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  • Zoe Elton


Maureen and Zoë Talk About Hal Willner

We’ve been thinking about Hal Willner, Maureen and I. What a talent. And one whose talents were celebrated in one of Mill Valley Film Festival’s most extraordinary evenings, created by Clare Wasserman and Stephanie Clarke, in 1990. Maureen has put together a playlist of his work: and, really, it’s a testament to how eclectic and innovative he was. He had such an astute ear, and his collaborations both with artists and the composers whose work he produced and, often, re-conceived, is an amazing legacy. The scope of who he was and what he created isn’t done justice by the title “music producer”.

Here’s a phone conversation we had about him.

Zoë: So, Hal Willner. I mean, music producer: is that enough of a title for him? It doesn't even begin, does it, to describe-

Maureen: I don't think so, no. He had such an ability to bring people together that you would never think would be together. He had such a knack for ... I don't even know what the word for it is.

Zoë: Well, he's like a catalyst. But I think-

Maureen: He is like a catalyst, you're right.

Zoë: But he's also like a matchmaker.

Maureen: Yep.

Zoë: I think the amazing thing is that he would bring together people from this crazy, wide spectrum of musical backgrounds to do these extraordinary concept albums. Of course, that's where I first know him from, not from Saturday Night Live.

Maureen: I think I was aware of him from Saturday Night Live, because I was a big watcher. I think he did that for what, 40 years, something like that? But then I did become aware of his concept albums, which were really interesting and creative, weren't they?

Zoë: Yes! Lost in the Stars was the first one I heard. He’d done the Nino Rota album before that and I think a couple of others. But I've always been a big Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht fan—I directed a production of The Threepenny Opera in London, a milestone moment for me—and that just completely blew me away. I mean, Sting doing “Mack the Knife”!

Maureen: I have that on the playlist.

Zoë: Oh, great! Then, there’s Marianne Faithfull's “Ballad of the Soldier's Wife.”

Maureen: Well, I am a huge Marianne Faithfull fan. I've always been a huge Marianne Faithfull fan. I remember when he produced her album with “Broken English” and “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” that was just genius. She just was reinvented from that point on. She was no more an ingénue and she was a total, like—a chanteuse. It was fabulous.

Zoë: Well, I almost feel that he was the person who saved her, certainly in terms of her music. Especially the Lost in the Stars thing, having her do something from Brecht and Weill is so perfect. I mean, it's in her heritage—I think her mother knew Brecht and Weill, she has that whole heritage. But she went from that sweet little girl voice into that raspy Broken English voice, that was born out of years of all sorts of drugs and stuff, and created a completely different voice and a completely different persona. I feel that from the Lost in the Stars album onwards, it was almost like Hal was guiding her to the place that she needed to go.

Maureen: I agree. I think she was very fond of him. I would think they remained close until ... I think she came out with some kind of a statement after he died. I think she was quite close to him and felt that she ... I think they just had a close relationship.

Zoë: Yeah.

Maureen: I love his pirate album that he did, his shanty tunes.

Zoë: Oh, that one I don't know. Tell me about it.

Maureen: Oh, well, okay, first of all, he's got Shane MacGowan in there from The Pogues singing “Leaving of Liverpool.”

Zoë: Oh, I love that song.

[Note: At this point, it’s all I can do not to burst into full-throated song.]

Maureen: He has a Ricky Jay song. He's got Ricky Jay doing a song. He's got Tim Robbins on there and he's got the aforementioned Iggy Pop song, which we will not include on my playlist... It's just a little too saucy. He just was so good at so many different things.

Zoë: Yeah.

Maureen: Of course, I love his use of Nick Cave. I didn't realize that he had actually produced the Lawless soundtrack.

Zoë: Oh, right.

Maureen: Well, Nick Cave wrote and did the music for The Proposition, that he did all the music for Lawless and Hal Willner produced that album, and it's just genius. There's a beautiful Emmylou Harris song on there. It's just absolutely stand out. He was amazing. I don't think there's anybody like him right now in the music world. He was an original.

Zoë: He was a complete original. I mean, wasn’t he really the person who created that whole concept album kind of thing? Honestly, my favorite is Stay Awake, the Disney songs. Oh God. I mean, anyone who can put Yma Sumac singing Disney, alongside Ringo Starr doing “When You Wish Upon a Star” and Tom Waits doing “Heigh-Ho”. But my favorite, you know which one my favorite is, right?

Maureen: That Bonnie Raitt song.

Zoë: Oh God. “Baby Mine.”

Maureen: I know. I was unable to find Yma Sumac's song on Spotify. I was disappointed about that, but I do have Tom Waits, I have Aaron Neville. I've got a few songs on there from that album, it's great. I mean, it's just fabulous.

Zoë: Yeah.

Maureen: Yeah, Tom Waits is wonderful. And James Taylor does a song on there too. Sinead O'Connor sings “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

Zoë: Talk about matchmaking. That to me was just one of the most poignant, wacky, wily kind of pairings that you could ever wish to hear in your life, right?

Maureen: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, he was like a matchmaker, you're absolutely right. I love that. There's just the unexpected in some of his productions, he was just really ... I don't know. I was wondering to myself, did he stay awake at night thinking about music and these pairings? I just don't know.

Zoë: No, I think he had a gift from the gods, and boy, he used it. But of course as you know, we were lucky enough, thanks to Clare and Stephanie, to have him at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 1990, where they did this extraordinary evening that took place at the Marin Theatre Company. I don't know how many seats that theater is, but I would guess it's around 250, something like that. But to see the people who were on stage that night was one of the great treats of my life. I mean-

Maureen: I'm sure it was, I wish I'd been there.

Zoë: Yeah, I wish you had too. I mean, Marianne Faithfull was there, Father Guido Sarducci, Michelle Shocked, Syd Straw, David Sanborn. Honestly, I think that the thing that has stayed with me the most was Todd Rundgren who had his “Die Yuppie Scum” T-shirt on. He sang the Whiskey Bar Song, the song by Weill and Brecht, but he changed the words to “Oh, show me the way to the next yuppie bar…” It was hilarious, absolutely hilarious.

Maureen: Did the crowd go crazy?

Zoë: Oh yeah. I mean, what was not to be amazed by, that night.

Maureen: That sounds like it was such an incredible music show.

Zoë: Yeah, and to see that in a really small space.

Maureen: Marianne, I mean, oh my gosh. That would've been amazing.

Zoë: Yes

Maureen: He was an original matchmaker. I actually found a song that he recorded himself with Jack Webb.

Zoe: Really?

Maureen: Well, not Jack Webb in-person, but Jack Webb’s voice. I thought, "Oh, wow. Okay." It just threw the whole playlist off, so I did not include that. But it was different. He also used people like Laurie Anderson, that it was just like a spoken song. And a lot of Lou Reed. He was just a genius, and I loved it.

Zoë: I think he found his place in New York, and I think that he was this intersecting point between so many different kinds of music culture that's so New York. It's amazing.

Maureen: Yeah. I'm so sad that he died a day after his 64th birthday of COVID. So if he was 64, he must've started his four decades with Saturday Night Live when he was a baby.

Zoë: Oh my gosh, you're right.

Maureen: I mean, he must've been very, very young, right?

Zoë: Yeah, yeah...yes.

Maureen: So I guess he was born with this incredible gift.

Zoë: He was, and we're so lucky to have been on the planet at the time that he was here too.

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