(Click to read our cover story joint interview with John Leventhal and Rosanne Cash.)
Local 802 member John Leventhal is a guitarist, arranger, and Grammy-Award winning producer and songwriter. He is married to Rosanne Cash and co-wrote and produced her 2014 hit album, The River & The Thread, itself the winner of three Grammys. He sat down with fellow guitarist and Local 802 Executive Board member Andy Schwartz for an in-depth conversation about his career, his life and work with Rosanne, and his thoughts about the issues facing musicians today.
Andy Schwartz: One listen to The River & The Thread shows clearly that you are master of roots and country acoustic and electric guitar styles. You’ve also produced some great records for other singer-songwriters. We’re about the same age, both coming into the music business in the 1970s when most of the New York guitar players were working in the studios doing jingles and very commercial music, r&b, disco, etc. You went in a different direction. Take us back to the beginning of your career; there was a country and roots scene that ran parallel to the commercial music that was going on. So how did you find your way into that community and to this music that has really become your life?
John Leventhal: I don’t consider myself a country /roots musician, I just consider myself a musician. Yeah, living in New York there was kind of a rootsy, country scene but there were lots of precedents that were well known. Dylan is an entrée into that. The Beatles in their own way are an entrée into that, the Everly Brothers, hearing Chet Atkins, Rosanne’s father Johnny Cash, all of that seeped in. There were a lot of ways into it, and the blues, same thing, the sort of a nexus where that all meets. A large part of my heart loves that stuff and I was drawn to it. I love standards, Duke Ellington, Miles, Wes Montgomery, Stravinsky, and Debussy. I never studied music, for better or worse, but I don’t know what path I might have been led to had I studied it. Basically I was forced to use my ears to sort of suss out sort of the essence of all this kind of music. So I like to think I have kind of big ears, that I can kind of hear the big picture, which ultimately led me to be able to arrange and produce. So I was always a little bit schizophrenic musically in that I was involved in a lot of different scenes. I was involved in scenes that were very contemporary and pop and R & B oriented in the ‘70s and ‘80s, like Steely Dan. I loved it, and in fact one small highlight of my career was when Donald Fagan called me to play guitar with him a couple years ago. I also had this other world, this rootsy world, but I existed in and loved both. At the end of the day it was easier for me to be deeply and uniquely expressive in the world that wasn’t beholden to what was currently popular in jingles or radio, I sort of recognized that in the early to mid-80s and I had an epiphany: well, you can keep trying to be like a session player and play all this stuff and that’s cool but I recognized that the most unique thing I had was my sensibility for what we now call, for lack of a better phrase, roots music. That’s kind of how it happened, and it came to its first version of it working with Shawn Colvin. And at the same time I was always writing songs, so those two things sort of coincided with Shawn. I would record the songs with her, and I kind of had a vision as a musician and as an arranger as to how to make all these songs a little bit different that everyone else’s. And lucky enough I got to produce her first record, Steady On, and it won a Grammy.
I remembered some guys really wanting to be producers and always kind of going, they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Musically anyway. Not that you have to know what you’re doing musically to be a good producer, I‘ve discovered. I think you can be a good producer and not be astute in the language of music or in the particulars of harmony, melody, and rhythm but still have a kind of sensibility that can make the thing work. My thing isn’t that, my thing is that at heart I’m a writer and an arranger and that leads me to producing. So one of the groups I played with happened to be this great group of musicians and singers, it was Shawn Colvin, myself, Larry Campbell, Tony Garnier a great bass player who ended up playing with Dylan for 30 years, and Buddy Miller: we were all part of a vibrant roots/country scene in New York in the ‘80s. At the end of the day that part of who I was as a musician was a more powerful venue than trying to copy Donna Summer or Steely Dan or whatever the pop thing was at the moment. But I like to think the fact that I love pop music and I have a pop sensibility helped make whatever it is that I do in this kind of roots world a little more unique.
AS: As a producer, what do you bring to the recording experience for the singer -songwriters you’ve worked with? Is there a special set of skills or empathy needed to do this production work vs. other production jobs?
