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Marc Urselli: Between Bolan and Willner, tradition and innovation

Marc Urselli: Between Bolan and Willner, tradition and innovation
Emmanuel Di Tommaso By

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We make music because we live, love and breath music. Those of us who feel that way will always continue making music because it is the only way we know how to express ourselves. It's our oxygen.
The wait is over. The much anticipated Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T-Rex has been released by BMG after a number of vicissitudes, not least the COVID-19 pandemic, which took the album's producer Hal Willner, on April 7, 2020, one day after his 64th birthday.

Angelheaded Hipster was his swan song. In true Hal Willner fashion, this tribute project features countless Marc Bolan classics covered by a motley crew of artists, ranging from household names to up-and-coming artists, and a stunning range of jazz musicians. Reading the liner notes one can find, among tens of others, the names of Elton John , U2 , Donald Fagen, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Joan Jett, Nick Cave, Peaches, Jun Miyake, Marc Almond, Father John Misty, Kesha, Devendra Banhart, Perry Farrell, Sean Lennon, Lucinda Williams , BØRNS, and many more.

Despite the diversity of artists involved, this homage succeeds in staying true to the spirit of Marc Bolan as an artist that has played a key role in shaping pop and rock music as we know it, while adding a whole new perspective to his music.

We took this opportunity to speak to the Grammy Award—winning sound engineer and long-time Hal Willner collaborator, Marc Urselli about the making of Angelheaded Hipster, the challenges of managing such a mammoth project and his friendship with the iconic producer.

All About Jazz: Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T-Rex has been released. You worked on this project for a long time. How do you feel now that the wait is over?

Marc Urselli: It is terribly exciting, relieving and uplifting to me to see this album out in the world. It's a great satisfaction to read all the accolades and praises it is receiving from everyone. It's great to see that Hal is finally receiving the credit he deserves as the groundbreaking and visionary producer he was. Hal considered this as his White Album, and so do I. It is definitely some of my best work and I am extremely proud to be the engineer on it. I have been getting texts and emails non stop since its release on September 4th (and even earlier, because the limited edition was released on Record Store Day on Aug 29th) with compliments and kind words about the music and about the recordings and the mixes I have done.

AAJ: How did the project start and how did you become involved?

MU: I had been working with Hal for a long time, well before Angelheaded Hipster. I was Lou Reed's sound engineer, and since Hal was Lou's producer, I have been around Hal and worked with him for years. BMG asked Hal to produce this record about four or five years ago. At the time Hal was doing his residency at John Zorn's East Village venue The Stone and I was helping him with the sound. One night after one of the shows in the Stone's musty basement Hal and his manager Rachel Fox told me about the project and they told me "We need an engineer," and I went "I'm in!"

AAJ: In your opinion, what is the greatest legacy of Marc Bolan?

MU: Bolan was an absolutely unique performer, a true original and a pioneer in many ways. Many talk about the influence he has had on Bowie's style and on rock 'n' roll in general. That is absolutely true, but, like Hal used to say, Bolan as a composer is who this album celebrates and I believe this album proves that his legacy will ultimately be his songs and his lyrics.

AAJ: Why do you think his impact on today's music has remained so under-appreciated over the years?

MU: Bolan is very popular in the UK. If he had not died so young, I am sure he would have gotten just as big anywhere else in the world. He might not have been mainstream, but he changed everything for everyone in his own way, so his impact will be forever felt, even if not everyone might knowingly connect it back to him.

AAJ: Do you think there will be any chance to see live performances of this album?

MU: Hal died of Covid during the lockdown. I am sure there will be more than one concert honoring Hal when we can gather for live music again, and I am sure those concerts will be as star-studded as this album is, but whether there will be performances from this album I cannot say. We do know however that Nick Cave has been performing "Cosmic Dancer" at some of the shows of his Conversations with Nick Cave tour and that he also performed it in his solo concert movie Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace. Late night show host James Corden this week is having a different musician from the album perform a song every day. Sean Lennon & Charlotte Kemp, Nick Cave and Joan Jett have done the first three days and there will be a different artist every day this week.

AAJ: Angelheaded Hipster is the last chapter of your long-time collaboration with Hal Willner: you have closely worked with him as his sound engineer for more than ten years on multiple projects including albums, studio sessions and concert productions. Willner has been one of your mentors and greatest inspirations, not only a colleague but also a special friend. How was it working with Willner?

MU: It was magical and stressful all at the same time. Hal would always decide things last minute and it was hard to get information out of him on what we were about to do, whether it was in the studio or live, so the name of the game for me was "preparedness." Hal thrived on organized chaos, so for me as his engineer it was important to stay focused, be ready for the curve balls and go with the flow. But, in the end, it would all be worth it, every single time, because magic would always develop around Hal and thanks to Hal. His ability to pair seemingly opposite people together and create absolute magic will forever be a source of inspiration for me.

AAJ: One of the typical characteristics of a Hal Willner production was how he managed to bring together so many big names, that would come from very diverse artistic backgrounds. How did he manage to convince them to overcome their egos and push them beyond their comfort zones?

