Linda Ronstadt: The 'Fresh Air' interview
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Linda Ronstadt has just published a new memoir. Over the course of her career, Ronstadt sold over a hundred million records, won 11 Grammys, and by the end of the '70s, was the highest-paid woman in rock. Her hits included "You're No Good," "Heart Like a Wheel," "Desperado" and "Blue Bayou."
Her rise to stardom coincided with the height of the counterculture, making her a focal point in a world far removed from her Catholic upbringing in Tucson. But she didn't remain tied to the popular music of her time. Against the recommendation of her record label, she recorded an album of standards with arranger Nelson Riddle that turned into a surprise hit. And she recorded albums of the Mexican songs she learned from her Mexican grandfather and her father.
But in the early 2000s, she began to feel her voice was slipping. In 2011, after many years struggling to maintain her voice, she called an end to her singing career. Terry interviewed Linda Ronstadt in 2013 about her first memoir, "Simple Dreams." They spoke a month after Ronstadt revealed that she had Parkinson's disease and could no longer sing. The diagnosis was later changed to progressive supranuclear palsy. Ronstadt's new memoir, "Feels Like Home: A Song For The Sonoran Borderlands," is an exploration of her Mexican roots and includes recipes of the dishes she grew up with. It was co-written by journalist Lawrence Downes.
Before we hear our interview with Linda Ronstadt, let's start with her song that was a No. 1 hit in 1975.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE NO GOOD")
LINDA RONSTADT: (Singing) Feeling better now that we're through. Feeling better because I'm over you. I learned my lesson. It left a scar. Now I see how you really are. You're no good. You're no good. You're no good. Baby, you're no good. I'm going to say it again.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Linda Ronstadt, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is a great pleasure to have you on our show.
RONSTADT: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Well, I want to talk with you about your childhood and your family tree. Reading your memoir, I was just astonished (laughter) by the richness of your family tree. So let's start with your grandfather, who was born in Mexico and had a hardware store in Arizona...
RONSTADT: In Tucson, yeah.
GROSS: ...And had a lot of business that came across the border from Mexico. Tell us about his music background.
RONSTADT: He was the one in Tucson who taught everybody how to play their instruments and assembled a band and wrote the arrangements and wrote a lot of compositions for the band. And he was like the music man, except he really knew how to play music and how to read. And he was an autodidact. He had quite a rich education. He only went to, I think, seventh grade in terms of formal schooling, but he was a wide reader and loved opera, loved art. All those elements were there, you know, in his life. It was a rich life artistically.
He was a rancher. That's how he made his living in Arizona. That's a tough gig because it's the desert. And sometimes there's no water, and then there are no cattle, you know. So he went through some tough times. He went through the Depression. But he was apprenticed to a blacksmith when he was a teenager. And so he had the reputation in southern Arizona for making the most beautiful wagons and buggies, you know, like the equivalent of a Mercedes that you would drive around, a horse and carriage.
GROSS: Did he do a lot of Mexican songs?
RONSTADT: Oh, yeah. You know, if you wanted to serenade your sweetheart, you'd get my my grandfather's band to go and serenade her at 2 in the morning. And if you had to have a military parade, well, my grandfather's band was the one you get, you know. And if you had a wedding or a funeral, well, they'd show up for that.
GROSS: So while we're talking about some of the music he introduced you to and the music he played, let me play a track from the first of, I think, three albums that you did of Mexican and Spanish songs and...
RONSTADT: They're Mexican songs, yeah.
GROSS: Mexican songs. And the title of the album, "Canciones De Mi Padre," is the same title that your aunt gave a collection of songs and stories that she published.
RONSTADT: Yes, my aunt was a singer and a dancer. And she was a music scholar, you know, in the teens and 20s of the 20th century. And she traveled all over Mexico and also into Spain. And she collected all these different regional songs and dances. And she wrote a letter home to my grandfather saying that she had discovered a guitar player that she thought was absolutely wonderful. And he could hold the attention of the audience when she left the stage to change her costumes. And she wanted to bring him to the United States because she was sure he would be a huge hit there and become a star in his own right. And the guitar player was Andres Segovia.