JL: I suppose there is because singer/songwriters tend to come, or at least the ones that I work with, well, they’re not bands, so you have to provide on some level what the musical background of their performance is going to be. So there are lots of decisions. When I work with Rosanne or Shawn Colvin or anybody it’s like, ok, what is the band going to be? As time has gone on, I’ve tended to become the band. It’s just something that’s happened, particularly with the advent of the accessibility of recording software, I was early on, like you, with sort of the home recording thing and learning how to be an engineer and I loved that part of it too.
AS: I started with a Teac 4 track.
JL: So did I. I was early on and being in control of the recording process too, and you were sort of liberated to make record quality recordings in your own controllable space. Before I became a producer I made my living primarily as a guitar player, but I owned a bass, I had a piano and I was always playing bass and piano and finally owned a set of drums. So over the years I’ve gotten to be a better bass player and a better pianist and a better drummer, so a lot of times particularly if I’m writing the songs with the artist which I tend to do the majority of the time. I’m writing and I’m also sort of processing what a recording of it would be like and invariably, since I have the technology in front of me, I’ll start playing all the parts. More often than not I’ll get it right and over the years I’ve gotten better at recognizing when it’s good to use myself as the band and when it can be better if somebody else is the band. So what am I bringing to it? I think my sensibility is three fold, in a way. What I learned early on – because I made some mistakes early on as a producer in which I got too enamored of the tracks. I was in love with Brian Wilson, and I was in love with the Beatles and Burt Bacharach and I wanted the tracks to be stunning – they had too much stuff going on. I felt that they overwhelmed the singers. So I learned pretty quickly that it’s all about the singer. Everything I do as a producer is how to frame the singer with interesting and compelling and unexpected events and musical things that never distract from or take the attention way from the singer. The other thing is that over the years I’ve gotten good at recognizing a good song, whether I’ve written it or not, so I’m super involved in song selection and song thought, and lyric thought and melody thought and it’s the next step below the singer. So the first thing is the singer is front and center, the second thing it’s got to be a great song, the third thing is it’s got to be a great record.
AS: How necessary is it when working as a producer to be pushing for something that is commercially viable. I noticed in one of the quoted comments that you made with Rosanne is that you like to think there could be a single out of an album, while she’s saying maybe it’s not necessary. But is that something that’s in part in your mind, if we did this or that, that this thing could be viable for radio play, or in the singer-songwriter modality is it better to be thinking just of a cohesive, coherent, album project?
JL: Here’s my take. It’s much much better to have a great, cohesive, soulful meaningful album. At this point. Because I’m not producing 19 year olds who are trying to compete with Katie Perry. It’s a different world in 2015 than it was in l995, it just is. I could make the perfect pop single of Rosanne, it will still never get played on the radio, it’s just not possible. There are certain formats that will play it but they are much, much smaller formats. Do I care about those smaller formats? Well I care about them in the sense that I know a lot of these people and they’re good people and I like having my records played on the radio as much as the next guy but I don’t let it dictate anything. The thing about my sensibility is I came up as a producer in an era where it was still possible to have hit records. Shawn Colvin had a hit record and who would have thought Shawn Colvin could have a hit record. I like the challenge of it and I hit the nail on the head once, and another time I arranged and played bass, organ and guitar on a hit record for Marc Cohn, Walking in Memphis, so I’ve floated around the sensibility of, oh man, I can do it, but then I’ve also failed. In doing the third album I produced for Shawn Colvin, after we had the hit, Sunny Came Home, there was a lot of pressure to produce another hit, that’s all they cared about it. And the only time where I actually tried to craft a hit in my life and it failed, nothing happened. So there’s just so much you can do. So having said that, all I really care about is making a deep, soulful, cohesive statement. But my heart not only loves roots music, I love pop music, so part of me is always thinking can it be a hit? And whether it’s a hit or not, I love the tradition of a great, classic catchy tune. I just love it. I don’t hear it as like, oh man, this has got to be a hit, I hope it’s a hit. I just hear it as, it’s great. It’s just another forum. You can make dark, murky, beautiful resonant music and you can make music that has a hook that you couldn’t believe and it zings you and I love all of that. If there’s real soul and feeling behind it. If it’s just a bunch of bs where it’s clear that there’s no integrity to it and no heart and soul then I don’t care about it and I think most of us can hear the difference like that. You can hear all the effort going into trying to make it something poppy and it’s done and you go, that’s great, it may appeal to my 12 year old, and there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m just not personally interested in it nor do I think I particularly have a talent for it.