MU: Friendship and trust was at the basis of that. The musicians he would get on his productions were his friends and his friends trusted him. Plus, everyone had huge respect for Hal so people wanted to be a part of his productions. It was a happening of sorts... But let us not forget the fact that along with the famous people and the big names Hal always made it a point to bring to the forefront some lesser known names, some musicians he liked and wanted to support. He gave a chance and a break to a lot of people and was instrumental or at least contributed in launching the careers or giving exposure to people like Jeff Buckley, Gary Lucas, Martha Wainwright and many others. Even on this record he made it a point to include indie artists he believed in. That was Hal!

AAJ: How did this aspect of his work impact the way you approached a recording session? In what ways did a "Hal Willner recording session" differ from the thousands of other recording sessions you've done over the years?

MU: Hal and I had a very similar way of working actually. Hal's sessions were always live and this is also the way I prefer to record and run most of my sessions... As a perfect example of this, look at the video [see at the bottom of the interview] of the Nick Cave song "Cosmic Dancer" from the Angelheaded Hipster's sessions and you will see that everyone is playing live at the same time in the same room, even the strings... and the entire band is in the same room with Nick who is singing while playing the piano. All live. The only instrument that was isolated were the drums and the only instrument that was not played live and overdubbed later was the bass clarinet. Check out the video and you'll see what I'm talking about. I like working with isolation booths and depending on which studio we'd record in I did use and will use isolation booths (with Hal and others), but I will always go for recording musicians live which was also Hal's preference. This is partly why we got along so well. We saw eye to eye on everything and we had a lot of respect for each other. The main difference between a Hal session and other sessions is that Hal actually liked to be inside the live room with the musicians. He would always ask me for an extra set of headphones so he could be in the room with the band and feel the music.

AAJ: What is your fondest memory of the recording sessions for Angelheaded Hipster? And of Hal Willner in general?

MU: I have tons of memories with Hal, and all are great. The session with Nick Cave was one of my favorite ones, in part because I am a huge fan of Nick and because it was the first one of the record, but I think some of my fondest memories are around the U2 sessions (one in New Orleans and one in France) because we had some great moments of bonding before and after those sessions. In New Orleans we had a very long and stressful day trying to turn what once was a commercial recording studio and had become somebody's living room back into a commercial recording studio able to accommodate U2. At the end of a long day Hal, Rachel Fox and myself found ourselves at the legendary Cafe Du Monde having beignets and Coffee at 2am... we were all high on coffee, sugar and the excitement of a great session! And when Hal and I flew to France to record Elton John with U2 in the studio, Hal and I got to drive around the French Riviera and talked a lot about music and life... I cherish those moments and miss him dearly.

AAJ: What is your favorite work realized with him?

MU: It would have to be this! Without a doubt! We did some great things with Hal, some which sadly never saw the light, but this record is the culmination of my work with Hal. It is, indeed, our White Album!

AAJ: You paid homage to the visionary legacy of Hal Willner by building and launching haltribute.com. What comes next?

MU: I would like to find more ways to pay tribute to Hal and bring his friends together for one last time and I am sure there will be concerts dedicated to Hal when we are allowed to have concerts but at this time there are no specific plans for any of that. What I can say for sure is that I plan to honor Hal's legacy by continuing to make records of the kind Hal would do. For example, several years ago, I started producing an album that brings together throat singers from the Eastern hemisphere (Mongolia, Tuva, Siberia etc.) with metal musicians from the Western hemisphere. The album is almost finished and will come out next year. I would have loved to play it for Hal and I am sure he would have appreciated the unlikely combination of musicians and styles. As I said earlier, Hal and I had very similar ways of working and seeing things, so in that way we were a perfect match in the studio. Hal has always been an inspiration to me and his disappearance has solidified my desire to continue his musical work and legacy to the best of my abilities. I will never be Hal and there won't be another Hal, but I'll do my best to make records that would make Hal nod and smile happily and with appreciation.

AAJ: The world of music is currently subject to significant and rapid changes. Phenomenon such as digitalization and cultural fusion are changing the ways we conceive, create, produce and listen to music. How do you see the world of music ten years from now?

MU: That is a scary prospect. Obviously, people no longer see the value in music because they are used to getting it for free and are not willing to pay for the work musicians put into it. All we had left were the live concerts, which, for the time being, are also not happening, so the art world as a whole is taking a huge punch in the gut and is going to recover from it very slowly. The pessimist in me will tell you that music is going to continue being devalued and there will be less people making music because it won't be a sustainable way of life. The wishful thinking optimist in me is hoping that I'm wrong and that there will be a return to caring for quality (the surge of vinyl sales could be a testament to that theory) and that people (even if it is a minority) will want to pay for quality and choose to support music and the arts in that way. One thing is for sure: we make music because we live, love and breath music and those of us who feel that way will always continue making music because it is the only way we know how to express ourselves. It's our oxygen. Music might not be a commodity in the future, but it certainly is not going anywhere!

Photo credit: William Semeraro.

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