GROSS: And did he come here because of her?
RONSTADT: I don't know. I'm sure she encouraged him to. But, I mean, he, you know, people of that kind of talent, they make it on their own.
GROSS: Right. Right.
RONSTADT: She just didn't get in the way, you know.
GROSS: So the song...
RONSTADT: Kind of like being the Eagles, you know, I didn't get in their way.
GROSS: Because they were your backup band before they became famous.
RONSTADT: They were my backup band. And I just got out of the way.
GROSS: So the song I want to play from your first album of Mexican songs is - and I'm going to say this wrong - "Rogaciano El Huapanguero".
RONSTADT: Huapanguero, yeah. "Rogaciano El Huapanguero."
GROSS: This is a beautiful song.
RONSTADT: A huapango is a certain kind of song that - it's a style of singing.
GROSS: There's so much emotion in the song. Just say a few words about it before we hear it.
RONSTADT: Well, this music is typical of the mountain regions. And I guess in mountain regions, people develop a kind of a yodeling style because they can throw their voice across - you know, they don't have a telephone, so they yodel. And so there's a beautiful kind of a haunting, romantic kind of break in the voice that makes it typical of a huapango. They're my favorites. And there's a rhythm underneath that would be written in European time signature as 68, but it's not really a 68. It's a 68 with a kind of hitch in the gait. You've got to grow up in that region and sort of know how to count it. It's very much an Indigenous Mexican rhythm.
GROSS: OK. So this is Linda Ronstadt from her first album of Mexican songs, "Canciones de Mi Padre," from 1987.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROGACIANO EL HUAPANGUERO")
RONSTADT: (Singing in Spanish).
GROSS: That's my guest, Linda Ronstadt, recorded in 1987. We were talking about how your grandfather introduced you to these kinds of songs and sang these kinds of songs. Your father sang, too. I was surprised to read that Paul Whiteman invited your father to be the boy singer in his band. And, I mean, that's where Bing Crosby got his start.
RONSTADT: Yeah, that was a huge deal because in those days, he was the most well-known bandleader in the country. So that was quite an honor. My father had a beautiful, beautiful baritone voice. He sounded like a cross between Pedro Infante and Frank Sinatra. And he just had wonderful stories in his singing. And always, you know, if there was a dinner party or something, he'd get the guitar out, you know, about 10:00 or 11:00. And everybody would start to listen. And he'd just sing. And I always would fall asleep in somebody's lap listening to my dad sing some beautiful song, you know.
GROSS: On your mother's side of the family, her father was Lloyd Copeman, who was an inventor. And...
RONSTADT: He was a - yeah, he was a famous inventor. He invented, well, the electric toaster, the electric stove, all the timing devices. He invented the thermostat for Westinghouse, basically.
RONSTADT: And he invented the pneumatic grease gun, and he invented a dripless paint thing that you put on your paint can so it doesn't drip down the side. It's still in use today. He invented a tamper-proof envelope for the FBI - All kinds of things that he did. You know, he was kind of the Gyro Gearloose of his time. But he worked alone. He was the third to Thomas Edison in a number of useful inventions in the - sometime in the '50s, you know, that he had made. But he worked all by himself. Thomas Edison worked with teams and teams of people. So I also - my grandfather kind of beat him a little bit.
GROSS: So that leads me to wonder, I mean, did you grow up wealthy? Did your mother inherit a lot of money? That's a lot of inventions.
RONSTADT: No, my grandmother had Parkinson's disease, and it took all his money. He had - he was wealthy from time to - you know...
RONSTADT: ...At certain times. But he spent all his money trying to find a cure for Parkinson's disease.
GROSS: Wait. You mean - so he tried to invent a cure - as an inventor, to come up with a cure for...