AS: It’s interesting, listening to the concert at Adelphi University and to the album I immediately said to myself well there are a couple tracks here that are potentially radio, but one I had the most incredible reaction to was Night School because when I heard that I thought if anyone was going to play that on the radio it would be Jonathan Schwartz, who I’m sure you know from his years as an FM disk jockey, but he’s probably one of the few who is diverse enough to play Dylan and right up against Sinatra. But Jonathan Schwartz would love that track and maybe play it on his show: first of all it would jump out and say here’s a track by a renowned artist, it’s still her groove, her soul, her personality and the setting of it is so unique, it crosses that line between roots music and an American songbook type of sound and it’s a really fantastic arrangement.
JL: I’m glad you picked up on it because I think that is as much a statement of my sensibility as anything and Night School is my love for Kurt Weill. I actually like to think that I can create worlds where they kind of intersect in a weird way.
AS: You wear a lot of hats in your work and your life together with Rosanne, husband, father to a teenage son, Jacob, step father to Rosanne’s other children, as well as being a producer and arranger. You’re also very supportive and an intuitive bandleader based on what I witnessed at the live show at Adelphi University. So does this seem to be a natural, organic flow of activities and responsibilities or do you need to find some kind of separation of your roles in domestic life and work, or let’s say, compartmentalize to manage all this?
JL: It does seem in the last few years like we’ve done a lot together, probably more than we had in the 20 years prior to that. I think it’s partly that the last two records that I’ve done with Rosanne, written and produced, have done relatively well. The List and The River & The Thread. They’ve done well so we’ve tended to perform a lot more. There’s more happening so the performance part of our lives has taken up much more time and space than it had. We’ve been married for 20 years and together for 23 or whatever, and for the first 15 or 16 years of our relationship I had a very vibrant production thing going on so I was pretty busy in the studio; we didn’t perform that much, it was a smaller percentage of our time together. When I step back from it I feel we’re incredibly fortunate. It’s almost like we’ve built this brand together. And as a lot of the music industry is imploding, at least in the way that artists and writers and musicians can make money, and producers can make money. First of all, record labels are shrinking, budgets are shrinking, back ends are shrinking, royalty payments on all levels are shrinking. It just so happens that we made these two records where Rosanne and I are out performing them more, and performing them better, and it’s just taken up a larger chunk of our lives. But it does require some consciousness. We do spend a lot of time together and we are raising a couple of kids together and it gets to be too much sometimes, and she’ll say it, too. As the years have gone by we’ve learned not to let the tension derail us. We kind of recognize it and say, ok, you go over here, I go here. But it can be a lot, I guess. We’re having an unbelievably busy period now, and I’m trying to produce records for other people while we’re touring and sometimes my head starts to roll a bit. The short answer is, yes, it requires a kind of awareness, that you can run aground by doing too much at the time together.
AS: Does having an intimate family life with an artist you’re also producing affect the work process and is it easier to stay focused on a project when you’re able to keep the conversation going at will or is it necessary to turn it off to recharge?
JL: That’s a good question. I think for the last two records it’s been a plus. The kind of integration of our creative and personal life has been a plus and perhaps we couldn’t have made these last two records if it hadn’t been that way. We are writing the songs when we’re in the shower. We have ongoing discussions. We don’t get belabored in it, but you can have a five minute discussion here, and walk away and then sort of the way that we work is we write the songs, we have these creative things, Rosanne is kind enough and thoughtful enough to let me go off and sort of work on most of the production stuff by myself without her so we’re not together all the time in the studio. And then I’ll play her what I’ve done or what I’m thinking of and she’ll make her comments and so in that way we’ve learned how to do the dance pretty gracefully; our divisions of labor are pretty definitive. I go to studio, I do the nuts and bolts of making the record, we write the songs together, there’s a lot of back and forth but it’s not often sitting in the same room, it’s me going off and doing something, giving it to her, me commenting to her, giving her a lyric, her commenting, and stuff like that. It’s worked out really well in the last five years. Not to say that there aren’t moments of friction. Our friends scratch their heads, how do they do it. It’s been creative. The working together thing, it’s got its bumps but basically we do it better and better as the years go by, but we definitely need breaks. We look at each other and say I need a break.
