Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt have been threatening to cut an album as a duo for years, if not decades, but a few obstacles got in the way — solo careers, for one thing, and the two albums they recorded with Dolly Parton as a trio, for another. Fortunately, the result of their collaboration, ”Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions,” hits stores Aug. 24, followed by a tour that begins that week at Los Angeles’ Troubadour club, where Ronstadt first came to fame. Ronstadt and Harris sat down with EW Online in L.A. to discuss how they finally got it together.
The ”Trio II” record you did with Dolly was in the making years ago and almost didn’t come out at all. Did this new duo album come out of feeling like there was some unfinished business after the ”Trio” sessions?
Ronstadt This actually came out of a project we were planning in between the two ”Trio” records. The ”Trio II” record happened because Emmy and I were planning a record, and we said, ”We should call Dolly and see if she wants to sing on something.” And Dolly went, ”No, I think it should be full trio or nothing — we should do stuff all together.” I thought, well, that’s a nice record — let’s do that! So we did.
Harris When the Trio gets together, we shimmer more on the more traditional things that really showcase three-part singing. When it’s just Linda and I, we can do weird and a little more left-field things.
Do have a sense of how your voices complement each other?
Ronstadt Well, it’s a thing of texture. Emmy’s voice always reminds me of cracked crystal. It’s got that amazing, clear thing, but it’s got that edge to it and that kind of ”raaaaoooooow” thing, because if it was just crystal, it’d be boring. Emmy sings lower than I do, so lots of times even though I have more heaviness in my voice, she has more bottom notes. But when she goes into that real crystal overdrive thing that she’s got in her voice, she can get up above me, and I sort of have the meat and potatoes middle there.
Harris Linda can be like a chameleon, too, because she’s got a lot more technical control over her voice. And she can also get her vibrato right. I don’t have any control over my vibrato. My vibrato controls me.
Did you test the harmonies a lot to see what worked?
Ronstadt Oh yeah, we did a lot of that, and we even decided not to even sing harmonies sometimes.
Harris It would be very tempting to put a lot of harmony on something like [Leonard Cohen’s] ”Sisters of Mercy,” whereas actually the best thing was for us to just do unison, with Kate and Anna [McGarrigle].
Ronstadt That’s the way the nuns in the convent sing. I go there and sing with them at vespers every night at 5:30, though I’m not religious. They all sing unison.
You go down and sing with the nuns every night?
Ronstadt Um-hm. The nuns are fabulous, I just love them. I don’t like the mass, but I’m religious about religious music. The only problem is, they took out the Gregorian chant. I went to the mother superior and I said, ”Now, look, you’ve got a record on the charts here!” And she said, ”Well, we like to think we’re on the cutting edge of this kind of musical religious practice that we do, and we’re Dominicans….” They’re always looking for something new! Sometimes it’s just better to stick with the old stuff.
What benefit do you get out of singing with the nuns?
Ronstadt I think it’s biological. I think it naturally tunes you into some hemisphere in your brain…. I’m a real believer in private music. For me, the public music is a tiny piece of what my music is, and not what necessarily even represents me most authentically. And the rest of the stuff’s been conducted in my living room, or Emmy’s living room, or somebody’s living room. Or just singing in the bathtub or singing with my hands in the dishwater. That’s really important music for me. It’s kind of what binds my life together.
Harris This was a record that we’ve always wanted to do, and this was the right time. There’s certainly never gonna be a time where the airways are just fertile and ready for anything that we do, because Linda and I, we live in left field, man. We set up camp there years ago, and we’re not moving. [laughter] We’re squatters.