Ask any music die hard and they can tell you about the importance of Larry Klein as a producer and musician. The list of artists he has worked with is staggering — Robbie Robertson, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Melody Gardot, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Warren Zevon, Walter Becker, Diana Ross, Mindi Abair and countless more.
He is of course best known for his work with Joni Mitchell, who he was also married to for 12 years. Klein is still very active and making music regularly, including Cometa, his new album with wife Luciana Souza. As Klein told me when we spoke for the return of my long-running Who I Am column, he is very happy now working with artists around the globe.
Klein took me the pivotal moments in his life and career, including having to rescind songs he gave to Robert Plant because Mitchell wanted them, working with the late Robertson and Martin Scorese and much, much more.
The Beatles, Rubber Soul
My parents had a great eclectic record collection. Neither of them were musicians. My mom was a housewife, and my dad was an aeronautical engineer, aerospace engineer. And he worked on satellites and space projects. He worked on the first Mars probe. All to say that their jobs had nothing to do with their appreciation of music, but they had a great record collection that consisted of everything from [Frank] Sinatra and Nat King Cole to the best shows that were happening, musical-wise to a good cross section of classical music to Wes Montgomery and good jazz records to pop music like Connie Francis and what at that time was somewhat superficial record making. And then I remember discovering the Beatles even before I heard Rubber Soul. And then hearing Rubber Soul I thought, “Wow, if you can make yourself feel like that when I hear these songs, that’s what I want to do. I want to try and learn how to do that.” And so that was probably the first event that made me really feel like, “Okay, I have to be a musician. The whole record just turned my head around several times. I couldn’t stop listening to it. And learning. I learned all of the songs on guitar.
Middle School/High School
I had a combination of teachers and opportunities that really were kind of life changing. I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley in an area called Monterey Park. At that time it was a nondescript suburban area. And I went to a middle school that became a high school, and the guy that they brought in to be the music teacher and band director, everything musical guy was a what would you call it? A dreamer [laughter] in that he really set about, his goal was to make the music department at this little middle school a college level music department. And so I just glued myself to him. And he started giving me music to listen to and turned me on to [Gyorgy] Ligety and Charles Ives and all all of this amazing contemporary music. And then at that same time, I guess it was my mom discovered this place called the Community Schools at USC. And it was a place that you could test into and then go after school and study with university professors. And it was in a little building on the grounds of USC that they must not have known what to do with this one building. And they probably rented it out to these people who started it. And that became what now is the Colburn School. But, so in seventh grade, I started going there and studying with a couple of different teachers there who also kind of turned me inside out. And there was a cross section of great kids that I met there, and one of which was Billy Childs, who’s now carved out a real space for himself in contemporary composing and has had things commissioned and played by the LA Philharmonic and orchestras all over the world. I had become obsessed with jazz at that point. I had gone through this period of being obsessed with everything the Beatles were doing. And then I ended up becoming primarily a bass player, and I became obsessed with jazz and so I met other kids who were also studying composition and theory and different things there, who I started playing with and listening to jazz with. That was a big moment.
Early Jazz Gigs
That led to, I guess, the next phase of things after that was playing with my jazz heroes. As soon as I had got my driver’s license I started playing around town with different people at different clubs, and so the first gig I got was with Willie Bobo, and that was basically an education in Latin music and jazz from that point. I was still going to college at that point and a music major at college and playing in community orchestras and stuff. And then that led to me getting picked up by Freddie Hubbard to play in his band. I was playing around town when I was 16, but then I graduated early. I opted to go to summer school so that I could graduate a year early from high school and then started going to college at Cal State LA. And tested out of a bunch of stuff there, but was still there, but was really focused on jazz still and playing around town. And that’s when I started getting these offers to go on the road with some of my heroes in the jazz world. I ended up playing with Freddie Hubbard for about four or five years, on and off. He used to say that you’re getting your masters with me. And it was kind of true because it was a situation where I had to play to the absolute limit of what I could do every night. So I did that and played with other people at different junctures. Carmen McRae and Joe Henderson and just these people that I had spent a lot of time listening to in my bedroom, I was able to start playing with. I’d say that juncture was the next important moment.