AS: Is this the first album that you and Rosanne have done in which you’ve divided the work strictly music and lyrics between the two of you?
JL: With most of my collaborators I tend to write the music and the melodies and my collaborators write the lyrics, which is not to say there aren’t moments where I write tons of lines, or edit lyrics, I shape lyrics in my own way, or if I feel a scan to a lyric is incorrect. I’ve had plenty of songs I’ve written the lyrics for as well, and like the project I’m doing now with William Bell, he and I are writing the lyrics together as well as me writing the music. It just so happens that a bunch of my collaborators have very unique and compelling and expressive points of views as a lyricist. They’re not generic pop lyricists, where they’re just trying to figure out a clever pop song or a clever country song to write. They have a personal point of view and who they are as an artist is primarily expressed in their musical sensibility so…
AS: They are poets, looking for someone to help them shape the song?
JL: Yes, and I definitely have a lyrical sensibility and a sense of how to scan, phrase, and shape a lot of that and luckily I found a bunch of really great co-writers.
AS: So specifically in regard to writing with Rosanne, what’s the writing process like considering that you have a far greater intuition than some other co writers might who write with her about the references that are in her words and the emotions that may be for her very personal, how does that affect the writing process with you and Rosanne vs. how you might collaborate with another writer or another writer might collaborate with her? What does that knowledge of each other bring to the song writing?
JL: Those are pretty deep questions dude. This is subtle stuff. It clearly must impact it; how I would I explain that I’m not sure. I think on The River & The Thread, Rosanne and I have written bunches of songs before this, but I would say there was a kind of not haphazard, but an un-thought-out quality to the way we would write and the way the results were. And they were perhaps in the past more based on, she would write a lyric and I would put it to music, or I would have a musical idea and she would hear me play it and say I love that and I would give it to her to put words to it and we would tweak it and make it a song. There was never much thought given to the gestalt in the world in which those songs would live. It was like, this is a phrase I’ve been using a lot lately, it was more in a sense of this is what a lot of people do, “I’m making a record of my next 12 songs”, and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with your next 12 songs, nothing, particularly if they’re great songs, but it got to a place a few years ago where I just thought there’s got to be something more than the next 12 songs and I started thinking more conceptually about it. So the thing I can say about The River & The Thread is although I’m very mindful of wanting Rosanne to sound great and deep and compelling, at the end of the day when the song is written, recorded and mixed I’m not sitting there going, how can I best bring out all the subtlety that I know lurks in her, I’m thinking of how to push both of us past our boundaries. Like what can we do that is new and exciting and really cool and fun musically for me, and pushes her lyrically and creates something that we haven’t done before. On this record I think I was getting a little tired of what I’d been doing, I was like, let’s just do something different. So I truly think this record was a 50-50 collaboration. My name’s not on the front, if she wanted to put it on the front it wouldn’t work. I don’t care about that part, but I do think it’s a real meeting, not just me just trying to produce Rosanne Cash. It was trying to take the things that both of us do well and make something even better out of it. Take the two parts and make a whole that’s even better than the two parts.
AS: Clearly, your guitar on the record and in concert is the foil for her. It’s not just simply a roots record in which a great session player comes up with a quick idea.
JL: I actively avoid trying to sound like other records and other guitar players. It’s sometimes painful because I love a lot of that stuff, I love Ry Cooder and I’m not saying I’m as good as Ry Cooder but I’ve navigated a lot of what he does, but I don’t do it on records because he’s done it.
AS: Or a Pops Staples or Chet Atkins.
JL: Hugh McCracken, Reggie Young,
AS: Or Al Green, but there is something very special happening with your guitar parts that surround her, like a bubble.
