John Leventhal’s record production skills first caught my ear when I was a young kid obsessed with Shawn Colvin records. Since then, his playing and production has influenced me more than any other musician. As a producer and engineer, John has made records for Shawn Colvin, Rosanne Cash (to whom he is married), Marc Cohn, William Bell, Sarah Jarosz [Tape Op #140], and many others. As a multi-instrumentalist, he has played with artists such as Jackson Browne [#105], Bruce Hornsby, Donald Fagen, and Rodney Crowell. As a songwriter, his songs have been recorded by Vince Gill, Jim Lauderdale, Joe Cocker, and Patty Loveless, to name just a few. John has a unique and rare talent for arranging and capturing deep, rich textures from virtually anything that makes noise. Due to the pandemic, we each sat down in our home studios and chatted over Zoom about the records he has previously worked on, as well as the one he is currently working on – his own.
I was going to ask if you had ever considered making a solo record, but it sounds as if you’re already doing it!
Yeah. I guess I should learn how to talk about it, because it’s not like I’ve been broadcasting it. Although I’ve mentioned it on occasion for probably ten years. I’m not a compelling singer. I wouldn’t want to sit through an album with me singing, so I wouldn’t expect anybody else to. [laughter]
I would have expected it to be instrumental.
I would say it’s 75 percent instrumental and maybe 25 percent singing. I’m going to sing a couple of tunes. I have a tune Shawn Colvin is singing. I may have a tune that Sarah Jarosz is singing. As you know, it’s much harder in the music business to sell records now. So, I thought, “Well, what am I waiting for?” The tsunami of history when the pandemic hit was almost like a sign. A few months into the pandemic, I gave myself over to the process of doing it. It was a lot of work; I had no idea what I could do that wouldn’t make me cringe, because I’m my own worst critic. I’m writing, playing, and engineering everything. So, it’s a bit of an audio conceptual Tetris nightmare trying to figure out how to make it all work and fit. I’m slowly getting there. For a while it felt overwhelming, but now I see the light at the end of the tunnel.
How do you fight off all those inner critics?
I gotta say, it’s been an interesting journey. I have a pretty strong internal critic. I’ve had to come up with strategies and protocols over the years to both pay attention to him and keep him at bay. My standards are high, and I want it to be compelling music.
How did you get into session playing and studio work?
The first record I produced was Steady On by Shawn Colvin. We made it in 1987 or ‘88, and it came out in ’89. I had moved to Manhattan around 1981. Before that I had been a gigging sideman right outside of Manhattan, but then I moved to Manhattan when rent was cheap. I didn’t have any big goal to be a record producer, but I had always written songs. In tandem with me learning how to play the guitar, right from the beginning I wrote songs. The first time I learned three chords, I took those three chords and wrote a song with them.
How was the first record you produced a major label debut album?
Well, that could probably still happen now. It was an incredibly great confluence of events that took place in the latter half of the 1980s. At the same time, I was writing songs and gigging, starting to do some sessions and jingles. I was also maybe a tad ahead of the curve with the home recording thing. I bought every generation of the Tascam and/or TEAC 4-tracks and 8-tracks. I wasn’t super cognizant about every aspect of recording, but I was learning how to utilize multitracks and doing everything myself. The short version is I met Shawn Colvin, and we hit it off. In the beginning we were writing songs and thinking about trying to get hits. Then some little epiphany happened; Colvin and I found our voices as songwriters, and we jettisoned any idea of being commercial. I was never going to be happy as a sideman, so I started focusing more on writing and doing these songs on my 4-track. We recorded a bunch of tunes we wrote that ended up on Steady On, and I guess I did a good enough job making the demos.
So, they let you produce the whole album.
Yeah. I had a certain musicality, and I had a certain instinct for arranging. I was always the guy in the band paying attention to what the bass player, the drummer, and the keyboard player were doing. I always had this intuitive grasp that the parts in the machine had to fit together well. I loved music so much, and had listened to it so much, that I was starting to gain an arranger’s sensibility. That’s what I brought to Steady On, and thankfully it was strong enough to have some impact. It won a Grammy, and all of a sudden I was a “record producer.” I didn’t know anything about engineering or mixing.
Were you responsible for getting Kevin Killen [Tape Op #67] on board?
Yes. Shawn and I were both fans of So by Peter Gabriel [#63] at the time. Who made that? It was Kevin Killen. We asked him and he said yes. Kevin and I have been good buddies for 30 years. I go back and listen to that record, and I don’t love what’s going on there. But I can recognize a certain degree of… I dunno, freshness? It found a little niche, probably more among musicians than the general public. Around the same time I was doing that with Shawn, I had a friendship and was writing songs with Jim Lauderdale, who lived in New York as well. More or less the same thing happened with Jim a year later. I had made his demo and somehow it had ended up in Nashville. Rodney Crowell heard it, liked it, and helped Jim get a deal at Warner Bros. Rodney was gracious enough to say, “Let’s have Leventhal come down and produce it with me.” Then a lot of songs Jim and I wrote got covered. The next thing I did was I played on and arranged Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis.” I didn’t produce it. [Ben Wisch did. -ed.] This all happened in a two and a half or three-year period, maybe less. Then my learning curve began, and I had to actually learn how to be a record producer.
