Return of The Hunter: Jennifer Warnes Takes Us to Another Time, Another Place

Photos: Herclayheart

Some vocalists turn everything they sing into pure audio gold. One such vocalist is Jennifer Warnes, who brings originality, style, and grace to everything her voice touches. Best known in audiophile circles for her compassionate takes on the top-shelf material found on 1987’s Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen and 1992’s The Hunter, Warnes took a 17-year break from recording after her last album, 2001’s The Well. Now she’s back in the saddle with the just-released Another Time, Another Place (BMG). Her readings of Eddie Vedder’s consolatory “Just Breathe,” Mark Knopfler’s tender “Why Worry,” Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle’s version of the ’30s standard “I See Your Face Before Me,” and the Derek Trucks Band’s down-home groover “Back Where I Started,” as well as heartfelt originals like “The Boys and Me,” once again remind us why Warnes is the top song interpreter of the modern era.

Warnes doesn’t take the sharing of her skills for granted, either. “Music is a gift. I give this music to you, and in return, you give me an hour of your time,” she believes. “That’s a sacred interaction between strangers who, in many cases, will never meet, but you have an intimate, soulful sharing that happens. And that has to be respected. I think a lot about that, in fact.”

Warnes, 71, and I got on the line to discuss the meticulous process she goes through in making her song choices, her special relationship with Cohen, and why she feels her voice continues to resonate with her listeners. I’ll chase away those restless fears. . .

Mike Mettler: To me, “Just Breathe” and “Why Worry” are the perfect bookends for the overall intent of this album. I feel like you’re putting your audio arms around us, patting us on the head, and saying, “It’s ok. Things are going to be alright.” But you also have to live life to be able to do certain songs proper justice. “Just Breathe” has a certain weight to it you couldn’t have given it at age 25, for example.
Jennifer Warnes: That’s exactly right, Mike. That’s exactly right. And [my repertoire agent] Mary Martin, who’s my age or a few years older, said, “Keep it personal. Whatever you do, keep it personal.” I tried to do that, and I found it was hard to do. There are a lot of superficial songs that are fun to sing, but there are very few that rang true to my place in life at this time.

Mettler: Do you feel because you and your producer, Roscoe Beck, know each other so well there’s some sort of intuitive interplay when you’re in the studio together? Do you even need to verbalize some of the things you’re working on, where it all just happens organically?
Warnes: Absolutely! Yeah, and I’ve known Roscoe forever. We’re very close, and we just trust. We hear music in the same way and we feel music in a similar way, so we trusted the creative process, which took many twists and turns. And if both of us wrinkle our noses and go, “That’s not very good,” then we know it’s not good! (laughs heartily)

Mettler: You two also have that comfort level where you can be honest enough with each other to be able to say, “We’re not quite there yet. Let’s keep going.”
Warnes: Very honest. It’s nothing if not completely honest.

Mettler: Is there one track you felt you had to chip away at to meet your approval? How do you know when you hit on the right note?
Warnes: It’s not unlike writing. It’s not unlike all the other artforms. There are periods where you feel it’s taking you, and periods were you’re taking it. It’s a very organic, beautiful process.

But as far as what made the cut, we had no idea what we were going to do when we got together in the studio, as much as we enjoy it. We started calling friends, Mary Martin in particular, asking for songs. Leon Russell sent me a beautiful song, but it just wasn’t right for my voice.

Some beautiful submissions came through, but what I noticed was (slight pause) . . . nobody thought like me. Very few people were expressing what I wanted to express at this time of my life. It was quite difficult. I found great, great songs other people might sing, and a lot of great songs some super-singers I know could sing.

But for me, I wanted it to be personal and true, so we had to try a lot. And luckily enough, the music community in Austin is supportive of the things Roscoe and I do. I was living in the back of his house and people would come over, and we’d just try things. Whatever stuck, stuck, and whatever didn’t, didn’t. Eventually, we had about 20 songs we were really excited about, and then we had to narrow it down to 10.

Bernie Grundman is a big part of it too. Mastering has changed quite a bit since my first record, but Bernie is my great educator, and has been a great mentor since my very first record. I just don’t want to work with anybody other than Bernie. He teaches me. He helps me learn. He helped me learn how to listen when I was 18. We’re about the same age, Bernie and I, and he’s mastered just about everything, so we have a language together. Sometimes, when I have changes, I only have to call them in; I don’t even have to be there. Though, for the first couple of days, I’m always there in person.

Mettler: Is there one “lesson” from this album worth mentioning? Something Bernie heard that you didn’t, or something the two of you discussed sonically?
Warnes: Hmm, no. I wish I could be more specific about that, because mastering is so amorphous. It’s something that’s “in the air” — it’s not an engineering question. Mastering is about personal likes. Roscoe, Bernie, and I have pretty much evolved our listening from the start of digital. We’ve learned how to listen. The only variable at this juncture is whatever new gear Bernie has.

