt set of new material culled from her latest release at the time, Mad Love, alongside a bevy of classic Ronstadt favorites like her signature smash hit, “You’re No Good,” J.D. Souther’s “Faithless Love,” “Blue Bayou,” Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy,” Warren Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and the Lowell George penned gem, “Willin’.” Away from the spotlight since she stopped singing, Linda rarely consents to doing interviews. We were fortunate to spend some time with this revered Rock and Roll Hall of Fame icon to discuss Live in Hollywood, her love of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album and much more.
Goldmine: I understand the tapes for Live In Hollywood were recently discovered?
Linda Ronstadt: Well, I didn’t know the show existed. It was a coincidence that (producer) John Boylan was soccer dads with another guy and he knew where those tapes were stored. It was kind of amazing. To be completely honest, I never liked listening to anything I’ve done in the past because I can’t fix it anymore, it’s already re-recorded. This was recorded for a television special so it’s heavily compressed but John did the best he could with the sound. I do think the sound could have been so much bigger had it been recorded properly and not for a TV special.
GM: As a live performer, what were the biggest challenges you faced?
LR: Well, traveling every day and never being home were big challenges I faced while touring. I never liked to travel that much. I’m a homebody and I like being home so all the traveling while touring was difficult. But now I am home, not by choice (laughs) but I’m happy to be home. I don’t get out very much.
GM: By contrast, what were the best parts about playing live?
LR: The best moments for me playing live were when you sang a phrase or a chorus really well and everybody would feel it. Then the next night it would be different. You’d go, “Last Thursday that song was burning, let’s get back to that.” Playing live shows, it’s different every night.
GM: Do you feel you were able to breathe new life into songs in a live setting and make them come alive more than their recorded counterparts?
LR: Yes, I think I learned them better by doing them every night. Seems (like) I learned them by recording them but then I refined them onstage. But I didn’t get to hear those recordings so I just had to get by on feel. But I always knew I sang them better after having sung them onstage for a while.
GM: Do you wish you had turned the tables and gone out first to perfect a song and then went into the studio to cut it?
LR: It doesn’t work that way too much. I tried to do it one time. We went to Hawaii and rehearsed the whole album and it didn’t come out any better.
GM: The band you worked with in 1980
LR: Danny Kortchmar is such a brilliant guitar player. He played a solo on a song I recorded called “Hurt So Bad” and his solo is my favorite guitar solo on any record I’ve ever made. It comes right out of my voice. We were flying the same air space and trading back and forth. It was a real inspired thing; he made me sing better.
GM: Speaking of “Hurt So Bad” and “I Can’t Let Go,” another song featured on Live In Hollywood, what inspired you to covering those two tunes?
LR: I just loved those songs. Songs have to be about my life in some way or another and maybe in a way you don’t even realize. You can have the first part of a song be about one thing and then the second part of a song be about something else or the first part of a line could be about something and the second part of a line could be about something else. It’s very unconscious.
GM: There was always some kind of personal stake or personal connection you’d need to have in order to cut outside material?
LR: Right, always. That personal connection had to be there in everything I chose.
GM: Throughout your career, you relied on material written by other songwriters. What’s the key to being a successful interpreter and bringing your own stamp on those songs?
LR: Well, I like doing it but I don’t like listening to it (laughs) ‘cause I’m always disappointed in something or the other. It’s just the nature of art; I’d rather do it than hear it. You have to listen to it in order to learn and that’s why the studio is such a good environment for making a record because you can keep developing it as you go. Playback is reality and you have to deal with it.
GM: What’s the key to finding your way inside a song?
LR: Well, for me I always figure out what the bass is doing and I sing off of that or the rhythm guitar. I figure out what the groove is and then everything comes together off of that.
GM: When you’d cut vocals in the studio, would you primarily record live with the band or add your vocals afterwards as an overdub?
LR: Most everything I sang was live until maybe the Mad Love album which had some overdub stuff on it. I started really overdubbing on the Get Closer album. All the Nelson Riddle stuff is live and a lot of the Mexican stuff is live, too. I prefer to work that way. I like to sing with the basic track and then overdub but that kind of Mexican music is hard to do because it’s not quantized, you can’t put it on a click track. I loved recording in the ’90s where I could lay down a click track and sing to that until I got it right. It was a good practice tool. I’d sing in small increments, maybe sing one verse and keep working that way. Maybe I’d sing one verse five times and combine it and then sing a second verses five times and combine it.