From there, I reached a point where I sort of burnt out on primarily working in the jazz world and decided I had a parallel kind of admiration and set of heroes in the studio world and the world of making records. I just felt like at a certain point, the vitality of things went over for me, from jazz to pop music, and I became rabidly interested in the craft of using the studio to make good records. And also the craft of playing on records and doing studio work. And so I started doing that around town. I got more interested in records that were being made in the pop world, too, because I felt that the jazz world started feeling to me like overly fixated on speed and virtuosity rather than making people feel something and that really was how I started out and everything. And that part of things was missing from the jazz world for me at that point. And so I started really focusing on studying records and trying to learn how to use the studio as an instrument to make myself and other people feel something intensely. And so I started playing on other people’s records. I played on Tracy Chapman’s first couple of records and a slew of other things during that period. And then I got called, and this has been on my mind quite a bit in the last couple of weeks because of Robbie Robertson passing away. I got a phone call out of the blue to play on a film. I’d never done a film date before that. And it was someone, I don’t know who it was still, who called me and it was basically come down to Village Studios, Studio D, it’s a film date. And so I walked in to the studio and there’s Robbie Robertson, who was a big hero of mine. I was listening a lot to The Band and what they were doing and making and how they were making it. And so I was kind of stunned to walk in and see and meet Robbie. And then around the corner came this guy with a handheld camera filming everything and it was [Martin] Scorsese. And it was the music for Raging Bull. So it turned out that the date was playing piano trio with Garth Hudson and playing piano and Richard Manuel playing drums. Not many people still know this actually, Richard Manuel was a good drummer. Aside from everything else he did that was great. And Robbie was the music producer, I guess you’d call it, coordinator producer on that film. And so that began kind of a long relationship where I played on different films that he was doing. I played on some of the music for King of Comedy and played on his first solo record. And so he was a big figure for me in my musical development because I would corner him and get him to talk about everything and while we were working on different things. And so anyhow, during that period, I started playing on all kinds of different records, doing studio work and during that time, that leads to the next sort of juncture.
That was when I got a call to play on a date with Joni. And at that point, I think she’d written three songs toward the record that became Wild Things Run Fast. So I went into the studio and worked with her and John Guerin. And it was fantastic. First of all, the songs were just amazing and she was amazing. And he was an amazing talent, who was at that time at the top of the studio world as far as musicians go. We did that date, and then she had to go write more songs. So I ended up doing other stuff and then got called back after she had a few more songs. And it was the beginning of a friendship between she and I that eventually developed into a romantic relationship. And then of course we ended up together and then eventually got married and spent 10 years together. And right around that time also I started getting offers to produce records. And so I started taking everything, I started producing friends records for free and working with Joni on finishing Wild Things Run Fast. It wasn’t an accredited production situation, but it was synergistic. We worked, bounced ideas back and forth, in the finishing process on that record. And then I started getting some offers to produce other records. And so that was the beginning of another part of me pursuing this craft of producing records, which I’m still trying to get right to this day.
It started out as a frustration with playing on other people’s records and initially thinking, “Oh, my God, this sounds amazing.” I’d be in the studio with Jim Keltner and some group of amazing musicians, and we do a track or two, and I’d think this is going to be a great record. And then hearing the record in the end where the producer had just buried everything good about what happened initially. And so that frustration really made me want to produce records so that I could be in a position where I had enough control over the overview of how things fit together to not do that. And so that frustration of playing on things that ended up not sounding and not having that kind of emotional connective quality made me want to produce records. And so, I set about just trying to learn everything that I could both empirically and just emotionally about how to get the best out of people and how to shape records in a way where they ended up having that kind of emotional quality to them where they really made me feel something intensely. And I always figured that, “If they make me feel that intense feeling, then they’re probably going to make other people or a certain amount of other people feel that same kind of feeling.” And so that became a never ending learning process for me. Every time I make a record, I’m still learning more because I’m an omnivore musically. By nature I’m interested in pretty much every kind of music and stylistically and I always have since I started producing records. I go where the wind blows me and something comes across my path and if it’s compelling, then I’m off on a new adventure and trying to make something that is different and fresh sounding. And usually something that sits in the cracks between other things, genre-wise, I’ve always been compelled to try and make records that didn’t sit neatly in any genre, but actually rather sat in between two genres or three genres or something that just had its own territory, that has its own language and territory. And so when I make records with people and when I’m producing records, I’m always drawn to situations that, where there’s that possibility to try and make something that doesn’t sit neatly in any genre, but communicates in its own. language for that record.
