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Raw Materials: Will Ackerman

I have done two extensive interviews with Will Ackerman. The first was for my radio show; the edited version became a two-part interview that aired on consecutive nights. Then, when I was working on my book, I interviewed Ackerman again. On this second occasion, I also got to sit in on a recording session at his Imaginary Road studio. Here are a couple of extended excerpts from those interviews. 
 
The first excerpt tells the story of Ackerman's first meeting with George Winston in 1979. Windham Hill was still a small record label at the time, and Ackerman was splitting his efforts between recording, performing, and working as a woodworker and builder -- his first trade. My questions are in parentheses; his answers in plain text. 
 

George and I had talked on the phone a number of times, and really I just knew him as a music fan and somebody who had a huge record collection and was incredibly knowledgeable, not only about discography, but about a wide range of music. And I found myself taking his tips and buying records and hearing something that was really important to me as well. 

So first, I knew him as somebody who just loved music like crazy. I had no idea he played music.  

[In 1979,] Alex [deGrassi, cousin and guitarist] and I had a concert in Santa Monica, California, at McCabe's, a great guitar shop down there. And George comes up after the show and introduces himself, and asks if I'd like to come by his house and have a little something to eat or whatever. 

Now, number one, I never, ever go anywhere after a concert. I go to my hotel room. I don't want to mingle, I don't want to jam. But this night I said, 'Yeah.' So we went to his house, and he brought out a guitar. And he played some slide guitar, and I was just enthralled! And I said, 'Okay. George, let's do a record with you. You're the next guy on the label.' And he said, 'That's wonderful.' 

It was time to go to bed. I rolled out a sleeping bag on the couch, and he said, 'Do you mind if I play the piano a little bit while you go to sleep?' And I said, 'No, I wouldn't mind that at all.' And he starts out with transcriptions of a couple of my songs, note for note. Then, he does a transcription of DeGrassi's 'Turning, Turning Back,' which is one of the most note-dense pieces in the world! I mean, the transcription alone was a work of art, and he played it beautifully. 

Then he went into some of what I learned later was some Bola Sete music. And then he launched into the music that would constitute the first album, 'Autumn."

 

In the morning, I got up and said, 'George, what was that last stuff you were playing?' And he said, 'Oh, that's some of my stuff.' And I said, 'I really liked that.' [laugh] 'I really, really liked that, and I'm thinking maybe we should do a piano album first. And George argued with me. 'No, I really want to do the guitar record.' And I said, 'Well, I tell you what. I really think this piano stuff is good.' 

I remember, I was taking a train up from LA to San Luis Obispo. And George drove me to the train station, and between his house and the train station, there was this debate as to whether we should do the piano album or the guitar album. About halfway there, George had come up with the idea of doing one side of piano and one side of guitar. I was no marketing genius, but I thought that was not a good idea. 

By the time we got to the train station, somehow I had gotten him to the point where it was going to be a piano album. And of course, that was what blew the doors open. 

 

(Autumn became the best selling New Age album of all time, one of the best selling of any kind.) Literally, I don't even know how many tens of millions of copies. I have no idea. It's so many times platinum, we've lost track. 

(You and George made that album, I think the budget was $1267?) That's the number I remember, yeah. George, in those days, would actually sleep under the piano. In part to commune with the piano, I think, but also to save money. 

 

(What is it about that album? It was slmost inadvertent, you had to talk George into doing it, you made it on a shoestring. What is it about Autumn?) You know, some writer said something the fact that this was the first documented album of folk piano he could ever think of. I thought that was brilliant. I think it is just that it was real. I mean, it was honest, it was not about ego, it wasn't about flash. I think it was the complete lack of artifice. It was pure, it was simple, it was direct, and it was honest. That's fine criteria for music, as far as I'm concerned.  

Will Ackerman's life has been full of extremes: the peaks of fame and success, but also some very low, dark periods that have caused him years of struggle -- and a lot of psychotherapy -- to overcome. He had a very troubled childhood, including the suicide of his adoptive mother and an unwanted relationship with a pedophile teacher. And the sudden success of Windham Hill Records almost ended his life. Literally. Once again, my questions are in parentheses. 
 

(Windham Hill grew rapidly in the late 70s and into the 80s. You were doing lots of records, signing artists, extremely successful. But at the same time, you were personally very unhappy.) It's hard to even realize that you are unhappy when you are being given everything this culture tells you you need to have to be happy. You're being successful, you're making money, you're driving a nice car, you're living in a nice house. 

It's something that I came to call the 'poodle existence.' I was in my nice clothes in my nice car, going to my nice house and going out to nice restaurants, you know? But I -- I wasn't at the beach. I wasn't hiking in the Sierras. I wasn't hanging onto the tailgate of a truck having a beer at the end of the day. I was flying all around the world, working myself to death. Loving it, admittedly, loving the success and the rest of it. But I just left myself way too far behind. I had lost track of what was important to me.

