The Leo Kottke Connection

Photo by Tom Berthiaume

 

 

 

Musician, May 1994
The Guitar Virtuoso Meets the Producer Who Lays on The Ground
by Fred Schruers

Rickie Lee Jones and Leo Kottke both enjoy (and sometimes suffer) reputations as garden-variety geniuses -- Rickie Lee going from a whisper to a howl on her emotive, jazz-tinged song-poems, and Leo playing his staggeringly deft but accessible brand of six- and 12-string guitar, often singing his own Dadaesque songs. On a pair of recent evenings in Los Angeles, you could see each performer's devoted followers. Rickie Lee's crowd for a showcase at the Troubadour was thick with local scene-makers, plus aficionados both old and new. Duetting briefly with Lyle Lovett, she mixed material from her previous six records with four cuts from her recent, self-produced Traffic from Paradise. Her rough-trade cover of Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" came early in the set, bookended nicely by her closer -- a haunting version of Donovan's "Catch the Wind."
    Kottke, meanwhile, has been on tour with a "Guitar Summit" grouping of jazz master Joe Pass, flamenco virtuoso Paco Peña and classical fixture Pepe Romero. Even amidst such fast company (including an admittedly goofy attempt to link all four up on a Mozart piece), he seemed endearingly quirky, showing, the Los Angeles Times noted, "an uncanny ability to make folk music sound like capital-A art."
    Kottke truly does defy the categories, and one reason Rickie Lee used him all over Traffic  is his ability to put a flexible spine in the midst of her comfortably meandering song structures. During those sessions she became a big-time fan of the compleat Kottke artistry, producing his new album Peculiaroso. As a producer, Jones did not impose her own well-loved eccentricities; she let Kottke give rein to his.
    Kottke, staying at an oceanside Santa Barbara hotel on the day before a local concert, came down early and talked about his piece for guitar and symphony, "Ice Fields." Rickie Lee came in, at once demure and captivating. He stood for a long, family-style hug, and they sat down, a bit amused at the formality of such a meeting, to trade insights. For the once hard-partying but now clear-eyed Rickie Lee, as for the newly lean Kottke, the beverage of choice was coffee.

MUSICIAN: What was the genesis of Rickie producing Peculiaroso?

LK: We started this as you were doing some of the last mixes for Traffic from Paradise. We wanted to continue the fun. The moment that I always mention is when Rickie was on the floor, laughing her head off. And so was I, and I thought, "God, it would be nice to just keep doing this."

RLJ: When I was making my record I was really having a lot of fun. I had a kind of casting couch where all the men sat when they came in. It was really thrilling, because I liked them all. I was really excited to sit in a position of -- not authority, but also not as if I was an employee of anybody. There was no producer, nobody. The atmosphere of the studio was very warm, and good music was coming out of it. Leo called me the producer who lays on the ground. He wanted to have the producer who lays on the ground laying on the floor of his control booth. But what I did wrong was when I took on the job for Leo, I donned a job persona. I was really serious. I have really good ideas and good instincts, but the artist is the boss. Especially Leo.

LK: There's a tune on Traffic called "Beat Angels," and at one point Rickie said, "I think I hear a French horn." And I thought, "Whaaat?" And when I finally heard it, it was perfect. And that happens all the time: the things that Rickie hears. She has an entirely different relationship with the bottom end compared to me. A different take on drums and rhythms, all of it in ways that I haven't run into before, and I wanted some of that.

MUSICIAN: I don't want to start a fight, but Leo mentioned that "Twilight Time" was not Rickie Lee's favorite track on his album.

RLJ: Oh yeah, I really appreciated hearing you say that on KCRW. I said that if you put that on, just make sure everybody knows I didn't want it. I sounded like my mom. I hate that song. For me it evokes a really boring period in pop music. But Leo is from a generation just older than me, and so maybe it has a special romantic place in Leo's heart that it missed in mine.

LK: There's a whole bunch of tunes that are corny in their original format that fall onto a guitar real easy, that I like. If I had to sing that song I wouldn't touch it with a stick.

RLJ: I think what I contributed most to Leo was -- well, I don't know how to say it other than to just tell you what I did, which was just to turn on the machine. Because Leo, when he's not nervous at all, is hysterically funny and spontaneous and he plays flawlessly and also sings flawlessly. But once he became aware that he was going to do a take, he would stiffen up a little bit so I just caught him. And he became aware after the first song that he was being recorded, but he kept his casual atmosphere, because it wasn't "All right, here we go." I don't think anybody else has got his vocals to be as calm.

