Ackerman Sets The Musical Record Straight
Although Windham Hill Records founder William Ackerman is consistently labeled as the father of new age music thanks to his stewardship of artists like George Winston, Alex DeGrassi and Liz Story, hisAlthough Windham Hill Records founder William Ackerman is consistently labeled as the father of new age music thanks to his stewardship of artists like George Winston, Alex DeGrassi and Liz Story, his own guitar-centric recordings have contributed as much to his musical legacy as his business acumen.
Indeed, Ackerman's 1976 solo guitar masterpiece "In Search of the Turtle's Navel" was Windham Hill's first release, and he actively recorded in solo and ensemble settings before selling his stake in the label to BMG in 1992. After a six-year break from the studio and live stage, Ackerman returned with 1998's "Sound of Wind Driven Rain" and 2001's experimental "Hearing Voices," and has regularly toured as part of Windham Hill's annual Winter Solstice outing.
But the Sept. 28 release of "Returning: Pieces for Guitar 1970-2004" truly turns over a new leaf in the Ackerman story. It will be the first album issued on his own Mary's Tree imprint through Universal Classics, and also realizes Ackerman's long-standing wish to re-record some of his earlier pieces to reflect the twists and turns they've taken since they were first written. Among the favorites featured are "Bricklayer's Beautiful Daughter," "Visiting," "Hawk Circle," "Anne's Song" and "The Impending Death of the Virgin Spirit."
The Vermont-based artist will be featuring some of these tracks during performance on the 2004 Winter Solstice trek, which also boasts Story, vocalist Samite and guitarist David Cullen. The tour kicks off Nov. 14 in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and wraps Dec. 18 in Spartanburg, S.C.
In a candid interview with Billboard.com, Ackerman talked about revisiting his musical past, memories from Windham Hill's glory days and his struggle to come to terms with a childhood fraught with tragedy and abuse.
Can you describe how you came to sign with Universal, and how you decided to form your first release for them around re-recording past works?
[Universal chairman] Chris Roberts is an old, old friend. He can remember me driving up to the store he worked at in Portland in 1976, in my Volkswagen bus, asking if he could take five of my "Turtle's Navel" LPs on consignment. Those were innocent days.
The last two records I did were "Sound of Wind Driven Rain," which was something I did to prove to myself I could still do a real guitar-centered record. During what I call my executive period, I think there was some good music, but very often I was relying on Chuck Greenberg or Charlie Bisharat to help me with melody. I was frankly too busy being a guy running a record label. "Sound of Wind Driven Rain" was important for me, because I demonstrated to myself and, I guess, based on reviews, to others, that I was still capable of making a record as melodically self-sufficient as say, "It Takes a Year."
Having done that, I went into "Hearing Voices," which was an experiment that some people got and some people didn't. The people who did get it really loved it. It then languished at BMG in large part due to the tremendous changes taking place. Between the time we were talking about the promotion and marketing and when the record actually came out, there was literally not a single person left standing at BMG for continuity in the project. It got completely lost, and I was really sad about it.
I started talking to Chris, and he expressed such an enthusiasm for that project, as well as the idea of me exploring some new territory. We very quickly came to an understanding that we had to work together.
I was looking at the idea of doing "Hearing Voices 2." I was sitting in one of the blue and white lounge chairs at the little beach in Positano [Italy] that I go to, and two things occurred to me simultaneously: It would make sense to begin with Universal; that was very easy to understand. The idea of doing a solo project, rather than going immediately into something like "Hearing Voices," which was more experimental, [also] seemed to make sense.
Once that door was opened, I was remembering the many times people come up to me after a concert and say, "We've always loved 'Bricklayer's Beautiful Daughter' and 'The Impending Death of the Virgin Spirit,' but the way you play it now is so incredible and dramatic."
Those old versions make me conscious of being a young player who is actually evolving of voice. The stuff sounds like me, which I love. Most of the material for this record necessarily came from the very early days, because that's when I was doing most of the solo stuff. That was financially motivated more than anything else. Once some money started rolling in, I got into more ensemble work, which is conceived in a very different way. You have some early work, some stuff from "Wind Driven Rain" and then I investigated which songs from the middle would work if I stripped away some of the layers.