RONSTADT: Well, he tried to find - you know, he searched everywhere. And people would say, oh, you know, we can cure it? Give us this much money. And he just went through his money trying to find a way to fix her, I think. He loved her so much.
GROSS: So you form a band with friends, the Stone Poneys, which eventually has the hit "Different Drum" in 1967. But that was their second album. The first album, it was a harmony group, and you weren't, like, the lead singer Linda Ronstadt. It was a band. You sang harmonies. I hadn't heard that early work until I was preparing for this interview. And I was really interested in hearing how the early Stone Poneys sounds, so I want to play the first track from that first album. This is "Sweet Summer Blue and Gold."
RONSTADT: Oh, my God.
GROSS: And do you just want to say a few words about this and about what the band was about in those early days?
RONSTADT: Well, Bobby Kimmel was a guy that I met in Tucson. He was a kind of a blues guitar player, but then, he'd write stuff that wasn't bluesy. He wrote songs and stories about his own life and his own experiences. We had Kenny Edwards, who was a really wonderful guitar player and a good musician that I met really early on. And we just put the harmonies together. We'd just kind of fit them together and - sort of like throwing it against the wall (laughter) you know - and see if it stuck.
GROSS: All right, so this is Linda Ronstadt with the Stone Poneys, the first album that they released.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SUMMER BLUE AND GOLD")
THE STONE PONEYS: (Singing) Look out your window. The rain is turning into snow. So the time has come, you know. You must decide to stay or go. Oh, how you love me. Sweet summer blue and gold. Will you stay with me? Long winter's gray and cold. Go, love, open up the door. You'll see the wind's not warm anymore. The birds we heard all summer long were chased away by winter storms. Oh, how you love me. Sweet summer blue and gold. Will you stay with me? Long winter's gray and cold.
GROSS: So that was the Stone Poneys with my guest, Linda Ronstadt, and that was before "Different Drum." This was from their first album. So that's so folk influenced. Was that the direction you were heading in?
RONSTADT: On the radio in those days, the radio was so wide open. You could hear a jazz song, The Singing Nun, a country song and then, you know, Peter, Paul and Mary, you know, doing sort of what was considered commercial folk music. And we heard a lot of that stuff, and we were really influenced by it, you know, that kind of fingerpicking guitar style and stuff like that. So that's what we were chasing then.
GROSS: You got a manager, and your manager thought you should really be, like, the soloist. He wasn't that hot on the band, but he liked you and thought he could really promote you. And then, you're ready to record "Different Drum." And you show up to the studio, and, like, your band's not there. It's these different musicians. Tell the story of what happened.
RONSTADT: Well, originally, we had recorded - I'd heard it - it was a song called "Different Drum." I had learned it off a bluegrass record by the Greenbriar Boys. And I thought it was a hit. But I wanted to record it in a folky way. So we recorded it with a guitar and a mandolin. And of course, you know, the record company didn't like it. And they said, well, we want to do it again, but we're going to get a different arrangement. I had no idea there was going to be all these musicians. It turns out they were all good players. Don Randi was playing. Jimmy Gordon was the drummer, a wonderful drummer. And...
GROSS: Don Randi was playing harpsichord (laughter).
RONSTADT: Yeah, Don Randi was playing harpsichord. He played piano. I was just shocked. And they played the arrangement. I didn't know how to fit the phrasing in. I didn't - it suddenly wasn't the way I was used to singing it, so it really knocked me off my stride. And I think we went through it twice. And it was a hit. You know, what was I supposed to know? I mean, I was just shocked. I didn't want them to use it because I felt like I was struggling so with the singing. And I thought that showed, you know, so clearly. But it was a hit. So when they put it out, that was a lucky thing for me that they didn't listen to me.
