Jennifer Warnes Interview: Grammy-Winning Artist on First New Album in 17 Years
Image attributed to Jennifer Warnes
Having performed more Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning songs than any other living singer in the history of the Academy Awards including “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” (duet with Bill Medley) and collaborations with numerous artists such as Joe Cocker (“Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman), Leonard Cohen and many more, Jennifer Warnes has always been someone who makes beautifully crafted records with an open heart, unafraid to show emotion and love through her work.
For her first new record in 17 years (The Well, 2001), she releases Another Time, Another Place, with songs that are personal, direct and intimate. Joining Warnes on the album is guitar master Dean Parks, bassist Abe Laboriel, pedal steel great Greg Liesz, keyboard player Jim Cox, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, percussionist Lenny Castro, singer Blondie Chaplin, blues stars Sonny Landreth, Ruthie Foster and more. There are also song choices from songwriters Mickey Newbury, Mark Knopfler, John Legend and Eddie Vedder
“So I was just caught up in that whole thing, unwilling to risk my life for the music industry.”
Another Time, Another Place also reunited Warnes with her co-producer and friend Roscoe Beck, the long-time bass player and musical director for Leonard Cohen. The pair first met touring with Cohen in the 1970s and together made Warnes’ landmark 1987 album Famous Blue Raincoat, as well as 1992’s acclaimed The Hunter.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jennifer, thanks for taking the time today!
Jennifer Warnes: Hi, Melissa. I like your accent. Where are you?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m in Birmingham.
Jennifer Warnes: Alright! My great-great-grandfather delivered Helen Keller in Tuscumbia, Alabama. He was a doctor. After the Civil War, his son came west and decided not to stay where the South had broken down. They finally made it out to Escondido where I shot the cover of this album (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As they say, it’s a small world. You waited so long to release new music. What were you doing for 17 years? (laughs)
Jennifer Warnes: Well, not waiting (laughs). The music business died. I don’t know if you were aware that happened, but I was. The music business, as we knew it, disintegrated over a period of time. All those stores closed, and the majors ate up the small companies. It was just a big old mess, and everybody that I knew that had given their life to music was just shocked. We had no idea what was going on. Of course, the suits weren’t telling us, so it was each man for himself. It was a very, very strange time. In the middle of all that, the Twin Towers came down, my mother passed, and the world changed.
I think that artists waited around for the laws to be passed so that we could get properly paid, and that took another five years with a lot of union lobbying, with Napster and all that. South by Southwest is a good example of how the music business has changed, if you have ever gone to one of those.
So I was just caught up in that whole thing, unwilling to risk my life for the music industry. You know, I’m a survivalist, so I tend to just stand back and watch the carnage before I jump in. It was pretty crazy. Then I had a lot of family issues and losses interrupting life. I just sort of followed the scent of the future not really knowing where it was going. About three or four years ago, I decided to make a record. I’ve been going back and forth to Texas since 2015.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You recorded the entire album in Texas?
Jennifer Warnes: Most of it. We did most of the long hours there, and then we did some short sessions at Capitol in Hollywood. It was a combination of those two places. My co-producer, Roscoe Beck, who produced Famous Blue Raincoat for me, lives in Austin. I moved into his guest house. We pretty much worked together there and finished the record, and I delivered it last November. It came out all over the world at the same time, which I think is pretty cool.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very cool. You’ve called The Well the most honest album of your career. So how would you describe this record?
Jennifer Warnes: I don’t believe The Well is the most honest one looking back. I think it was a record that managed to come out in the midst of all that craziness, so The Well is lucky to be here (laughs). The new one is true to my age and time. It’s very clear, clean and well recorded. I’ve learned how to make records that way. Have you heard it?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, and enjoy it very much. “So Sad” is my favorite.