We know we all love human, warm, heart-centered sounds, and we dislike crackly, harsh, intrusive sounds. My gift, other than singing, is with mixing. And I would never, ever allow anyone to mix who doesn’t respect the way I hear music.

Mettler: If I don’t feel your intent as the singer, then I’m not getting into it. For example, when you’re giving us a story like you do in “I Am The Big Easy,” I believe every line that the word “I” is in. I feel you’re embodying it, even though you aren’t specifically from New Orleans. The inflection you put on each line gives it that weight.
Warnes: Yeah! That’s an emotional art, that’s not sonic.

Mettler: True, but if it’s not recorded properly, then I won’t get that emotional intent.
Warnes: Well, Roscoe and I have been close since he was 26 [circa 1980-81], so he knows what my voice sounds like in all situations — even when I’m talking, or ordering Chinese food! (both laugh) He knows what my voice sounds like when I cry or when I’m touched, so when I sing in his studio for an hour, he puts it all together because he knows what’s real. He knows what a lie sounds like, and what truth sounds like. And that’s something only someone close to you could do. Otherwise, I’d have to sit with an engineer and go over every little thing.

During my upbringing, all of the women in our family — mom, grandmom, sisters — gathered in our kitchen to talk into the night, and the nursery was right next to the kitchen. My growing-up years are nothing but the sounds of women’s voices, expressing all the stories of the family in all various tones and colors. Mother used to say whenever she looked into the nursery, I was always awake. I was always listening.

That’s all in me, and Roscoe appreciates that, so he knows how to preserve all that when we’re recording. We do spend a lot of time getting the right mikes, and all that. He’s quite articulate. A lovely, soft-spoken, thoughtful Texan.

Mettler: Speaking of Texans, I also liked hearing Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar playing on your rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” [the first track on the aforementioned Famous Blue Raincoat].
Warnes: That was an amazing day.

Mettler: I’m sure it was! The line goes, “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin,” and I also feel Moscow should be mentioned in there somewhere. I don’t think Leonard would have objected to that, do you?
Warnes: (laughs heartily) I don’t think he would! But we’ll have to wait to get the answer. But, yeah, he’s around. His presence is still very much around.

Mettler: He’s somewhere up in the ether, yeah. [Cohen passed away at age 82 in 2016. Besides cutting Famous Blue Raincoat, Warnes also toured with Cohen in 1972 and 1979, and sang background vocals on a number of his albums between 1972 and 2012.] At one point, you put it that you were his “conduit.” What a great connection you two had.
Warnes: Oh, thank you. I felt that that was a calling for me. Otherwise, I might not have departed from my career to do something like that, if I didn’t feel like I knew how to tell his story.

Mettler: It’s also interesting since you grew up around a lot of female storytellers, but could so perfectly interpret what Leonard had written. A lot of times you’re singing in a character’s voice to match the tone of the song, and that’s you as the storyteller being able to get that point across.
Warnes: Well, thank you, I appreciate that. Leonard was a great writer.

Mettler: You’ve been able to take the reins and turn many of those songs into your own. I’m sure there are some listeners who may not even realize some of these songs are not yours, but his.
Warnes: That’s a really interesting point, because the separation of writer, singer, producer, arranger — those separations that we create are created because of business. It’s necessary to find out who to pay for what. But in the world of art, no one cares, really. They just want to be touched. There’s a whole group of people who listen to my music who don’t care who wrote it. Of course, the writers all do (chuckles), but I live in that place where we are all one. Sorry to be so clichéd, but the emotion belongs to all of us.

Mettler: When Rob Wasserman’s Duets record came out in 1988, “Ballad of the Runaway Horse” was something I kept putting the needle back on. I only knew of it through your voice, and I wasn’t even thinking too hard about the fact that Leonard had written it.
Warnes: Ohhhh, I love that! I think it’s a great track. Thank you, I love it. The story is, Leonard came over to my house after a two- or three-week Sesshin, which is a silent period in the Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy. [Cohen was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1986, and later spent a good bit of the 1990s in seclusion at the Zen Center on Mount Baldy.] He came down and said, “You gotta hear this song I just wrote.” He based it on the Ten Bulls and some short poems by Paul Reps, a little book about the elusiveness of enlightenment. It’s personified as a bull the monk finally rides into town, but he loses the bull many times.

Leonard sang this song for me in my West Hollywood house, and I had never heard anything so beautiful. At the time it was called “Ballad of the Runaway Horse,” because he had changed the gender. It was just so lovely — and I told him so, of course. And he said, “It’s a cowboy song, isn’t it?” (both laugh)

And that was him. He had such a beautiful, complex soul, and he was adapting the ideas of Paul Reps since he’d been sitting in silence and chasing it in his own mind, but he did it in the context of a two- or three-chord cowboy song. I remember that night vividly — how impressed I was at his prowess.