GROSS: So this is my guest, Linda Ronstadt - "Different Drum," 1967.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIFFERENT DRUM")
THESTONE PONEYS: (Singing) You and I travel to the beat of a different drum. Oh, can't you tell by the way I run every time you make eyes at me? Whoa. You cry and moan and say it will work out. But, honey child, I've got my doubts. You can't see the forest for the trees. So don't get me wrong. It's not that I knock it. It just that I am not in the market for a boy who wants to love only me. Yes, and I ain't saying you ain't pretty. All I'm saying I'm not ready for any person, place or thing to try and pull the reigns in on me. So goodbye, I'll be leaving. I see no sense in this crying and grieving. We'll both live a lot longer if you live without me.
GROSS: That's Linda Ronstadt, recorded in 1967 - a big hit for her, "Different Drum," her first big hit. Did you believe in the lyric about not wanting to be tied down or monogamist? Like, did that describe you?
RONSTADT: Well, yeah.
RONSTADT: Yes, it did. Yes, it does.
GROSS: Never been married, right?
RONSTADT: No knack for it. You know, I think that the culture supports serial monogamy, and I think I had plenty of that. And I think I was reasonably monogamous in a serial way. But I'm not a good compromiser. I think I don't have a knack for that kind of compromise. I admire people's marriages. And I think it's a wonderful thing to have, but I don't think it's the only way to live. I think there are many ways to live and many ways to establish intimate support in your life that can be from family or friends or a great roommate that you like. You know, it doesn't have to be someone you're sleeping with. I figured that out pretty early on, and that was sort of how I felt. I was trying to sing. I was never trying to get married.
GROSS: We're listening to my interview with Linda Ronstadt, recorded in 2013. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDRES SEGOVIA'S "3 CANCIONES POPULARES MEXICANAS: NO. 3. LA VALENTINA")
GROSS: You write in the book about how you had to figure out your image and you write, female performers in the folk pop genre were genuinely confused about how to represent themselves. Did we want to be nurturing, stay-at-home earth mothers who cooked and nursed babies, or did we want to be funky mamas at the Troubadour bar, our boot heels to be wandering an independent course like our male counterparts. So where did you see yourself fitting in between, like, the funky mama and the earth mama?
RONSTADT: Well, I didn't really fit in there. I was raised to, you know, to wear hat and gloves and polish the silver. And that just wasn't the way I was quite raised. So I was a little bit confused by it.
GROSS: I remember the rumor about Janis Joplin was - and I don't know if you heard this because you were in the music industry, so - and you actually knew her at a distance...
RONSTADT: Not well, but I knew her a little bit.
GROSS: Right. But at a distance, when, like, all of her fans were preparing for, like, the concert, you know, in the college auditorium, like, the rumor that went around was, like, Janis Joplin got so deep into the sexuality of her songs that she actually reached orgasm on stage.
RONSTADT: Oh, my God. Well, I never heard that.
GROSS: I doubt that was true, but...
RONSTADT: I've never personally had that experience myself, but...
GROSS: I assumed that. But did you ever feel like you had to compete with that kind of image and that kind of, like, level of sexuality that people projected onto her?
RONSTADT: No, I think competition is for horse races, and I never thought I belonged in art. And I never felt that competitive with other girl singers, really. I admired them. If I really admired them, I'd try to figure out a way if it was appropriate to figure out a way to sing with them. You know, I liked Maria Muldaur when I first started out. Now, there was somebody that was really sexy on stage. In fact, Janis just admired her, too. She loved her. And I got to sing with Maria a little bit. It was really fun. We did harmonies together. But mainly when I met - ran into Emmylou Harris, that was it. You know, we could finish each other's sentences musically and personally, too. We had a very shared similar sensibility.
GROSS: You have a few stories in your new memoir about being propositioned by men who assumed, hey, it's a hippie chick singer - free love. For example, the time when a producer of a TV show that you were doing - you were a guest on the show. He came into your room on the premise that you had to talk about business, and he immediately, like, stripped off all his clothes.