JL: That’s the highest compliment you could make, as a guitar player certainly and secondarily as a musical thinker. That’s what I try to do.
AS: It’s what prompted me to ask the question because I felt that this was something out of the ordinary and I hate to use a phrase like ‘high concept’ but clearly there’s something that’s going on there that I was trying to get to with that question of does the intimate understanding of your collaboration create a different sense in you of how to do the work.
JL: I think what it really is, what you’re describing, what I want to do, and try to do with everyone, is what I consider being musical, that’s the foundation. I think where a lot of musicians fall down, even if they have facility on their instrument, is that given the context, unless it’s like here’s my gig and I’m going to wow you with my guitar playing, cool, but short of that it’s what are you doing to enhance the depth of the musical experience, the wholeness of it, the gestalt of it and when I’m working with a singer it’s what I’m talking about. How do you make the singer front and center and still create this interesting world around her that is not generic that is not neutral, that doesn’t overpower, that is not distracting and yet you’re moved by it as a listener, you’re hearing and you go, something’s going on, there’s this kind of give and take between the musician and the singer and its creating all this feeling and that’s the goal with everybody. If I do it better with Rosanne it’s a) because I love her and b) because we’ve been together for 25 years and we play a lot of music together. And I’ve learned how to do it better with her.
AS: In the concert program notes Rosanne mentions that you were a guide
in putting together the concept that led to The River & The Thread.
JL: I think on all levels, obviously I couldn’t have remotely done it without Rosanne; she was the inspiration for it. I think it just started with maybe I had the idea, like a step before her, we had been taking these trips down to the South not with the intent of making this record but there was something so moving about it that I started thinking, like wow, what are we going to do with all this feeling and information. So my first thought was if we could make a record about the south, but what does that mean, it could mean anything or nothing. The only thing I knew that it shouldn’t be and that I saw other people doing and I didn’t like at all was that people would make their Memphis record, I knew it shouldn’t be a pastiche, or copying, trying to sound like a Stax record, or an Al Green record, Muscle Shoals or a Motown, or sound like a Delta blues. All I knew was that, particularly for Rosanne, I knew that it shouldn’t do that, but on some level it should have echoes of all of that.
So that was the challenge. I can’t give you a blow by blow of how I achieved it as an arranger/producer or how Rosanne achieved it as a lyricist, it was a flow. We started writing; we wrote a couple of tunes in the beginning that sort of led the way. One, Etta’s Tune”, we were given as a gift, in which a close friend of ours, Marshall Grant, who played bass all those years with Johnny Cash, had told Rosanne, right before he died, that every morning he woke up and said to his wife, “what’s the temperature darling?“ and we both were really moved by that, and I said, well it’s a song. And we wrote that song, but I said it’s kind of a country song but we won’t do it like a Nashville song, but it will feel like that kind of song that could have been written in 1962 or it will hopefully still sound good in 2062, and that’s the template, and a lot of energy goes into not having it sound like anything else. So I could have easily cut it just like a great country tune or like her Dad would have cut it but I tried to find, both as a guitar player and a conceptualist, how not to do it in the obvious way. A Feather’s Not a Bird was the second song we wrote and I felt like those were the two rivers we were going down; one was sort of the white Appalachian country river and the other was that of the black experience. She’s not a black woman, no, but we needed to have the flavor of the blues in there as well as Appalachian country music.
AS: My sense of hearing “…Feather…” was that in a way it was her statement: don’t define me only by those things that you associate me with, like yes, I’m a product of Memphis and my father is an iconic figure, I was brought up somewhat in the public eye, I have these influences, I was married to Rodney, I did this, so don’t define me by the individual things that you may know of me, or, the feather is not the bird.
JL: Totally, that’s what she’s saying but the bottom line is whether she was Rosanne Cash or Rosanne Cash with a completely different history, that song is still compelling. That’s a statement anybody could make. I do think that Rosanne is at the height of her prowess as a lyricist right now. I think she’s at the top of her game, writing incredible stuff and I’m just lucky, she’s a great lyricist. And she was up for the challenge. I think if I had any major input into the lyrics, I said just don’t write about yourself directly. Try to find other ways around it, and so particularly when we started to write about other people the record opened up, with this tune and Night School and a with a few of the others, the record really opened up.
