John Leventhal - Telecaster Slinging Architect of Americana
April 17, 2020
Telecaster Slinging Architect of Americana
John Leventhal was transformed from New York City sideman to in-demand songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer when Shawn Colvin's Steady On won a Grammy in 1989. Overnight, his raised status had him producing, writing, and playing for the already established Rodney Crowell & Rosanne Cash, and having a hand in Marc Cohn's debut album that spawned the huge hit “Walking in Memphis.” His work with Rosanne Cash resulted in the introspective yet pop flavored album The Wheel, and the two eventually marrying in 1995. In '96 Colvin and Leventhal reunited with A Few Small Repairs, which won Grammy's for both album of the year, and song of the year for "Sunny Came Home." Collaborations continued with Joan Osborne, Michelle Branch, 2 more albums with Shawn Colvin, and 3 with wife Rosanne including her 2009 album The List. The latter was based on a list of 100 essential country songs given to her by her father, and it garnered "album of the year" at the 2010 Americana Awards. 2015 was a banner year for the team of Leventhal and Cash, as she won 3 Grammy's for her southern tinged, The River and the Thread with John producing and co-writing every track, and John was awarded the "Instrumentalist of the year" honor at the Americana Association Awards. Mid 2016, Leventhal completed his latest project, William Bell's This is Where I live for the recently revived Stax label. The album, a modern soul masterpiece, takes a mature and insightful look at the themes of love and loss, that can only be gained from Bell's 77-years of living, and Leventhal's ability to frame the work in its best context. This ability is based on his long history of Grammy wins and nominations as a producer, a catalog of hit songs as a writer, and a musical ability that has seen him guest with artists from Donald Fagen to Dolly Parton. Vintage Guitar spoke with John after a recent William Bell show in Nashville.
VG: How did you end up picking up the guitar?
JL: The initial impulse was definitely The Beatles. They hit me pretty hard. Beatles 65 in particular.
VG: Why was it important to you to write songs?
JL: The realization that the Beatles wrote their own tunes might have impacted me, but I think in some fundamental way I'm just wired with a need to write music. I'm compelled to do it, I don't really have a choice. I suspect it even comes a step before playing the guitar. I love the guitar, but from a very early point in my musical life I was also looking beyond it in a lot of ways. I could generally muster more feeling coming up with a compelling chord sequence than playing guitar licks. Plus from a relatively early point I started to play bass and piano, probably attempting to work out writing and record making ideas without necessarily being conscious of it.
VG: Were you prepared to co-produce Steady On in 1989 for Shawn Colvin?
JL: Not really. I had written the tunes with her and had made the demos , which got her a deal, so naturally I had ideas about how they should be recorded. But I didn't really have enough knowledge of the studio, engineering or mixing at that point. I was bursting with ideas and had opinions about what everyone should play but I hadn't really learned the art of conveying them in a way that keeps everyone and everything creative and positive. I remember putting a fair amount of effort into getting the rhythm tracks to be fresh and different but also battling with the drummer quite a bit.
VG: By Fat City, and Cover Girl, your role with Colvin had diminished. Were you too busy to work with her at that time?
JL: Steady On ended up getting noticed, so I did start to get busy, but Shawn and I had been a couple during the '80's and our relationship basically came to end as we were making Steady On. We wrote a few tunes and spent a week in the studio starting what became Fat City, but it was clear it wasn't working. We needed some time apart.
VG: How did A Few Small Repairs come about then?
JL: As these things go, the air eventually cleared and she asked if I would work with her on what became A Few Small Repairs. It ended up being a great experience. I felt we were both really in the zone and hitting on all 8 cylinders for that one. I was also starting to engineer around that time. Probably our best work. I'm proud of it.
VG: Did A Few Small Repairs’ success, and the Grammy wins surprise you?
