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Interview with Will Ackerman
Master Seven Interview by Tom Beninate
Copy Editor: Susan Castellano
Is it an improvisational and unstructured approach where you have to learn your own songs or does it not follow this path?

No, it doesn’t follow that path at all. Most of my songs are very structured. It is the discovery of the individual theme that is probably improvisational. And even with that I’m not an improvisational player…. I know every single note and nuance of every note when I play it in concert. But in the writing phase, it’s really discovery…. It is sort of this taking a running start at things so that there will be an idea. I’ll play it over and over again. I’ll go outside of that. I’ll look for the way out. I’ll look for the path that takes me to the next place…. When writing, I’m just playing. Then as I gather a theme as it develops, I move into the bridge or “B” section of the piece, or whatever. I’m learning it and I incorporate it into my playing and then go back to the beginning of that and try to push a little bit further. That’s the process.

How does that process compare to creating a movie soundtrack?  Let’s use your current movie project, The Prophet, as an example.

In terms of The Prophet, I’m the music director. I am certainly planning on using some of my themes and will probably use the themes of people I know. We have spoken with some very famous musicians from a number of different musical walks of life who have expressed interest in being part of this film. The role that I played at Windham Hill was sort of an everyman role. I would find people that moved me emotionally, whose music I respected and created a record label around that very subjective experience. One of the great discoveries about Windham Hill was derived when we began the Windham Hill Samplers. The only reason I came up with the Windham Hill Samplers was that I got tired of using the hole punch to punch the corners of the promotional copies of records that were going to stores or to radio stations…. I came up with the idea that if I took one track of each one of these people and put it on an LP then all I have to do is punch one hole. I’m now punching one-twelfth the holes that I used to. It was literally that utilitarian. I sent this to my distributors and everyone said, “Why don’t we market this?”  Everyone said there are other labels that have done this. Warner Brothers did it. Reprise did it. They were never big sellers but it did introduce people to music. So I said “Fine. Let’s give it a try.” Every single Windham Hill Sampler became a Gold or Platinum record. We sold millions of these things.
The lesson inherent in that is that by this music going through Will Ackerman’s filter, we have a piano player here, a guitar player here, a lyricon player here, whatever, we had all these different people stylistically, but the catalog hung together. There was something cohesive in it despite the fact there was a broad spectrum of instruments, composers, etc. Likewise my role with The Prophet is going to be to create that glue between what I hope is going to be a challengingly disparate group of musicians and different musical styles…. [There is a] huge popularity for Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet: I’m told he is the third most read poet in the history of the world at this point.  The Prophet has been translated into 44 different languages…. We hope to be able to incorporate a lot of international sounds to this as well. This is similar to what I did at Windham Hill – mainly to take a disparate group of musicians, sounds, and influences and make it cohesive – make it the centerpiece that will hold the animation of The Prophet together.

Having been in the building business and music business, are there any correlations between constructing a building and writing music?

None that I have ever been able to find…. I see them as distinctly different worlds and I think it’s why I enjoy both of them so much. They represent a rest from each other. The work we do in the studio I come to refer to as circumcising the ant. A quarter of a dB of a three second reverb for 1.7 seconds is just this minutia and it’s necessary and requires that sort of detail and that sort of attention to make it exactly what I hear. The beauty of what I was doing just before calling you is I was on the tractor with my chainsaw. I’ve been putting in the wood for next winter. Actually, I spend easily 15 times as much time with a chainsaw in my hand as I do with a guitar in my hand. Without big, physical work I would literally lose my mind. If you told me I could never play another note of music again I would be unhappy. I would survive it. If you told me I could never pound another nail I think I would die. So it’s that balance and the wild difference between them that is precisely what I love about them – that we can go into detail so fine and then get on a tractor and go make a bunch of noise.

That is a great point. The reason why I asked that question is because you built your Imaginary Road compound from the wood on the land, and that the main designs were informal  and in your head. There seemed to be an analogy to how your write music.