You’re a huge Beatles freak?
Was George Martin a huge influence on your style of production and bringing that sophistication to roots music?
Yeah, I guess. I never thought of it specifically as George Martin, which is interesting. I love Beatles records, so whatever was going into those records was what I loved. We could spend the rest of our conversation talking about The Beatles. For me, and apparently for a lot of other people, they’re magical. Why it worked, how it worked; people will still be talking about it, I suspect, a century from now. They were magic and it was such a powerful imprint that I had to jettison using it a long time ago. I’ve avoided using Beatles-y things for a while now. I don’t know how familiar you are with what I’m doing, but I’ve really veered away from it.
I have noticed.
Yeah. I made a record [Whole New You] with Shawn Colvin after the album [A Few Small Repairs] with “Sunny Came Home.” It was a fun Beatles, Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach thing.
It’s my favorite album you produced.
A lot of people say that! It’s so funny. I can’t listen to it. It’s weird. There are a lot of reasons that record ended up the way it did. Shawn had writer’s block. I had all these tracks, and I didn’t have committed vocals or committed lyrics. I had too much time on my hands in the studio to dick around with all these kinds of ideas. You name it and the kitchen sink is in there. Every influence I had up to that point is on the record. Horns, sleigh bells, and backwards guitars; it’s all in there. I think my songwriting had a Beatles influence at that point, but I made a point of trying to veer away from it. In the last ten years, I’d be hard-pressed to find a real Beatles influence. I did a record with Sarah Jarosz recently [World on the Ground], and she pulled me back to it, inadvertently.
What do you draw influence from, production-wise, now?
Well, dare I say I try not to? I just try to be me. I try to make everything simpler and have everything mean more. The goal is to do the least amount I can, and to make it sound as big and deep and interesting as I can by not doing a lot. Whenever I do anything – working on my record, writing songs with somebody, by myself, preproduction, recording, and sessions guys in or not – I do my best to turn my analytical, intellectual, conscious creative brain off for the first hour or so. I try to respond quickly, viscerally, and immediately to the moment and the music in an attempt to try to get what I’d call real feeling in it, as opposed to some idea of what a record’s supposed to sound like.
In Shawn’s memoir [Diamond in the Rough], she talks about how a lot of the songs you produced for her started as instrumental ideas that later she would write lyrics and melody on top of. Is that right?
Yeah. I’ve collaborated with a lot of people now, and I’ve approached it from every conceivable way you can think of. There isn’t a way to write a song that I haven’t done or tried. With Shawn, it’s tended to be – for the most part – that I write music, give it to her, and she goes off and writes lyrics to it.
Do you put all the little melodic lines and hooks in there beforehand?
Generally. It’s all intuitive. Sometimes I’ll have a very specific melody. Sometimes I think, “This will be better if I don’t define it and let her find her way through it.” It depends. I’ve tried – to some degree of success – to reverse it with Shawn. I usually have her give me lyrics and let me write the music. With Rosanne [Cash] that’s what I do 95 percent of the time.
Does Rosanne already have a melody with the lyrics?
Sometimes. But it’s mostly me writing the melody, looking at a sheet of paper, like Elton [John] does with Bernie Taupin. I love that. That forces me out of my box, in a way. If you’re writing music to somebody’s lyrics, you can’t just go back to your own patterns. You have to make it work. I like that challenge. I did a record [This is Where I Live] with William Bell a few years ago, and I wrote a good portion of lyrics on that.
I was going to ask how you got hooked up with that record. He hadn’t done an album for a decade.
It had been a long time. I got hooked up with William at Stax [Records] through Joe McEwen, who had A&R-ed [Shawn Colvin’s] Steady On. He used to be an A&R guy at Columbia [Records]. I was glad he thought of me. R&B and soul music is really more of who I am versus a folk singer/songwriter or Americana. When I first started playing guitar in the New York area, the coin of the realm was knowing how to play R&B and soul music. If you didn’t, you didn’t work, because that’s what all club bands did. I have a deep love of classic soul from the ‘60s to the early-to-mid ‘70s. I was thrilled to do it.
Did they let you do your thing with him?
They did, though they initially sent me a bunch of songs I didn’t love. I went ahead and wrote better songs.
On your own, or with William?