RONSTADT: I was so shocked because I'm really kind of modest, you know. I had a Catholic school upbringing, and we just didn't see a lot of naked bodies. And this guy - I'm telling you - was not the Adonis of show business. He was kind of...
RONSTADT: There was something really kind of exhibitionistic and self-hating about what he was doing. I felt sorry for him. I mean, it was - just clearly he was so troubled. But, you know, he was - had the power, and I didn't have any. And so I just kind of edged to the door and edged to the door, and then I just went out the door, you know. And I didn't come back for a couple of hours. I went and sat in the lobby. And I was so bored and I was so mad down there, you know, sitting in the lobby, but - because I wanted to go to bed. But I was just afraid to go back to my room. And in those days, you know, when you were kind of low man on the pecking order or low woman in the pecking order, you didn't dare go and complain. I called my manager, and he said, don't say anything, because, you know, they might kick you off the show. And we needed the show.
DAVIES: We're listening back to an interview Terry Gross recorded with Linda Ronstadt in 2013. Ronstadt has just published a new memoir titled "Feels Like Home," an exploration of the food and culture of her Mexican roots. We'll hear more after a break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE BAYOU")
RONSTADT: (Singing) I feel so bad. I got a worried mind. I'm so lonesome all the time since I left my baby behind on Blue Bayou. Saving nickels, saving dimes, working till the sun don't shine, looking forward to happier times on Blue Bayou. I'm going back someday, come what may, to Blue Bayou. Where the folks are fun and the world is mine, on Blue Bayou, where those fishing boats with their sails afloat - if I could only see that familiar sunrise through sleepy eyes, how happy I'd be.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "I'M AN OLD COWHAND")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Linda Ronstadt. Ronstadt's new memoir, "Feels Like Home," is about her Mexican roots. And it includes recipes for the dishes she grew up with. Terry interviewed Ronstadt in 2013 about the publication of an earlier memoir, "Simple Dreams." She'd ended her singing career years earlier due to what was thought to be Parkinson's disease, but was later re-diagnosed as progressive supranuclear palsy, a disease with symptoms similar to Parkinson's. Ronstadt told Terry that early in her career, she had difficulty figuring out her public image. She didn't quite fit into the image of the Earth Mother or the Funky Mama.
GROSS: 1971, you perform at Disneyland. And the contract stipulated that you had to wear a bra. And your skirt had to be a certain number of inches from the ground when you were kneeling, which led me to wonder...
RONSTADT: Yeah - not very many inches.
GROSS: Yeah. Had they seen - so your skirt had to be long enough. Had they seen your act and known that, well, sometimes you don't wear a bra and that you kneel in your show?
RONSTADT: No. They just - that was just the rules, that if you wanted to work at Disneyland, you...
GROSS: For anybody?
RONSTADT: And I was laughing. I was going to put the bra on my head, you know, and say, it didn't say in the contract...
RONSTADT: But I really needed to get paid. They paid really well at Disneyland. That's why we did those silly gigs. But, you know, they always had these silly laws. I think they're very - they were a very uptight organization.
GROSS: In your memoir, you write about how when you found the song "Heart Like A Wheel," the Anna McGarrigle song, which she sang with her sister, Kate, that that song rearranged your entire musical landscape. First, let's start with, why did your musical landscape need rearranging?
RONSTADT: Well, I'd come from this kind of sensibility. My grandfather loved opera. He loved "La Traviata." That was his favorite opera. It's my favorite opera. And he had this kind of, you know, arty, refined sensibility, but he also loved traditional music. And he loved Mexican music. He was really passionate about that. So - and the same with my father. You know, he liked those things, too.
So the McGarrigles kind of married this incredibly traditional sort of refined aesthetic with, you know, just telling it like it is - sort of straight out, no bones about it the way they'd talk about stuff. And it was just this unabashed sentiment. They were unafraid of female sentiment. And I don't know. There's something in the water up there in Canada because my favorite writers are the McGarrigle sisters, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot - oh, my God, what a great ballad writer - Joni Mitchell.