Mettler: At first, I took it as just an incredible collaboration between you the singer and Rob’s incredible upright bass playing. The two of you working on that song together was just something else.
Warnes: Yeah. I love bass players. They don’t occupy the same sonic space I do, so we’re both completely free. I do if I’m singing with a piano, because it’s too percussive. Singers who sing with pianos often scream! (chuckles) They’re playing against themselves. It’s that part of the air that’s occupied by two people, and there’s too much going on up there.

Mettler: Do you feel the same way with certain guitar players, in terms of that vocal/instrumental push/pull?
Warnes: That’s why this new album is more “clean,” because I don’t like those little bumper-car trainwrecks.

Mettler: You do work around some terrific slide guitar work on “I Am The Big Easy.”
Warnes: Yes, and that’s Sonny Landreth who’s playing that slide. And there’s another song where Greg [Leisz] and Dean [Parks] spar on, called “Back Where I Started.”

Mettler: That’s right, they do it with those great two Resonator guitars in that stereo-panned duel going on back and forth between the channels.
Warnes: We put Dean in a booth upstairs at Capitol [Studios], which is kind of like an attic (chuckles), and Greg was downstairs, because we wanted to isolate them. They were talking back and forth. It was a really fun day.

Mettler: That comes across in the mix, though the best sounding track on the album to me is “So Sad,” with the brush drums that open it up, helping to give it an overall sense of space. It’s a classic “less is more” kind of track, with the pedal steel acting as a nice counter. It gives you the bed to play off of, vocally. And it didn’t even feel like a six-minute song.
Warnes: Wow, you’re reading my mind here — you really listened! Thank you. Yeah, I agree! I really love the drummer on that track, John Ferraro, who’s primarily a jazz guy. I hadn’t worked with him before, but if you listen to him on that track, he is absolutely solid. And he only plays a few little noises.

Mettler: As you know, our audiophile universe uses a number of your albums as templates — Famous Blue Raincoat (1987) and The Hunter (1992) especially. Do you have a sense of why that is?
Warnes: I’ve gone to a couple of the big trade-show gatherings a couple of times, but I really don’t know why. Well, I think I understand what a woman’s voice is, and that element is a mystery to the gear makers. They want to know what’s happening in a woman’s voice, and that’s why Julie London, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, and the other audiophile favorites are well-used.

Mettler: That’s interesting. Is it something a male listener is trying to “discover,” or doesn’t know much about?
Warnes: Well, every male was once a child, listening to his mother! (chuckles) And that’s also when he was pre-verbal, so there’s something in the sound of the mother that’s primal. The sound of a female rings a deeper bell than digital technology can capture.

Mettler: I’ve often said every person is born with some sense of rhythm, because the first thing anyone hears in the womb is a heartbeat.
Warnes: It’s also in how we walk. Walking is rhythm. Walking to the bus stop — it’s a rhythmic event.

Mettler: That plays into some of the mysticism certain songwriters like Bob Dylan talk about as well — where there’s this open wave that you can receive information from, and whether you can interpret it musically or not is the key.
Warnes: That’s right, that’s right. It’s the same thing that happens to Leonard [Cohen] in meditation. It’s on a wave, and it either comes, or it doesn’t.

Mettler: The “h” sound in “Why Worry” is so clearly enunciated as “h-Why “h-Worry,” and we also hear you sing “h-When” elsewhere. Are you conscious of doing it that way?
Warnes: No, no no. The time to think about your voice is when you’re vocalizing — you know, when you’re warming up. You shouldn’t be thinking about your voice when you’re singing. You should be thinking about what you feel.

Mettler: Do you ever go back and say you don’t think you got it, depending on the take?
Warnes: I don’t get to decide which take it is. Roscoe gets to do that. What I do is, I’m the witness in my own heart of whether I’m telling the truth or not. And that’s all I do. I make sure that, no matter what’s going on in the room, or what happened to me that day, or what fears and insecurities I bring to a song — that when I finally get to it, I just go for the truth. I go to the absolute truth, whatever is there.

And, like you said, it really is a wave. And sometimes, the boat goes along with the current really nicely.

Mettler: Did you find there were certain times you didn't sing the truth? Could you tell?
Warnes: When I was starting out, I sang a bunch of crap! (MM laughs) I did it to make money, and that’s what young artists have to do. When you’re 20, you’ve gotta do what’s in front of you.

I made horrible mistakes. Lots and lots and lots of them. I’m glad they’re not all that accessible by the fans. but I’ve heard a few of them too, yeah, thanks to the Internet! (chuckles) But if you stay on your game long enough, you find what you came into this world to talk about.