On my own and with William. Marc Cohn and I started a good three of them. I knew that I had to woo William into the process, because William is a songwriter. I had to woo William into finishing them with me, which he was happy to do. And then we also wrote a bunch together.
Was that pretty cool getting his influence on the songs you were writing?
It was a great experience, brother. I don’t like most of my records, but I do like the record I made with William.
You have a very hands-on production style. I know, at least from some mutual friends of ours, that you’ll often tell people exactly what to play, or have a very specific idea in mind. I mean that in the best way.
No, I’m aware I have a certain reputation for that.
How do you go about that? Is there an unspoken agreement you have with an artist at the start of a record?
I’m not sure. When I started producing, it was very traditional. Even though I had a good sense of what everybody should play or do, in the beginning I wasn’t going in and playing everything myself. Then, over time, I thought I should probably play because my feel is going to dictate this, that, and the other thing. Right from the beginning I’ve never said, “You play this. You play that.” I let the process unfold. If it’s working, it’s working. If I don’t feel it’s working, or that it could be more magical or special, I’ll say, “Hey, why don’t you try playing this” or, “What if the drums do this?” Over the years, I developed a rep. All I’ve ever asked of musicians is, “Listen to my ideas.” That’s all. It very well may be that at the end of me making a solo record, I don’t ever want to make a record where I’ll play everything again. It’s a lot of work and I’m a little bored with myself, to be honest.
You produced Marc Cohn’s Listening Booth record. How did you go about tracking that?
That record started me on this thing of me playing everything, although there are a few other musicians on there. We compiled a large list of songs we were going to cover. What happened was I had a small Guild guitar at my old studio; it was always right by me by the console. I sat here, Marc sat there, and he had a vocal mic and I had a guitar mic and a vocal mic. We would go through this list of songs without any great intellectual analysis. My inclination is to always fuck them up anyway. I’m never interested in playing them exactly as they were. I’ve said before, there’s no point in trying to better a great record. We just sat there and rolled tape. I had shakers, little hand drums, and all kinds of things sitting by me on the console. I might find a tempo and get a little loop, hardly ever using a click. As time has gone on, it’s very clear to me that the best tracks that I do are when I get the vocal really soon. I try to get the vocal right from the start, before I even add anything. Therefore, anything that’s added to it, I’m adding it to the vocal. That was the lesson I learned on that Shawn Colvin record. I had these big orchestral tracks. The vocal was the last thing on them, and that didn’t work! Anyway, the bottom line is that on Marc’s record, that worked most of the time. When I knew it wasn’t going to work that way, we had a rhythm section in for maybe two or three of the 10 or 12 songs, and then we cut it: me on guitars and Marc singing live. Marc likes to sing live.
I’m glad you brought up making loops. You do such a beautiful job of marrying lo-fi sounds with very organic, beautiful sounds. I always think of the [Shawn Colvin] song “Bonefields.” Do you have a philosophy for blending hi-fi with lo-fi in your productions?
I feel differently about it now than I did then. I think that then I was trying to do what you’re talking about. I was cognizant of lo-fi, hi-fi, and weird sounds.
Was it in search of a pop element?
Yeah, that record [Whole New You] is poppy. That’s as poppy as I get.
But you even do it with your choice of guitar or other instruments. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a steep low-pass filter. You choose different tones with instruments to fill songs out sonically.
Well, okay; yeah. Back then, you’re talking 20 years ago when “Bonefields” came out, there was a resurgence of lo-fi/hi-fi. That became a thing and I was probably influenced by that, to some degree. But I don’t think like that anymore. What we’re really talking about is audio architecture or arranging. It’s about how to utilize the canvas so that parts will tend to have their own place and beauty and be compelling. Motown records were incredibly arranged. Beatles records were arranged. Burt Bacharach records were arranged. The Everly Brothers records sounded amazing to me. They’re perfect little nuggets of small, minimalist arrangements. I love all that. Of course, you generally don’t want all instruments operating in the same range, timbre, voicings, or rhythm. If I have any skillset, it’s that I have an awareness of that. I’ve been a working musician for over 40 years. I have a big toolbox, and I use my toolbox. I do have a great mic. If a fire came to this house, this is what I’d grab. [pointing to his right]
Is that a [Neumann] U 67?
It’s the same 67 I’ve had forever. It’s magical. I freak out to think it’ll break down or I can’t use it.
I’m curious what your take is on the music industry these days. You came from big budgets and big studios in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but things are very different now. I’m also curious about your thoughts on the Grammys.