I went into Montrose Studio in San Mateo [Calif.] in 1975 with $300 in borrowed $5 bills. I didn't have money or any experience. Really the sole objective was to get the notes in the right place. What made the pieces work was that, thank God, they were good pieces. But how I performed them by contrast to what I'm doing now is so military. I marched through them in perfect metronomic time. I was just a scared kid.
Long story short: I really just wanted to get these songs as I hear them in my head and as I perform them. It was more of a personal thing than anything else. I like these songs but I wanted them rendered in a way I was finally satisfied with. Listening back to the 1977 recording of "Bricklayer's Beautiful Daughter" just wasn't doing it for me anymore.
Can you cite an example of something that has remained very similar to the original intent, as opposed to something that has changed drastically?
To be honest, I guess of the collection, the two that probably are most similar to the old versions are "In a Region of Clouds" and "Last Day at the Beach." "Visiting" is kind of radical because Chuck Greenberg and Michael Manring are gone, so I'm just doing a solo. I think it's dynamically a lot bigger than the original bed track.
Even in "Region" and "Last Day," they're both so much less metronomic. That's where I've gone. I don't have the innovation of a Michael Hedges or the precision of an Alex DeGrassi. For me, it's all about tempo and the variation of tempo, volume and position on the bridge. Does the note get warm and round or do I edge it?
I thought this was going to be a cakewalk. I know these pieces and have played them a million times. But the exact opposite was true. I've never had a more grueling project in my life, and I think it's precisely because I do know these pieces so well. A new piece of music is easily gratifying. These old pieces just demanded more of me.
A couple of times, it was 2 a.m., and I was completely exhausted. My back hurt. I said to my engineer Corin, 'We're not getting anywhere here.' Then suddenly the fingers idly began tracing over the strings and there was "Barbara's Song." That's what I was looking for. In "Processional," you look at the structure: verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus. Typically the chorus is the big part. But on "Processional," it just turned around on me and went small. I have no idea why, but I liked it because it was real. These songs actually did push me around.
Were there songs put to tape that ultimately didn't make the cut?
It was tough to let go of "Turtle's Navel." It's my oldest piece that is still around. But it's just too John Fahey. It was important to mention John, Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho in the liner notes. Why include things that are more derivative than they are uniquely mine? We have a master tape of "Turtle's Navel," which is a damn good recording.
"Murray's Song," which is a nothing little song. I was trying to relax one evening and I was close to the tuning, so I changed one string and wound up playing absolutely the best version of "Murray's Song" I've ever played in my life. But I concluded it was not really one of my better compositions and that it didn't deserve to be on the program. I may just offer it for download on my Web site. I love the piece, but it has a slightly jazzy element that doesn't quite fit. It was the last piece we eliminated.
What are your plans for Mary's Tree?
Well, as Windham Hill was, it will be an imprint for Will Ackerman. But we agreed that even with a modicum of success, we should go on with my production sensibilities. I'm producing eight or 10 records a year. I'm working with a woman from the international cast of "Cats" and a brilliant horn player named Jeff Foster. I just finished a project with an Italian guitarist. I'm not only more active but I think I'm far better at it than I ever was. I fully imagine some of the projects will make it into Mary's Tree.
Are your ties severed from Windham Hill as an artist? Also, I'd love to know if there anything in the proverbial "vault" you think would be worthy of release?
As you know, I sold Windham Hill to BMG in 1992. I remained an artist for quite awhile. I offered my services to them as an advisor, but they made their decision to put their stamp on it and proceed without the history of Will Ackerman. It was their call.
Whether there's stuff in the vault, in all honesty, there probably is not a lot. Without question there are tapes that have pieces that didn't make it to George Winston or Michael Hedges records. Does that exist? Yes. Where does it exist? I sure as hell don't know, and I would suspect BMG doesn't know.
We had one of the most active mailing lists in the world, and somehow or other, in the move from Palo Alto to Burbank, the entire mailing list got lost.
I have, in my personal possession, the first demo tape from George Winston. I remember taking it to Germany when Alex DeGrassi and I toured in the fall of 1979 and getting an incredible reaction from people I played it for. There are some keepsake things that mean a tremendous amount to me.