AS: As a bandleader, what are you looking for in backing musicians when it’s Rosanne’s gig? You’re in a position of having the power to shape the performance by virtue of picking these musicians and it’s a small band with two guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards. That’s a very transparent sound in music like Rosanne’s, it’s not like people are thumping out power chords, it’s all got to be subtle.
JL: It’s taken a long time to find a band as good as this. I’ve played with wonderful musicians and I just haven’t been able to put together an ensemble that played like an ensemble like this does – it’s the best band I’ve ever played with bar none. First of all everybody individually is a deep musician; everybody has a handle on every conceivable kind of music, everybody has a deep harmonic sensibility, everybody is acute rhythmically, everybody is acute sonically, everybody can play anything. And the key to the band, my thing with the band is say the most with the least, what is the least you can do to say the most. And the second thing is if you’re not listening to the lyric you’re playing too much, if you’re not following the lyric, you’re playing too much. Everything that we’re doing is to support the story of the song.Musicians, and mea culpa, I’ve done it many times myself, if you can play, if you know how to play, you want to play, you get up there you play your guitar, you sit behind your drums, you want to do the stuff that you’ve learned how to do, and it’s fun and as a musician and when you go to hear a musician band or a jazz thing that’s just about playing, that’s kind of what you want to hear, you want to hear cats playing, but when people do it on Rosanne’s gig it drives me crazy, so I go, do less but make it mean more. A lot of people think you say do less you start to get small and you get afraid, I’m no, be bold and big but don’t do so much.
AS: Pick your notes.
JL: And pick your spaces. So everybody we’ve been doing it with, we’ve sort of road mapped where things can surge out in the spaces and where to come back, and we’ve road mapped where to trade off who is stepping out and who is not stepping out, we try not to make it stale, and like you play this exact thing every night, there’s a fluidity to what we’re doing, we don’t play the same thing every night, but the roadmap is well delineated in that everybody understands every motion of the song, every moment of voice lead, melody, everybody gets what the lyric is about, everybody knows what’s important in the song and what’s not important in the song. So if I had anything as a bandleader that’s it: really understand it harmonically, really understand it melodically, really understand it rhythmically, really understand what the singer’s doing, and what the intent of the song. Are we supposed to feel sad, are we supposed to feel bittersweet, joyous whatever it is about, don’t make it about I can play this lick and I’m going to play it come hell or high water. If somebody plays a great lick in service to the song and Rosanne great, it’s fantastic but it’s got to be in service to Roseanne.
AS: You joined 802 in l979. Over the course of your career how do you think the AFM and Local 802 have fit into your professional life?
JL: I’ve been a member for a long time and as you know any art business has changed dramatically, particularly changed in the last decade. It’s tricky and we’re all feeling the trickiness and uncertainness about the music business and what I tend to feel is the devaluing of music in all aspects, on every level, and wondering what we need to do to address that. When I first joined 802 it seemed like a big huge step into professionalism. I came up with [the late Hall & Oates bassist] Tom “T-Bone” Wolk. He was a couple years older, he joined the union before I did and I was like, wow he’s made it. And I looked up to all these guys like Hugh McCracken and Cornell Dupree and they all seemed so great and cool and professional. The first record I played on was in 1979 and I had made the leap to join the union and it felt great, it felt like now you’re a professional, you really start to think as a professional. And certainly during the years when I was playing on a fair numbers of record and jingles having the union there and collecting special payments fund checks was great and I felt proud to be a member of 802. If you ask me, what do you do, I ‘m a musician and I’m proud to be a member of Local 802. I’m worried about the devaluing of all things music; I’m also a songwriter and that’s being devalued and I’m a record producer, people talk about artists not being able to get paid, and musicians are definitely not getting paid, and what do we do about it. It seems to me the only way you could potentially address anything about the devaluing of musicians’ worth or work is to do it in unified manner. It is the only way you’ll have any leverage in any kind of business sense to create the momentum to force people who don’t want to pay you to pay you. Because their impetus is, we don’t want to pay anything because the other guy, who’s also not creating music but is selling music or making some kind of profit off music, doesn’t want to pay anybody. So how are songwriters going to end up getting paid? They have to organize, join ASCAP and BMI and whatever voice do we have, including the AFM. I wish there was a way we could figure out how to motivate all musicians to get behind a unified voice. I have noticed many younger and super talented musicians out there, who didn’t come up in the era that I did when there were viable careers that involved being in the union and getting paid for playing on jingles, sessions, club dates or in theatres, who don’t have that as a template and are willing to do anything, anytime, anywhere to be able to play. That’s the problem.