I mean, you know, there's just - they're completely unique, great writers. And in a lot of ways, they're following in the tradition of what would be called art song, and that was what I was seeing with McGarrigles. I thought - I didn't know what to call it then, but I just knew it was different from folk music. And it wasn't the same as rock ’n’ roll. It wasn't - there was no place for it in pop music on the charts.
But I wanted to sing it because it told my story exactly how I felt at the time about what I - you know, how I was feeling about my life and my relationships. And I just had to sing it. And I tried it for a couple - and I sang it for a couple of different guys. And, you know, my manager at the time, he said, oh, that's just too corny. You know, nobody's going to want to listen to that. And the record company wasn't interested in it. They said, oh, that's not a hit. They'll never play it on the radio. So I just kind of - it just sort of hurt my feelings on behalf of the song. And I sort of folded it up and tucked it in my pocket.
And then one night, before - we were going to play Carnegie Hall. And the night before, I was rehearsing with my piano player, Andrew Gould. And he had learned the song some other place. I don't know where he had learned it. And he was just playing the introduction to it. I said, I know that song. Let's do it. So I sang through it. And of course, you know, I knew all the words and everything. And I said, let's put it in the show. And we put it in the next night at Carnegie Hall. It got a huge response, so that was how I won with that song. I just kept trying, you know?
GROSS: Well, it ended up being the title track of a 1974 album. Let's hear it. This is my guest, Linda Ronstadt, singing "Heart Like A Wheel."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART LIKE A WHEEL")
RONSTADT: (Singing) Some say the heart is just like a wheel. When you bend it, you can't mend it. But my love for you is like a sinking ship. And my heart is on that ship out in mid-ocean. When harm is done, no love can be won. I know it happens frequently, but I can't understand. Oh, please, God, hold my hand. Why'd it have to happen to me? And it's only love - and it's only love that can wreck a human being and turn him inside out...
GROSS: That's my guest, Linda Ronstadt, singing "Heart Like A Wheel," the title track of her 1974 album that also included "When Will I Be Loved," "Willin'," "Faithless Love." I think it was after "Heart Like A Wheel," you go to your record company, Capitol Records. And you basically begged them to let you go (laughter) because you couldn't record what you wanted to record with them.
RONSTADT: Well, they weren't - I just didn't feel like they really got who I was. And, I mean, to their credit, how could they know? - because I was still shaping who I was. I was morphing into something. It took me 10 years to learn how to sing, really, and to figure out, you know, who I was stylistically.
So - but I'd always loved Hank Williams. And I'd always loved those country songs. And I could play them on the guitar because they were three chords. And I'd like singing them. And they were good harmonies. And they were great sentiment. So - and, again, I had this manager that said, oh, that's too country for rock and too rock for country. You'll never sell any records, you know? But I liked those songs, so I sang them.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with Linda Ronstadt in 2013. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP'S "TELEGRAM")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2013 interview with Linda Ronstadt.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: One of the big decisions you made in your career is that you wanted to sing standards. You wanted to sing songs like Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney had recorded.
GROSS: And you wanted to do it with Nelson Riddle, (laughter) who had done arrangements for both of them. And you were lucky enough to actually record three albums with him. So let's go back for a moment. How did you first know the American Songbook?
RONSTADT: I heard it on the - first on the Victrola and then on the big hi-fi monaural record player that my father brought home in the '50s. He brought it home with a bunch of records. He brought Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, duets that were just fabulous. And he brought Peggy Lee and June Christy and Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. There were a lot of people that could - really knew how to sing that stuff, and those are brilliant songs. I think what the United States gave to world culture at large, especially in the 20th century, was the American popular song. And it was a wonder to behold.
GROSS: The title of the album is "What's New." That's a song that so many people have sung. What spoke to you about that song?