I do think there’s an analogy here. I know building as I know music and the concept of a building in my mind is as tangible to me as how I’m envisioning the production of a piece of music. “Plans” here have generally been pen sketches on paper napkins with red wine stains on them.
Because we had a complex cantilevered deck off the upstairs of the studio, we actually had to get some engineering. So for the first time in the history of this entire compound we did have to generate a framing plan for some part of the studio. There have been no other plans anywhere in the compound. At times that’s not the most efficient thing in the world: Where you put up the wall and you look at it and say, “No, that’s not where the window goes.” Down it goes and up it goes again, changed. All in all everyone comments on the fact that the compound is incredibly harmonious in terms of lines. I’ve maintained the 9 in 12 pitch throughout the place…. There are elements, for instance in what we call the tower, the office for the studio, which were really derived from western mining architecture….Yet the stuff all holds together somehow or other the way the music manages to hold together here.
Well, most artists realize that at the big labels it’s not about the music. Which is why people have so much respect for you – once it stopped being about the music, you changed it, and you made it become about the music once again. Kudos to you for that!

Thank you Tom. I deeply appreciate that.

Will, let’s talk about downloads versus CDs. What’s your opinion on this topic?

That’s a wide-ranging question.

Let’s confine it to your business at Imaginary Road. What do you think about selling downloads versus CDs? Secondly, how does this pan out in the future?

Let me start with a little story that took place in ’84 or’85…. I was on the old Charlie Chaplin lot that A&M Records had purchased as their main office. CDs were just happening. What we were experiencing was that everybody was going out and buying a CD for around fifteen bucks – not to replace their LPs but to duplicate their LPs. We were getting a real two-for there. There was a huge profit margin and we were seeing double sales. It was a rich time. But I remember the head engineer at A&M bemoaning all this. He said, “We let the genie out of the bottle. We’ve given up control of our industry. You mark my word, this is the end of the industry as we know it.” In retrospect I see how right he was and how naive I was. I remember when the Supreme Court looked at the situation and basically said, “We can’t do anything about intellectual property rights anymore.” It was one of the most stunning moments of my life. I felt certain that the Supreme Court would somehow [protect] people’s intellectual property rights. I’m astounded that we’ve gotten to the point where a generation of kids has never paid for music in their lives. People say, “Well there's iTunes.” You and I know what a small percentage of downloads that represents. It has gotten to the point where people paying for music is almost an act of kindness and certainly must represent some ethical framework of living when free downloads are so available. I'm very grateful for those people, both ethically and financially.
The impact on the major labels is astounding. A recording that would have sold a million is now selling 100,000. We're looking at one-tenth the CD sales. Obviously downloads brings that number back up a bit, but certainly nowhere near the level of a decade ago. I don’t know how musicians can do it these days. I guess they’re looking at merchandising and finding other ways to support themselves. I must say I’m terribly grateful that I started a record label in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I have to be very honest. If someone came to me, I would say, “One, there are no record labels. Two, you are not going to get a label deal. Three, you have to be responsible about how much money you spend here so that a reasonable number of CDs that you sell will be able to repay you. You need to gig as much as you possibly can. You can still get music on the radio, but you need to follow up on that. Make sure you are beginning to tour. You need to be looking at film music and television. Not only is it good money but it’s good exposure.” I am advising about the realities of today. There are people in my generation and even people who are twenty years younger who assume there are record labels out there waiting to sign them.

That’s right, and there aren’t. Will, let’s say a pop or rock artist put the effort in and released a ridiculously good record that contained four or five great or really good songs, maybe something like Dark Side of the Moon, Thriller, or Sergeant Pepper. Would that change the situation you described? Would a lot of people want to own that CD in addition to downloads?

