John Leventhal Makes The List
Originally posted at GALOmagazine.com
By Tim Young
April 12, 2012
Talking to John Leventhal is a satisfying feast. On Skype I see him relaxing in his office, or what could just as easily be his music room or den concentrating into the camera on his laptop, an entire floor to ceiling shelf unit behind him crowded with albums and books. One of his guitars is hung on the wall. At first, his flannel shirt might seem a bit incongruous for a New York City top-flght, multi-instrumentalist-producer, but as our conversation progressed, portions of his personality became visible and certain curtains were removed making the flannel an integral part of his comfort zone.
One quick rising curtain revealed John had never actually striven or gone out on a limb to be a producer but fate in the guise of New York City and artist Shawn Colvin had other plans. Not just any run-of-the-mill plans either. Colvin with Leventhal, co-writing and producing her debut album Steady On, won two Grammy’s in 1989. For Leventhal this moment was the needed affirmation, the encouragement essential to lead him confidently along the road to recording and producing.
Leventhal’s viewpoint on recording technique is never directed strictly at either digital or analog. It’s not a problem or even an argument if an artist wants to record on tape or with Pro Tools. Where emotional discussions might raise their voice would be in the choice of material. The song is what matters, he says: the vocal, the arrangement, the rhythm, and melody. His vision coincides with a painting framing the vocal as the rest of the mix swirls from foreground to background.
Probably the best example of Leventhal’s vision is his most recent production The List from 2009. The List features Rosanne Cash, John’s wife, singing twelve of the 100 essential American songs from a list presented to her by her father, Johnny Cash when she was eighteen years old. Leventhal handles guitar, bass, drums, and quite a haunting organ take on the folk song ‘500 Miles.’ All of his talents coalesce in the presentation of Rosanne’s voice. This is a skill, Leventhal says, that has taken him years of producing and recording to bring into focus but is a process he has now made his own.
GALO: So John, one day you wake up and decide you’re going to be a producer?
John Leventhal: No a little more circuitous than that. But not a whole lot more. I never thought about being a producer, which was never a specific ambition I had. I was a bit of a late bloomer. I bought my first electric guitar when I was a senior in college. I was twenty-one years old. I rather came to it a little late. Although I always loved music, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it as a vocation. It just didn’t seem possible. I didn’t grow up in a particularly musical family so the path to making a living, as a musician was not that apparent to me. Long story short, I had a kind of innate musicality, I guess, and I was lucky enough to fall in with some good musicians. So I got my butt kicked early on so I realized what it took to be a good musician. I was a player and always wrote songs on the side. I was living in New York City. The most incredible thing was I was making a living as a musician, playing in bars and clubs and doing the occasional session. That seemed like quite an accomplishment at the time in my twenties like oh wow, I can do this.
I had a couple of bands where I tended to be the musical director and I wrote songs. Then I met Shawn Colvin (Grammy award winning singer/songwriter) in 1980. We hit it off and we wrote a bunch of songs, which eventually ended up, on her first album (Steady On) in 1988. I was just lucky. I had a little home recording set up and I guess I was a little ahead of the curve with that and did the demos for the songs that got her signed to Columbia Records at the time and they let me produce it. That was it, it won a Grammy, and all of a sudden, wow, maybe I’m a record producer. Before that it wasn’t, man I really want to be a producer, I wasn’t driven by that. I was driven just by doing the music that I liked and making records. I liked making records.
GALO: So for your first effort as a producer with Shawn Colvin’s Steady On, you win a Grammy. That’s amazing.
JL: Well, I felt lucky; it felt like a good start. It was an affirmation. But the 80’s were such an odd time. I never musically really felt a home in the 80’s. It was the era of the gigantic snare drum, synthesizers, and drum machines and here we were doing a slightly quirky folk music that wasn’t even all that folky. It didn’t quite fit into the folk world and it didn’t quite fit into the 80’s version of pop music. There were a lot of people who had a lot of opinions about what it was or what it wasn’t so it was nice to get the chance to make the record and just basically get to do what we wanted to do and then get the affirmation that it seemed to have something. It was the first time I felt I could trust my own instincts. Which is really the place you have to end up as a producer.
GALO: Are you originally from New York City?
JL: I was born in the city and then by first grade we had moved to Westchester County. And then I came back.
GALO: What were you listening to when you were a kid?