I think that demo tape was recorded on a little six inch-by-eight inch cassette recorder with a built-in microphone. Does it have any application to release? Probably not, but it's still one of the most charming and beautiful things I've listened to. Were somebody to find all those tapes in one place and were you to stick those onto an old analog recorder, you'd definitely find tracks that, with today's editing, we could turn into something really quite lovely.
But if Windham Hill says they want to put out a Will Ackerman retrospective, can you veto it?
As a matter of fact, I think they're in the process of doing that.
I stay in touch with [RCA Victor VP A&R] Larry Hamby, who is a wonderful guy. My old colleague Dawn Atkinson does a lot of the compilations for Windham Hill. I know the plan is to do a retrospective out of BMG as well. But I said, if you do the solo stuff, this new thing is going to kick the living s*** out of it.
There are the pieces, like "Conferring With the Moon" and "Visiting," and the version of "Hawk Circle" with George Winston and Michael Hedges, that stand up brilliantly. But no, I'm certainly not in a position to veto it, nor frankly do I feel I'd want to. If there were two companion projects, with one focusing on solo pieces and one on ensemble work, that sounds ideal to me.
What can people expect from the Winter Solstice shows?
There was a period of time, especially after the sale of Windham Hill, when I just pulled myself out of the musical world too far. It took me nearly seven years to bring out "Sound of Wind Driven Rain," and I was not touring during that period of time. When I came back to it, I'd lost the continuity of touring and had lost my [booking] agency and all the rest. I wound up doing the Winter Solstice tours, but at this point I recognize I need to become more self-sufficient and I'm making moves to get there.
I'm enjoying performance more than ever, and I'm doing Will Ackerman shows again. But I'm not embarrassed by doing the Winter Solstice shows. I'm touring with Liz Story, Samite and David Cullen, who are people I absolutely love and have the greatest respect for.
We do what I call a "flow set." For instance, Liz walks out and does two solos and invites me up for a duet. She leaves, I do a solo, then I invite David Cullen up for a duet. Then Liz comes back for a trio. Samite takes it for a couple of songs, then we do a quartet. These aren't discrete sets; it's very interactive and we're always adding new material. Every soundcheck, there's an addition or change to make. We know each other so well and the mood is so easy. That's the essence of the show.
It seemed like there was a strong camaraderie amongst the artists in the Windham Hill early days.
There was. And while I wouldn't want it to be Windham Hill 2, when you have people like Liz Story or Phil Aaberg available, the idea of tapping into these old friendships for Mary's Tree is not a long shot. You'd want not to be in the business of self-imitation, but I'm not avoiding conversations with those folks about it.
How far back into your catalog are you drawing material for the shows?
The Winter Solstice compilations came about in large part because I hate Christmas music. At home, my father made Christmas about Gregorian chants. I loved that, so I never made the leap to "Jingle Bells." Winston's "December" opened the door for me. It's not a Christmas record, but it conveys the essence and mood of a season. I thought, let's do an album of Christmas music that isn't Christmas music. It was a tremendous success. In the show, we pay homage to pieces like "Greensleeves," which Liz plays. David has a version of "Go Tell It on the Mountain." I'm playing "What Strangers Are These," which is a Scottish carol. We recorded a version of "I Wonder as I Wander" for a Winter Solstice album fairly recently. But the set also includes pieces like "Bricklayer" and/or "Impending Death."
Are you fiddling around with any new material right now?
I have some ideas in progress. I keep a file and a tape recorder at the end of a phone line that I can call at any hour. I have a number of things. David and I were setting up for a show in Cincinnati last year and came up with an incredible chord progression, so we have a demo of that. I have at least five or six ideas that I think are really, really good.
But this summer, I probably spent four times as much time with a chainsaw in my hand as I did a guitar. I cleared a four-acre area on my land to open up a view at the ridge. Very often, I'm doing all the milling too. Every stick of every structure in this compound, which is seven different buildings, is something from this land.
I asked Winston about this a few years ago, but I'd like to get your version. Supposedly, the first night he met you, he was able to play note-for-note versions of your guitar pieces on piano.