JL: Sure. I felt good about the work, but of course you can't really predict that stuff. That album just struck a chord with folks. And while I was definitely attempting to craft a pop single with "Sunny Came Home," I never really dreamed it would take off the way it did. It was actually the second single the label released, but eventually I started hearing it every time I turned on the radio, a decidedly cool experience. If people think of me at all, I think it tends to be as a 'roots' kind of guy, but I've always respected and loved the classic pop tradition as well.
VG: How did you meet Rosanne Cash, and end up producing The Wheel?
JL: I met Rosanne the first time I came to Nashville in 1990. I had written an album's worth of songs with Jim Lauderdale and had recorded the demos. Long story short, Jim got signed to Warner's Nashville and Rodney Crowell was interested in producing the record. He asked Jim who did the demos and the next thing you know I'm on a plane to Nashville with my Tele and Strat and co-producing the record with Rodney. I think that record, Planet Of Love, was a bit ahead of its time. The label really didn't get it, country radio definitely didn't play it, and the whole Americana thing was still a few years away. Luckily some of the songs ended up getting covered by other artists (3 by George Strait) and Jim went on to find a home in the Americana community. But more importantly, I met my future wife and eventually she asked me to produce what became The Wheel.
VG. The List has you reimagining some iconic country tunes in very intriguing ways. Can you tell us a bit about this process? Also, was Joan Osborne’s How Sweet it is the first time you had done this?
JL: I've always messed around with rethinking older tunes but Joan's project was the first effort to do it as an entire album. It was Joan's initial idea. I think perhaps I got a little better at the whole rearranging thing with The List, but Joan's record was fun to do. Michelle Ndegicello played bass on a track, a very good bass player. I also did a record with Marc Cohn of songs from 1970. Of course with all these projects you're starting with songs that have already stood the test of time. In general I try to pretend I've never heard the song before or that I'm writing new music to a given melody and lyric. The chords, groove and arrangement are up for grabs but the melody and lyric of the original are not. I enjoy the process. It's good to have an open mind and heart in order to find something new in classic older tunes. In my opinion, there's really never any point in redoing something close to the original arrangement.
VG: “Miss The Mississippi,” from The List, has some beautiful country/jazz guitar work. What was your inspiration, and which instrument and amp did you use?
JL: I've always liked that nexus of country and jazz. Hank Garland has got to be a big template there. He had an authentic jazz voice but could also play the tastiest country, pop, blues or rockin' guitar if necessary. My kind of guy. Chet's a big influence as well. I believe I used my '68 Tele straight into a '60's Vibrolux Reverb, with a bit of compression before going to 'tape'. Nothing fancy. Neck pickup, in this case a mini humbucker.
VG: The River & The Thread waxes from swamp to folk influences, with the electric guitar and acoustic instruments taking turns at the forefront. Which were your main acoustic and electric guitars used on this record?
JL: Honestly, every track probably has different things on it. Thought went into giving each track its own character. I know I used a Tele I put together with an original Wide Range Humbucker in the neck position. The main electric on the tune "Modern Blue" is a '74 Les Paul Custom. I came late to the Les Paul thing, but I love that guitar. I used a Jerry Jones Baby Sitar on one tune and a '60's Fender Bass VI on another. It was all pretty varied. I have a bunch of great vintage acoustics. They all get used. I have a particularly great '30's Gibson J-35 as well as a 1956 J-50 that both record effortlessly and get used a lot. I also have a 1964 Guild F-30 and as well as an M-20 that were both used on that album. I do love old acoustic guitars. I've got the bug.
VG: How does your approach differ between playing in the studio verses live?
JL: They're two different mindsets. I have very little guitar ego in the studio. I'm just not coming at it from the perspective of being a guitar player. I'm just working to support the singer and the song. Everything is continually referenced against that. I never listen to the guitar or any instrument as an individual thing or statement. The only questions are: is this song working and does the vocal sound great. To that end, different guitars, amps and approaches are used all the time. I don't really have any particular sound or approach and I actively try not to repeat myself too much. Live, on the other hand, I tend to have more of a consistent sound and try to make more of guitar statement, with a little more of me thrown in. Hopefully over time I've developed some kind of distinctive touch. I should probably mention that I also think listening is crucial in both situations. I tend to say that if you're not following the lyric, you're probably playing too much.
