Linda Ronstadt: 'I don’t like any of my albums'

The country music legend has won 11 Grammys, made 28 studio albums and worked with everyone from Paul Simon to Frank Zappa. She says listening to any of it now is horrifying

Hi, Linda. It has been 40 years since the release of your hugely successful album Simple Dreams (1). Do you have happy memories of it?

Well, I don’t ever listen to my stuff once I’ve finished it, and I don’t really know what’s on it. I’m not saying it’s a bad record, I’m just saying I can’t remember it. When I listen to all my old stuff, I tend to be horrified.

What do you feel is horrifying about your old stuff?

I feel as if I really started learning how to sing in around 1980. I sang in an operetta on Broadway (2) and I sang American standards – the material just allowed me to extend my range.

So you don’t have a favourite out of the 28 studio albums you have recorded?

I don’t like any of them, but there are moments on some records that I like. The one with Nelson Riddle; the Trio records (3) I did with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. I made a record with Ann Savoy, the Cajun singer, after I got Parkinson’s disease, and I could barely sing. I had to whisper everything, but that was a really successful record for us – artistically successful (4).

You were diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2012. How has it felt to have the thing that defined you taken away?

Singing was certainly a part of my identity, but it was never the whole thing. It was something I did, but I always felt defined more by where I was from, who my parents were, who my family were and how I interacted with them. Being a successful singer was only a fraction of it.

‘I could call up Emmylou Harris and we would sing together over the phone.’ Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Ronstadt in 1987.
‘I could call up Emmylou Harris and we would sing together over the phone.’ Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Ronstadt in 1987. Photograph: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

So you don’t miss it too much?

I miss harmony singing more than anything. I especially miss when everybody in my family sings and plays music – when we got together, it was the main thing that bound us. And a lot of my friendships have music at the core – I could call up Emmylou Harris and we would sing together over the phone. Now we visit for hours and we have a lot to talk about – kids, gardens, pets, families and what’s going on in our lives. But music took up such a huge part of that, it’s sort of a gaping hole, you know?

Which contemporary singers do you rate?

I listen to a lot of opera and classical music and to some traditional music, but mainstream stuff does manage to somehow float through the ether into my ears. I like Sia – she’s got a really original and unusual singing style. I’ve never heard anybody sing like that. Very heartfelt, I think, very sincere. And she’s a clever writer, too.

You’re best known in the UK for your 1989 duet with Aaron Neville, Don’t Know Much. What is it you liked about his voice?

I always loved Aaron’s singing. He has a certain singing style related to French baroque opera, which got imported into the American South in the 18th century. His falsetto is very evocative of that, and that – the Creole tradition – was interesting to me.

You also sing with Paul Simon on Under African Skies, and the song’s opening lyrics (5) were inspired by you, too.

I was in Tucson visiting my dad. Paul called and said he was writing a song for us to sing together, and could I give him some kind of a geographic point, something that was around Tucson? I loved this mission that was built in the early 1700s. It’s a beautiful little building, built by pagans, and on the Indian reservation. It was kind of my spiritual home, so I told him about that.

Do you still consider Tucson home?

I had a house in Tucson for 10 years, but I sold it and moved to San Francisco because of politics and global warming, which the current Cheeto-in-Chief (6) will not admit is happening. It became so unbearably hot in Tucson, and I think cities that depend on air conditioning just won’t be sustainable in the future.

What do you think will happen under Donald Trump?

It’s a genuine national emergency. What he wants is to be in control of the media, and he has an acute instinct for the lowest common denominator – he knows how to go really low. So if we don’t wake up, he could turn us into a dictatorship. I’ve read a lot on the history of Hitler, and people keep drawing comparisons … they’re so staggering – it’s step by step by step. He’s isolating us, he’s taking us out [of contact] with South America, Mexico, Canada … if we get attacked from outside, who’s going to come to our rescue if we’ve isolated ourselves from our neighbours?

You also spoke out against George W Bush (7).

I don’t have the power to bring these people down! But I thought he prosecuted an unjust war for a lie, and it added to the further destabilisation of the Middle East. We still wrestle with that problem. He and his dad were the cause of that. Then we had Obama for eight years, and we got lazy.

Don’t Know Much

How do you like San Francisco?

It’s impossible for anyone starting out to live here. The rents are so high (8). My son moved out for two years and then he moved back in. He works for Apple, at the Genius Bar, which doesn’t make him a genius, but makes him very good at solving your tech problems.

What apps do you have on your iPhone?

I have one for learning Spanish and one for ordering food, and that’s it.

Is it true that your grandfather invented the rubber ice-cube tray?

He did – and the electric stove, the electric toaster and the electric milking machine. He invented a lot of stuff. He was brilliant and he was always working on something. He was so successful that he was judged to be third behind Thomas Edison in the number of useful patents (9) he had developed.

Is it also true that you once duetted with Frank Zappa for an advert for Remington razors?

Yes. Frank wrote it. It was so musically complicated that I don’t know if they liked it. It was kind of like Bambi and Deep Throat on the same bill; it was not a likely pairing.

Simple Dreams: Expanded Edition by Linda Ronstadt is out now on Rhino

Footnotes

(1) Simple Dreams went triple platinum and knocked Rumours off the top of the album charts after 29 weeks. In your face, Stevie Nicks.

(2) She played Mabel Stanley in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, opposite Kevin Kline.

(3) Trio was released in 1987 and won a Grammy. Trio II was released in 1994 and also won a Grammy. Ronstadt has a lot of Grammys.

(4) Adieu False Heart, recorded as the ZoZo Sisters, and released in 2006, was a commercial failure, reaching 146 in the US album charts. It was still nominated for a Grammy.

(5) “In early memory, mission music was ringing round my nursery door.”

(6) Ronstadt is not a fan of Donald Trump.

(7) After speaking out on stage against the Iraq War in 2004, Ronstadt was evicted from the Aladdin theatre in Las Vegas.

(8) One-bedroom apartments in San Francisco rent for an average of $3,402 (£2,545) a month.

(9) Lloyd Groff Copeman had more than 700 patents to his name.

Contributor

Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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