I've always thought about the actress opposite Harrison Ford in "Blade Runner," when he explains to her that the pictures she's holding are from a programmed memory. One of the basic tenets of the book I'm writing is how subjective memory is. To the best of my ability, what I remember was that George was at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica when Alex DeGrassi and I played there. He and I had talked on the phone quite a bit by that time. It's my nature to never, ever go to somebody's house and jam, but yet I did it that night.
I'm not sure I played much, but I remember sitting at a small kitchen table and having George bring out a guitar. He played some slide guitar that was just amazing, and I said, "OK, great, you're on the label! Let's do an album of slide guitar." And the quote I remember is him saying, "Do you mind if I play the piano a little bit while you're falling asleep?" I put a blanket over myself on a couch and he started playing transcriptions of some of my music and some of DeGrassi's. If I'm not mistaken, I think he actually played [the iconic DeGrassi guitar solo] "Turning: Turning Back," which was jaw-dropping. He played some Bola Sete, which was the first exposure I had to that music. Then he went into the music that constituted [his eventual Windham Hill debut] "Autumn."
I remember getting up in the morning and saying, "George, what was that stuff?" He drove me to the train station; I was going up to visit a friend in San Luis Obispo. We had a discussion where I said, "You know, I love that slide stuff, but I really think you ought to do a piano record." He wanted to do a guitar record, but he said, "Let's do one side of guitar and one side of piano." Even in my nascent marketing career, I knew that wouldn't work. Somehow or other, ultimately I won out and we did the piano record.
You mentioned that you are working on a book. Can you tell me a little more about it?
[Long pause] Where to begin? A lot of people assume it's a book about Windham Hill. Windham Hill is a big part of my life, but it's not the point of the book.
Some people point out the tremendous discrepancies between various bios of me. The truth is, I was born in Palo Alto, but I have almost no extent memories. This is why "Blade Runner" shook me to my foundation, because it was the first time I realized objectively that I didn't have any memories. I created an entire past out of borrowed bits and pieces.
This is definitely a post-therapy book. I was the product of a liaison between two people who barely knew each other. My biological mother was the daughter of a very wealthy man and was sent to California in shame to give birth to this baby, which she got rid of as fast as humanly possible. I was adopted into a family that on the surface looked just fine. But my mother was a manic depressive who hung herself in the shower when I was 12, and it was I who found her. I was summarily shipped off 3,300 miles away from home the moment my father wanted to get together with somebody else, which was within six months. [Then] I fell right into the arms of a pedophile for many years.
For all of the lovely success and the joy of Windham Hill, there's been this whole subtext to my life that finally... there was just too much self-destructive crap going on and I had to go in and do "the work," as they say. I was lucky enough to find a few teachers that really helped. It's a cornball deal, but this is truly the happiest part of my life.
The book is probably going to begin with writing my bio from 1985 and saying, "Most of this is a lie." It wasn't a lie designed to mislead anyone; it was designed to fill in a blank space in my life. Now, memories are coming back, some horrible, some good.
Here's a guy who has made a career of writing a different song in a different tuning for every record. There are only two songs in the same tuning, and that's "Anne's Song" and "Hawk Circle." The only reason for that is because I was doing a video of "Anne's Song" for Sony back whenever, and I wrote "Hawk Circle" while I was waiting for them to get the lights and sound right.
I was like, "This is nuts. Why do I do this?" But there's a revelatory chapter where I realize what I'm doing is trying to eliminate any intellectual process from writing. I'm creating a new landscape for every song. I can't go to an A-minor chord -- I have to discover the song. It has to be improvisational. The whole point is to go into an alpha state. It's not about thinking or form, but about feeling.
Similarly, I found with this book that any attempt I make to have it adhere to some chronological form is disastrous. I still wrestle with whether I'm just lazy for not putting this into a standard chronological order. But every one of these stories, be it my mother's suicide or my sexual abuse or hearing George Winston for the first time, is all part of the same fabric, and it doesn't make any damn difference what order it comes in.
Life is a hodgepodge in reality and in memory, so the book is likely to be as much of an anarchy as my approach to writing music is.