JL: All the usual suspects. I have this theory, I mean I have a pretty strong feeling that the music you hear from let’s say when you’re twelve to eighteen or maybe twenty-one is the music that gets in your DNA in such a way that it resonates with you for the rest of your life. If you make music for a living then somewhere, somehow you’re trying to touch on the mystery of what that was. For me, at fourteen listening to The Beatles’ ‘I’ll Be Back’, with John Lennon singing it, I was profoundly moved. I didn’t understand how they made the record or even particularly get the music that was going on: you didn’t think about it analytically, you were just deeply moved. You couldn’t quite comprehend why you were moved but you knew you had to listen to that song everyday of your life. The Beatles were huge for me and all the usual suspects of the incredibly eclectic great period of music from 1964 to 1974 or ’65 to ’75. They were incredible years to have been at that formative period. So I was right at ground zero for that ten year period. It was gigantic.
I think the music that lingered and really impacted me were the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson and the Rolling Stones. And then it morphed later into some kind of entrée into Country music which for me was The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers which led me to Merle Haggard, George Jones, Johnny Cash and of course Bob Dylan. But I’ve always liked pop music in general. I’ve always appreciated a well-crafted pop record.
GALO: I’m curious as to your thoughts about Bob Dylan.
JL: Well, Bob…it’s almost not fair to just have one pithy comment about him. (Laughs) Because he’s so profound. I mean Bob’s thing is just unbelievable. The depth of it and his impact on so many levels. It’s massive, I mean you and I could sit around and talk for days about it.
GALO: Did you ever have the chance to work with Bob Dylan?
JL: No. I never have. No.
GALO: Did you ever want to put out your own solo record?
JL: Sure. I still think about it and hope I do it before I lose the ability to do it. There always seems to be a few things that get in the way. (Laughs) Primarily making a living, I have a feeling no one is going to care about anything I do myself. I want to. I have a lot of ideas and they’re kind of strange ideas, they don’t fit into anything I’ve done so far but I’m moved by them so I feel like at some point I need to do it. I have certain things kind of mildly prepared for it. Hopefully I’ll get to do it. I have this vision of an album that flows with some instrumental interludes into songs that I sing and other people sing, and I have a few of (these ideas) squirreled away already.
GALO: What makes you look closely at a song? What attracts you to it? Some tune that you want to build a production around.
JL: That’s a good question. I think I’m a bit of an anomaly as a producer, as far as I can tell. Since I kind of came at it slightly sideways and I was never just motivated to be a producer. I’ve never solicited an artist to work with; it’s all kind of flowed towards me. It’s hard to describe what it is that motivates me.
I write a lot on a regular basis with a lot of the people I produce. I like that part of it and if I’m not writing, I like the arranging part. Doing The List for Rosanne was a gas for me. I love the idea of taking a well-written song and changing it, and making it into something else that’s a little bit unexpected.
As far as what I hear in a song, I could talk to you for days about that. For me on some level there has to be something about some melodic, harmonic and or rhythmic aspect that really gets me just a step before the lyrics but the lyric thing has to be there. I will admit the musical thing has to hook me in initially. It’s interesting because there are some great writers where I feel like the craft of it is great and I’m impressed by the lyric but there will be deficits in the music parts for me. The music part will sound hackneyed or overdone and I’m not pulled in. It’s clear I have my own internal barometer with some balance of compelling musical aspect combined with a great lyric. I think that at this point I’m pretty adept at recognizing a good tune.
I’m sure you know you can make a brilliant record out of a mediocre tune and just have it be a very moving brilliant record. And you can make a crappy record out of a brilliant tune so obviously the ideal is a great record out of a great tune. That’s a beautiful thing.
GALO: Do you often play guitar on the records you produce? I believe you also play piano.
JL: Yes, for better or worse, I tend to get involved on a deep level musically when I produce. I tend to play more than one instrument. Many times I’ll get quite excited when we’re working on a tune and since I have a bit of facility on a bunch of different instruments I will in a very short period of time grab all the instruments and go with my intuition and try to keep the first hour as unconscious as I can and keep my critical editor voice at bay. And I throw down a lot of ideas right away when I’m sitting with an artist doing preproduction. Luckily for me, quite often, well over half the time I get lucky and there seems to be something there in that first thirty to sixty minutes.
I did a record with Marc Cohn last year and that’s basically, what we did. We were sitting around. I had an acoustic guitar. I had a mic for my guitar and a mic for his vocal and we’d get an initial thing down and I’d say well let me just throw a quick bass and drum thing on it and it ended up being the record so that can happen. For me to trust my intuitive approach to it before I get analytical or editorial about it is a major part of my process. It’s also the most joyous part of the process; that’s the most fun.
GALO: What about the song ‘Sunny Came Home.’ (a hit for Shawn Colvin) How did that come about?
