John Leventhal Makes the List
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-flight, 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 Leventhal 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 Grammys 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 heated discussions might take place, 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, Leventhal’s wife, singing 12 of the 100 essential American songs from a list presented to her by her father, Johnny Cash, when she was 18-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 Cash’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.
In this exclusive interview with GALO, record producer John Leventhal takes time to discuss his processes and mentions a new, forthcoming release that he will produce with Rosanne Cash.
GALO: So John, one day you woke up and decided that you were going to be a producer?
John Leventhal: No, it was a little more circuitous than that. But not a whole lot more. I never thought about being a producer; it was never a specific ambition that 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 21-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, and I was lucky enough to fall in with some good musicians, [though] I got my butt kicked early on as I realized what it took to be a good musician. I was a player and always wrote songs on the side and was living in New York City. But the most incredible thing was that 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 20s, 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, [I thought], ‘wow, maybe I’m a record producer.’ Before that, it wasn’t like, ‘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 ’80s were such an odd time. I never musically really felt at home in the ’80s. It was the era of the gigantic snare drum, synthesizers and drum machines, and here we were doing some 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 ’80s 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 in 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.
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