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© Henry Diltz
“I don’t think I was very good when I started out," says Linda Ronstadt with astonishing frankness. The legendary vocalist, whose catalogue of '70s recordings, an impeccable blend of country-tinged, R&B-flavored pop-rock that showcased such emerging songwriters as J.D. Souther, Warren Zevon, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, and caught the mainstream by the scruff of the neck, makes it clear that she is not one for self-serving hyperbole.
"I’ve never been happy with the quality of my work," she says. "I always felt as though my musicianship was lacking and that I should have worked harder at it when I was younger. As I sang and sang, I improved."
In Ronstadt's view, she started to find her true voice after 1980's new-wavish Mad Love and later that year when she tackled the demanding role of Mabel in Joseph Papp's production of The Pirates Of Penzance. She would continue to flex her vocal muscles on groundbreaking recordings that spanned every conceivable genre: the big band songbook of Nelson Riddle, traditional Mexican folk, jazz, Afro-Cuban, Cajun – nothing seemed outside her reach.
Ronstadt traces her creative journey in exacting detail in a just-released book, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, and much like the way she regards her recorded work, she says that the writing process was one of evolution and discovery. "I started writing, and I got better," she explains. "I’d never written before. I couldn’t even make an outline – I thought it was hopeless. So I started at the beginning, and because I knew what happened next, one thing led to the next. And I decided to focus on the music because that’s the only thing worth sharing, really.”
Ronstadt sat down with MusicRadar recently to talk about Simple Dreams and to share her reflections of music making in the '70s. Additionally, she discussed the state of her health – prior to the book's publication, she disclosed that she's been battling Parkinson's disease and has lost her ability to sing.
As you point out, you focused on the music in your book. But did you ever consider weaving more personal relationship stories into the narrative? Not the dirt per se, the usual sex and drugs thing…
“I just decided to write a book about the music, that’s all. To me, that’s the only thing that’s interesting. If people want that sort of thing, there’s other books out there [laughs]. My goal was to put down my musical observations. People have often written about me, that I did this for this reason and that for that reason, and they’re usually 98 percent wrong.
“The idea that I would make any of these decisions and make certain records as career moves is ridiculous. They were terrible career moves. [Laughs] But my manager and my record company, to their credit, helped me carry out my whims once they saw that I was determined to do it. The Mexican songs that I was getting and the American standards songs that I loved to sing were mostly better than what I was being offered in contemporary mainstream pop at the time.”
You established yourself early on as an interpreter of other people’s songs. Did you ever try to write more of your own material?
“Songwriting wasn’t my gift. I think you have to cultivate a gift; you have to practice and develop craft around your gift it so that you can execute it in more convenient, efficient ways. I just didn’t wake up and say, ‘I’ve got to write a song.’ Jackson Browne wakes up and writes a song down on a napkin – that was his gift. I used to live with J.D Souther, and I would watch him write. He’s be sitting, he’d say something, and then he’s write it down. That’s craft.”