MUSICIAN: We won't repeat your old self-deprecating saw about geese farts on a muggy day.

LK: Yeah. I'll never live that down. That's the most enduring thing I've ever done. I'm not a tenor and I wanted to be one.

RLJ: I find him really masculine. I am really attracted to the way Leo sings. It's very rich, low and no nonsense. You don't hear people sing with that Midwestern accent. Leo's got a kind of authority that's really intelligent and honest and no-bullshit. I really like hearing his accent and his big booming low voice. I don't know any like it.

MUSICIAN: You've heard him sing "Louise "?

RLJ: Is that the sad song? Right. He sang that to me the night I met him. [pause] I thought he was talking about me.

LK:  Go back to what Rickie Lee was saying about getting the tape on when I didn't know it was on: The hardest thing to do is to get the engineer to turn on the machine.

RLJ: Well, because that's not the way they know how to do it. It's a kind of inhumane bureaucracy. Just -- turn the tape on.

LK: So it went on and stayed on. I was just going to run through a few things to see what we'd do next and the tape was on. And I hear a big difference in those. They're probably my favorite cuts on the record.

RLJ: Sometimes Leo would go, "Listen to this." And he would tell you a whole tune for 10 minutes or some wonderful performance, and the minute that he would be recording he'd make a mistake.

LK: Yeah. My internal school marm walks in and stands behind me with a big rubber ruler.

RLJ: I think everybody does that.

LK: But some more than others. With these [Guitar Summit] guys, when we know we're being taped, we all feel the choke happen. I don't think it hits you that way, that it's time to choke.

RLJ: If there's nobody in there, it doesn't, 'cause it's my thing, but once there's a listener, like a producer, I become aware that I am performing for somebody. If everybody has a job, I'm not performing for them. But anybody who's just listening will make me stiffen, too. I don't let anybody in there to listen.

MUSICIAN: Did you ever have any voice problems?

RLJ: Well, not since I learned how to sing, no. When I was about 20 I worked at the Great American Beverage Company, where you had to be able to sing really loud to keep your job. We were singing waiters and waitresses.

LK: Oh, I thought you were canning Sprite or something.

RLJ: Katey Segal [of TV's Married with Children, and a singer] worked there too. And she could sing really loud. She was a big hit there. But I couldn't. My boyfriend at the time had a singing book and I read about moving the sound from your throat to your chest. [Rickie Lee studiously places three fingers by her breastbone as she speaks]. I have it down there. I practice breathing, and also I don't over-sing. I sing with the same voice I talk with.

LK: That's what you told me that I really try to remember.

RLJ: It works for me. I don't ever get hoarse.

MUSICIAN: They say the closer a prose writer's voice is to his speaking style, the more you are going to be in the pocket and doing your best work. Do you find that writing songs?

RLJ: I write differently than I talk. I write rhythmically. And when I speak I have odd hesitations that I don't have when I write. I think I'm more articulate on a piece of paper.

MUSICIAN: When you're onstage, do you have utter confidence in your vocal instrument?.

RLJ: Of course. Why would I not?

MUSICIAN: I guess we'll ask Leo. Do you?

LK: Yeah. Although in the beginning I didn't. Now it's home for me. Once I'm through maybe the first piece. You know, I sit down and I'm about an inch off the chair for a little bit. But it's not nerves. It's just getting there. And once you're there, it's a very secure place to be. It's really good for ya.

MUSICIAN: Rickie, I saw you remark somewhere that you used to feel responsible for doing a lot more onstage, really barraging the audience with all your weapons every song.

RLJ: I think I learned that earlier than later. I think that one of the horrible things most new singers or most singers who will never truly be great do is, they over-sing. They feel that they have to prove to you in every song how good they can sing and they sacrifice the entire thing. The greatest singer to me is Frank Sinatra. There aren't any tricks or antics. For me, it's a conversation, it's a story. I don't Like hearing Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston. When I listen to them, I don't believe them. I don't care about what they're saying. And most important, I'm not transported to their point of view. I always remain the voyeur, the listener. To transport someone I think you can't get in the way of the lyrics and the story. I think a great singer is a really quiet singer. Not necessarily volume, but a quiet, quiet spirit. And there they overwhelm you.

