One of the greatest pop voices and song interpreters of her generation spoke with me on a Sunday afternoon in September from her home in Tucson, on a short break from a tour to promote her new album, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. The CD is a collaboration with longtime friend Emmylou Harris and many of the musicians with whom Ronstadt and Harris have worked with over the years: Glyn Johns (producer), Waddy Wachtel, and others.
There's a significant difference from previous material in the songs on this album. Ronstadt and Harris share duets and trade lead vocals in songs that convey not just yearning, or lost or unrequited love - the subject of much of their earlier material. This album reflects lives lived and lessons well-learned in other courses of love: maternal, mature, forgiving, compassionate and tolerant with songs contributed by Bruce Springsteen and Patty Scialfa, David Olney. Sinead O'Connor, Harris and others. Fitting indeed for the 53-year old Ronstadt, who now calls herself retired, and who devotes most ofher time to a young son and daughter, who could be heard bidding their mom goodbye with an "I love you" while the interview was taking place.
I can't imagine touring; it must be really hard on you.
I can't imagine it either! I gave up touring four or five years ago. I was so happy to let it go. If it weren't for Emmy [Lou Harris], I wouldn't do this. If I weren't such a deep fan of Emmy's and love her company and really have great confidence in her ability to always make musical sense, I would never even have considered this. Ijust don't have that ability anymore - I can't make anything make sense on any level.
You have little kids, don't you?
I have children and I'm a stay-at-home mom. That's what I want to do with my life and I'm very happy doing it.
When's the last time you were in New Orleans?
I was there last summer. I can't stay away too long. I love New Orleans. My dad loved New Orleans. I think my ancestors have been going to New Orleans all the way back to when the first Spaniards came over. I think I've just got a genetic love of New Orleans.
I do, too -- but I was born here.
I feel like I was.
New 0rleans tends to draw artistic people.
It's the last repository of American exotica. It really is much more of a Caribbean culture, which means it's automatically connected to the ancestors because Caribbean culture is an ancestrally-based spiritual philosophy.
There's no place like New Orleans. I think television has destroyed all regional culture. But New Orleans is too tough. You can't kill it.
We're doing a terrible disservice to our children with television. Have you read Mary Piper? Particularly for girls, her book, Reviving Ophelia. I think she states it better than I ever could. I think we're creating attention deficit disorder with television. There's incredible violence among our children because television is like a time-suck, like a sharing-suck. It takes away the ability to form a family. And communities are based on the family unit. Television is destroying the American family at such an incredibly fast rate. And the Internet is finishing it off even faster. People aren't sharing their thoughts and ideas. They're not communicating at all. They don't have shared higher goals. If you work in the fields together or if you're going in the forest to cut wood together or you're mending your nets together or shelling peas together, you have a shared higher goal.
Television cancels all of that. We're losing our identities. I took the television out of my house. I have no television.
We're creating a mass culture of borderline personalities. You're supposed to get your identity from your mother. Your mother is the mirror to your soul. What we've replaced [mothers] with is television. We've created a nation of borderline personalities who don't really know who they are and they're instructed as to who they should be by whatever the latest trend is on television. And they're instructed by multi-national corporations that produce these products and if you don't possess these products, you'll be shamed in society. That creates greed.
I'm involved in media and consider myself to be very liberal, yet I can see how the media has created an atmosphere that is breeding violence in this culture.
I'm very liberal and I don't believe in censorship. But if the media doesn't start taking responsibility, they're going to bring about censorship. I know people that make films that are made for children that have incredible violence in them. I find it so shocking that we're so desensitized. I took the television out of my house four years ago and it's had a profound effect on me. My children were watching it all the time. I just took it out one day and it was gone. Now they come to the breakfast table and we start having a conversation. I read them poetry. I think people are so desperate for poetry. Poetry is the highest art form for us to identifY our feelings and process our experiences. Instead of poetry. we only have pop commerce.
Kids are so desperate for something to help them process this incredible world that is coming at them at such a fast pace and they're so over-stimulated. And what they have are only the lyrics of romantic love. Romantic love is only a tiny little part of love.
Love - and yearning - seem to be the overwhelming themes in most of your work. But this album seems a bit different, more about mature love.
What I like about the record Emmy and I made is that I think it explores a lot of different kinds of love. First and foremost, we're exploring and celebrating the love that comes from long-standing friendships. We've been friends since 1971. It's been a friendship that's survived all kinds of things. For instance, I'm such a fan of Emmy's - she really is my favorite girl singer. I just adore her. It's hard - almost - in that way to overcome, to try to be friends with someone you idolize. Because we live in a celebrity culture, it affects that emotion. But we've transcended all those things.
We do the song "1917," which is obviously about a prostitute and a soldier. You know, prostitutes don't fall in love with every soldier they have sex with. What she's showing is a kind of compassion and a kind of general love for humanity - and incredible compassion for these poor young men who come in who have just been brutalized in every possible way - emotionally, physically and spiritually. They've just been destroyed and she tries to provide them with comfort in whatever way she can. I love the way that song explores that: their shared fears. Eventually, the only thing you can do in a situation like World War I is to pray.