VG: You are seen as one of the early purveyors of ambient guitar, can you tell us a bit about that style?
JL: I should start by saying that I've basically stopped doing the ambient guitar thing as I started hearing it on too many records. I didn't originate the concept, but I think I was early on in using it subtly on singer songwriter records. I originally got the idea in the '80's from hearing Alan Holdsworth use volume swells and delays to create these lovely orchestral voicings that had a lovely haunted quality. I do it with a volume pedal or volume knob and a variable cocktail of delay or delays, occasionally with a touch of tremolo or a bit of modulation in the delay. The idea generally is to create a sense of mystery and/or depth in a track. You can sometimes achieve the same effect by rolling the treble off your guitar and subtly picking or doubling a part with your fingers. In the beginning I used it to create ambient drones and washes that would bring a little harmonic tension to chord changes and hopefully create some feeling in the track. Eventually I started using it in more subtle ways to create little mysterious ambiences in a song or a section of a song. Singers like it because it implies a kind of depth without getting in their way and it also sounds more organic than a synth pad. But I started to lose interest in it as it started to feel a little gimmicky to me. It's generally more satisfying to create feeling and mystery with musicality and creative parts.
VG: You played a Stratocaster in the late 80's to early 90's, yet by 1996 you had moved on to a Tele. What made you switch?
JL: I can't remember. I think I eventually just missed the Tele. It's what I started with. I was never entirely comfortable with the Strat, even though I used it a lot for a while. It's the main guitar on Steady On, Planet Of Love and Marc Cohn's first album, including "Walking In Memphis." Apart from another Tele, it was the only other guitar I owned during that period. I couldn't quite afford a bunch of guitars yet. That particular Strat had EMG pickups.
VG: Who are some of your favorite Tele players?
JL: To start with, James Burton and Clarence White made me want to own a Tele. I loved James' playing, particularly up through Emmy Lou's first couple of albums. But I have to say when I first heard his solo on Merle Haggard's version of "Frankie and Johnnie," it literally changed the way I thought about the guitar. His soul guitar fills on the Gram Parson ballad "She" also made a big impact on me. It's pure poetry. The intent of Clarence's playing was always riveting to me. Hard to pick a favorite but his solo on the Byrds' "Truckstop Girl" just killed me. It was so funky in an original way. On the blues and R&B side, neck pickup rather than bridge pickup, there's Jesse Ed Davis and Cornell Dupree. I loved them both. Jesse Ed's touch, tone and time floored me. His playing on Taj Mahal's "Moving Up To Country" basically taught me how to play blues guitar. Cornell was just the master of the slinky 2 or 3 note rhythm thing that could uplift a track or groove. I used to go see him in NYC clubs all the time and his whole stance left an impression on me.
VG: What is your touring gear with Rosanne, including guitars, amps and what is on your pedal board?
JL: We travel very lightly, so I just bring one Tele and one acoustic. Currently I'm using the 1970 Telecaster that I've had for 40 years. At this point nothing's original on it but the body and hardware. In the '80's when a Strat sound was sort of required, I put a in a middle pickup. A few years ago I put a different neck on it and it really became a better guitar. My pedal board consists of an FX Mirage compressor, a modded Boss Tremolo TR2, a Mad Professor Little Green Wonder for grind, Boss Analog Delay DM-2 for slap back and a Line 6 Echo Park for longer delays. We rent a Fender 410 Deville wherever we are. It's an imperfect choice, but they're always available and relatively consistent. I've been using the same Collings OM1 for a long time. I play it direct with an under saddle pickup made by Shertler and also through the pedals and the amp with a Fishman sound hole pickup. The amp fills out the sound a bit and moves it away from that under saddle pickup thing that I hate. These things tend to require compromise but I've learned how to get a decent sound out it.
VG: Where you aware of William Bell before being asked to produce?