MUSICIAN: Sal Bernardi wrote "Beat Angels," yet you sing it so feelingly.

RLJ: Yeah. He and I are kind of fused. It's kind of hard to tell the difference between his songs and my songs.

MUSICIAN [to Kottke]: Do we hear you on that one?

LK: There's a couple of notes from me.

RLJ: Leo was there for the recording of that and what he played really set it in. But then I put David Hidalgo on it, and it became the battle of the guitarists. So I pulled Leo out. Leo let me have it one day.

LK: [with a demurring gesture]: I'd never been able to see that happen, where a piece begins here, takes a shape and then it's deconstructed in a way and comes out elsewhere.

RLJ: It's a shaky thing.

LK: I didn't know where the tune was going, and I -- I was amazed.

RLJ: It did change a lot. The way Leo played it, it was more in the pocket, it kind of centered around him, and by the time I was done taking out his guitar, I could see that he was "whoa-ohhhh, what's gonna possibly happen if you take me out?" But it made it a quirkier, more Rickie kind of thing than a thing reflective of someone else.

LK: I got to the point where I was raving so much to Rickie about how she did this that I had raved too much. I was just being a pest. You can't turn around every time you do something and hear some guy saying, God, that was fantastic.

RLJ: I'm not sure that my decision was the right decision ultimately, musically. Leo had it in a more south of the border kind of thing. His guitar was ringing out really beautifully, and I didn't want that to happen. I wanted it to be weirder. I have a tendency to dig out the things in my records that make them palatable [laughing] to large numbers of people. Like it's necessary for me to make it a little off-center. I wish I didn't do that. But that's what I need to do, I guess.

MUSICIAN: But it rewards the people who get across those couple of obstacles. You know you've earned the emotion.

RLJ: Those few, those brave people.

MUSICIAN: Did you ever consider working with jazz players?

RLJ: Oh no. I think jazz is hideously boring. I hate jazz. With only a few exceptions, only the really outstanding spirits in jazz. I think it's the most boring thing. So I would never invite -- especially traditional players, because they'll play only the one thing that they can play. I actually don't come out of jazz roots at all. I come out of pure complete Beatles pop music. 45s, AM radio. My father played jazz, so I've always heard it. I didn't play it. I knew it.

MUSICIAN: So virtuosos don't necessarily interest you in their own right. It's more a feel.

RLJ: You know, it's just whether or not they sing. And the only music I can't relate to at all, and I haven't found any -- oh now, actually Hank Williams I like, but country western music has nothing -- I have no interest in country music, and what they call jazz is so repetitive and so uninspired. I think that the form was okay for truly inspired players, but that form has been regurgitated over and over by really mediocre people who continue to bask in the glory of it, as if they're doing something creative, and they are not. I know jazz is a cool word, but I actually don't like being associated with it at all. I think what I do with jazz standards is completely unique. I think it's really excellent. I tip my hat to influences, but I don't think it in any way -- and they've clearly let me know-- relates to traditional jazz.

MUSICIAN: Is that why you called you previous album Pop Pop?

RLJ: Yeah, and that was probably not a great title. If I called that A Girl at Rue St. Denis or something, it would have evoked a spirit and people could have gone, oh, I know where we're going, but I just detest being so blatant, so obvious. So if I gave it a title that evoked nothing but bewilderment, then people would have to listen and create their own thing with it, which of course could be a big mistake. But that's why I don't do that. I think there's a weird phenomenon in the '90s of people insisting that it not be the authentic article. It has to be something they've already seen and heard. They'll accept it as authentic if they recognize it. And of course, if you recognize it, it's not authentic.
    It started, for me, when Madonna imitated Marilyn Monroe. Where a few years earlier such a blatant grasp at things -- "Well, I'm floundering now, I'll use this, I'll do this" -- people would have snubbed their noses. But the media accepted it, and she rose, and in fact, somehow adopted the credibility of Marilyn Monroe. "I'll dress like her," and somehow, for some reason she was given the power. So it continues to happen, to bring it back to Pop Pop, over and over. People imitate something, and they're given the credibility of that thing, and when you do something new, good or bad, you have no credibility. Not even for the authenticity of doing something new. It just doesn't matter at all. My frustration is seeing people do really terrible work, really uninspired, repetitive work that isn't even sincere from their heart, blatantly taking from another star to sell a record. And getting the credibility of that star. It just confuses and bewilders me. And it's happened with every pop singer who has sanitized records. They've purposely copied a style that had nothing to do with anything they did before. That had nothing to do with their voice, the way that they can sing. And received kudos from an uninformed or careless public.