RONSTADT: Well, I'd had experiences like that where you run into an old boyfriend that maybe you're still carrying a little torch for. And, you know, you see him, and it's just - kind of brings up back all those old feelings. And you have a brief little encounter with him on the street, and then, you go on by like nothing ever happened. And it's kind of a devastating experience. And that song just describes it in very subtle innuendos. You know, it's not instructive. It doesn't say, this is what happened, the story, the story, the story. It just kind of supplies these little details, and you put the story together yourself like a good trial lawyer, (laughter) you know?
GROSS: OK. So this is Linda Ronstadt from her first album of standards. And the album is "What's New."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S NEW")
RONSTADT: (Singing) What's new? How is the world treating you? You haven't changed a bit. Handsome as ever, I must admit. What's new? How did that romance come through? We haven't met since then. Gee, but it's nice to see you again. What's new? Probably...
GROSS: That's Linda Ronstadt from her first album of standards, which is called "What's New" and the first of three albums in which she collaborated with the arranger Nelson Riddle. Do you feel like you learned things about music or about how singing fits in with an arrangement by working with Nelson Riddle?
RONSTADT: Well, I learned a tremendous amount. I mean, I told Nelson - in the beginning, I had the gut, the chutzpah to tell him I needed a really custom fit and that I liked to be involved in the way the arrangements were set. I'd - you know, I can do simple arrangements myself. I've done some very simple string writing and some very simple - and I can do pretty complicated harmony arrangements. But I knew that I was way over my head with anything like this. And he was one of the great masters of the style if not the great master for pop music.
So he came over to my house in the morning, and we would go through things. And he's the only person I ever let - allowed him to correct me on a key. Like, I'd usually pick the key out of the air. And every once in a while, he'd say, no, it'd be better if you moved it up a little bit or down a little bit. And he'd always be right. I remember in one song I asked for a modulation, you know, just to kind of brighten up the arrangement and keep it from getting too boring, you know? And he said, oh, I can do a trick. He said, I can modulate - and modulation usually modulates up to a higher key, and it brightens. He said, I'll give it - I'll modulate to a lower key, and it gave it this incredible mood shift, you know?
I was just always floored by the things that Nelson came up with, and he always had a real reason for however he cast his arrangements. The woodwinds would have a certain place in the mix, you know? It would be just supporting something, or they'd be speaking out more prominently, or the strings would be speaking out more prominently. He always knew exactly where to cast the instrument so that they supported the story and illustrated the story.
GROSS: He - Nelson Riddle died while doing the arrangements for your third album together. That must have been devastating.
RONSTADT: It was devastating 'cause there was only one Nelson Riddle. They don't make any more like him. And, you know, it was the end of an era in a certain way. And we still had one song - one track to record after he died. And we did. The musicians were crying in the orchestra 'cause they all loved Nelson, you know? He'd given them so much work over the years, and he appreciated what their abilities were. And his son was also playing in the trombone section. He was crying. It was pretty tough that day.
GROSS: You've probably known a lot of people who died young. And I'm thinking - just to name a few - Gram Parsons, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison.
RONSTADT: Yeah, well, we had the great culling, you know, of people that took drugs, and it was just a disaster and a tragedy. It's just so sad that those people didn't get to live out full lives. And then, there was the next one, which was the AIDS epidemic, which was another just terrible tragedy, you know, that all those people had to die. You know, there are a lot of people that are gone from "Pirates Of Penzance." Most of them, in fact, are gone, the people...
GROSS: From the production that you were in?
RONSTADT: Yeah. You know, the music director and a lot of the stars. And they're gone. It's a shame. They had amazing careers, and they should - they had many more years in them they could have been around. So there was two. So then, the next...
GROSS: Oh, you're saying that that was because of AIDS?
RONSTADT: Yeah, because of AIDS. And then, now is, you know, old age where, you know, people are dropping around my generation. It's like the senior class in high school. Now we're the seniors, and we're looking around, going, ooh, we're next. But that's the way it is, you know? We're all going to die.
