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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation with Gypsy Soul, Jun. 2007
A Conversation With Michael O'Connell, Mar. 2007
A Conversation with Paul Avgerinos, Nov. 2006
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation with Will Ackerman
December 2004
Not too many people have done more in music than guitarist/composer/producer Will Ackerman. He was the founder and CEO of an incredibly successful company (Windham Hill Records), he's produced over 70 records (many of them platinum and gold records, and many of them nominated for, or winning a Grammy), and he's a Grammy nominated artist with twelve records to his own name. But this is only a fragment -- albeit a very impressive fragment -- of the story. As Will says, "While music is a deep love, it is only one of many." The "many" includes: surfing, building, travelling and writing. And as you'll learn below, working with chainsaws!

Will's latest album, Returning: Pieces for Guitar 1970-2004, is also the first release on his new Mary's Tree label, which is distributed by Universal Classics. Produced by Will and engineer Corin Nelsen, the 2004 Grammy nominated Returning puts the focus directly on Will's guitar playing. And other than an outstanding duet with guitarist David Cullen on "Hawk Circle", this a solo guitar recording.

This is also a album that sounds great! For the audiophiles out there, how's this for a great recording setup?: Will with his Froggy Bottom guitar, Imaginary Road Studios (check out their gear) with Corin Nelsen engineering and mastering by Bob Ludwig!

If you'd like to learn more about Will and his music, please visit his website.

Will Ackerman
(Photo - Irene Young)
"Music is not an intellectual matter to me. It's all about feeling." - Will Ackerman
Jamie: A friend of mine once said that he'd come up against the question, "Why does, or should, he write music?" Which is probably one of the toughest questions. He was a smart guy and could probably have done whatever he wanted and yet he chose music. I think many artists (and business people) have to eventually confront the "why" question. What value does music have? Is the challenge of putting out records worth it?

You've done so much over your career and you're still pushing forward -- still recording new records, still producing new artists. What keeps you enthusiastic about music?
Will: There's quite a lot to answer in these two short paragraphs, some of it so philosophical as to be almost unapproachable. Without meaning to deflect the individual elements of the question(s), I think I'll just have a go at the big picture from my subjective viewpoint.

Music is not an intellectual matter to me. It's all about feeling. At some point I had to confront the fact that every single song I've written in 35 years (with the exception of "Anne's Song" and "Hawk Circle" which share the same tuning for logical reasons) has its own tuning. This is odd to the point of compulsion. When I realized this I knew it couldn't be some fluke... it was a deep design element in the process for me and in writing a book I'm engaged in I finally understood the reasons.

I generally write music in a very Alpha state... eyes closed, almost trance-like. It is all about improvisation and discovery. It is about the feelings that I have in this discovery. It is not a frontal lobe, intellectualized experience at all... dedicatedly the antithesis actually. By creating a new tuning I remove even the capacity for preconception or intellectualization. I don't know where a G chord is, where the Am is... I'm in an utterly unfamiliar landscape that I wander around in until I begin to recognize things in it. At the risk of going way too far with a metaphor, I honestly feel the following is apt. In this new landscape there are familiar things. These are the harmonic patterns and chord structures that exist in all music and which reveal themselves to me as I go... I begin to find my way in this new space with a knowledge of what all landscapes have in common. The process is still driven by the love of discovery, by being joyfully surprised by what is found even if enabled by a knowledge that has come from 40 years of playing. In this way I often balk at being called a composer as I don't think the process, I experience the process. I am more like some clown in the little boat trying to discover new lands in the fifteenth century.

The net result of all this is enticing. It's a rewarding process to me. I can't imagine being without it. I hope that answers the "why" of music, at least for me.

Keeping it all new is essential. I don't play too many concerts. I don't do too many records. I actually spend more time with a chainsaw in my hand than a guitar. I sometimes go to a sound check and realize I haven't touched a guitar for two and a half months. I surf, I build houses, I clear land, I travel. Musicians can be a very myopic breed and, frankly, I often find them deeply boring. Those people who interest me the most and whose lives I admire most are people who have a wide range of interests and involvements. It is true that I don't need to work eight hours a day doing scales to keep my chops up. I don't have any chops! At least not in the traditional sense. My performance is increasingly subtle, but I'm working with a very simple pallet.