MUSICIAN: Linda Ronstadt's What's New bothered you in that regard.

RLJ: But even worse, Natalie Cole. The result of Linda Ronstadt was Natalie Cole.

MUSICIAN: Both you and Leo seem to have homes at your labels. You both are lucky, are you not, to be credentialed "artistes" as far as your labels are concerned.

RLJ: I wouldn't assume anything if I were you. [laughter]

LK: If you mean, is it a worry that I haven't generated hits and my career is built on something other than record sales, I don't worry about it because if I did worry about it, I probably wouldn't stop. I agree with you that I have a kind of a home as a player. And I'm really happy with it. Everybody knows there's a lot of trouble that comes with hits. You can have the wrong hit. One of my favorite performers, favorite song writers, is Loudon Wainright. I mean, he's one in a billion. And his hit is "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road." So I don't worry about it. I do wonder sometimes why a label would want me there. Because it's supposed to be, especially these days, that nobody is around unless they really generate sales. And I make a little money for everybody, which sounds rational and sane to me, but from what I hear, that's not the way people are thinking.

RLJ: [borrowing a jacket]: I shake like a poodle when I do interviews. When I get excited I start shaking. I hate that. Maybe I'm always doing interviews in cold rooms. [Leo rises to shut the window]

RLJ: [fondly]: He's a gentleman.

MUSICIAN: Leo, you told the Pasadena crowd a good story about Muskogee -- playing trombone above a big vat of steaming sausages?

LK: Yeah. The annual Aunt Jemima pancake breakfast.

MUSICIAN: It occured to you that the guitarist was better off because he didn't have to inhale as frequently.

RLJ: Did you ever tell how you became a guitar player at the end of your career as a trombone player? Is it too personal?

LK: Actually, I think it translates may maybe a little smarmy.

MUSICIAN: Weren't you given a guitar by your parents as some crisis point in your boyhood?

LK: I had been sick for a long time. My little sister had died and I was doing some thing that siblings sometimes do, which is get very sympathetic and die as well. I was on that route. Whether I would have done that or not, who knows?

RLJ: I meant the contest you went to. I didn't want you to go there.

RLJ: Leo had a big trombone contest he'd been practicing for.

LK: Oh, boy. Yeah. In Oklahoma, they have the state festivals. You rehearse with a piano player and your teacher selects the music. The last year, which coincided with this guitar, my teacher told me to play "Down Home on the Farm" at this festival. And it was the lamest, most contemptible piece of stuff. I can't begin to exaggerate how goofy this thing sounded. There's an academy form to those things. You play the melody in quarter notes, then it repeats in eighth notes, and then, hold your breath, it repeats a third time in 16th notes, then in 64ths, cadenza, and you're done. So it repeats three times. I went on the stage and I said, "I'm going to play Down Home on the Farm." Guffaws-- the judges laughed, and I knew I was in for it. I picked up the trombone and I played the melody. Now they really laughed. It was the lamest. And all of a sudden they knew this was going to repeat a little faster. And every time, they laugh louder. It was God awful. And that was really it.

MUSICIAN: The Great Big Boy  record has such an emphasis on lyrics, after so many instrumentals over your career.

LK: It started with a tune called "Jack Gets Up" off My Father's Face. I realized that I didn't have to stick to the AB/AB format, bridge and the repeat and all. I could be looser if I wanted to. I took bigger chances. I admitted more to myself and about myself than I would normally.

MUSICIAN: The humor takes off the curse of being self-revealing.

RLJ: People may be very curious about you. I'm thinking of "Pepe Hush." For me that song was about a person about to commit a crime, and he had checked -- I had this whole scenario -- into a motel and was going to get up really early to go commit a crime and the dog kept waking him up. Finally I realized it was just about you sleeping next door to a dog that was barking. But initially I had thought, "Wow, he's writing about a guy who is going to break somebody's arm and throw the dog out into the yard. What an interesting person."