Well, I know that Coldplay is not allowing singles to be downloaded on any project and there are a number of other bands that are doing the same thing. [They might say] this is a suite of music and they insist it be listened that way. I remember quite a few years ago someone wrote an article at USA Today about the whole singles mentality. I wrote her and said you know very well that some kid ten or fifteen years from now is going to have this brilliant idea and say, “Wow, why don’t we put all of this music together in one CD and it will be this cohesive listening experience.” And it’s like he discovered it! But I think it’s absolutely inevitable. It’s too valuable an experience not to return to the CD. To me it’s a given. I‘m also looking at the return of the LP which I think is kind of interesting. It’s not the old hi-fi audiophile that’s doing that. It’s a younger group of kids who are actually going back and finding that they haven’t been listening to music for the last ten years. They’ve been listening to a squashed, flattened version. That’s another inevitability. [They are saying], “Oh, wait a minute. There’s a whole … spectrum here that we haven’t been paying attention to.” There will be people that will see that reward. The music will be richer. I’m fascinated by the notion that the LP [is making a comeback], which actually now is of a far better quality then we could do before. The technology wasn’t asleep all that time in terms of lasers, filtering, vinyl compound, and in terms of everything else. These LPs are better than they ever were. To see a significant move for that indicates a dissatisfaction with compression. Overall, it’s a move towards a very different experience to music which I think also incorporates the suite of music that you originally asked me about.

In the ‘50s, before the original LP spec, everyone was a specialist. You had dedicated songwriters, lyricists, arrangers, performers, engineers, labels, etc. That began to change with The Beatles writing their own songs, performing, and getting involved with some arranging and engineering. Today, many songwriters are jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. And the music suffers. Will the brilliant kid that we spoke of have to master the trades or become a specialist who networks with other dedicated people? You know, maybe something like what you did on your Hearing Voices record.

There was a time when some people thought we don’t need a studio at all because we’ve got all the technology inside our Mac. To some degree that may be true. But I don’t think that’s where the finest work is done. This notion that it’s just a manipulation of technology is missing the point enormously. Great music is going to continue to be made, however, and not all of it has to be super quality. There’s a whole hand-made kind of sound which I find very appealing; the Iron and Wine kind of thing.I consider Monte Lipman, the president of Universal Records, a good personal friend and when I turn up at his office I always leave with a stack of CDs of stuff he thinks I’ll like and he’s generally right on. There’s great music to be found if you hunt a bit and the notion that great music is dead is nonsense. Ray LaMontagne’s Gossip in the Grain which was produced by Ethan Johns is one of the finest recordings I’ve ever heard in my life and, though belatedly, I’ve just gotten into Florence and the Machine, a lot of which I love. I just met a young woman at a house concert I did in Del Mar, California named Kina Grannis who has this touching and beautifully disarmingly song all over YouTube called “In Your Arms.” She’s had nearly 4 million hits on this song. Matt Kearney’s “Rochester” is a gem of a song that Monte just turned me on to. I’m not someone who is looking backwards wistfully as the only place where good music can be found. Yes, there’s a lot of crap out there and, culturally, there may not be as much innovation as in some eras. There were times in my lifetime when the record labels basically just watched the culture around them explode in creativity and facilitated the movement reflexively. Now they tend to hang on conservatively and with a virtual stranglehold to whatever’s working; but, again, there is fine stuff to be found. Mining the Internet you can find anything you could imagine musically and there are so many brilliant young players who find a voice there.
Well-known throughout the music industry, Grammy Award winner Will Ackerman is recognized as the preeminent pioneer in the New Age music movement. Will founded the legendary Windham Hill Records and Imaginary Road Studios which together earned a fine collection of Gold and Platinum records.
Most music has a very clear time stamp on it. Stuff that came out in 1961 sounds like it came out in 1961. Stuff that came out in 1982 sounds like it came out when it did. Yet, something like John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields” from the 1960s or pieces from Rachmaninoff composed in the 1800s sound fresh today. Interestingly, it’s hard for kids to tell when some of the Windham Hill and Imaginary Road music came out. There is a certain timelessness about a Will Ackerman record or a George Winston record. That’s what’s nice about the music you are involved with. Maybe that’s why it is called New Age?

Yeah. God knows. That’s a lovely thing to say. I appreciate it.