Having signed and produced guitarists like Alex deGrassi and Michael Hedges I was face to face with talents so far beyond my own that the knowledge of that could have been paralyzing. I came to be at peace with the fact that what I do is about the communication of emotion and that for me to do that well I have to be open, honest and deeply connected to what I do. Part of the way to achieve that was to make music a sanctuary for myself...not a place of toil and ambition and ego, but a place of simple meditation and joy.

In a way I think I've already answered the last question. What keeps me enthusiastic about any of my endeavors is that they all things I love doing and I don't do too much of any of them. While music is a deep love, it is only one of many. And now if you'll pardon me. It's 9:34 AM in Positano, Italy and I plan to kayak down the Amalfi Coast and get to this little beach with a green grotto to swim in... I've never encountered another person here in all the years I've visited this place. It's good for the soul.
"... I often balk at being called a composer as I don't think the process, I experience the process." - Will Ackerman

"I came to be at peace with the fact that what I do is about the communication of emotion..." - Will Ackerman
Jamie: Wow -- that sounds so great! Wish I was there with you... of course, I'd have to learn how to kayak first : )

One of the things that interests me about your last comment is that you have a defined point of view -- both artistically and personally. I have a sense (and I could be wrong about this) that there is a real flow for you between your music and the "rest" of your life. That in some ways music, woodworking and kayaking are one and the same. Still, for many musicians (including myself) a chainsaw is a long way from playing the guitar! Have you always had such diverse (and some might even say mutually exclusive) interests?
Will: It may be that I just have the attention span of a three year old and I'm trying to cloak that deficiency in noble terms. It may also be that I'm just too damned lazy to do scales for half my life in order to improve my chops. As I read these two sentences I tend to think both are true. I'm not really a disciplined person; if discipline is making yourself do things that are not immediately attractive. I think it's safe to say that objectively I must appear to be disciplined. I work constantly and hard. I'm constantly moving. But I'm doing things I love and find no difficulty in pouring incredible energy into those things. Give me a task I don't like and I balk like a mule. I think the point is this: I jump from thing to thing before I get bored. Even in the things I like most, I can only apply myself to it for a while before brain function flatlines. I'm famous for having to leave the studio in the middle of production to sand some wood or shovel some snow just to keep myself alert and focused. The net result may be 9 or 10 hours of very productive work, but if I can't change the scene a number of times during the day I will be useless.

The juxtaposition between the cerebral and physical is no coincidence. In 1984 at the height of the success of Windham Hill, I went into a deep clinical depression. It was what was called a "disassociative" depression, one in which even my speech seemed to me to be coming from someone else. Very scary stuff. Here I was the head of a company doing millions of dollars a year, playing at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and headlining Carnegie Hall and I fall into a depression. There are a number of misconceptions about depression; among them that it arises from daily events. The core of depression is far deeper than the fact that you're upset about the breakup of a relationship or not being a success in business. On the opposite side of that coin is the fact that success and achieving the American dream is not enough to mask the core origin of a depression. I was very reluctant to accept that what was happening to me was, in fact, depression and traveled from hospital to hospital looking for a physical reason for why I felt like I was dying... only to be told time and time again "Mr. Ackerman, every test indicates that you're in perfect health."

I finally came to the conclusion that I had left too much of my history behind. I was living what even then I called "the poodle existence." Previous to Windham Hill Records I had been a general contractor (Windham Hill Builders) and actually found a lot of peace in slamming 50 pounds of 16 box galvanized nails into 2x4s every day and having that cold Coors at the end of the day on the tailgate of an old Ford truck. Now I was driving some gleaming German machinery around, wearing nice clothes, going to nice dinners and staying at hotels on Lake Como. I came to the partially accurate, but vastly insufficient understanding that the root of the depression lay in this leaving behind of the physical world. It was then that I quit as CEO of Windham Hill, left behind most administrative aspects of the job and focused again on the music more than the business. I also headed to Vermont, bought some land and began clearing land and building myself a house.