MUSICIAN: Rickie, you have said you heard Great Big Boy  and abruptly regained an enthusiasm you 'd lost for songwriting.

LK: Did you say that?

RLJ: Well, I go through long periods without writing anyway. It was just one of those, a couple of years had gone by. No direction had shown itself to me.

MUSICIAN: And you were reminded of what a songwriter does?

RLJ: Yeah.

MUSICIAN: Then did stuff start to issue forth pretty quickly?

RLJ: Exactly what kind of stuff are you referring to?

MUSICIAN: Ummm, ah...

RLJ: Well, we've made a sexual innuendo. Are you going to print that?

MUSICIAN: If there're no objections raised in the next 30 seconds it's going in.

RLJ: Will you write down that you were blushing really badly after you said that?

MUSICIAN: When you sat down to write did you feel almost too influenced by Leo's songs?

RLJ: No. But I think I did keep them compact like his songs were. I liked that they were three minutes, four minutes. That they made the point and left. So I think that, um, leaked out a little bit. Once of the first ones was "The Altar Boy." I know it doesn't sound anything like Leo, but I was heavily influenced by my feelings about Leo and to make a little compact statement that would impress him.

LK: There's a line in that song about licorice seeds. It just goes "Bing!" Every time I hear that.

RLJ: Thank you.

LK: And the way the piece closes on the guitar, when Rickie resolves it. I attach a lot of that kind of thing to what you must have heard from your dad when he was playing. Rickie's harmony is really good. It's real satisfying and very surprising. Yet on something like the resolve to "The Altar Boy," it's the way it should have happened. It's very, very satisfying. But you never expect it. And I love that. It's not like one, four, five or a three minor thrown in or something. It's a real mobile harmony. There's a thing called voice leading, where the voice within a given chord leads it. In other words, if you're going up a scale, and you are structuring it as a major sixth, with that harmony each chord is essentially the same. It's as if that's what was going on, but it's not that. You get a combination of the tremendous kind of security that you get from voice leading, which is standard in jazz so that everybody can think together. But you're doing something different, which is really surprising. So you get both at the same time.

MUSICIAN: You two co-wrote "The Albatross" with [bassist] John Leftwich. I hear analogies to touring in the seagoing imagery.

LK: Rickie and I did talk about my experiences in the Navy, and about the constant movement, the isolation of it. Rickie uses pieces of herself and a song like that or "Running from Mercy," which I also got to take a hand in, isn't about finding a metaphor - - it comes from some deep place, purely felt, intuitive stuff.

MUSICIAN: Rickie, when you set out to write this record, did you sense a theme -- of the sort people talk about on Pirates?

RLJ: You know, I can't say that. It's not only because I object to defining myself, you know, but I can't stand outside and tell you what the meaning of that is, or even what brought it on. Once it's done, it's done. I don't know what made it, and I don't know what it means, I don't think that you can articulate impressions.

MUSICIAN: Interesting as the individual lyrics are, it does seem you're heading more toward pure vocal expressiveness -- that your voice is more than instrument than ever.

RLJ: I think maybe what you're not hearing is the strong particular thread of a recurring theme and "This is what this is about." Because I don't have that in my life, I don't dwell on anything. I just don't live like that anymore. So there I am, I'm explaining myself and I don't want to explain. And I have always hoped that doesn't make the stuff weaker. In a pop sense it probably does, you know. But I don't think in the long run, in the true art of it, that it is. I hope it isn't. But weaker or not, that's where I am.

MUSICIAN: What's your favourite moment on Leo's record?

RLJ: "Parade." There's a kind of moody blues thing that comes out in people I really love, different writers, and I do feel a kinship with that kind of strange, beautiful painting that is of no consequence doesn't reveal its intentions. It's just a little painting with words and beautiful melodies.

 

 

Traffic Signals

Leo Kottke owns 30-odd guitars (including a '50s vintage Telecaster he likes to plug in occasionally), but "If I only had two seconds I'd grab what I'm using onstage, my Olsen six-string and my Taylor (Kottke model) 12-string." He favors GHS strings for both, "white bronze" for the 12-string.

Rickie Lee Jones uses a Taylor six-string Leo gave her. She plays with a Sunrise pickup through a Sunrise Tube Interface.

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