So in 1984, to be perfectly honest, I -- I thought I was dying. I felt so horrible, I couldn't get out of bed. I went from hospital to hospital around the country. Rice, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Harvard. I would just fly somewhere, looking for some dread disease that I might have, that would explain how I felt so horrible. Everybody kept coming up with the same answer: you're in perfect health, Mr. Ackerman. So then, why do I feel like I'm dying? 

As this thing progressed, something began happening which was really scary, which was -- I no longer felt that I was the author of my own speech. It's called disassociation, and it's a deeply weird thing. You hear yourself speaking, but you don't feel that it's you doing it. And it became a nightmare for me to be with anyone else, if it required speech, because it pointed out the weirdness that I was experiencing. 

So I became almost agoraphobic. I mean, if there was anything going to happen, you were going to have to come to my house. I could no longer get on a plane to Japan. Even if they needed me to be in Japan for something, they would have to send a video crew to me and I would do my best to function normally. 

As this progressed, I ended up putting black paper on the windows and hiding out. 

 

This is not drug substance stuff at all. This is just the brain collapsing in on itself. And finally, I met Dr. Robert Belknap, who remains my physician in Mill Valley today. Brilliant man. He said, 'Will, you're depressed.' 'What do you mean, I'm depressed? I've got everything. You kidding me? How could I be anything but completely happy?' 

He said, 'Well, number one, I suspect that there's some stuff in your past that you're going to have to deal with. Number two, you may have just betrayed yourself in the way you're living your life right now.' 

By that time, among other things, my blood pressure was just through the roof. I had a cardiologist who told me I would be dead in six months, period. 

 

(And you were in your mid-30s then.) Yeah. So I was looking at all this. I'm not sure I'm believing it, but something's gotta change. And I said to the cardiologist, 'I'm going to go to Vermont. Give me two months, and I'm gonna start getting this thing under control.' And at the time, I had just a little guest house [on the site of his current home and studio in southeast Vermont]. It didn't have a bathroom, it didn't have electricity. It was called Dream Garage. You could park a truck underneath it, and there was a trap door, you'd go up into this little room with a bed in it, that was it. And that's where I came in the late summer or early fall of that year. And I had just enough energy to get up in the morning and take a rake, and rake leaves for about 4 minutes, and then I would collapse. The next day, it would be about 6 minutes. The next day, nine. And as I got back into my body, I began feeling better and better. Two months later, I went back to California. My blood pressure was nearly normal. I was beginning to lose the disassociative aspect of the depression. And quite frankly, left the other stuff behind, namely the stuff Belknap had said, 'I suspect there are things in your closet that you have to deal with. But I found a means by which I felt I could deal with all this. I felt that I was again myself. 

 

But the decision I had to make was, I didn't want to be CEO anymore. You know, when you're starting a company, it's like a joke. Okay, you be the president, I'l be the CEO. It's like a joke, right? It's not, when you've got 80 employees in seven nations. It isn't a joke anymore. You are a CEO. You thought it was a joke, but it isn't. You are doing that role. And I wanted nothing to do with it!  
 
For several years, Ackerman worked at Windham Hill Records as head of A&R -- the signing and development of new talent. In the early 1990s, he sold Windham Hill.  

And now, something for the guitar nerds in the audience. Will Ackerman talks about playing guitar and the whole concept of New Age Music. 
 

(Your ambition in performance is to be emotionally connected to every note you play. That's a very high standard.) If I leave the stage without feeling as if that was the first time I'd played that piece -- if I don't feel that I actually discovered something in that song, I'm just miserable. I guess it is a high standard, but that's what my music is about. It's not about dexterity. This isn't gymnastics; this is about communication of emotion. And if I don't do that, I'm betraying the one simple thing I have to do. 

(How often do you meet that standard?) I don't perform so much that it becomes rote for me. I make a point of not performing much over twenty or thirty concerts a year. I try to give myself a lot of space.

(Which, fortunately, because of the money you made from selling Windham Hill, you can do.) Yeah, that's true. And it's also true that -- I read someplace that Christopher Parkening actually puts the guitar away for sometimes months at a time, which is astounding when you think about the level of his playing and the chops that he needs to keep up, but there are times where I have not touched a guitar for two, maybe even three months on the day I get up on stage to do a sound check. 

That's another thing that keeps it fresh for me, when I go back to the guitar, I just love it. It's really that simple.

 

(Almost every song you write is in a different tuning. Why?) Ah. Well, in point of fact, there are only two songs that share the same tuning over 30 years of writing, which is in itself so extreme and ridiculous that it even astounds me. 

I wasn't even aware of that! There's a guy named Patrick Breen who put a book together of open tunings. It's probably the best exploration of open tunings I've seen. And it was he who pointed out that I was using a different tuning every single time! And I guess, once again, post therapy, I look back and say, 'Why?' 'What in the world was I doing?' 

Here's the answer. By going into a different open tuning, I completely remove any intellectual process from writing. I can't go to an A-minor chord, I can't go to a G, I can't go to a C. I don't know where the chords are, so it becomes, really, foreign territory. It's new geography. And I have to explore it in a very improvisational way. Therefore, the writing becomes alpha state, it becomes emotional. It's not about preconception, it's not really even about composition. It's about discovering music. I didn't know it, but it is designed to eliminate the frontal lobes and have the music be about alpha state and emotion. 