Will, you mentioned that you are working on The Prophet.  What other projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

I think this Todd Boston project is going to blow people out. I’m working on probably ten projects in any given time. As a parent essentially, it’s not seemly to have favorites. There are of course always ones that somewhat move you more than another. I certainly have to point to the Todd Boston project. Fiona Joy Hawkins and I are working on a new project that will actually be in the can at least another year. It’s called 600 Years, and it’s a brilliant piece. I just finished a new project with Kathryn Kaye which is lovely. She and I are looking to do a very elaborate Christmas project that will be heavily choral. She is an amazing person. She’s literally the coal miner’s daughter of Tennessee who got it in her head that she wanted to study music when there was actually no support for her to do it. She somehow or another managed to get herself into school and ultimately ended up being a pianist and singing Wagner in Germany. She went there to sing Wagner! Talk about going into the belly of the beast. She’s a church organist, choral and opera singer. There is this whole thing where we want to do this piece that is choral, utilizing classical music as the base, but also getting way into Americana. For instance, we can imagine Ralph Stanley singing in this thing. I’ve got a meeting on Friday with Universal about this concept because they’re so crazy about it. There’s Masako Matsuo, who is Japanese, and I just finished producing her on piano. Singer/songwriters Larry Allen Brown and Brooke Ramel, pianists Lynn Yew Evers, Dean Boland, Stanton Lanier, and Ann Sweeten, and guitarist Ronnda Cadle are all brilliant people. We'll be working soon on the second projects for Kori Linae Carothers and Shambu and finishing up a project by singer/songwriter Brad Schumann. It's a great lineup of talent that pours through Imaginary Road. It’s just mind-boggling. I’m happy to report that some of the best stuff I‘ve worked on in my life is going on now. That is not lip service. I know it in my heart because I feel it. I ain’t dead yet, nor is the music! Some of the most exciting stuff I’ve ever worked on is either in the can or is about to be here. I’m very grateful to still be active and productive.

That’s great. Corin Nelson was your highly respected Chief Engineer for many years. How has Tom Eaton settled into that enormous task?

We haven’t gone into my production methods. I have a very, very idiosyncratic way of doing this. Then Tom Eaton walks into this crazy system without dropping a beat. He completely got it. There wasn’t an instance of having to educate him. The truth of the matter is Tom knows more about the Windham Hill catalogue than I do. I can name a record and he can tell me what the track list is and who played on what track.  And I won’t have a clue. I don’t remember my own songs let alone all of the other stuff. His knowledge of Windham Hill is vastly superior to my own. His own inspiration as an engineer came through that. I was actually a little bit nervous about this from the beginning because I was afraid Tom was a bit of a sycophant. He would talk about Windham Hill so glowingly. [It turned out] that this was all utterly genuine and that he knew exactly what he was talking about. His inspiration runs very deep. He sat in that chair that Corin sat in for a million years, and didn’t drop a beat. The people who have worked with Corin and who now have worked with Tom speak of the absolute ease of the transition. Any concern of skepticism has disappeared. He’s a brilliantly trained musician. He’s an incredible pianist. He’s doing session stuff for us. He does percussion work…. We’ll have Tony Levin in here and there was a situation recently where I was frustrated because I couldn’t convey to Tony what I was hearing. Tom said [to me], “Explain it to me.” He listened for a while, hit the talkback, and said, “Tony, Will’s hearing it on the one. It’s not on the four it’s on the one.” Tony said, “That’s it?” [And Tom said], “Yeah. That’s it.” Tony said, “Great! Great idea.” He then switched it over. It would have taken me another half an hour to explain to Tony what I was fishing around for. He would have found it eventually, but with Tom we found it immediately. So, that kind of communication he is able to do with people like Tony Levin and with Steve Holley. It’s absolutely wonderful. It brings the professionalism to the studio that I guess I wouldn’t have known was missing, but I see now was.

That’s terrific! Will, I can talk to you all night long, but I do value your time and certainly appreciate the time you put in today.

I deeply appreciate the intelligence of this conversation. Thank you.


