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Still Awesome After All These Years: An Interview With Producer Phil Ramone

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If you've ever read his Friday Huffington Post column Dog Ears Music, you're aware that Phil Ramone is fond of some pretty great records. Every week, he and Danielle Evin suggest albums and tracks from various decades that deserve attention as they happily update music lovers on artists' gems and buried treasures. His weekly advisories immediately proliferate across the internet, no surprise to his admirers and contemporaries since all of his work is backed by an intense knowledge of music and a history of godfathering some of the best recordings ever made.

Over the years, this innovative producer and engineer has been at the board behind many classic records, earning fifteen Grammy awards that began with "Best Engineered Recording" for his skills on the legendary Getz/Gilberto album. He is credited as a technical innovator for introducing optical surround sound, as a pioneer of the compact disc, and for practically reinventing the way '70s singer-songwriters presented the sonic side of their art. To this day, records bearing the brand "Produced by Phil Ramone" are guaranteed to have musical sophistication, impeccable sound, and a recording artist represented in the best possible light.

Mike Ragogna: On the recent compilation you produced, What Love Can Do, artists such as Burt Bacharach, Eric Clapton, Kris Kristofferson, and Brian Wilson participated. The title track was written by Wilson and Bacharach which makes the event pretty newsworthy. What are your thoughts on Brian Wilson?

Phil Ramone: A few years ago, there was a celebration of Brian's work at Radio City, and it had Elton John, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, George Martin...that was the re-establishing of Brian. He not only is a great writer, but I think a great producer. I heard the band he was working with, and I thought this was the greatest thing I'd heard in years. Brian was just beginning to perform again.

George Martin and I were brought in to produce the "Jubilee For The Queen," a show at Buckingham Palace that was performed live on the lawn in front of 10,000 people. The place went crazy when Brian performed, and he had a complete resurgence in Europe because of The Beatles and everyone that had given him so much credit for Pet Sounds, etc. I remember Paul McCartney and I driving from London to the South of England. It was an hour-and-a-half drive, and we sat there in the back of his car playing Pet Sounds saying look at how it changed all of our lives.

I've worked with Brian off and on over the last five years. We did a tribute to him at MusiCares, and at their request, he had written out a book of his words and music. It was beautiful--all handwritten and signed by him--and they did it as a live auction to see if it would do anything big. People thought five or ten grand would be a wonderful bid. When it got up to 25-30,000, I thought, "Oh my God!"

The guy's work was not only artistically interesting but beautifully done as well. Brian had been a major point of reference in music in so many people's lives. When we did this record, when the label asked, "Would you talk to him about doing this?" he had just written that song three or four months back with Burt Bacharach. And it was kind of ironic that we had recorded it in the same studio where Brian made his first famous recordings. He's an amazing guy.

MR: You also have been at the heart of a lot of important recordings, producing classic albums by so many significant artists. When you read "Produced by Phil Ramone" on records by Billy Joel, Paul Simon, etc., it's pretty clear that there's something about your "sound" that helped these artists organize and clarify what they were trying to communicate. What was your role with regards to bringing their creativity front and center?

PR: It's a matter of trust. When an artist feels as comfortable as they can be, better things come from it. So that when you do make a remark--like "that's really good" or "that's wonderful"--it has to ring true because, when they get to be famous, they hear a lot of wonderful things, but those aren't the things they tend to listen to. They listen to the criticisms.

MR: But you take on the role of advisor and they obviously respect your guidance.

PR: I think from the beginnings of working with an artist, no matter how many records you make that have done really well, every day is a new day. And for that artist sitting there getting a constructive piece of information--sometimes it comes from a look from both of us, when something just doesn't ring true--I think that's probably the most important role that any producer plays for them. You know, how do you say to someone, "I think you can be better?" It's the way you say it. I started in the musical world by studying music and engineering a lot of projects, and I watched other people work and saw that one remark could turn an artist off, like looking at the clock too tightly. These things become part of the project if you do that.

MR: Yet there's a schedule you have to keep.

PR: To this day, after all these years, people say, "Are we going to run overtime?" or "Is this going to cost us a lot of money?" and I go, "I don't know, but I know that if it's inspired, it can happen in ten minutes or it can happen in hours." That's the unpredictable. Those artists you mentioned are all people who are known for taking their time to do it well. It gets harder with more success, of course. I remember working with clients who wouldn't spend the extra half-a-day or the extra hour, and sometimes a mix went out and I'd go crazy. Every time I heard it on the radio, I'd keep thinking, "If I only had that extra twenty minutes..."

MR: Well what happens when it's a hit?

PR: I'm happy for the hit, but I know we could have done better.

MR: There are certain sonics, such as the sustained reverb on Paul Simon or Phoebe Snow's cymbals or your rounded guitar ring-offs that add to the song's interpretation. It seems like these nuances in your productions add to an artist's dialog with the listener.

PR: It's funny but I've been working with Paul Simon recently, and I reminded him there was a certain "sizzle" cymbal that could be placed where "air" would be created, where the mind and emotions could feel it. I just know that the atmosphere you create is critical, and space works just as well as a musical note.

MR: It's clear you injected a "grown-up" sound, an elegance or "jazz" into pop music.

PR: Soloists were free to play what they felt, and jazz is all about that. It's free, and rock 'n' roll was supposed to stand for freedom. The creativity of rock 'n' roll soloists was similar to that in the world of jazz.

MR: Another side of your work includes an Anne Murray duets album on which she revisits many of her best-loved hits. Have you previously worked with her?