Oh, boy. How diplomatic should I be? It’s complicated for me. I wouldn’t recommend this for anybody else. I have never felt part of the music business; I say that with a slight exaggeration. It’s like I’m “with the workers.” Most successful record producers get more engaged with the business – as it exists, in whatever time they’re working in – than I have. I don’t think I ever particularly cared about it. I want my records to do well. I certainly want my peers to like them, and it’s great when non-musicians enjoy them and buy them. But I’ve never felt particularly compelled to be a careerist or care that much about the music business. It’s hard for producers to really make money or make a living. I used to make my living as a record producer; I don’t make my living as a record producer anymore. I go out with my wife on tour, and my songwriting makes more money than record production. But record production is by far the most time-consuming and labor intensive of all the things that I do. So, what am I trying to say? I don’t know where the music business is at these days. If I can make myself happy and the artist happy then I’m done. That flows into the Grammy thing, where it’s wildly imperfect, but it’s some representation of whether the people who are involved in the work that you do like what you do. It’s amazing to me that most of the records I produce get nominated for Grammys. That’s incredible! Sarah Jarosz’s record [World on the Ground] won a Grammy. That’s incredible.
Do you and Rosanne talk about the nitty-gritty of the music biz? She’s a lobbyist and gets into legislation.
That’s a slightly different thing. I’m outraged about how devalued music is. That’s the nuts and bolts of how musicians and songwriters and record producers make money and make a living. I care about that, definitely. Streaming has destroyed our business.
Do you listen to music on streaming platforms?
More and more, yeah. I resisted it for a long time. But even I am doing it. I don’t know what the answer is, because the paid tier of the streaming services; they’re making a lot of money. And the record companies who have bought equity into the streaming services are making a lot of money. The people who aren’t making money are the artists and the songwriters. Because nobody understood streaming, it is way undervalued. It’s hard to make sense of it all, but it has to be addressed. Rosanne’s really involved. It’s going to be a struggle. The problem is: Where’s the unified voice? Particularly for musicians and artists. Songwriters have a potential for some unified voice, but their interests aren’t necessarily aligned with ASCAP or BMI. It’s a mess.
You live in New York City. How has the pandemic changed record-making for you?
Well, I think I’ve told you. It’s made me do this solo record. I decided to reframe it as an opportunity for myself, which has not been without its challenges. [It’s been challenging] to be here by myself, and to conceptualize, compose, perform, engineer, and arrange a solo record, starting from a place where I didn’t know what I had to say. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to utilize COVID as that. I also have a studio in my house; lucky me. I’ve been on the road continuously for the last ten years, so it wasn’t the worst thing. Rosanne and I had been talking about taking a break. The best spin is that it provided me with an opportunity and an impetus to confront my solo record. I’m almost done. It’s shocking.
Are any productions on the calendar?
I have nothing on the calendar. I’ve turned down a couple of records, which made me a little nervous. My phone is not burning up for me to produce records for people. I don’t know how people are making records now. I know that people are doing it with masks. It would take the right project for me to consider doing that. What I would love to do, when this is all over, is to produce some self-contained unit, whether it’s a band or an artist who has a vision of how his or her music should sound. It’d be amazing to me to go in the studio with a unit that has their shit together, and be part of the process of guiding, helping, nipping and tucking, shaping, and editing.
Do you have a dream shortlist?
I don’t. I’ve never had a list of people I wanted to produce. Isn’t that weird?
Have you ever reached out to an artist to produce them?
I never have. Maybe it’s stupid of me. I don’t know why that is. Insecurity? The calls have just come over the years at times that felt right. I’ve never churned out a bunch of records. The most I’ve ever done is two records in one year. The records I’ve done that have done well take a while, sometimes up to 6 months, particularly if we’re writing as well. I would love to do a band or make another R&B record with somebody. I’d love to do another record with Colvin; at least one more.
Yeah, we’re talking about it. We’re not quite on the same page, but hopefully we will be. There are things I want to do, for sure. I’d love to make a great killer original-but-classic country record. What I did on William’s record, but in a country music way. How to take the pieces of what I love about the classical period of country music, and how to make it feel fresh and modern without overtly being postmodern or ironic – any of the things that people tend to do – or imitate anybody. How would you make a great modern, but classic, country record? I don’t know.
If you were to do something like that, do you think you’d try to get out of New York and go somewhere?
It’s a valid question. For the most part, I would say no. I made William Bell’s record right where I am now, in Chelsea in Manhattan. To me it sounds like authentic soul music. But it’s about heart and soul and people. Not about place. What’s interesting to me is the actual music, the lyrics, the arrangement, the chord changes, and what the drummer’s right hand is doing. If someone wants to go to Sun [Studio] and cut a rockabilly record, there are tons of people ready and willing to do that. That’s why I said I don’t feel all that connected to the music business aesthetic. Is the song any good? That’s much more interesting to me than if I’m going to write with somebody in Nashville or not. That’s my thing; I love music. Music saved my life. That’s all I care about. It sounds simple, but it can be easy to lose sight of.