GM: This live album was recorded in 1980 in support of the Mad Love album. With the Mad Love album you embraced the power pop/new wave sensibilities exploding at the time and recorded songs by Elvis Costello (“Girls Talk,” “Talking in the Dark,” Party Girl”) and Mark Goldenberg (“Mad Love,” “Justine” and “Cost of Love”).
LR: Mark Goldenberg walked into my living room one day; he was a friend of Kenny Edwards and he had songs he’d written and I said, “I’ll take those, those are really good.” I was impressed with the intensity and the emotion of Mark’s writing, especially with a song like “Mad Love.” All love is mad (laughs). There’s no way to tell whether it’s sane or not, there never is. (laughs) As for Billy Steinberg and “How Do I Make You,” he came into my house with Wendy Waldman and she said, “Billy’s writing really good songs” and I said, “Well, let’s hear some” and I thought they were good songs so I recorded it. What made me know that “How Do I Make You” was right for me is I really know where I live and when I can sing something. Sometimes I pick songs that I really can’t sing that well but I love the song so much I want to do it. But with “How Do I Make You” I was pretty sure I could sing that.
GM: Do you remember the first time someone said to you, “Wow, Linda, you have an amazing voice!”
LR: No. (laughs)
GM: Oh, c’mon!
LR: (laughs) I remember when I was little and in school they’d say we’re all gonna sing and I’d sing and the other children would turn around and look at me like, “Why are you singing? We’re just getting through this here.” But I always took it seriously and I’d sing out.
GM: You were performing “You’re No Good” live before you went into the studio and the version on record is quite different. I’d always heard that you didn‘t like the breakdown section in “You’re No Good” and thought it was too Beatlesque, is that true? And if so, did you grow to like it?
LR: No, I liked it. The person I was with didn’t like it and said, “Why is this turning into a Beatle record?” I said, “Play it again” and then said, “That’s great.” When we recorded I was usually there all the time for every note that goes down. But in that case we’d worked so long on “You’re No Good” that I wanted to go out and eat dinner and somebody came by and took me to dinner and we came back. They played the track and I heard that section and Andrew Gold’s guitar solo and I thought it was great. “You’re No Good” was a song that I picked as an afterthought. We needed an uptempo song for our show and I had too many ballads so we started playing that in our live shows and this was before I recorded it. It had a different feel to it live. I wasn’t that invested in that song too much. I take that back, I was invested in all of my songs, but that was a song that I didn’t love singing like I loved singing a song like “Heart Like A Wheel.” I was much more interested in singing a song like “Heart Like a Wheel” but we were tired of playing it the way we’d been playing it. Ed Black came up with that guitar riff and then Kenny (Edwards) jumped on it and then Andrew played all the solos. Peter (Asher) had a lot to do with it. Peter really ran that arrangement so it was organized and tight and he added a lot of things at the end like little handclaps with the string parts. I was happy with it. I think Peter did a really good job producing that record but I didn’t think I sang it so well.
GM: For you, what’s the difference between a good and great singer?
LR: It’s all subjective. Some people might think someone is a great singer and I wouldn’t and I’d think someone is a great singer and they wouldn’t.
GM: Is the attraction more about if a singer exudes a specific emotion and less about their technical ability?
LR: Oh, technical ability is also important. Story is first. Story is the most important thing and then how you deliver it is the next thing but it’s different with every piece of music. With opera, technical ability is paramount. Being in tune and in time and having the proper textures to your voice is important. That being said there’s a real difference between Plácido Domingo and Enrico Caruso but they’re both equally good.
GM: When you hear a singer you really like what is it that grabs you first?
LR: If it makes me cry, that’s the test.
GM: Who are the singers that make you cry?
LR: Well, Enrico Caruso to start with. Martha Wainwright is another one. When she sings in French she sometimes gets me to cry; she’s so good.
GM: You recently undertook a series of Conversations with Linda Ronstadt shows, what’s that experience been like for you to revisit your career?
LR: (laughs) It’s hard to say. When something’s done it’s done. I’m looking forward, I’m not looking back. But when I’m going through pieces of my life it sometimes helps bring it alive for a minute. These events are hard for me because I have to travel and it takes a lot out of me. It grew out of my book tour where I was speaking for my book tour and then together were people that wanted to hire me to do these events so I did it but I can’t really do it anymore. It’s too hard on me physically.
GM: I attended the Conversation with Linda Ronstadt event in Los Angeles and I was particularly moved when you played the old recording of your father singing.
LR: He was really good. He had a beautiful voice, he was a good harmony singer and he knew beautiful songs. We used to sing over the phone together.