JL: The track that you hear on the record, I basically had that. I had the riff, the mandolin, the groove, chord changes, and the vibe. She wrote the words. It took her a while to get the words, in fact she had a completely different set of lyrics and we cut it that way with a band then lived with those lyrics for a few months. We knew intuitively they weren’t right; then sort of at the eleventh hour she went back and rewrote them and of course, we’re happy she did. (Laughs. The record won a Grammy.)
GALO: Have you ever produced a band?
JL: I’ve never produced bands. I think I’d be good at it if I didn’t play anything and just helped the band organize and orchestrate. In any probably given field you have an initial thrust, an initial success and then it sort of funnels you and people perceive you as working with singer/songwriters and I’ve been perceived as working with singer/songwriters, so that’s what happened. It’s great. I think if people call me, they tend to want me to get in on the ground floor to help build a platform of how to arrange and present the material in an interesting way, a creative way.
GALO: Can you give us some details about the making of Rodney Crowell’s Life is Messy?
JL: That’s interesting. I don’t remember much about that record. It was pretty quick. It was a slightly strange time because Rodney was married to my wife.
GALO: Is that when you met Rosanne?
JL: I actually met her before that. I did a record with Rodney. We produced an artist together: Jim Lauderdale. Very early on. I had known Jim for a long time and we had written a ton of songs together in the late 80’s. I did the demos and I think this was even before Steady On came out. Somehow our demo got around and Rodney heard it and was impressed enough to help Jim get a deal but he didn’t know me from Adam. So he was like who did all these demos so Jim said my friend John who co-wrote songs so Rodney said, well let him produce it with me. That was actually quite generous of Rodney.
And so when I met Rosanne their marriage was petering out so it was a slightly awkward time but it was all cool. Rodney and I are great friends. It’s all-good. That’s mostly what I remember about it. And we did it almost all in Nashville using Nashville cats.
GALO: You obviously have quite the grasp on producing and playing on your productions what about engineering them.
JL: I do now. I do. I like it and it’s another creative tool at the end of the day; it’s like playing an instrument. I’d worked with a fair number of good engineers and mixers and I was getting the idea of how it’s done; it’s not rocket science. Which is not to take anything away from great engineers but it’s definitely learnable, infinitely more learnable than being a good musician. I enjoy engineering my own records and I really like mixing my own records a lot. It’s very pleasurable to me.
It’s an interesting time audio wise. You get a lot of old timers like me who can get quite cranky and complain about the current state of audio fidelity and how records are made and what they sound like but I try not to be too bogged down on it. I still like a well-produced really good sounding record a distinctive sounding record with some clarity and interest to it. That’s what I strive for and the mix process can help you achieve that.
GALO: You worked with David Crosby on an album?
JL: Just briefly, just one song. He had come to sing on a record I was producing for Marc Cohn in the mid 90’s. David is a beautiful cat. I guess he was a fan of the records I had done with Shawn Colvin. He’s such a character and I was a huge fan of the Byrds (Crosby’s first big success before Crosby, Still’s and Nash) I loved the Byrds when I was a kid. It was a gas to work with him. He asked me and Marc to come out and produce a song on a solo record he did. We went out and knocked it off in two days. It was fun. It was fun hanging with him. I see him every now and again. He’s one of the great characters. He’s a beautiful spirit. With whatever demons he has he’s a larger than life spirit. You give it up to him.
GALO: Do you have a good relationship with your wife Rosanne when the two of you are working on an album?
JL: Well, we’ve been together for twenty years so we have our ups and downs like any married couple. Sometimes it’s beautiful working together and sometimes it’s challenging. But I think we’ve developed skills over the years to ameliorate the challenges. We recognize when they’re going to happen. And at this point Rosanne trusts me. Particularly on The List let me do my thing. I made the record, she came in and sang it and thankfully liked most of what I was doing. She was very sweet. She gave me free reign to do my thing as an arranger so it was fun.
The thing with The List was I never felt that Rosanne embraced artistically or emotionally or spiritually herself as a singer. Like a pure singer as opposed to being a songwriter or anything like that. I was always like we need to make a record that’s completely about you as a singer and she gave herself over to that on the record and I think she sounds wonderful. I think her voice is getting better, better and better. I think on her new record people will be blown away by what a great singer she is.
GALO: What’s the new record called?
JL: We don’t have a title for it yet. It’s a bit of a concept record; we’ll see what happens. It’s about the South. Songs about the South. It’s hopefully going to sound old and new at the same time.
GALO: The production on The List (Rosanne’s album of songs her father Johnny Cash suggested) is Spartan and classic in many ways. It seems to perfectly highlight Rosanne’s vocals. Was that your intention?