You can buy Will Ackerman's New England Roads CD at:
Target: http://www.target.com/p/New-England-Road/-/A-12873756
Other Will Ackerman CDs are at Amazon.com:
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0002RQ2R6?ie=UTF8&tag=williacker-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B0002RQ2R6

Nov 8, 2011

Will Ackerman's website:
williamackerman.com


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Will, take us through your thought process and inspirations as you sit down
to write a song.

My answer is going to be almost perverse. There’s a realization that struck me, probably about ten years ago, when a guy named Patrick Breen wrote a little book about open tunings. He did a lot to document open tunings that a lot of pop rock people had used…. In the foreword, he made the comment that of all the people who have ever fooled around with open tunings, nobody was more wide-ranging than Will Ackerman. In fact, [he wrote] that I had never used the same tuning twice except for one instance where "Hawk Circle" and “Anne’s Song” shared the same tuning. I remember reading that and thinking that it had to be inaccurate. It was such an extreme statement, and it certainly was not something that I had attempted to do, or was conscious of doing…. To be honest, I was actually confronted by that fact…. How is it possible that a guy who has been writing music for thirty years had not duplicated the same tuning except for "Hawk Circle" and “Anne’s Song”? And the only reason for that is I was doing a recording of “Anne’s Song” one day through the video cameras that Sony put in front of me and I was bored waiting for them to get the lighting right. So I started playing "Hawk Circle" watching these hawks circling on the coastal mountains of California. That’s how that one came to me….
Probably two and a half years later … [after reading Patrick’s book] I was out on Martha’s Vineyard – I’ve been working on a book forever and I was down there writing. All of a sudden I really understood what this was all about. I would have always told you that my music is about emotion. I would have told you at any point that I’m not really a composer because I don’t read music either standard or tablature. I would have told you that I frankly have never known what the inspiration of any given song was. And to be perfectly frank, with the rarest of instances the naming of a song is arbitrary for me. It’s a wordplay. Maybe the song invokes a feeling in me that I then try to find words to describe. The whole point of what I do with open tunings and the whole reason that I use a different tuning every time, I’ve come to understand, is that in so doing I remove the intellectual process a hundred percent from writing. I am left in a landscape that I don’t know. There’s no preconception. I can’t go to a chord. I don’t know where that chord is. And it leaves me no choice but to go into an alpha state. It’s then about closing the eyes and stopping the intellect. It’s about stopping the frontal lobe. It’s about getting that part of the brain out of the way, literally removing it so that all that is left is the emotional experience and the journey. And that’s the answer.
Speaking of structure, you have a passion for Michael Millard’s Froggy Bottom guitars. How has your selection of guitars evolved from the 1970s when you recorded your first record, In Search of the Turtle’s Navel?

I grew up playing whatever garbage guitar I could get my hands on when I was twelve. Then I moved through Martins and Guilds. I was always pretty spoiled. I remember getting a Guild D-50 very early on, a very nice guitar and experimenting with a lot of older Martins that I was playing as well. Just before I recorded Turtle’s Navel Kelley Johnson, who began apprenticing at The Santa Cruz Guitar Workshop, asked if he could build me a guitar. The answer was yes. That was the instrument that I used in recording Turtle’s Navel, It Takes a Year, and probably later in my career. Even given that I was spoiled, I don’t think there was nothing that I ever played in my life that compares to the Froggy Bottom K Model that I play. It has Rosewood back and sides, German Spruce top and just everything that Michael Millard [Froggy Bottom’s founder] puts into a guitar technically and spiritually. As you say, the proof is in the recording. They are just astounding recordings on Returning and everything since I started playing the Froggy. The first record that I played the Froggy on was the Sound of Wind Driven Rain. There is a qualitative difference that happened at that point. People have always talked about the remarkable quality of the Windham Hill recordings in general and my recordings specifically, but it came up a serious notch when the Froggy Bottom guitar came into my hands. During the process, there’s been a great deal of learning about mics, mic placement, preamps and getting into evermore sophisticated microphones. We have sent matched pairs of Neumann microphones to Klaus Heine for rebuilding. We’re into a very rare idea in terms of the technology which is as analog as I could make it these days. But without my Froggy Bottom guitars all of this technology would be relatively moot.