Jennifer Warnes: Thank you. It’s mine, too. Yeah. It has the magic. It’s a great song. I knew Mickey Newbury who wrote it. He was a fabulous tenor, a beautiful singer like Roy Orbison, just an unusual throat and a great songwriter who led the way for Kristofferson and many of the guys from Nashville that became famous. Mickey was just a special guy, and he had a real belligerent, rebel attitude that got him in trouble in Nashville. So he had a cynical side that I understood. “So Sad” kind of sounds like him talking. He could make you really sad and really happy at the same time (laughs).
But as far as I know, Mickey was kicked out of Nashville for putting nature sounds on his records. He was accused of being a hippie because he put “rain” on his records. He couldn’t care less what people thought, and he didn’t conform at a time when they needed him to conform, so he was run out of the pack. I talked to him at the end of his life. He was living in Oregon and kind of sad.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When did you first know that you wanted to get into the music business?
Jennifer Warnes: Probably about age five or seven. I had the little diary with the lock and key, and it said, “I want to be the greatest singer in the whole wide world.” (laughs) So it started real early. I sang for PTAs and church and county fairs. I joined the union when I was 14 and did musical theater.
When my hippie friends would gather and say they were worried because they didn’t know what to do with their lives, I just stayed quiet because I didn’t want to upset anybody by saying that I had no doubt what I wanted to do for my life’s work. And I still feel that, but it’s a little bit harder now (laughs). But 50 years later, that’s all I’ve actually done. I think I did have a job making hamburgers once when I was 17 or 18.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did your parents feel about you wanting to make music for a living?
Jennifer Warnes: My father passed when I was 11, but my mother was 100% the wind beneath my wings, just totally there for me. I was a little cross-eyed child, not a good dancer, kind of gawky. But when I sang, the old ladies would cry. So my mom figured if she gave me a little bit of support, this would be a path for me. She was right. She was an amazing person, a wonderful person.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You performed more Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning songs than any other living singer and become the in-demand singer for film soundtracks. Was that a conscious effort on your part?
Jennifer Warnes: There are two ways of looking at that. One is, I never had a Colonel Parker management. I didn’t have a manager. I had a plan. I pretty much followed, if a job was offered to me, and I liked the challenge and could learn something, I would take it irrespective of the pay because I was trying to be the best. I was trying to learn as much as I could possibly learn about singing, but there’s no place to go to learn these things except through the jobs that are offered to you.
Randy Newman gave me Ragtime because he knew my work. We had performed together at the Troubadour. That was either the first one or the second one. I can’t remember. Then there was the theme from Norma Rae. The people who were hiring me knew my work, so it wasn’t planned at all. I was doing other things in between.
It’s more difficult for a woman in my era, as you probably know. Very few women had the luxury of choosing what they wanted to do. They did what’s coming down the road, and if it’s in the road, it’s yours to take. I did pretty much do that. If I got an offer and it was reasonable, I would just take it and figure out a way to make it work unless it was offensive, then I wouldn’t take it. But I took singing in front, singing in back and singing behind the camera, anything that worked to learn how to do this better. So the career just came.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were touring with Leonard Cohen in 1970?
Jennifer Warnes: Yes, ’71.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did he help shape your career path?
Jennifer Warnes: Well, as it turns out, I had been a regular on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour prior to that, so I had national acceptance as a hippie chick prior to the Cohen tour. I was invited to open for another famous pop musician, but I declined because I wanted to sing backgrounds with Leonard Cohen to learn about his work. As a result of that, Warner Bros. dropped me because they thought I didn’t have enough ambition. So I went and did the work. I was working with Leonard on the side, and I had “Right Time of the Night” during that period.
I don’t think that he gave me my path. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I think my contribution to Famous Blue Raincoat helped him quite a bit. I think that record lifted him up quite a bit. At one point, I was getting ready to leave Arista Records, and I said, “I don’t know what to do with myself. Can I go out on the road with you again?” Leonard said, “It wouldn’t be good for you because you’ve had all these number one hits. Don’t do it.” I said, “I really need to write. I’d love to write on the bus, and I’d like to go.” He said, “Okay, then come.” We held each other up depending on the situation as years went by. There were a lot of opportunities to be a friend, so I think that’s more of what it was.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You know, I’ll have to ask. Who’s your favorite duet partner?