GM: Have there been any songs you’ve heard that you said, if I could sing again, that’s a song I’d love to record.
LR: (long pause) Yes. It’s an opera song that Caruso recorded called “Una furtiva lagrima” that I thought it would be funny to take a shot at it and sing it in my chest voice instead of singing it in my head voice. Singing it as a tenor would sing it. I like that song and wish I could have sung it. It’s beautiful. I don’t even know what opera it’s from. Did you ever see the movie Matchpoint by Woody Allen?
LR: It’s in there when he’s getting ready to murder the woman. You hear this Caruso song whose title means into the hidden tear. Matchpoint was a redo of Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. I don’t know if Woody Allen would admit to it but it’s true; I’ve never talked to him about it. When I was watching that movie it made me feel the same way that Crime and Punishment... how really creepy it is to murder somebody. We use it as entertainment but it’s really creepy. But if you actually murdered somebody, especially somebody who was innocent, it would just creep you out. It would destroy your soul. So that song is dealing with the horror that he’s gonna kill somebody and that song has got such emotional intensity that it can stand up to that scene.
GM: Brian Wilson guested on your Cry Like A Rainstorm album supplying background vocals for the Jimmy Webb song “Adios.” I know you’re a big fan of Brian as a writer and the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds.
LR: I bought Pet Sounds in 1970 and listened to it unendingly but those songs were very available on the radio. They say the record wasn’t successful at the time but I heard many of those songs on the radio when it came out, “God Only Knows, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Caroline No” and “Sloop John B.” I mean, all those songs were hits. Today, if you have one hit from an album it’s considered a great success and that had three or four hits. There was an innocence to that record and an innocence to Brian that was beautiful. Before the singing starts on his songs, you’re grabbed by the emotion and wonder of his work. The way the chords were voiced gave it gravitas. There was an inner beauty to those songs; it’s very sophisticated music and he made it accessible and that’s a hard thing to do. From Pet Sounds, I really love “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and I did “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” on my Winter Light record. “Don’t Talk” is one of the most exquisite and beautifully constructed songs I’ve ever sung; the range and the melody came right out of the faerie bowers. In Ireland they say the faerie’s music was the most beautiful of all. “Don’t Talk” is just such a beautiful melody and such a sophisticated song coming out of a young person, especially at a time when the culture didn’t support that approach to music particularly. It just came out of the sky somehow. The architecture of the song is so exquisitely formed. If you can sing, it gives you something you can perform on because it goes to all of the beautiful places in your voice. I learned a tremendous amount about singing hearing Brian sing. I love Brian and I love his work. He’s a true genius as a musician and I love the way that he writes harmonies and the way the words fit them in that pure, straight-forward way. He’s one of the few that were able to structure harmonies and voicings like the great classical masters. There’s something about Brian’s earnestness and brilliance and “aw shucks” attitude combined that seeped into the music.
GM: In the tale of your musical career, is there a lesser acknowledged hero in the Linda Ronstadt story?
LR: That’s hard to say. My heroes were the other people I made music with or the people I admired as musicians. They weren’t people that I necessarily knew. Mostly I loved Chavela Vargas. If I would have heard her earlier in my life everything I would have sang in my whole life would have been different,
GM: In what way?
LR: She had such an emotional intensity. Mostly the stuff that was recorded on her was when she was 90. She was a great singer in the ’40s but she was gay and she was discriminated against because of that. She was also an alcoholic and she kind of wrecked her life. She had an amazing comeback in her 80s in Europe; she was rediscovered and reintroduced to Mexico and then sort of died a national hero. I didn’t hear her as a child growing up; it was only when I was an adult when I heard her sing. Had I heard her when I was a child my whole life would have been different. My whole singing life would have been different.
GM: Your long-time producer Peter Asher was a vital champion in your career.
LR: Peter Asher was really good at keeping the music organized and keeping it from going into a muddle. He made contributions to the arrangements and we all did but he was really great at keeping the music from sliding into chaos. And that takes a special kind of talent to do that because I’ve produced records before and I know what it’s like, Things can get away from you really fast. He was a really good producer.
GM: We recently lost James Ingram for whom you recorded a wonderful duet, “Somewhere Out There.” How do you remember James?
LR: I didn’t know him very well but I loved singing with him. He was a beautiful singer and a very sweet man. I didn’t get to sing with him over and over again like I did with Aaron Neville. I just met him during that time and we recorded together. We never played live. It’s a hard not to connect with somebody like that who sings that well. (laughs)