Catlin Gabel: what education can be
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When I was a young girl growing up during the 1970s, I always thought the records my mom listened to were so cool. On any given Saturday morning, I could expect that the gorgeous sounds of Judy Collins, Barbara Streisand, Fleetwood Mac or Carly Simon would be emanating from the record player. And, of course, Linda Ronstadt. Ingrained into my childhood psyche, her silky smooth voice was always a sound of warmth and familiarity. Seems like the 1970s were the most amazing time for strong, sexy and independent female vocalists. Linda lead the pack.
Over 30 years later, here I am, listening to “You’re No Good” on YouTube, thinking about all Linda has contributed to the music world. I’m grateful for her talent and saddened by her latest admission; due to a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, Linda will never be able to sing again.
Fans around the world will still be able to listen to her voice via her latest contribution, her just-released book, “SIMPLE DREAMS: A Musical Memoir” (Simon & Schuster). In this candid memoir, Linda traces the timeline of her remarkable life, wide-ranging career and hard-won education as a singer. In her own voice – as genuine, heartfelt, and distinctive in print as on her recordings – Linda weaves together a captivating account of her rise to fame in the Southern California music scene of the 1960s and ’70s. She’s coming to Powell’s in Beaverton this month to promote her book and we’re pleased to share with Portland Family readers some of Linda’s thoughts on her life, music and making it big …
Q: What prompted you to write a memoir at this point in your life?
LR: Throughout my career, a lot of other people have written about me – what they think about me, what I’ve said, the things I’ve done. Oftentimes, my words were distorted or things were taken out of context. So I thought I might as well have my own turn to say what I really think and feel. And I wanted to explain why I made some of the choices I did, especially regarding my music. There are many other talented artists who made important contributions to pop music, but what I did do that was different was to sing a lot of wildly different types of music. Those choices were not arbitrary, and were based on my family background and the kinds of music I grew up hearing.
Q: How did your upbringing foster such a deep and lifelong love of music in you?
LR: I came from a musical family to begin with. My grandfather, whose photo is in my book, was both a musician and a rancher. He started a band which included both brass and woodwinds – he taught people how to play their instruments, conducted the band, composed and arranged, and played the flute. Music was always present in my home growing up. Everyone sang or played an instrument, and it was always included at social occasions. We heard all kinds of music in our home – I listened to a lot of classical music, opera, pop music and Mexican music – the same genres I eventually performed.
Q: At what point in your career did you realize you had “arrived”?
LR: The first time I heard myself on the radio, our car had just broken down and we were stopped at a gas station. I heard “Different Drum” on the radio from way in the back of the gas station. I remember thinking, “Now we have a hit record, but we don’t have a car!” It was probably after I had three hits in a row that I knew I wasn’t just a flash in the pan. And meeting Emmylou Harris made a big difference in my life – here was someone who wasn’t focused on what was trendy. She just wanted to tell her story clearly, and I felt I had found a partner in crime for recording more obscure music. We were like Hansel and Gretel wandering through the enchanted musical forest.
Q: Were you aware that you were present at the creation of the California rock scene and that something unusual was in the air?
LR: At the time, we just knew that we were trying to do something we thought was cool and different. We got plenty of resistance, but also some encouragement. I kept thinking I’d like to take R & B songs and put a country twist on them. Or take a country song and give it a rock ‘n’ roll feel. There was plenty of material to work with, so you could take a song and just start experimenting with it. The key was finding musicians who had a shared sensibility.
Q: In the 1970s, when you were first becoming a well-known artist, how was your music influenced by the political and social change going on at the time?
LR: I believe that music has always been an important catalyst for social change. There was so much going on back then and a lot of people were commenting. I think Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” is a great example. But I never thought of myself as much of a writer. I identified more as an interpreter – that gave me such a wide range of choices.
Q: You were part of a community of musicians who were borrowing from each other
and creating a new sound – why was that so important? And do you think musicians today are collaborating in the same way?
LR: Music is inherently a social thing, and it’s always been a huge part of my social life. My friends and I would get together and listen to or play music for hours on end. It’d usually be in someone’s living room or in the hotel if we were on the road. As a musician, a huge part of your music is never performed on a stage – it’s either social or it’s a part of your day, humming along in the shower or while driving your car. I think the best musicians borrow styles and ideas from each other, and you see that all the time.
Q: What songs in your repertoire have been the most meaningful to you and why?
LR: There’s not really one that stands out above the rest – they were all meaningful to me at the time I sang them. If I recorded something, it’s because I was just dying to sing it. There was always an urgent reason to choose a song; it had to evoke a strong emotion in me at the moment.
Q: Is there a song of yours that you felt was misunderstood?
LR: There was a song I recorded called “Mohammed’s Radio” which made a lot of people scratch their heads. It was written by Warren Zevon. I interpreted it as a tribute to radio, this wonderful electronic medium that has circled the globe and let us all share the same music. The radio is my favorite of the electronic media – I much prefer it to television.
Q: You retired from performing in 2009, was that a difficult decision to make?
LR: It wasn’t a choice. I have Parkinson’s disease, which makes it impossible to sing. So much of the execution of singing depends on muscles, and now the muscles won’t perform the task.
Q: Of all the musical genres your music has touched on, what was your favorite and why?
LR: I loved singing Mexican music and I felt completely, authentically myself. I also loved singing the standards, where I got to use the full range of my voice. Opera wasn’t my favorite, since I wasn’t trained for it. I absolutely loved the role and I really identified with Mimi in La Boheme, but I didn’t have the formal training to be an opera singer, so I could only approximate it.
Q: Which artist(s) do you wish you’d had the chance to record with?
LR: There are plenty! I wish I’d had the chance to record with Sinatra in his middle years. Also Smokey Robinson. I sang with him on the Motown 20th Anniversary Show and it was thrilling.
Q: Who are some singers you hear today that stand out as unique voices?
LR: Amy Winehouse, Duffy and Adele, of course, who is so fantastic. I also love Alicia Keys. The singer I listen to most is a flamenco singer from Spain called Estrella Morente.
Q: What are your biggest passions today, aside from music?
LR: I’m really interested in a group called Los Cenzontles in California. They teach kids the deep traditions of Mexican music. They give instruction on how to play guitar, violin, vihuela and jarana, and also teach the kids the dances and etiquette of Mexican culture. They’re showing these kids how to use music in a social context as well as a way to process their feelings and emotions. And they’re having terrific success with their participants finishing high school, going to college and staying out of gangs. I’ve been involved with the organization for over twenty years, and I love that it’s a way for me to keep my hand in music.
Q: What is the most useful advice a young singer might derive from reading your book?
LR: I think it’s important for artists to know that everyone borrows from each other. And don’t try to sing something unless you understand it and it’s authentic to your own experience. Listeners can tell when there’s a real connection. Throughout my career, I stayed with music styles I was already familiar with by the age of ten. Also, read as much as you can, listen to lots of music, and go to museums. Everything you read, hear and see will influence your music.