JL: I was very much aware of William. Growing up in the '60's and '70's it was hard not to be influenced by all the incredible R&B and soul music that was on the radio. In many ways it was the first music I learned to play as a professional guitarist. William, of course, wrote two of the greatest soul ballads of all time, "You Don't Miss Your Water" and "Everybody Loves A Winner." He co-wrote one of the best blues songs of all time and his recording of "I Forgot To Be Your Lover," is a long time favorite of mine.
VG: How did co-writing with Bell differ from that with longtime collaborators Shawn Colvin, Marc Cohn, or your wife Rosanne Cash?
JL: It wasn't all that dissimilar. I've done a fair amount of collaborating over the past 30 years, so at this point I've approached songwriting from every conceivable angle. I still love writing tunes and challenging myself to do interesting work. Marc Cohn and I had actually started about 3 tunes before I met William. I played them for William, luckily he dug them, so I finished them with him. For other tunes I had some music and/or a bit of lyric and if William liked it, we would finish the lyrics together. William brought in a couple of titles, so on those we proceeded from there, writing the music and lyrics together. Rosanne and I wrote a tune for William as well. Apart from that, William and I just spent a fair amount of time talking and getting to know each other. I of course was secretly looking for things to write about.
VG: How hard was it not to fall into trite nostalgia when producing within an idiom that seems to have well defined horn lines, guitar licks, and drum and bass patterns?
JL: For me it wasn't hard at all. I'm not interested in rehashing the original clichés of any genre of music, as great as they might have been. I also consider it a losing proposition in that you'll never create music as deep and meaningful as the originals. I trusted that enough of the language of soul music was in mine and William's DNA, so that we could honor the tradition but still create vibrant music without resorting to mimicry or some kind of post modern deconstructionism. Writing meaningful lyrics was also key to keeping it fresh and real. I knew from the beginning that the lyrics had to have some substance.
VG: With that in mind, tell us about the challenges of recording a fresh take on "Born Under a Bad Sign"
JL: Right from the start I thought it was a good idea for William to cut it because I've discovered that most people had no idea that he and Booker actually wrote it. The question was how to do it. Albert King's original 1967 Stax version was so definitive and in its own way so was Cream's 1968 cover that it was hard to get out from under their shadows, plus you have two great guitarists really burning at their peaks. We first cut a version that was more or less indebted to the original. It was a bit swampier, but it retained the original guitar/bass line. It was a perfectly respectable version and William sang it beautifully and I even got to play some blues guitar all over it. But at the 11th hour I just felt it wasn't bold enough, that it didn't really achieve the goal of bringing something new to the song. The small insight I had at that point was that I didn't necessarily need to play the original line. That changed everything. Luckily I came up with an alternate line that seemed like it could soulfully carry the original melody and bring a new perspective to the whole thing... sort of a trance Delta thing. I went ahead and cut it with Victor Jones the drummer, with me playing everything else. William had really dug the first version so I had to talk him into trying it the new way. But he was gracious enough to give it a shot....and ultimately grew to dig it as well.
VG: Tell us about your gear for this album?
JL: A good portion of the electric guitar on this album was done with my 1977 Gibson L5. It's just a great soul guitar, clean, fat and articulate. I wanted my sound to be reminiscent of classic soul guitar but not really imitative. On the tune "The Three Of Me," I played one part with the neck pickup and the other with the bridge. It worked in a Reggie Young/Bobby Womack guitar duo kind of way. Of course there are also tracks I used a Tele or 2 on and the song "Poison In The Well" was primarily done with my '68 335. Invariably I use either a '60's Deluxe Reverb or Princeton Reverb. I used a 2 pickup Teisco through a Gibson GA-20 for the main line on "Bad Sign." I also snuck in some Fender Vibratone on the ballad "I Will Take Care Of You."
VG: What's around the corner?
JL: I've been involved in writing the music for a musical that will take up the rest of 2016. Of course, Rosanne and I still do a fair amount of performing both with our band and as a duo. I've also been compiling some music for a possible solo project and have been talking to a few artists about potentially producing their next albums. I want to get back to record making later this year.