In the depression I wanted to sleep all day every day. I had absolutely no energy. There were other symptoms, but for the sake of simplicity let's just say that walking up a flight of stairs was work. In Vermont I began by raking leaves for five minutes a day, then ten, then fifteen. I began clearing some light brush and graduated to small trees. I starting digging foundations by hand and nailing concrete forms together. I felt stronger. My assumption was right; I needed to get back into my body and balance, to some degree, the cerebral side of my work at Windham Hill.

I was in denial and blissfully unaware at the time that the core of the depression was the suicide of my mother when I was 12 and, subsequently, years of sexual abuse. I'd buried most of this, but found a simple, temporary solution to at least a part of the problem. Waiting for me were years of therapy (I just call it learning) to get to the core issues which I'm still gratefully engaged in. The point of all of this, though, is that the doctors are right... physical exercise has a tremendously beneficial impact on the human psyche, whether you're prone to depression or not. My core issues are still there and so is the capacity for depression. Hard physical work arguably saved my life in 1984 and I never lose sight of that in my life.

People often try to construct metaphors about how my woodworking/building is somehow analogous to the "building" of music and that there is some logical harmony in all of this. If that works for them, fine, but to me it's just about needing the chemicals that the brain produces in being a physical to be healthy.

The "balance" in my life, if these wild swings of endeavor can be called balance at all, is no more cerebral than the methods I use in my "composition." This is stuff that has evolved because it feels good to me and because it came to me naturally. There are days when I'm hooking four six ton logs to the Farmi winch and skidding them down a 40 degree slope to the lumber mill when I realize that I have a gig the next day and wonder what the hell I think I'm doing. Trying to stay alive is the answer.
"In 1984 at the height of the success of Windham Hill, I went into a deep clinical depression." - Will Ackerman

"Hard physical work arguably saved my life in 1984 and I never lose sight of that in my life." - Will Ackerman
Jamie: And that's a great answer. Really the best answer. It sounds like you know (and are still finding out) what works for you.

You've commented on your lack of chops a couple times. And I think I know what you mean -- that you don't feel you have a lot of technical (i.e. ability to play scales/lines very quickly) dexterity. But I've never heard your music in that light. Frankly, I've always admired your playing and the way you approach the guitar in general. I sure wish I had your touch and sense of time. And I think a lot of other musicians feel the same way. Chops come in many different colours.
Will: I actually acknowledge this and appreciate your saying so. I'm not a flashy player and the world is populated with a lot of really spectacular players. What I demand of myself in terms of an intricate precision is considerable though. I suspect it is less likely to draw attention to itself. The ebbs and flows of volume and tempo are also very much a part of my playing which is completely dependent upon mood. In recording Returning my primary objective was to be sure that every note I played would have a real emotional connection to it. If I played well, but failed to find the emotion I would scrap it. The songs proved to be surprising to me.

"Processional" has two bridges which have always been larger and louder than the A sections. In the new recording, I suddenly found myself playing this delicate bridge and being transported by the feeling of it. That's what I kept for the new CD. The whole business of tempo dynamics comes easily and naturally to me and so I always find it odd when, in producing other artists, I can't get them to explore the impact of that sort of musical breathing. I don't know whether metronomic lockstep has been beaten into them or if they are just not able to feel the possibility of that very floating musical space.

I also know that I drive Bob Ludwig nuts, Bob being certainly the preeminent CD mastering engineer on earth at Gateway Mastering in Portland, ME. The range of my dynamic level in a song will go from the nearly inaudible to the considerably Wagnerian. Bob argues that someone listening in a car will probably miss 27 seconds of a song entirely as it disappears in the sound of the car and rushing wind and begs to be able to boost that level a bit. I rarely agree. This is how I hear the songs and that creation of a vacuum for the listener to be pulled in, to get really intimate and almost require the listener to hold their breath is what I'm trying to pull off in these cases. It's subtle, but actually quite extreme, but that's what the songs require in my mind.
"In recording Returning my primary objective was to be sure that every note I played would have a real emotional connection to it." - Will Ackerman
Jamie: You were incredibly candid in your previous answer. I for one, had no idea of what you've been, and are going, through. I usually don't ask personal questions in these conversations, so I hope you don't mind me asking: Has being so open and honest helped you to become healthier and happier?
Will: Without question. I'm 55 now and this is the happiest time of my life. Yesterday I was installing some cherry flooring in a bedroom addition I've been working on and working on my knees and bending over for two days while wedging, countersinking, screwing and dowel-capping. The hardwood left my knees and back feeling at least 85. I recognize that I'm not a kid any more and am trying to heal my right shoulder which I slammed into the rocks on an eight foot shorebreak surfing last winter in Mexico. But even with these nagging reminders of age, life has never been better.

