Some Joni-related excerpts:
Was your first production work with Joni?
I started producing little projects in L.A. prior to working with Joni on her records. I believe that probably the first released project that I co-produced was with Benjamin Orr.
As a producer you are an internationalist in that you have recently been working with artists from Israel, Portugal, Sweden, and South America. Whatever is out there that is great might interest you?
Yeah. It’s so funny because all of this has come serendipitously in a certain sense. It’s not like I decide, “Oh, I want to work with an artist from Norway.” These things just happen for me. I’ve always guided what I work on by trying to be aware of which way the wind is blowing. In that way I think quite possibly that I was influenced a lot by Joni.
Now if I think of the way that she has guided her life, her career, and her interests musically, she has always been that way. I think to some extent that I was like that before she and I met but certainly the time we spent together, I think, probably really deeply imprinted that idea on me. That the best way to find your way to fresh territory is to feel where things are going; not intellectually make decisions of, “Okay, I am going to do this. I’m going to go here and then here.” All the way along listening to what is going on in the air and guiding your decisions by what smells fresh.
Click through for more excerpts of Larry Klein discussing his marriage and divorce to Joni Mitchell, his involvement on Wild Things Run Fast, Turbulent Indigo and River: The Joni Letters, and more.
It was drummer John Guerin who recommended you to Joni as a session player. Did Joni come and see you play?
She might have come down because I was playing with John with gigs that he was doing with his own band, and we were playing dates around L.A. with (the late British-born vibraphonist/percussionist/pianist) Victor Feldman. I played with Victor’s band for a number of years. Sometimes he would use Guerin and Roger Kellaway and different people. Sometimes he would incorporate his sons (Trevor and Jake) into the band. I believe that she probably did see me in one or two of those contexts. Then I got the call to go in and work with her and the material that she was working toward that became “Wild Things Run Fast.”
[Larry and Joni’s relationship reportedly developed over conversations while playing the pinball machines at the A&M studio in Los Angeles where they were recording “Wild Things Run Fast.” Mitchell dedicated the album with this message: “Special thanks to Larry Klein for caring about and fussing over this record along with me.”
Mitchell told Musician magazine: “Larry and I listened to a lot of fads and we tempered them…Larry is a “sounds” man. His ear hears certain things and he’ll point them out to me. So a lot of (the sound of the album) has to do with Larry’s input. Credit where credit is due.”]
Were you intrigued to work with Joni?
Oh God, yes. I knew of Joni’s work. I probably knew two or three of her albums. I didn’t know the earlier stuff as well. I was most acquainted with “Court and Spark,” “Hejira,” and Mingus.” The earlier work I knew bits and pieces of in a more fragmentary way.
Herbie Hancock has said the same thing.
Before we did “The River” album, he had never listened to words all that much.
[For the longest time, Hancock admitted in a 2007 interview, he ignored the lyrics of the songs he played on.]
On February 10, 2008, “River: The Joni Letters” won the Album of the Year and Best Contemporary Jazz Album honors at the 50th annual Grammy Awards, surprising the music world. Were you surprised by it winning for Album of the Year?
I don’t think that I have ever been more surprised. It was really a thrill. Doing that record with Herbie, Wayne (Shorter), and Dave Holland; and working on Joni’s music, it tied together so many different threads of my life. It tied everything together for me.
I don’t look back that much. Musically, I aspire to what Miles Davis would always say, “Let other people look back, and I will look forward.” I am always thinking about what I am working on or what I am going to do.
But there are those pinnacle moments (in your life) that you come to hear. As much as awards are not the most important thing, and certainly not a reason that you do anything–for me anyway–there are those moments. And one of them was when we won the (Album of the Year) Grammy for “River.” The other I would say was when we won (as co-producers) the Grammy for Pop Album of the Year for “Turbulent Indigo” with Joni.
For “River” you had two formidable taskmasters: Herbie, and Joni likely ready to yell, “What are you doing with my songs?” If she hadn’t liked it, she would have told you.
Oh yeah. I wasn’t talking to her about what we were doing because I could get off on the wrong track as well. But I had her voice in my head, of course. I was always thinking, “Oh God, this has to be a wonderful gift for her. It can’t be something that she puts on and screams, ‘What did you do to my music.'”
Joni can be very critical.
She’s super opinioned. I had her voice inside me speaking to me all along.
When you finished “The River” did you send it to Joni or play it for her?
I played it for her. You know why? Because I had to get her to do a vocal on “The Tea Leaf Prophecy.” I’ll tell you, I was as nervous as hell. It was really nerve-racking.
But sessions for “The River” were challenging.
I remember being with Luciana in New York when we did the initial sessions of “The River.” I would come back from Avatar Studios and say, “I can’t do this. Here I am in the studio working with these guys who I have listened to in my bedroom since I was a 10-year-old, and I’m saying to them this is what we have to do in order to get the right feeling here. We need to do this and that. Dave could you please play a whole note in this bar, and do this and that here?”