How did you choose the material for "Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions?"
We choose the material for the album together, but Emmy brought most of it, with the exception of two songs that Glyn Johns [the album's producer] brought. I'm a stay-at-home mom now and it takes all my time and energy. I need to be doing it and it's not a problem for me. My career used to be fullblown and now it's my kids' turn. As long as I can come to New Orleans once in a while!
What do you do when you visit New Orleans?
I brought my son last year and we went to the Aquarium and saw the white alligators. We had so much fun. I just brought him, I didn't bring my daughter. I'd brought her once before. I try, every year, to do something with just one of them.
New Orleans is so great. I have good friends there. Once of my heroines in the world is Sister Jane Remson. I love her and get to see her when I come. She's just an extraordinary kind of person who could only bloom in New Orleans. And I love Quint Davis and I love what he's done with the Jazz Festival. He does such a great job. I saw that thing that he did on the Mall for Clinton's inauguration - sort of an AllAmerican Festival. It was just brilliant.
A lot of celebrities end up moving here - or at least buying a house here. Did you ever consider that?
I tried to buy a home in New Orleans. I almost went into escrow with a house but you really need to live in one place. I need to live where there's family. That connection to the ancestors is the strongest pull of anything I've ever experienced.
I had a beautiful house in San Francisco and I gave it up to move to Tucson. That's where my family is.
You come from a pretty large family, with sisters and brothers?
Yes, and lots of nieces and nephews.
Is your family very musical? Did you grow up singing?
All of my relatives are musical. They all sing and they all play music. My dad was a wonderful singer. My mom's a good singer, too. My dad was well known here in Tucson. My grandfather had an orchestra in the 19th century that played the popular stuff of the day.
Everybody should be singing and playing music at home. It shouldn't be delegated to professionals. What I love about New Orleans is that they still dance. They just take it to the streets and do it whether they need to or not.
I've heard it said by people I know outside Louisiana that you can always spot someone from New Orleans on the dance floor - by the way they move their ass!
[Laughs] People in the rest of country, they don't have bodies below their necks. They're just talking heads.
I'm a great fan of traditional hula, which actually I got turned on to by Quint's festival at the inauguration. I'm so into hula. I don't do it, but I just love it. I keep thinking, if everybody could hula... what if Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon would have been able to hula. What a different world we would have! What an electrifYing moment it was when [Nelson] Mandela won and got up and started to dance!
In New Orleans, people almost live to dance. The people here are very demonstrative.
It's all West African, which is spiritual and linked up to the ancestors and still connected. The rest of us are not. We've lost the connection. The rest of us are connected to the Internet. You've got to turn off the Internet and get connected to the ancestors. I really believe that.
There's so much interest in Latin music now.
Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico have that very strong West African influence. All that's happening now is that we weren't allowed to have access to Cuban music. The United States has such a ridiculous attitude towards the government of Cuba, which I admire greatly. What we're doing to Cuba is so deeply inhumane, I've been there - it's a wonderful country with a government that really puts their people first. Anybody that tells you differently is lying. If you've heard different, it's just propaganda. I've been in a lot of different Latin American countries and I've never seen a higher level of deliberate attempt to prioritize based on the needs of the people first.
And it's racist. The people who left Cuba did so because Castro made it very apparent that he was going to completely involve black people in the government, in every aspect of it. Many Cubans are very racist. Its very much based on color. The lighter-skinned you are, the higher your status. And when Castro made it clear he was going to include people of color in his government, they all left. I hope there's somebody who can fill Castro's shoes when he's gone. He's been a very, very fine leader for his people. I hope there's someone who can fill his shoes.
Let me ask you about your future recording projects.
I'm mostly retired, but I am doing some things that I really love and feel attached to in a passionate way. I'm producing a record for Sony Classical of 18th century glass music. There are all these glass instruments, one was invented by Benjamin Franklin, and many people wrote music for those instruments, Mozart and Beethoven wrote glass music, and one of the Bachs. And there's a little 20th century music too, But most of those instruments haven't been in use for a hundred years. But I'm the producer - not the artist.
I enjoyed your version of "Ruler Of My Heart" on your last album.
Oh, I'm glad! We recorded that in New Orleans. Daryl Johnson [the bassist] played on it and he played in Emmylou's band too.
OffBeat's been trying to create a stronger songwriter presence in New Orleans by sponsoring a songwriters' night at a local club [Carrollton Station]. David Olney has been there. [Olney wrote "1917" on the Western Wall CD].
He's brilliant. And your writer, who wrote "Ruler of My Heart" - Allen Toussaint - is a very fine writer.
Thanks for doing the interview
Please write in your article that everybody needs to send money to money to Sister Jane.
If you've got a dollar, send it to Sister Jane!
[Donations to New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness can be sent to NOAAHH,
c/o Loyola UniversIty, Box 907, New Orleans, LA 70118, or call 86l-5834 for more information.]