The years of therapy (I am now going to switch to the word "learning" which is my own choice of words and better conveys what the process is about for me).... The years of learning have not removed the trauma from my life, but we often create coping mechanisms which are hurtful to us....the emotion is still there, but we hardly understand it, are frightened of it and tend to live in a very reactionary, knee-jerk world. By learning what hurt you, by learning how it affected you and what (generally) counter productive measures you've programmed yourself with to cope, one is able to suddenly see the world as a far less scary place and consequently a background tension is removed. With this constant battle removed from your emotional and perceptual world, there is an increasing awareness, not only of yourself but other people as well. Life becomes more remarkable. It's then that the "therapy" gives way to "teaching" and you can't imagine wanting to stop the process ever. It's no longer about being ill and needing help, but becomes about being thirsty for more understanding and the peace that it brings.

In the years I've been working with my teacher I can count on one hand the number of sessions that haven't been deeply emotionally involving. I always... always leave lighter and more confident/positive. As long as that continues I see no reason to stop. Perhaps some day I will have exhausted what this person (along with my creativity in this realm) can provide. I suspect I will find another teacher, not as a junkie needing a fix, but as someone who more deeply marvels at this blessed ball of iron swirling around the universe.

That said, I am no Bodhisattva. I don't pretend to be levitating, nor do I think I'm particularly evolved. I don't consider myself deeply spiritual and have enough neurosis to keep me busy for quite a while yet. But the peace in understanding is great as is the sense that we are all in this together.
"I'm 55 now and this is the happiest time of my life." - Will Ackerman
Jamie: I think your last sentence is part of the reason why you've done so well not only as an artist but also as a producer. Truthfully, I think many (most?) musicians are not cut out to produce. They do their own "thing" and really can't see, or aren't interested in, other perspectives. Over the years, you've worked with many terrific musicians -- each with a distinctive aesthetic. How does producing artists of the calibre of Michael Hedges or Jeff Oster change you as an artist?
Will: I don't think it has any influence on me as an artist. I think that, for better or worse, I have a musical voice which is definitely mine (and I am proud of this), but it also means that I am not full of surprises... I do what I do and you like it or you don't. A record like Hearing Voices may surprise people a bit and I hope that my increasing use of rhythm and increasingly electric guitars at least as texture/color will keep me and my listeners awake, but essentially I am who I am and influences are less derived from the outside than the inside.

That said, I do learn how to be a better producer and I feel the learning curve has been steepest of late. I think the years of therapy have made me more aware of others and I think I observe and critique myself and my performance on all levels more carefully than ever before. I think I'm just as opinionated as ever, but I think I'm more flexible in general. I'm also more able to hear arguments that might oppose my initial opinion. I think not being the label owner also helps as my sole agenda is to make the best record an artist can make and to have them be satisfied/delighted with the outcome. I think what working with these musicians does is to make me aware of the different methods of thinking, the different patterns of discipline and inspiration that guide the writing/recording process for them and this, in turn, offers me more in the bag of tricks that I have at my disposal to assist them.
"I do what I do and you like it or you don't." - Will Ackerman
Jamie: One of my composition teachers asked the rhetorical question: "Can you ever repeat something?" His view, which I didn't really fully understand at the time, was that neither the performer nor the listener is able to experience a piece of music exactly the same way twice.

Revisiting a body of work as strong (and as well received) as you have on Returning can bring its own challenges: Can you capture the "magic" of the original recordings? Do you have anything to add to the pieces? I think you've dealt with this head on with Returning -- finding the balance between the power of the original compositions/recordings and the depth of experience that over 35 years of music making brings. As you write in the liner notes for "The Bricklayer's Beautiful Daughter": "I managed to play the notes in 1977, but the nuances and dynamics of the piece were unknown to me, in fact beyond me."

