Producer and arranger Hal Willner’s only a household name in certain households.
Los Lobos and Lucinda Williams know him. Lou Reed has tapped him for several recent recording projects, including that 2011 team-up with Metallica.
Marianne Faithfull knows him as a foodie, as well as a producer. “Hal loooooves to eat,” she once told me during an interview about her 2008 album Easy Come Easy Go, which Willner produced. “His father had a wonderful deli in Upper Darby,” she said with a hearty laugh. “We talked about that as much as we did music during our time together.”
Mostly, though, Willner is known as the number-one-without-question producer and curator of tribute records.
It all started with 1981’s Amarcord Nino Rota (I Remember Nino Rota). Dedicated to the work of the composer renowned for his efforts with Federico Fellini, that album featured the then-fresh-faced likes of Wynton Marsalis and Bill Frisell along with hit-making vocalist Debbie Harry.
That’s been Willner’s tribute compilation schematic ever since: Use avant jazz-bos, top-notch singers taking a risk and esteemed outsider artists such as Tom Waits, Todd Rundgren, Iggy Pop and John Zorn to pay weird homage to legends like Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Harold Arlen, Harry Smith and Kurt Weill.
Willner’s last two compilations have been swashbucklers: 2006’s Rogues Gallery and the just-released Son of Rogues Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys. Both are executive produced by the Pirates of the Caribbean team, Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski. Willner jokingly calls the project “this monstrosity.”
“This pirate thing definitely traces back to when I lived in Philly,” he says. “A lot of the music on Rogues Gallery comes from the old folk days and listening to Gene Shay on Philly radio. All of Philly radio back in the day was great. WDAS was killing it. WMMR had Michael Tearson. My tastes kept changing as a kid. Soul. Avant-garde. But Shay stayed firm.”
Willner, who now lives in New York, remembers how one night Shay dedicated an entire show to sea shanties and chants. The music moved him immediately. “Not so much to go out and buy a dozen albums,” laughs Willner. “But enough to base several albums on it over 40 years later. It sounded like a dozen Popeyes at once.” He then goes into a burly-man Barnacle Bill song.
“When I got the call from [the label] Anti- and Johnny Depp, I knew that I wasn’t an expert on the music. But that’s why I do these albums in the first place, so I can learn.” A research hound who loves an old-fashioned library as much as he does the Internet, Willner went about the discovery process with the ears of a novice.
He and a core band (“calling them a house band makes them sound like the house wine; not the best”) set up pop-up studios (“or ports of call,” he laughs) central to several of his singers and let the recording rip.
“This is the first album I’ve done where the artist could just show up, pick a song and an hour later be done with it because the songs are so easy to learn.” On some pop-up days, as many as eight or nine singers would show up to a recording in New Orleans or Seattle and the session would take on the vibe of a happening. Willner, the perfect host, lets his guests shine.
“Put a bunch of people in a room that you’d never expect to see together — Shane MacGowan, Macy Gray — and something weird is bound to happen. It reminds me of the old Electric Factory in the ’60s where you’d get Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the Bonzo Dog Band opening for Led Zeppelin. It’s vaudevillian.”
That vaudevillian thing, as he calls it, is what made Willner want to get into the recording business to begin with, a kitchen-sink aesthetic he learned from another radio personality, his mentor and fellow Darby-ite Joel Dorn.
When Willner decides to hold a vaudeville soiree, he calls on his friends (“actual friends, I’m old-fashioned like that”) to collaborate. Then they call friends, and the next thing you know you’ve got Son of Rogues Gallery and newcomers like Robyn Hitchcock, Marc Almond, Michael Gira and Patti Smith (“Johnny Depp called her”) along with buddies like Keith Richards and Tom Waits howling through the gut-bucket river hymn “Shenandoah.”
“There’s a lot of seven degrees of separation,” says Willner. “It’s this-one-calls-that-one-rings-the-next one. By this time, though, I’m lucky that everyone takes my calls.”