Jennifer Warnes: (laughs) Hmm. Well, I’d better not say the first two. It’s the next one that’s coming that’ll be a bit of a stretch for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) Very diplomatic.
Jennifer Warnes: I like voices, and I like the engines inside of people. I really love the art singing a duet with somebody. It’s like sharing a trapeze. It’s really an exciting art form, and if you’re working with somebody who’s a great musician and a super personality, it’s nothing but fun.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You said you always knew you’d sing with Joe Cocker.
Jennifer Warnes: Yeah. I always knew I would. But then my school bus was driving by the Flamingo nightclub in 1962 or 1963 when the Righteous Brothers were playing there, and we used to laugh about it. We’d say, It’s 6:00 in the morning, and the cars are still in the parking lot. It was an all night place that I wasn’t allowed to go into, so I think there was some karma involved with both those guys.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your voice blends so well with Bill Medley. I think that’s my favorite.
Jennifer Warnes: Is it? Did you see the NFL with the ad that had the song? Wasn’t that great? I’ve often wondered why the record was accepted so much. I think it’s because it’s just joyful.
Melissa Parker(Smashing Interviews Magazine): When will you write a juicy tell-all memoir, Jennifer?
Jennifer Warnes: (laughs) Somebody else has got to write that. You know, I’m really pretty old-fashioned in that I’m a workaholic, and I’ve worked pretty much nonstop every year. Now that I’m getting older, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. We get the afternoon to ourselves. This is great.” So I’m not sure I have that much juicy stuff to tell.
I mean, I was there, and any woman that was there saw a great deal. It was a time. In the music business, so much was unhappy stuff that I’m disinclined to tell all those stories. It’s a waste of good paper.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you politically outspoken?
Jennifer Warnes: No. I can’t be. I’d ruin my career if I was (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): These are strange times.
Jennifer Warnes: These are extremely strange times, and the world is extremely distressed. My area is emotion. That’s what I do. I make sounds, and I make emotion. I hopefully do it in such a way that it liberates other people’s feelings. I think that’s a real job. I don’t think it necessarily gives me the right to tell people how to live.
But, I personally, am grieved over what’s happening to America, deeply grieved, and I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t have those feelings these days for not just America but for the world. I feel depressed most days and anxious most days, and I don’t want to turn on the television most days. What we grew up with was so much more of a real serious purpose of being an American and having a strong patriotism. I’m just so conflicted.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of not wanting to turn on the TV, Vietnam was the first “television war.”
Jennifer Warnes: Yeah. When I graduated in 1965, a great handful of fellows I grew up with went to Vietnam. Then in the next five to ten years, thousands of guys of marrying age were out of commission. That empowered women in that time to get up and start doing something because our dreams were not happening. It made a lot of women very strong real fast. I feel like those are the people I want to talk to at 70.
I’m fascinated by the women who took the reins at that time because it was the first time it ever happened like that, and we lost so many men. It changed everything. It changed the gender balance, and now it’s fully changed. I’m glad for the equality, but boy, it was turbulent. Extremely turbulent.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You made your own important contributions to that time in music.
Jennifer Warnes: Well, I think to not be dead, to not be an alcoholic, having contributed something of value that will last a little bit, is a lot.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you spend your time when you’re notworking?
Jennifer Warnes: I left Los Angeles to be with my family. I had three sisters. I have one now. I have a brother and all their children. So I’m an active aunt, and I love that. I really love it. The kids are beautiful, and they’re inheriting such a broken world, it’s heartwarming to see that they have a spine. I do everything I can to share what I know and empower them as much as possible.
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