I think what's interesting about this statement is that some 25 plus years later, you're still finding something new to say with this and the other pieces on Returning. I'm going to do a little returning myself and refer back to my first question: What is it about this collection of pieces that interested and enthused you enough to record them for a second time?
Will: Once again, a lot is involved in all that you've said/asked. I'll try to get to the essence of it.

The impetus to record Returning came, unwittingly without question, from my fans. I don't know how many times I've had someone come up to me and say something like " The Bricklayer's Beautiful Daughter" has always been one of my favorite pieces of music and I couldn't imagine having a more emotional connection with it, but tonight....." Obviously a hypothetical statement, but a representative of what I hear nightly after concerts.

I truly don't listen to my own work. I don't think anyone is ever completely satisfied with it and I admit that it's not a simple matter to be confronted by what you do artistically... at least it's not for me. It really was my fans who drove me back to listen to the early versions of the songs and I was actually stunned to hear how small they sounded, so locked in metronomic lockstep (the antithesis of how I play now) and how lacking a whole set of dynamics they were. As my liner notes state, it's also true that the technology itself has evolved enormously since 1975 when I recorded Turtle's Navel and certainly my access to state of the art technology financially (including microphones, preamps and consoles etc.) has been positively effected over the years. Add to this the incredible hand built guitars I have today (mostly Froggy Bottom Guitars) as opposed to the decent, but decidedly off-the-rack instruments I had access to in 1975 and there is a world of difference in even the raw materials of the recordings themselves.

Now to the centerpiece of the answer which is "ego and old age." I've been at this for 30 years and while I don't suppose they will be writing books about me in the 22nd Century, I care about the legacy of this music. Being in my mid-fifties probably adds something to this. Simply put I wanted to get these songs recorded in a fashion that I could put them in a box and say to myself that they represented the best I could do to feel, interpret, perform and record them. There is a great deal more in the liner notes to Returning which applies to all of this too, but I think this covers the high points.
"The impetus to record Returning came, unwittingly without question, from my fans." - Will Ackerman
Jamie: "Ego and old age"... that's great : ) And my guess is that they probably will be writing books about you in the 22nd century. Whether directly or indirectly, you've touched a tremendous number of artists and listeners.

I was just looking through your tour schedule and I see that you're in the middle of a number of dates right now. Throughout this conversation, we've talked primarily about your recorded work and how you feel it's improved artistically and technically. Do you feel the same way about your live performances?
Will: The first thing that comes to mind is another product of years of therapy. Previously I was unable to accept gratitude and personal accolades from people in general... my level of self-worth just couldn't support it. Now I can (gracefully I hope) accept what these people offer me, often with deep emotion. No longer feeling that something must be wrong with them to perceive merit in my work, I find the whole experience infinitely more meaningful and rewarding. That said, I also find the grind of touring increasingly tiring and burdensome. People don't see the hours of waiting for planes, the excess baggage (four guitars in massive cases and an electronics rack that weights literally seventy pound), the sound checks which, if they work flawlessly are like another full concert before the concert starts... the lousy food, the hotel rooms, the cab rides and the constant fear that a flight might be canceled or delayed... it all adds up to a pretty stressful life.

But there are the nights when everything is magic; the audience somehow conveys to you that you are utterly safe with them, that they really want to be taken on a ride and hand you their passports and from that flows an evening of music, stories and, given the book I'm writing, readings in which you really feel you've communicated and that something has happened between us that is actually quite remarkable and life-giving. This happened to me just a few nights ago in Olympia, WA. I then drove down to Portland and played probably the sloppiest show of the last fifteen years. Go figure.
Jamie: Well, that's the beauty and the risk of live music. I think artists really do have to accept the occasional off night if they want the magic that you are talking about. The challenge for performers is to not let either the good or the bad shows define them. Easier said than done though...

Between writing a book and touring, you're obviously very busy. So where are you going from here? Any projects on the go that you'd like to talk about?
Will: People's general assumption is that life is about music for me. That's not really true. Music is one great passion, but there are many.