 

(It's tough enough to keep guitar tuned in concert. What's it like to retune between every song?) I don't. I carry a number of guitars, and I work with David Cullen. David has been my road manager since the Michael Hedges/Shadowfax tour in 1986. He's a brilliant guitarist who does a number of duets with me, and he's a wonderful addition to my performance, but it is David who is shuttling these guitars back and forth from the stage. At the end of every song, I hand him one, he brings me another one. 

In the early days, I used to have one guitar and would sit there snapping strings right and left. I still have nightmares about that. I actually had one last night about getting on stage and strings snapping! It was a horrible nightmare. But thank God, David eliminates that for me. 

One of the funny things is that, in places where I don't have David, I had a concert I did in Bologna, Italy just last year, and I had hired a local guitar player to help me with the tunings. Well, he got them completely backwards! The high string was the low string, and vice versa. So I would sit down in very dramatic fashion, in classical position, and go for the first chord, which sounded like somebody just dropped a brick on a cat! It was ridiculous. So there are disasters that can still happen, but with David, it's never. 

(How do you come up with new tunings?) It's all so completely subjective, it's just a matter of getting the strings down to where they're flapping in the breeze, and bringing them up until -- this will sound like poetry, but I think it's true -- I just bring the strings up into a tension and a resonance that, pardon the New Age term, but it seems to resonate with the mood I'm in, and I begin to explore that. 

There are certainly times where it yields nothing, and I leave it behind or modify it here and there. Even the session work I'm doing these days, where I'm playing on other people's records, which is new for me and I'm absolutely loving it, even there I'm never in the standard tuning. I listen to the song, I come up with a tuning and begin exploring it there, just as I do with my own music. 

 

(As much as anyone, you're the originator of New Age music. Do you see yourself that way?) Oh, God. My official quote on that was in the LA Times years ago, which was, if I find the guy who coined the term, I'm gonna nail his forehead to the wall!

There's so much about the term that I don't like. First and foremost, it seems to imply a lot about lifestyle. Which I have nothing against, it's not a matter of judgment. It's just that, that's really not what Windham Hill was. It was music. The different artists on Windham Hill were a very disparate group of people with a whole range of political, personal lifestyles that had nothing to do with that. 

Furthermore, I kind of resent the term in that, with the tremendous success of Windham Hill, all the major labels moved into that market and needed to codify it by calling it New Age and created a New Age chart on Billboard and all the rest of that. And I think it was at that point that the market became so saturated with undifferentiated product that it really turned a lot of people off. 

Windham Hill certainly wasn't the only purveyor of instrumental music that was good. I mean, looking internationally at what Kitaro was doing, or what Andreas Vollenweider was doing, not to mention the people who were seminal in this to some degree, Ralph Towner, Paul Winter, etc. etc. Obviously there was a lot of good music around. But when the major labels saw that a company like Windham Hill was making tens of millions of dollars a year, they thought that they could make substantially more by jumping into the market. Proved not to be the case. So we got subsumed into that whole marketing strategy on the part of the major labels, and in the process, a very vital, very real, very honest musical movement was compromised. 

(Gee, that's never happened in the music business before.) No, that was the first time. 

 

(Some people think of New Age as wallpaper music. Slow, dull, doesn't change much, it's undemanding of the listener. What do you say to that?) Well, I mean... in the first place, if you're talking about Alex DeGrassi or Michael Hedges or Shadowfax or Mark Isham or Liz Story or any number of people who were on Windham Hill as falling into that description, I think it's patently ridiculous. My stuff is much more pastoral, much more simple. I guess you could say that if you wanted. If I felt that all that people derived from my music was background, I think I would be a sad person indeed. I do remember getting a letter years ago from a woman who told me that she took great delight in washing her lettuce every afternoon to my music. And my first reaction was very self-serving. I swear to God, I thought, 'The woman does not understand the depth of my art' kind of thing, you know? And then I came off my high horse and thought, 'You know something? If this makes this woman's day a little bit more pleasant, that's a fine role to play.'

Again, if it were relegated to that exclusively, I would be disappointed. However, as I said earlier, the fact that people have wanted to leave this earth listening to my music, that they found that comfort, I know that there's more there, and I'm very grateful that there is. 

 

(What is the difference between good New Age and bad?) Oh boy. Does it have melodic structure, is the first thing to me. 

I don 't know that virtuosity is a criterion for me. There are brilliant virtuoso players who have nothing to say to me, and I frankly don't care for gymnastics for the sake of gymnastics. So that's the other side of the coin. 

One of the things that Robbie Basho told me years ago, he said, 'Listen, if you can't sing it, it's not a melody.' And I find that, with a lot of New Age music, that there are chordal changes taking place, but there really is no definitive melody. Can you sing it? Is it a song? So I think that a lot of the ambient New Age stuff is really just about chordal changes and colors. It's not necessarily about melody. And I think melody has always been the centerpiece of what I loved and what I produced and what I signed for Windham Hill. 


 

Contact me at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com