Interview with Musician Lee Hazelwood
February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
Lee Hazlewood is the real goddamn deal. At 77 years old, he’s still got the flash, the straight talk and the wry, biting wit. He walks into a chain restaurant in suburban Las Vegas like he owns the place, leaning on a cane and flashing a diamond ring whose glitter rivals the neon glow of the Strip. He flirts with the waitress, orders himself some pies (cherry and peach, thank you very much) and sits down to tell it like it is.
It’s been nearly half a century since Lee laid down his first notes for his hit single, “The Fool” – a song that paved the way to his own label and an explosive partnership with Nancy Sinatra. For nearly five years running, Hazlewood fashioned for Sinatra a string of wild successes, including the still enduring proto-feminist groove of “These Boots Are Made For Walking”. A potent lyricist and a savvy spin-master, Hazlewood has since occupied various incarnations – Hollywood cowboy, expatriate film producer and more recently – outlaw music icon.
With his newest album, “Cake or Death” (a title culled from an Eddie Izzard comedy routine), Hazlewood proves once and for all, that he’s never left the saddle. Times may change – but great words and infectious melodies, remain.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about making this new album, the people you worked with, the process?
A: Well, we recorded the whole album before we had a label, because I don’t want to deal with them. I have never done that in all these years, go the label first. Instead I go to the label with the finished product. It took about a year and it cost me $100,000, before I knew what I had invested. So thank God it’s going to be my last album probably, or I’d go broke! But we worked hard on it and I had the best people I liked.
Q: It’s interesting, because I’m sure there’s a line of contemporary musicians a mile long dying for a chance to work with you, yet you opted for the most part, for people you’ve worked loyally with over the course of your career.
A: My wife says the young musicians are afraid of me, but they shouldn’t be. I give a bad impression to people, I scare them. The problem with younger musicians is that they don’t know what they’re doing and I don’t know what I’m doing either. And I am too old not to know what I’m doing and if I don’t have Al Casey around or somebody around that I can trust, that can talk me into doing something that I don’t really believe until I hear it, then I am sort of a madman. They should come easy, all the hits and God knows I have had enough of them, and with the right people around you – they do come easy.
Q: When you say they come easy, what’s the trick? Besides working with the right people?
A: I just treat it like work, to be honest. The reason I have only written about four hundred songs, where some songwriters my age have written fifteen, sixteen thousand songs, is because I consider myself just as good an editor as a songwriter. My friends always say, ‘ you want to see his best songs, look in his wastepaper basket’. The truth is, I can’t write what I don’t know. I can’t write a song to be sung by a woman very well, unless she’s a tough lady. I could write a song for a couple of country girls maybe, but I couldn’t write for the lady’s attitude. All the tender songs Nancy Sinatra did were songs that I wrote for her and someone else to sing – not me. But I rehearsed them with her over and over. After spending ten days with this whiskey voice, she didn’t want to record with anyone else. But I wrote them to be sung between just a boy and a girl originally.
Q: Speaking of Al Casey, he had a lot of do with this album and just recently passed away. You’d been working with him for a long time.
A: In case you didn’t know, he recorded with, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, The Beach Boys. He recorded with everybody and me – he’d been working with me since he was 15. Wherever he is right now, he’s having fun. Al was a funny man. He called me every week or so to tell me a joke. Of course they can’t hardly be told in regular conversation. Al always loved his jokes and he played magnificent guitar.
Q: And the other collaborations on the record are remarkably international.
A: I’ve always loved to travel. Up until I got this wonderful thing called renal cancer, we moved ever year. If we stayed in America we would stay in states that had no state income tax, which was semi-clever of me, and in Europe it didn’t make any difference, so we lived just about everywhere.
Q: You’ve continued touring quite a bit as well. Does it surprise you that you have such a dedicated younger fan base?
A: When I work on stage in Europe, most of the people that come to see me are under 30 and they don’t give a fuck about the hits. They want to hear the obscure sons of bitches that come out of all of those CDs that I have produced over the year.
Q: How do you think your own work and the industry have evolved since you began?
A: Well, the stuff that I wrote in the 60s, 70s and 80s – that’s what they ask for when I’m sitting on stage. So maybe I didn’t evolve, maybe they just caught up. Well, that sounds snobby, but I don’t mean it that way. And the industry? It’s all suits and you do your best to avoid them.
Q: Was the process of making this album, different from the first album you made?
A: It’s about the same, to be honest. The first album I made was “Trouble Is A Lonesome Town”. I don’t remember all these titles but I do that one particularly because it was inspired by the little town I was born in. I went back there and I stole all those names – they were a bunch of nuts in that town. People hear that album and say ‘boy, you can really make up names!’, but there’s not a made up name in there! I still like “Trouble”. It holds up.
Q: Do you feel like dealing with your illness had an effect on what you were writing for the new album?
A: It’s a strange thing to deal with. But the only thing you can do in the end is laugh. I don’t know if death is funny or not, but why the hell not spend your time laughing?
Q: You have some pretty powerful political tracks on this album; you make clear how you feel about the war and about suburban ignorance in general.
A: I just feel so damn sad about all those young men being killed and for a very selfish reason. They won’t live to have as much fun as I did getting to be 77 years old. There have been some of the greatest ups and very few downs in my life, I haven’t let the downs happen very much. I thought I cleared it up pretty good by being a Southerner and being super liberal. There aren’t a lot of us, but I thought I’d make it clear this time. It wouldn’t have been a good thing to do when I was 30, but it’s a fantastic thing to do when I’m 77 – because if they don’t like it, what are they going to do to me, kill me?
Originally published in Dazed magazine