My own music is going to go into a much more rhythmic place and I'll be employing a lot more electric guitar. I loved the experiment of Hearing Voices and there are ideas there I'd like to play with.

I love producing other artists more than ever and look forward to hearing great music from players who are seeking help in envisioning and making tangible their musical dreams. This shepherding role is something which gives a lot back to me and is far less taxing on me personally than being the musician.

The book is really the big thing in my life. This is the dream I always had and what I really need to focus on in the next two years. Long before recording guitar music or producing others I had always envisioned myself as a writer and it's time to quit talking about it and get to work. I have lots of pages, but they're currently without order or dynamic. It's not that I feel I need to adhere to some rigid structure (I actually expect the editing to be equally reflective of my mind set that revels in the "joyful anarchy" of open tunings), but I need to start finding a way to make it cohesive. I have two thoughts to mention in this regard.

Musical samplers had been used by many companies to promote new artists. They had never been successful as commercial products. The Windham Hill Samplers were the exception to this rule. Making a record of Mark Isham, Shadowfax, Michael Hedges, Nightnoise, Liz Story, Alex deGrassi, George Winston and myself would seem to imply a lack of cohesion, but those collections worked. I may be naive, but I'm banking on the fact that a wild swing of subject matter and tone in my writing will be cohesive if I can figure out what my voice is and be true to that. I think I need time to write and to learn more about that voice before I begin the editing process.

The second thought is really more of an inspiration. When I was running Gang of Seven, my spoken word label (1992-95), I had the pleasure of meeting and working with some brilliant writers and monologists. Out of that work I made some real friendships, the closest being with Tom Bodett who has now moved to Vermont and lives just across the West River from me.

He recorded a piece for Gang of Seven called "Exploded" which was simply brilliant. I convinced him to perform it on tour with me and Patty Larkin... an odd and different combination of performances, but a combination I (and a lot of other people who attended the shows) loved. There was a device that he used to open the show which was inventive and very risky. After his intro he would throw a handful of 3x5 cards into the air, these being the "chapters" of his story. He would then ask the audience to tell him which card to pick up first, second and so forth. This was not just for show. He would actually do as they indicated.

And it worked every night. Yes, there was a different dynamic every night... the juxtapositions of the stories would combine to, highlight different elements and accentuate different emotions. Yet it worked every night. In the same way I hope that my book, while all over the place in subject matter (hopefully humorous stories of looking for caves in Mexico, my mother's suicide, my founding of Windham Hill, the sexual abuse I went though as a kid) will hold together if I am writing honestly. This is what my life is.... all these elements. I can't pry the sexual abuse out of my life without removing the first time I heard Eric Satie or hiked into the Sierra.... What I am, for better or worse, is of a piece. How does it all glue together? Not sure yet, but I just have this deep feeling that it will hang together if I'm honest and remain true to "the voice"... the same subjective criteria that enabled me to assemble a disparate group of musicians on a record successfully.

Beyond that I will continue to build, work in the woods, become a better surfer and hopefully launch a thriving career in Italy where I want to live some significant part of my life (looks good so far). I'll travel a lot because I love it. I'll keep working with my teacher to make life a more peaceful place for me (and those around me) to live in. I'll keep trying to learn about love with Susan's help and I'll just try to get through this life as fully as possible. No greater horror exists in my life than the thought of getting to the end of it and thinking " I didn't do anything." I know I'm way past that already, but at 55 I'd really like to have life continue to deliver new experiences for another 30 years or so. It hasn't slowed down or become any less exciting and I'm determined to keep it that way.
"People's general assumption is that life is about music for me. That's not really true." - Will Ackerman

"(Life) hasn't slowed down or become any less exciting and I'm determined to keep it that way." - Will Ackerman
Jamie: Will, talking with you has been a great experience. When I wrote earlier about your influence on artists directly or indirectly, I should have added that I include myself in that group. In my late teens, early twenties, I spent night after night after night listening to the Windham Hill Samplers. Headphones on, lights out. Just getting deeper and deeper into the music. So I truly appreciate you taking the time to do this artist-to-artist conversation -- especially considering your busy schedule and the fact that you're on tour right now. My deepest thanks and best of luck!
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