Latest Project Is Joni Mitchell's new Album
The name Henry Lewy may not ring a bell, but certainly household names like Stephen Bishop, Joan Armatrading, Van Morrison, Hoyt Axton, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell do. All these artists have enlisted the special talents of one of the recording arts' most sensitive and experienced craftsmen.
A man who commands immediate respect, Henry Lewy has a gift few engineers and/or producers ever acquire.
"I don't have a big ego—I guess that makes all the difference," says Lewy, who has literally grown up with the record business. "I feel that my job is to help artists, not obstruct them in any way."
A veteran producer, Lewy is full of enthusiasm for the artists and music he records. Having worked with Joni Mitchell since her second album, he naturally has a special affection and commitment to her and to her art. "She's the only true genius I've ever met," he says unflinchingly.
The following interview (and one with Mitchell that will appear next issue) bear that fact out. Yet, in Lewy's colorful career, he has also recorded artists like Paul Horn, Buffy Ste. Marie, Jimmy Webb, Minnie Riperton, the Flying Burrito Brothers and many more. The interviews were conducted with Lewy at his home and at A&M Studios during the final stages of Mitchell's new album, WILD THINGS RUN FAST.
MUSIC CONNECTION: As an artist's catalyst, and a creative person, how do you feel about record labels and the people who work with the product once it's out of your hands?
HENRY LEWY: It's a difficult thing about record labels. "What you think they should do and what they do are often two different things. I really have never found the answer to that. It's especially frustrating when you work two or three months on an album that you know is good. The artist believes in it and whoever you're dealing with at the label thinks it's great, and yet all of a sudden, nothing happens. You say, "Why?" Once it leaves the creative hands, it becomes a piece of product. The guys who don't really have the capacity to realize the creative aspects of the music respond more to..."Yeah, she did this before and she's appearing here and we can sell so many units of her here." It's that type of attitude. The fact that it's a beautiful piece of art or sensitive piece of music never enters into it. It's very frustrating for the artist and that's why it helps an awful lot if the artist is commercially minded so that they go around to those record people and shake their hands and get to know them.
MC: To get some enthusiasm going for the 'product'.
LEWY: Right. Now you take Van Morrison. The guy's a genius, a fantastic songwriter, loves his work and does a great job. Yet his relationship with the record company and the press is nil. It's because he doesn't feel he needs it. He feels he's not part of that—he shouldn't have to bother with it. But he's been through an awful lot. He's been around a long time. By now he feels he should be in the studio and do his little gigs around San Francisco and when it comes to being nice to Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so of the record company, it doesn't even enter into his mind. And actually, in a way he's right. He shouldn't have to...but it would help.
MC: Is Morrison a very different person when you're working together with him one-to-one?
LEWY: Oh, yeah. I was very lucky to work with him on COMMON ONE. The whole album was done in about two weeks in the hills above Nice, France. There were some fantastically magical nights. The basic tracks and vocals were all done live. The only things we overdubbed were the strings and some background parts. The drums were in one corner and the keyboards in one corner and he was standing in another with a hand-held microphone. We tried two or three songs an evening and did two or three takes on each.
MC: That's the epitome of recording in a sense.
LEWY: I think so. I really think that's the way giant records are made. In the old days they used to make records that way. They just went for it. But today with mult-tracking, artists get to the point where they try things five dozen ways and make up their mind what they want. You lose something. It may turn out to be a very perfect record but it's also very cold and you lose the raw emotion. And I think that most record buyers—unless they're professionals—really respond to that raw emotion more than anything else.
MC: I wonder if that has anything to do with the feeling most of us have that the music of today isn't as exciting as it has been in the past.
LEWY: I'm glad you said that. I find that to be true. I think it's not as exciting. I think it sounds pretty much the same. There isn't enough variety. Now that has a lot to do with airplay also, because these people who make the music say, "If we make something that's original and far out, can we get it played?" With today's tight playlists, probably not. Then there's promotion. There are so many factors that inhibit certain people in the studio. And yet if you're a true creative artist, those things shouldn't inhibit you at all. You should just go for broke. Do what you believe and what you do best.
MC: It seems to me you've worked with a number of very artistic singer/songwriters. Why do people like Armatrading, Morrison and Mitchell hire you?