JL: Absolutely. Every record I do is designed to highlight the vocal. That’s why I don’t like listening to my early records because I don’t think I fully embraced that aesthetic early on. I was too involved being interesting musically. My aesthetic about record making is completely and utterly about how to frame the singer and still have the track be interesting and not neutral or linear. I’m trying to have the track have some sparseness to it, still hold your interest, and not be predictable. I love doing that. It’s one of the great challenges of arranging, producing and engineering but I love it. I do.
GALO: When you have guest artists like Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello come in to record with Rosanne like on The List do they sing live with her or do you overdub?
JL: We overdubbed them all. I’ll tell you the truth you can look behind the curtain, Tim; to know they were all overdubs. In fact, I never saw Bruce; he just did it at his house and sent us the files. Pretty simple.
GALO: So you don’t have a Bruce Springsteen story?
JL: I don’t have a Bruce Springsteen story except that he was incredibly sweet and generous to do it. (Springsteen sings on the ‘Sea of Heartbreak’ track with Rosanne)
GALO: How do you usually approach a cover version?
JL: I never ever see the point in duplicating somebody else’s version of a great song. Many times in cover records people will mimic the original version. The challenge is how do you make it unexpected and interesting and still have it sound organic. Then there are times when people will rearrange classic songs and utterly change them just for the purpose of doing that. I’m always trying to find the middle ground where it’s like, well it could have been recorded like this originally as well. I really loved the original version of ‘Sea of Heartbreak’ so it was challenging to figure out how to do it.
GALO: So you play drums, piano, bass and guitar?
JL: Yeah, I’m an OK piano player and an OK drummer slash percussionist but bass and guitar are really my instruments.
GALO: Do you have a big collection of guitars?
JL: I do. I do.
GALO: When I saw you, Rosanne and the band performing songs from The List at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, one of the songs that was so impressive was ‘Long Black Veil.’
JL: Well that’s a great song. It’s a ridiculously well written song with an incredible story, great melody, and great hook. That song sounds like it should have been an Appalachian mountain song passed down but it’s not. (Written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin in 1959) People love that song. Like ‘500 Miles’, we play ‘Long Black Veil’ and they love it in the UK and in Barcelona, in Pennsylvania and Los Angeles. The story is compelling. That someone would choose to die rather than to betray their lover. We like those songs that have an element of tragedy lurking beneath the surface. As Americans, we really like those songs.
GALO: Folk songs often seem to go there.
JL: There is something about the elemental aspect of great folk music that I think does touch some deep DNA in us. I think that’s for real.
Do you know about the Louvin brothers?
GALO: I do not.
JL: Go online. You’ll go, oh man, how could I not have known about this. They were songwriters. They were an act from the 50’s and 60’s who had a deep profound influence on Country music. Particularly the Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris, and Gram Parsons. One of their best known records is called The Tragic Songs of Life. They came from rural Alabama.
GALO: You mention Gram Parsons who I think definitely helped shine a light on Country music.
JL: I admire Gram Parsons because on a personal level he was a conduit to me to a deep well of phenomenally great music that I didn’t have access to directly growing up in New York City, which was great Country music. I found out about Merle Haggard, George Jones, and the Louvin Brothers through The Byrds, Gram Parsons, and The Flying Burrito Brothers. The albums Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and The Flying Burrito Brother’s first album (The Gilded Palace of Sin) and Gram’s two solo albums were huge for me. They opened up the door to that world of music I didn’t have access to. Not only that but there was a sensibility to those records that have in that way we talked about because I was eighteen, seeped into my DNA, so that conglomerate of records stayed in me and has shaped whatever aesthetic I have. I’m grateful to Gram Parsons for opening that world to me even though I never met the guy.
GALO: To me artists from that period did their homework; like the Stones looked at the Blues and The Beatles looked at everything.
JL: People are still doing it. It’s just now the playing field is so crowded it’s hard to get a sense of what it all means. There has been such an exponential explosion of product, artists, and releases that it’s hard to make sense out of everything. Back then, thankfully for us, there were so many fewer people doing it that each individual statement seemed to be larger and resonate more. But you’re right, people did look back. And then there’s The Band and The Band doing ‘Long Black Veil’ on their first album which was incredible so they also were a conduit for me to that music, for which I am eternally grateful.
The way I’m wired is that it was more stuff to put in my little internal musical computer. The way I’m wired: Ray Charles, The Beatles, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, Wes Montgomery, Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives and Johann Sebastian Bach are all the same thing. The whole thing with genres and Americana, this that and the other; I mean I guess I understand there’s some need for it somehow but it doesn’t even register on my radar. It’s all the same to me.