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Well put. Yes, Todd did mention how much you inspired him to reach a higher level that even he didn’t know he was capable of. You certainly get a sense of that with comments from other people that you have produced. It’s incredible that you were able to take Windham Hill Records to the top, become the corporate executive, build Imaginary Road, and at the same time be able to focus on the music, the emotion, and the artists.

I think I am a reasonably good business man. I’ve never been afraid of money. I had a general contracting company. I knew how to work with clients, … people and money. None of that frightened me. I had no problem navigating the world of art and commerce. That said, I also had the wisdom to realize that there were people who were going to be far better at some aspect of business than I. Anne Robinson was from the beginning the financial head of the company and without whom I very seriously doubt Windham Hill could have grown as it did. She managed an almost impossible growth where the first six or seven years it was literally a thousand percent growth year after year. I think in our twelfth year it finally slowed down … to 597 percent! You can imagine what it takes to manage that kind of growth. Of course, there was the deal that I made with A&M which basically gave us an unlimited amount of money to work with. But up until about ’84 when we did that, it was really Anne’s genius that allowed us to pull it off. Most decisions that I made at Windham Hill were very instinctive to me, both musically and in terms of the people we brought in to work with us. I never in my entire history hired someone based on a traditional job description. Instead I would find somebody who I thought was talented and then create a job around them. It was never, “We are getting a director of personnel,” and then fill it with a person. No, it was, “This person is incredibly bright and incredibly talented, has a tremendous amount of energy, I think they understand what’s going on musically here, and, what do you want to do? How can we best facilitate what you want to do?” That was more my management style. Eventually Windham Hill did become a corporation. We had multiple offices for the company with a small army of people working for the label. We were doing 30 or 40 million dollars of business a year. To be perfectly honest with you, the fun went out of it for me then. It was the beginning of the end for my interests. We then brought about the sale of Windham Hill in 1992 just because it was no longer anything I could manage in the way that I always had which was to be communicating with everyone telepathically and being inspired.  At some point it ceased to be fun. In the end
it became corporate.
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Young people have rejected the big label status quo by buying less CDs. Just like in our generation, they are fed up with buying CDs because of the one good song that they heard on the radio, and then discover that the rest of the album stinks. They are being inspired with great music from the ‘60s and ‘70s and are using today’s technology to create their version of better music. They are learning the basics of how to promote themselves by using infrastructures like Facebook, Spotify, and other social networks. They know that they need to focus on the music.

I think that’s a great point Tom. Let me throw some numbers around here. This is based on the email communication I get through my website. Seven or eight years ago, I started getting emails from kids, probably 13 or 15 [years old]. The story was always the same. They were rifling through their parents’ LP collection and just putting stuff on. They were so thirsty for something new. In the same way in my day we used to go back and find the old blues players and say, “Oh my God. Listen to this!” It was different technology with the singles and even 78s and now kids are going back into LPs and finding stuff in their parents’ collection that they absolutely love. Every parent I know that has [teenage] kids says it’s all about The Beatles. It’s all about Hendrix. It’s just amazing how they are going back to that. Even with what I do, I think [kids represent] … something in the neighborhood of fifteen percent of my audience.  It’s significant. It’s incredibly heartening. It’s heartening to a world that has been bored out of its mind for the last twenty years.
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As a guitar player I would play a Fender Strat differently from a Les Paul.  Does the sound, feel and playability of the Froggy inspire you to write or play differently than the other guitars that you mentioned?