Peter Gabriel/Daniel Lanois/England
I ended up getting a phone call from Peter Gabriel to go play in his band and learn from him, and Daniel Lanois about a whole other aspect of record making. That was what changed the way that I did things in many ways, just by working with them. And during that time also, I worked on some things with Mutt Lange. I got interested in how to make a good rock record and work with Mutt on some things. And who I just in many ways found to be just a brilliant record maker, and producer. And so there was that whole period and I ended up over in England for about better part of a year doing all these different things. And Joni ended up coming over because I was never supposed to stay there that long. This is a funny side story. I was working in off hours at the studio. I was working on writing music and coming up with different ideas musically. And through, at that juncture, Robert Plant was working on making a solo record, and I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan, just like everybody else. And so the idea of maybe working in some way with Robert was thrilling to me. So I ended up sending over a couple of these things, I think two or three of these sketches, these demos to Robert. And he said, “Oh, I want to write words to these”. And you can imagine, I was just completely floored. That this guy who I had been listening to since, I don’t know what age, wanted to write words to these things that I was making. And then Joni ended up showing up, came over and I played those pieces of music for her. And she said, “What are you doing with those?” And I said, “Well, Robert Plant wants to write words to them.” And she said, “No, you’ve got to give them to me.” And I said, “But I’ve already given them to him. I can’t call him.” I was just horrified. And she was just insistent. She just said, “No, you’ve got to give them to me.” And so I had to call Robert Plant and say, “I have to take those songs back” [laughter].. And he was very funny about it, actually. He was kind of pissed, but he said, “Anyone else, I’d be really angry.” Because he is such a big fan of hers. So she ended up writing words to those songs, and we ended up doing them on a record that we started over there in England.
Wayne Shorter/Herbie Hancock
I continued making records and then I guess the next juncture was that things started kind of molding together for me, the jazz aspect of what I had way earlier been working with and playing with these Olympian kind of jazz heroes of mine. And then the record production part of things. And I started making different records working with jazz more. And I’d made a couple of records with Melody Gardot and then Madeleine Peyroux, and just experimenting with different ways of making things that were kind of jazz in part, but also still didn’t fit neatly into any genre. During that time I started playing with Wayne Shorter and he became a big mentor for me, in my work with him and in talking with him about music and seeing what he did musically and in many ways he changed me. And Herbie Hancock as well, both those guys, just the way that they looked at music. They looked beyond genre and looked beyond any kind of borderlines musically between things and in such advanced and intuitive way that really I felt like I’d found my tribe in a certain way, even though these guys were like the Olympian gods as far as the way they thought and played.
River: The Joni Letters
So that culminated in this idea of doing a record of Joni’s music with Herbie, which was River: The Joni Letters record. And that was a huge point for me, that record because it sort of brought together so many different things from my musical life. And in some ways that was an ecstatic experience. I got Dave Holland to play bass and Wayne was playing and Herbie. And we had all these great guests, Tina Turner, Norah Jones. It was an amazing situation. It was a hyper creative, high point of making something that had no definition to it, as it was just music and utilizing these great songs of Joni’s as vehicles for getting at this nameless, ineffable place. It was both ecstatic and agonizing at the same time, because I remember I’d go to the studio and guys like Herbie and Wayne, they were on a level where nobody ever questioned what they played like, so they were on a level where they’d do a take of something. And it was like,” Okay, what are we going to do next?” Whereas I realized that one of my jobs as a producer on that was to protect the words and protect the poetry. And in doing so, the music had to serve as underscore for the poetry. And that was a new thing for me to try and guide these heroes of mine. And it was a new thing for them. I remember sitting down with Herbie, and with this big pile of lyrics that I brought over to his house, and I had narrowed down from this huge body of work that Joni had. I’d narrowed it down to a certain amount to, I don’t know how many songs I had, maybe 25 or 30. And I said, okay, so we need to sit and we need to figure out which songs we’re going to do on this thing. So the making of that record, it was both incredibly stimulating and great and a revelation in so many ways.