LEWY: I started out as an engineer. Before that I was a disc jockey. I was a disc jockey in Las Vegas and San Diego and also here at the jazz station KKGO. So I've always liked music and I've always liked people. I started off engineering way back in the '60s and I just sort of grew up with the industry, really.
I started engineering on The Chipmunk albums. The first folk duo that I did was Bud & Travis. Then I worked with a lot of people who are now very big. I did some demo work with Crosby and Stills just before their first Crosby, Stills and Nash album. We did Guinevere and Long Time Gone. While working with them Crosby told me about Joni Mitchell. he said, "I know this girl and I did her first album. She's about due to do a second album for Warner Brothers. She doesn't need a producer; she needs an engineer who cares and who listens." I seemed to fall in that category, so I started with Joni as sort of an engineer—not a producer, but more than just an engineer.
MC: There was no one between her and you?
LEWY: At first the company put a producer in, but it didn't work out because she's a very strong woman and she knows what she wants. All she needs is somebody to bounce opinions off. When she first came into the studio she didn't know anything about the tools of the trade. In order to overdub vocals, she had to hold the guitar and pretend like she was playing. But she's a very intelligent woman and a quick learner so that today she can tell me exactly what to do.
So I think through Joni, and my reputation of working with Joni, the other people came to me. Most of the time it was co-production deals—situations where they didn't want anybody to tell them. "Do this or do that or change me and make me into something else I'm not." It was rather, "I know what I want; I just need somebody to help me do it." There are different producers for different artists. I think I've just been lucky to fall into a groove with people who know their music and have it together but just need somebody like me.
MC: Did Joni lead you in that direction or do you think that there's something about you that makes you especially right for that role?
LEWY: Yeah, I like people. I'm sensitive to their moods, I enjoy music and I've got lots of patience. I think that's the secret word in the recording business. You've got to have patience and if somebody wants to try something you can't say, "No, it's not going to work." You can't force things on artists. Joni's come into the studio and said, "I want to do this or that," and I say,"really?" And we do it and three or four days later I say, "that's great. It was so original but it sounded real strange when I first heard it."
MC: What's it like for you working with Joni Mitchell musically and personally?
LEWY: Joni keeps changing. She loses one audience and gains another. She is a growing person. She constantly comes up every year with new likes and dislikes. She doesn't even remember the tunings of her old songs! I feel I'm a very good friend of hers. I'm in love with her. I respect her. She's the only true genius I've ever met. She's as good a painter as she is a songwriter. They go hand-in-hand. She started out as a painter and the songwriting came second. When she talks about music she expresses it in the form of colors and shades of light and so forth. She does all her own album covers. She doesn't like to sell her art, and so she's running out of space to store it. When she's not working on an album, she's painting in her loft in New York.
MC: What are your favorite Joni Mitchell albums?
LEWY: I like BLUE very much. Of course I like COURT AND SPARK and then DON JUAN'S RECKLESS DAUGHTER.
MC: Is Joni concerned about having hit records at all?
LEWY: Joni's conscious of hits. She would like to have a hit. She always says, "Why did so-and-so have a hit and not me," and yet she's not going to sacrifice style or integrity just to make it commercial.
MC: As an engineer/producer, have you always had plenty of work through the years?
LEWY: Yes, I've been very lucky in that the telephone rings and somebody says, "Hey, come and make an album." But right now business is very slow. I really don't know where my next projects are going to come from. I've been listening to acts and I haven't heard anything that's really excited me. A lot of music sounds like the other.
MC: What do you think of the 'new music'?
LEWY: I think it's in a process of evolution. I don't think it's settled down yet. You know how short these fads are. There's punk rock and this and that, but they last a very short time. And out of it usually comes something better. I think the best group that's impressed me lately has been The Police.
MC: Today record companies don't seem to want to take a chance on somebody they're going to have to develop over several years.
LEWY: I know, it's a pity. Small labels do, but when you're dealing with a corporate entity, you have that aspect of it where they want quick success or nothing. They also want somebody who tours constantly, which some artists just don't want to do. So there's a dilemma for the singer/songwriter. I wonder if were Joni to start out today if she'd have a chance...
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