GROSS: Do you still feel like a bit of a survivor because you made it through this far?
RONSTADT: Well, I didn't die young.
GROSS: Yeah, so...
RONSTADT: I feel like...
RONSTADT: You can say that (laughter).
RONSTADT: ...Whatever I've got - I just feel whatever I've got now is gravy. I feel like I was lucky. I got to live out a lot of my dreams, and I got to, you know, sing with all these wonderful people like Emmylou and Aaron Neville and Smokey Robinson. I mean, the tenors - I sang with Aaron Neville, Smokey Robinson, Placido Domingo, Dennis Wilson, Ricky Skaggs. I mean, how can you beat that, you know, for tenors? So I was lucky. And so having a singing sister like Emmylou Harris - what a gift in my life.
You know, she opened doors for me musically that I never would have been able to open by myself because she was as passionate as I was about offbeat, quirky art song and traditional music. She didn't care whether it was going to be a hit or not, either. She just wanted to sing it. If it really told her story, there was nothing that was going to get away - in the way of her telling her story. So that told it the best. She was going to do that song and do it right. It was like going through the woods with, like, Hansel and Gretel, you know, leaving a little trail of breadcrumbs. We left our little notes behind in hope we could find our way back.
GROSS: I want to close with a song from your final album, "Hummin' To Myself," from 2004. And this is the song "Tell Him I Said Hello."
RONSTADT: Oh, I'm glad you picked that. It's my favorite one.
GROSS: Oh, good. So did you know this would be your final album when you recorded it?
RONSTADT: It wasn't my final album. I made an album after that that I'm really proud of called - it was called "Adieu False Heart" that I made with Ann Savoy down in the Cajun country. And I had no voice left, and I was just crafting whatever I could craft together. But I hung on to Ann, and we sang this harmony duet, and it was an unusual sound. I really loved that record, but I was also really proud of this record because it was really hard to sing at this point when I was recording. And, again, I had to find a new voice to sing with that I put together, especially for this song, just "Tell Him I Said Hello." But I love this song. It's one of those kind of things, again, where - it's just a moment where you're remembering, you know, the regret of a past relationship and you think you want to sort of reach out to that person. Then you realize you better not. And so you just leave it alone.
GROSS: When you say you had to, like, refashion your voice, like, what did you have to do differently?
RONSTADT: Well, I was singing on the - sort of the flat lower part of my voice. I didn't have all the color and the breath and the sort of airy halo that comes. There's a lot of different textures that you can dial in and out on an unconscious level when you're singing, and you just bring in these colors and textures, and they all express emotion in some way or another. And I didn't have that with me. I was - I thought of myself as a painter that was painting with a limited palette. So I thought, well, I got some darks and lights here, and I've got some - maybe some umber, you know, and I can put that in. And I just have to make a really strong drawing and make the images bold as I can. And that's what I was trying to do with this song.
GROSS: Well, Linda Ronstadt, it's just been such a pleasure to talk with you, and I wish you the best.
RONSTADT: Well, thank you so much. It's been my pleasure, too. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL HIM I SAID HELLO")
RONSTADT: (Singing) When you see him, tell him things are slow. There's a reason, and he's sure to know. But on second thought, forget it. Just tell him I said hello. If he asks you when I come and go, say I stay home 'cause I miss him so. But on second thought, forget it. Just tell him I said hello.
DAVIES: Terry's interview with Linda Ronstadt was recorded in 2013 after the publication of her memoir, "Simple Dreams." Ronstadt has a new memoir about her Mexican roots, featuring recipes of the dishes she grew up with. It's called "Feels Like Home: A Song For The Sonoran Borderlands." Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Till." It's based on the story of the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till and his mother's insistence that America should see what happened to her murdered son. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, "'03 BONNIE AND CLYDE FT. BEYONCE KNOWLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.