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Even more important, along with all the brilliant things he achieved on those albums, some of the experiments he tried failed — a few of them just didn’t have the intended effect. Because of that, I learned what didn’t work, as well as what did work. I owe a great deal to Mr. Webb, and I still have tremendous admiration for him and his writing, arranging and producing skills. (A recent solo collection of original songs, and a nice example of his work, is Twilight of the Renegades.)
Joni Mitchell—Shortly after discovering Jimmy Webb, I heard Joni Mitchell’s work. Not only is she a fabulous writer, she brought a new level of intimacy to songwriting. Her songs contained so much personal detail that she felt like a best friend — and she was the kind of person most of us would love to have as a best friend: honest, sensitive, insightful, witty and intelligent. And, of course, the quality of her lyrics and music was far above that of many of her contemporaries.
The amount of personal detail that she exposed in her music was a key part of what drew her fans to her music, but eventually it backfired. When she became very successful, the lack of privacy that often accompanies fame was amplified by the amount of personal information revealed in her songs, and she finally went into seclusion. Ultimately, she switched to a less revealing style of writing, which cost her many of her fans. Nevertheless, she showed the power of personal honesty (as well as phenomenal craftsmanship) in songwriting.
It was a lesson that was not lost on me. In fact, my song Portrait, on the album INTUITION, is written and recorded in her style, as a tribute to her. (To sample some of her finest work, try Ladies of the Canyon for a straightforward, less-produced album, or Court and Spark for a complex but compelling disc.)
Isao Tomita—The fourth artist whose work impacted me tremendously was doing something utterly different from Paul, Jim and Joni. When I moved to New York, a new friend turned me on to Japanese synthesizer artist Isao Tomita. Tomita’s albums featured well-known classical music, reinterpreted on synthesizer (a relatively new musical instrument at that time). However, that doesn’t begin to describe what was really going on on his albums.
Tomita understands some things about music that are difficult to put into words. Most of us think of music as a concrete sort of thing that is produced by an instrument or voice. This keeps the experience of the music within certain boundaries; it’s difficult to experience the music separately from its presentation. We’re always aware that an orchestra or person or instrument is creating the music.
In contrast, a synthesizer can produce sounds that aren’t associated with anything concrete — unless you want them to be. (Many people dislike synthesizer music for exactly this reason!) Because a synthesizer can sound like almost anything, it can be wonderful or terrible in many more dimensions than, say, a saxophone. That’s where the imagination of the artist comes into the equation. Freed from conventional boundaries, the possibilities for creating something extraordinary—or awful—are endless.
Tomita took music to an experiential level that I had never encountered before. In a way, the dazzling production and arrangements of Jimmy Webb had whetted my appetite. Jimmy Webb pushed the boundaries . . . but he still produced his music in the familiar, concrete way. In Tomita’s music, the synthesized sounds take on a life of their own. The textures and tones are used to shape sensory experience directly, without the “interference” of the someone is creating this experience. The sounds move freely around you when you sit in front of stereo speakers or listen over headphones, unrestricted by a traditional physical sound source. So in Tomita’s hands, the frantic, fast-moving melody lines of Mercury from Holst’s The Planets actually race around the room!