I think my music has always been typified by intimate detail. In concert I’ve learned that the most powerful thing I can do is play so softly in certain passages that the audience is afraid to breathe. I‘ve had people say that they realized they haven’t breathed for a minute and a half, not wanting to intrude on the moment in any way. Bob Ludwig, certaining the most famous mastering technician in the world, has made the comment that my music explores the quiet spaces about as much as anything he's done. There are times when Bob will ask me very pointedly, “Is this really what you want me to master, because nobody in the car is going to know there is a note there for a minute and a half?” But that’s pretty much the choice I’ve always made in my career. I didn’t want to dumb it down. I wanted to create the ultimate expression of the song. Hopefully there would be enough people who would be willing to listen to it in an environment where they can take advantage of that. I guess there have been some places where we might have pumped the level up a little bit because it drops off the scale entirely, but I really want to hold onto that insane dynamic range. Bob has always been a conspirator with me. We’ve known each other for a million years. I consider him a very good friend and someone I revere. He’s always been an ally in this process. I think he really kind of delights in it. He’s always been there for me. As I said he will sometimes pose the question, “Do we want to acknowledge this? Do we want to make any adjustments?” Every time I say no, he would get a little grin and say, “Fine.”

Anyone that listens to classical music can appreciate that. Will, as a producer what qualities do you look for when selecting an artist to produce?

Obviously what you’re looking for is somebody who will move you with what they create. The more original and unique it is, the more enthusiastically you’re likely to receive it. Not everything can be completely unique. There are times when you work with somebody who is merely extremely talented. I can describe the process of how I make a decision of who to work with as really the same criteria I used with Windham Hill: Does the stuff move me? Am I really touched by this? Is it honest?  My cousin is Alex DeGrassi. I produced Michael Hedges. I got to work with Phil Aaberg, Liz Story, Darol Anger, Chuck Greenberg, and Michael Manring. You can go on and on. They’re just genius players. There are also players who are simpler but who move me every bit as much. I’m certainly not somebody who requires gymnastics in music although I want to make sure that I’m acknowledging the innovation and mastery of an artist like a Michael Hedges. What you love is to find somebody who is challenging the world in terms of what they can do technically but is doing it in the service of music, not in the terms of ego or gymnastics. When the two are there together it’s wonderful. But ultimately if you give me gymnastics versus honest expression, I’ll take the honest expression.

People as listeners get a sense of that, for example when you consider someone like Duane Allman. He couldn’t read music, was not very technical, yet was so emotional and was able to produce music in his few years that simply eclipsed most guitar players.

By the way, my own listening tastes are far broader than some people would expect. Duane is actually a staggeringly perfect example. I think that is brilliant. Thank you for bringing that forward…. The work we do here is very, very emotional. There are very often tears…. There are incredible, sometimes hurtful and sometimes ecstatic memories of life that are brought about from the music that’s been played here…. I have to hold people’s hearts and some part of their spirit in my hands often…. I don’t know whether Todd [Boston] talked to you about our meeting when I had to essentially ask him for more trust. I needed him to let go. It wasn’t a matter of ego on my part. If I was going to do what I do, I needed his trust. He and I got together … and I saw a human being who was willing to risk … and who was simply looking to go way past rendering the piece, and that he was going to find the emotional center of the song. I want that from someone and Todd and I found the space to really trust each other and create the phenomenal recording we envisioned. I want to know that these people are willing to work….We always say you should fly out here and come to the studio before the session and get to see us. You’ll be a little less intimidated when we start recording. In point of fact, what we are doing as much as anything else is seeing whether we like the people. This is really a tight environment. It’s really a family. I would love it if you would talk to ten of the people that I produced in the last year…. They’re coming into my world and my home. They are working with Tom Eaton who is this wonderful man doing all the engineering for me these days and is a really talented guy. Now we don’t have time for egotistical assholes. We want human beings who are going to be communicative and emotionally mature: Kind, articulate and generous people who you really like and value. When people leave here invariably there are tears on all sides. People experience this place as something like going to college. Now they know what it takes to actually record a record. There is this postpartum [depression] that people go through … because that beautiful world that they’ve been in isn’t going to continue forever. Those people are willing to go there and give of themselves artistically and personally, and contribute to my life too, and to Tom’s life. That stuff is hugely important. There would be many people, tremendously talented people, who I wouldn’t even think of letting in the door if they didn’t meet that criteria.
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