PR: I met Anne Murray a long, long time ago when I was a young engineer. I'd done a show with her and Engelbert Humperdink in Bermuda, and this was in the day when guys like me would be called to do the insane jobs. Engelbert was doing a song on a Bermuda racer, and nobody told me that I was going to be tied to the mast and record the vocal 90 degrees to the water. Meanwhile, I'm recording him live against the track, and the next day, I'm working with Anne Murray and him in a carriage...you know, it was one of those horse-and-carriage songs. I'm being driven in a golf cart, and, for some reason, my instinct told me this horse was not going to just keep trotting. He suddenly broke into a higher gate, and I told the driver, "Move it, move it, we're gonna get blown over!" Fortunately we went into a ditch and the horse and carriage went right by us. Anne said, "I thought for a moment, you were gone!"

MR: How did this new project come your way?

PR: I hadn't seen her for twenty-some-odd years, and then her manager called me and said, "Anne wants to do a duet album, all women." Well, she and Karen Carpenter had original sounding voices. If you analyze the music, it's all about how quickly the individual voice is recognized when you hear it, and she's got one of those voices. And I heard she was a super-professional. Everyone I ever met from Canada asked, "Have you ever worked with Anne Murray?" and I'd say, "Very little," and they'd say, "Boy, is she efficient." She's on time, she gets to the gig, and if you start wasting time or do too many jokes, you'll know that she wants to get this thing done right. We just hit it off from the first day and we talked about the best way to do it. The key to an artist redoing their own material is similar to what Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, or any of those guys had to do. You have to bring something new to it, like how you share the song, when the harmonies make sense. She was very willing to sing what was needed to make sure the story worked. There wasn't an ego problem, like "I have to sing those lines" or "those are my lines," nothing like that. It was all about the story and Anne letting her guest sing those lines and she'd sing the answer.

MR: How did you work up the arrangements before recording them?

PR: She has a wonderful daughter named Dawn (Langstroth), and I made demos with the two of them so that everyone would know what the arrangement was, what would get changed-up, if things were in different keys.

MR: You've also been working with Nikki Yonofsky?

PR: Oh yeah. I heard her when she was thirteen, recorded her a lot when she was fourteen, and I'm still recording the album. I would suspect it'll be out this year or the beginning of next year. Things just change, you know, from fourteen to fifteen, there's a huge change in a woman, both physically and vocally. The voice has matured. When I first met her then started working with her, she said, "What makes a great artist?" I said, "Some of them are just great singers, like Ella Fitzgerald and folks like that. But the ultimate, if you can do it, is to learn to become a good writer, and then you've got everything you could ever think of." It's a hard road to hoe, but she's doing it, and she'll come out on top. She's being introduced to a lot of good, young writers which is a great development. You couldn't go to a better school to learn to write a song.

MR: Can you talk a little about the Shelby Lynne album you produced that's a tribute to Dusty Springfield?

PR: Yeah, that's one of her more interesting and wonderful records. She's one of everybody's favorite singers, and her love for Dusty is the same thing that I found. I mean, Dusty In Memphis is one of the great albums of the seventies. Shelby's got a lot of those attributes too, and we cut the album in a week. I think every musician that played on it and everybody that was in the building at Capitol Studios where we recorded it would come in and ask if they could just listen for a couple of minutes. It was the talk of the town. She came in one day and said, "Can you believe the label put out a vinyl version of the record? And it became the #2 record in the vinyl world!" I said, "What's the #1 record?" and she said, "The Beatles." Not bad, not bad!

MR: What are your thoughts on vinyl?

PR: Vinyl has its own cult of people now.

MR: And it's being marketed to a younger demo where it's a first go-round with the medium.

PR: My nephews and nieces are all young. The ones that are nine and ten see it in the DJ world. They see the sixteen-year-olds play a lot of hip-hop music on two or three turntables. So, they wanted a vinyl turntable to go right into their iPods. There is a side to it that I like because how the 12" albums work is interesting.

MR: I imagine you develop close personal relationships with the artists you work with, for example, Billy Joel. You guys are pals to this day, right?

PR: Oh yeah, we sure are. We both had birthdays recently, and I said, "Did we ever think any of us would be plus thirty?" We started really young together.

MR: When you worked with him, the story goes that you gained his confidence by insisting that his band be on his record. The Stranger validates that approach and created what became the Billy Joel sound. Did your relationship and his trust in you allow you to be completely honest with him?

PR: I always felt completely open to saying exactly what was on my mind. If he and I were looking across the table after working hours on a song, and the question came up, "Is this bridge bullshit?" in a British accent, I would reply, "I'm afraid so."

MR: How did applying that kind of honesty affect his writing?

PR: I've always said that an audience figures out an artist, they do. The more pretentious they become, the more obvious it is that that's what's hanging out. That's why he couldn't write a bad lyric. It's part of his character to scrutinize his words and his music.

MR: And an additional payoff is that feeling of satisfaction when a project is completed, right?

PR: I always took an album and said, "Okay, we did a good piece of work here. Hopefully, he'll call again."

MR: Alongside your film and music productions, you write a column for The Huffington Post's entertainment page. In your own words, what's the purpose of the column?

PR: Dog Ears is a column that Danielle Evin and I write as a series of recommendations and insights into some great artists' songs from current to past eras. There are many songs that don't get heard, and Dog Ears is meant to evoke interest in them, it's not a column of criticism. It explores music that we both love, and it's like a treasure hunt.

Phil Ramone speaking from the heart to young Road Recovery participants: