Producer Larry Klein has been a Grammy Awards mainstay over the past two decades. He has won four Grammys, including 1996’s best pop album for Joni Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo, 2001’s best traditional pop vocal album for Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, and two awards in 2008 (album of the year and best contemporary jazz album) for Herbie Hancock’s Mitchell project River: The Joni Letters.
He’s also been nominated three times for best producer honors, including this year for his impressive 2017-2018 albums by a range of eclectic artists, including singer-songwriter Madeleine Peyroux, jazz artist/vocalist Luciana Souza, Austin jazz singer Hailey Tuck, Canadian vocalist Molly Johnson and Norwegian singer-songwriter Thomas Dybdahl. (Also nominated for best producer are Boi-1da, Linda Perry, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams.) Klein also produced actor Jeff Goldblum’s recent debut jazz album The Capitol Studio Sessions.
Based in Los Angles, Klein’s stock has risen over the years not just because of his success in the studio, but also since he’s a musician himself (bass) who is open to the artistic intuition of his clients. “One of the great things of your job as a producer is that there are changes at every turn,” he says. “You learn from the artist what is needed and how to bring that about. Sometimes I’ll co-write and if there are blank spots work on arrangements to present the songs. Some artists have no ideas, so you need to be an auteur.”
Billboard spoke to Klein—married to Mitchell from 1982-94 and now married to Souza 2006-present—about his life in music and the art of producing.
You had an impressive start as a band member in L.A., first with Willie Lobo who then introduced you to jazz icon Freddie Hubbard for your first touring gig. What was it like working with Freddie and what did he teach you about producing?
Freddie was two distinct people. The good part, Dr. Jekyll, was wonderful, obviously a music genius. He was one of my heroes. I learned how he allowed his bands to have a lot of latitude, to try fresh things, to play to your highest level every night. On the other side, after consuming a combination of substances, he would turn into a different person. I learned to get out of the way when I could see it coming. But I began to tire of the technical acrobatics in the jazz world. It felt like a cheap drug just to get applause and attention. I grew up a music omnivore. I consumed every type of music. I got obsessed with jazz in high school, but at a certain point, even playing with my music heroes, I got tired of the narrow thinking. And I’d be nine months on the road, so I decided to be a studio musician.
What was that like and were you successful?
I learned to use the studio as an instrument, to see the architecture of ideas and the arranging parts. I worked with Robbie Robertson, Neil Diamond, B.B. King and some film dates like Raging Bull. I dove into that world. I incorporated and exercised everything I had learned under one umbrella and that was being a record producer—someone who played an active role helping the artist, filling out weaknesses, helping to establish the sound and shape of a record.
Joni was really your first start. What was that like starting off as a bassist on one of her albums and then becoming her co-producer?
I worked with her on Wild Things Run Fast . Three or four songs were written. It was a great deal to hear a monitor mix when tracking and then amazing to hear her shepherd the final product to the end. It piqued my curiosity. I started learning the other pieces and was working on the puzzle to get the job done well. In her sense of humor, Joni credited me as her sonic consultant. I had never met a woman like her. We would talk for six hours about the arts, philosophy, music history. Joni was a very deep musical thinker. She always had 20 ideas for anything, and I had to help her think through how to develop three of the 20.
You worked together on Dog Eat Dog  which was a rocking electronic departure for her with Thomas Dolby, who was a pop star at the time. How did that turn out?
I worked with my friend Mike Shipley to produce it with Joni as well as Thomas. We had heard his album The Flat Earth after his breakthrough hit, “She Blinded Me With Science,” and Joni was craving change. She wanted something different. We wanted Thomas to help with the keyboards and synthesizers as a technician, but it became something more. It was a difficult proposition. Joni became angry and became very vitriolic about what happened.
What did you learn from Joni about producing that you carry with you today?
The most important thing was maintaining a high spirit in the studio while recording. My job was multifaceted, and I had to learn when to say things and how to say them when I felt we weren’t getting to the center of a song.
How did you start branching out?
I was asked to come to London to produce an album by the bassist/vocalist Benjamin Orr of the Cars [The Lace, 1986]. I worked with Mike Shipley. While I was there people would call me to do session work like Peter Gabriel for his album So. I was always splitting my time between Joni’s albums and other people.
One of your biggest successes came with River: The Joni Letters. Were you surprised?
Are you kidding me? Album of the year. We never expected that. It was great going through all of Joni’s music with Herbie Hancock. The thing is he liked the music but didn’t listen to the words. Herbie and Wayne Shorter and the guys were used to coming into the studio, playing a song once and being ready to take on another. But I would have to say, remember the lyrics. I had to direct them every day in the studio to really listen to the poetry. Then we’d do more takes. It was great for Herbie, the last of the incredible breed of jazz musician, who already occupies a place on Olympus.
You’ve been busy lately. How do you choose who to produce?
When I meet someone about potential work, I try to feel out what is special about the writing, the persona that compels me. Then I try to assess the burning fire and intuitively make that a bigger part of the picture. For example, Madeleine Peyroux. First off, she’s a tremendous talent and almost a total intuitive. I don’t think she really understands what she does as a singer or musician, but she has the capacity to get the magic. The best things I can do for Maddie is help her to stop thinking. When she sings and plays her guitar, great things happen. When we first started working together, she said she wanted to be a songwriter. We started slow so that by the time she recorded her third album, Bare Bones, nearly all the songs were written by her. She’s super smart.
What’s it been like working with Luciana?
What makes it work so incredibly rewarding is the depth of her musicianship. She’s tremendously talented and has like a creative engine inside her that’s always working on developing ideas, like in the last album [The Book of Longing]. We talk about the music before, and once in the studio it’s a symbiotic process, going back and forth in the development of the structure and arrangements. I give my opinion and she responds if it feels right for her. If not, we continue to confer.
How did you get involved with the Jeff Goldblum jazz recording?
Jeff made an appearance on The Graham Norton Show in Britain and did a duet with [jazz vocalist] Gregory Porter on the song “Mona Lisa.” People there lost their minds with how good it was. Decca UK asked me to go to the L.A. club Rockwell where Jeff did a show every Wednesday. I went with a degree of skepticism. But I absolutely loved it. It was a combination of music and spontaneous interaction with the audience. Jeff was erudite, smart, funny, odd in the way his mind worked. He played old bebop, jazz from late ‘50s and early ‘60s Blue Note records. He’s not a virtuoso, but he does have an angular take. I told Decca he wouldn’t compete in the same category of jazz now, but it could be like general admission ticket to jazz for people who don’t follow it. To capture the feel of his Rockwell shows, I built a jazz club in Capitol Studio with drinks and food. It drew an oddly eclectic audience: regulars from Rockwell, young women wanting to listen to a Hollywood hipster, tourists, but very few jazz fans. I think this is a great thing for jazz. Its fun concept has fallen along the wayside. I know some jazz purists took offense on social media that Jeff was taking up space that should be reserved for more serious jazz artists. But that’s defensive, unproductive and plain nonsense. My optimism is that Jeff might make people more curious about jazz.
What new projects are you working on now?
I’m working with a new artist from Portugal. Neev is a young guy in his mid-twenties and is influenced by hip-hop, the singer-songwriter tradition, bigger sounds like Pink Floyd. He’s assimilated a number of different areas. He’s like a Portuguese Prince. Then there’s an orchestral album with Melody Gardot who is using her previously written jazz songs. And then I just finished recording a project for Universal France on the songs written by Jacques Brel who for the French is like a combination of Sondheim, Dylan and Sinatra. He tackled a lot of difficult and dark subjects in the context of France and had an incredible eye on what was happening in culture. I worked with a cross section of French artists and honorary French like Madeleine and Melody as well as Marianne Faithfull, who lives in Paris now, to sing “Port of Amsterdam.” I wanted to show how Jacques was an iconoclast way ahead of his time.