AS: What does the union need to do to address all the unaffiliated musicians who are out there, in terms of their perception of the union?
JL: It’s tough, there are a bunch of things going on here and one is, for better or worse, and I don’t know why this is, the union is a perceived in a slightly negative terms by a lot of younger guys. I’m sure it revolves around something as simple as, well it’s going to cost me to be part of this, why should I give them money, what do I get out of giving them money when I’m struggling, it’s a snake eating it’s own tail. Because what’s interesting is that a lot of younger guys, I’m 62, and I’m talking about guys in their 40s even and down, the whole world that you and I grew up in, this kind of template of the New York City sideman world, it was never on their radar. The lure of that world and the potentiality of that world and where it may have led, let’s face it, most of these guys are oblivious to it. Not only have they chosen not to be involved in it, it’s not part of who they are as musicians, period. And how to get them to see that there could be a potentiality for bettering their circumstances by organizing is the key. There are so many more clubs and places to play now than when we were younger, and a lot of them aren’t in Manhattan. There’s all these clubs, lots of musicians playing in clubs, and they’re not really making any money, and…
AS: Passing the bucket is not a career…
JL: No, it’s not a career, but how does the union tap into that? There’s just no carrot to dangle anymore, there is no session scene any more, there just isn’t. I’m considered a mildly successful producer and I don’t get a big budget. Unless you’re making Katy Perry-type records or along those lines there are no budgets and even those records, I’m not that knowledgeable about them but it looks like the producer is kind of doing everything. The day of the session player is kind of over, which is not to say there aren’t still great guys and still records to be made. But the number and the amount and financial remuneration to take that route doesn’t really exist. What does exist is a lot of exuberant younger people who have really eclectic sensibilities and are playing in all these clubs and being a sideman on a bunch of road gigs. People get in vans, there’s so much more of that now than there’s ever been where people get in bands and they go play clubs in other cities and there’s just so much more of that now than when I was younger and I suspect when you were younger. So how does the union tap into that? Maybe there needs to be a tiered introductory process of membership but musicians do need a unified voice. I don’t know how you would frame it so it wouldn’t seem pejorative, but some lower-tiered level of membership to start at least creating the foundation and the template of belonging to an organization that represents your best interests and that as the future goes on it somehow harvests all these younger people into a unified voice to have some strength.
AS: What do you want to mention about what you’re working on now?
I’m producing William Bell and if you don’t know who he is and maybe many of your Allegro readers don’t know that William Bell is a great soul singer and songwriter, who grew up in Memphis. He went to high school with Booker T and he was on Stax in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. He had a bunch of hits that for the most part didn’t cross over to pop or a white audience. He had hits like You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till the Well Runs Dry) and Everybody Loves a Winner, which Linda Ronstadt later covered. He also co-wrote with Booker T for Born Under a Bad Sign, one of the best and most covered blues songs of all times. He had some wonderful records in the ‘70s, too, a duet with Judy Clay, Private Number and another with Booker T called I Forgot to be Your Lover. I couldn’t be happier. I grew up yearning to play soul music. I love the Beatles and all that but most of the bands I was playing in played Stax, Motown tunes, I was playing Al Green tunes. I love this music, so the challenge of trying to make a modern, substantial and soulful soul record has been great. I’ve written all the songs, we’re pretty much done with the writing and a fair ways along in making the record, and it’s going to be out on Stax so hopefully should be done in another month or two. Don’t’ know when it will come out, I suspect first quarter of next year. I’m very excited. William still sings incredibly, deep, soul. I’m glad I’m getting the opportunity to make a soul record.