It was a terribly intimidating situation to be in to be working with Wayne Shorter, Herbie, and Dave Holland and telling them how to interpret this music. I just had to steel myself every day (and think), “This is your job. You have been presented with the job of doing something new and something that is going to be a classic and honorable context for Joni’s music. You have got to be in there, and do your job.” It was tough.
These are hard-core session players as well as top-notch jazzmen.
Those guys are cut from the cloth of, “Okay, we did a first take. That sounds great.” This was like taking these songs and adapting them to an instrumental or vocal jazz approach and really turning them inside out. It was delicate business. So I was sitting with my heroes, and I was saying, “Let’s listen to this again. I’m going to give you a copy of the lyrics. Listen to what the song is about.”
The award for “River” tied so many threads of my life together for me. The “Turbulent Indigo” (Grammy) award came at the end of what was one of the difficult years of my life–Joni and I making this record in the process of splitting up; testing ourselves as to how we can do as artists.
Neither one of you considered walking away?
I’m sure that she considered that, and I probably did as well. That would have been as difficult as going on with it in a way. We didn’t split up in a state of disliking each other or in some of state acrimony.
Working on any recording is an artistic challenge, but it is also an artistic puzzle. That must have been difficult to solve in recording “Turbulent Indigo” given the circumstances.
That’s right. It really was. I still love her, and I know that she loves me too. We have a familial feeling toward each other. When I talk to her, I have the same warm feeling toward her; and I certainly did during that time. There were different times when we were working…I had moved out (to Venice) and one day we decided to go down to the Beverly Centre, and both of us got a kitten to keep us company. But it was difficult, and the songs programmatically were about the dissolution of things between us. To be rewarded at the end of this difficult journey with that (Grammy Awards) was one those wonderful moments.
[When Larry Klein and Joni Mitchell won for the best pop album for “Turbulent Indigo” at the Grammy Awards, Mitchell quipped, “Gee, Klein, considering we made this album in a state of divorce…” She also credited the cats they had bought to take the tension off the sessions. Klein thanked Mitchell, “for 10 years of instruction in the arts.”
“That was such a warm win,” Mitchell said later. “It was a sweet victory, it really was.]
One of the reasons your marriage with Joni ended was that you fulfilled a recording commitment after she had a miscarriage. So many people in our industry feel they only have so many years to work. Many later realize what is more important in their life.
You are now older, remarried, and have a child. Have your priorities changed?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Do you regret that decision?
Of course, I do. If I really look thoroughly at the situation that was at hand at that moment, and what I knew after the fact or what I know now, I would have behaved very differently. I have to attribute the mistake to youth and being somewhat ignorant as are a lot of men to the depth, and the seriousness of what is involved in a miscarriage for a woman. I just didn’t know about it; although my mom had multiple miscarriages when I was a kid. It was completely kept out of view.
[In 1985, Joni Mitchell and Larry Klein discovered she was pregnant. In her first trimester, however, Mitchell miscarried. Klein had lined up a recording date at The Wool Hall in Beckington-Near-Bath in Somerset, England that would be his first major production; recording an album with former Cars’ bassist Benjamin Orr (“The Lace”). Klein delayed leaving until Mitchell said it was okay for him to go. Mitchell apparently came to view the decision as her husband giving his job a higher priority than her health. In 1991, their marriage fell apart.]
You learn from a first marriage. You learn to balance the personal and the work.
Yeah. I will be honest. I still wrestle with the complexity of juggling those things. But absolutely I always have to elevate family over work now. I have to say that it’s hard. It’s hard at times because things get tangled up where you think that, “This is going to move things forward in way where I will be able to provide certain things to my family in a better way if this works.”
The decision process can get complicated in that regard. In the end, you really have to guard yourself against rationalizing things in favor of the work. For me, and for anyone who does what they love for a living, to some degree it is addictive. You are always itching to get back into what you are doing because there’s some stone that you have just turned over; that you found something fresh to explore; and you are excited about it. You are anxious. You have ideas that you want to try to develop and what not. It’s easy for one to make a case to one’s self in favor of running off to some distant place and making a record; when, perhaps, where you should be is just sitting on the floor with your son and playing and doing something very simple.
Creativity is an endless string. It’s “How long will you be in the studio?” “I don’t know.”
Did you see the documentary on (the late Turkish-American producer/arranger) Arif Mardin? You have to see it because it explores this area quite beautifully. Of course, his wife (playwright Latife Mardin, wife of 48 years) says the same thing. That Arif would say that maybe he would be done in an hour; and, of course, he’s not. Then it’s three hours later, and he doesn’t exactly know when he’s going to be home, and the impact of that.
[Arif Mardin died at his home in New York in 2006 following a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer. The 2010 documentary “The Greatest Ears in Town: The Arif Mardin Story” chronicles the career of this formidable production figure, and label executive who produced innumerable artists including: Norah Jones, Barbra Streisand, the Bee Gees, George Benson, the Rascals, Bette Midler, Queen, Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, Phil Collins, Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Melissa Manchester, the Manhattan Transfer, Modern Jazz Quartet, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Dusty Springfield, and David Bowie.]