The story behind Jennifer Warnes just reissued 2001 album The Well isn’t entirely unusual, especially in today’s music business climate. But it, like her current recording project, does have its own unique twists.
“It was a chaotic time n the music industry,” recalls Warnes, looking back on The Well’s original North American release in 2001—just before 9/11. “After 9/11 we released [album track] ‘Patriot’s Dream’ as a single and sent it to firemen for use in funerals. But the company had all kinds of problems and didn’t have the energy to get behind it.”
Deeply personal, The Well, which was reissued Mar. 18 by BMG Intrnational (it was released for the first time in the U.K. on Mar. 4), was first released in a small pressing by the Music Force label. It was later issued in audiophile vinyl and gold CD through audiophile label Impex Records.
The album featured songs by Warnes as well as Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Allen Toussaint, Jesse Winchester, Arlo Guthrie (“Patriot’s Dream,” on which he sang with Warnes), Billy Joel and Cindy Walker.
“It just missed the train every time!” says Warnes. She relates how it followed her 1992 album The Hunter, which came out on Private Music and was itself the followup to her 1987 landmark Famous Blue Raincoat album of Leonard Cohen songs–which Private picked up after the demise of original label Cypress Records.
Warnes, of course, was long established via huge pop hits like “Right Time of the Night” (1972), her 1982 Joe Cocker duet “Up Where We Belong” and the 1987 Bill Medley duet “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”
“I was working with Doyle Bramhall in Austin, learning to sing behind the beat and get feels into my rhythms,” she remembers. “We had a great Texas R&B band—Doyle on drums, Mike Judge on bass—and we did covers and things to get a feel if were an item, and I was super thrilled and brought my first demos to Private—and they told me to make a string quartet record instead! So we set aside the R&B record and did the string quartet record—and then Private folded into Windham Hill, and Windham Hill didn’t want the string record. I stood back and watched the carnage!”
Warnes realized that because of her messy label situation, the album was never going to happen the way she had hoped. And while she was eventually free from her deal, she was left with “lost years, and the sorrow from bringing them the beautiful music that they hated and never released.”
“Underlying the story—and it applies for all musicians—is that the futurists at the big secret record company conventions in Florida were telling them what was going to happen because of digital technology,” she continues. “I was coming back from the South on a plane and ran into someone who said, ‘Sell everything you got and get out as fast as you can!’ They were scared to death, and companies were folding and it was really horrible in 1997, ’98, 2001. It was very unpleasant and I was just holding on by my fingernails and finding out the real character of people who professed to care about me.”
But at a party at bassist Leland Sklar’s house, Warnes was approached by ER and Beverly Hills, 90210 TV music arranger Martin Davich, who expressed his fandom and desire to produce her.
“It ended up being an amalgamation of the R&B and string quartet records, and was what I had left in my heart at the time,” she says of what became The Well. “Now it’s called Americana.”
Her eighth studio album, The Well brought together Bramhall’s Texas roots and Warnes’ Los Angeles studio background—within the context of her having lived in Austin in the early ‘80s. The album’s titletrack, co-written by Warnes and Bramhall’s son Doyle Bramhall II, came from visiting Jacob’s Well in central Texas–a natural spring that inspired Warnes to meditate on life’s mystery, beauty and challenges.
“It’s something in-between Austin and L.A., using some of my favorite songwriters,” she says. “I hope people get to hear it this time, because it doesn’t exist anywhere else. No one heard it before because of the deconstruction of the music business, which affected me and a thousand other artists who have masters languishing in the vaults—if they haven’t burned down!”
But the re-release of The Well also marks a time of renewed recording activity for Warnes, who has guested on other artists’ albums since its initial release. A big fan, BMG CEO Hartwig Masuch flew in from Berlin to sign her.
“My fans keep asking for new material,” she told him. “I can’t keep reissuing Famous Blue Raincoat!”
But since The Well had never been released in Europe, it’s come out now ahead of a new album she’s working on for release by BMG International later this year.
“Everything’s under budget, and I’m delivering beautiful music with the potential to say something to the industry: I’m still here. This is what I do for a living, and no matter what happens, if a person has a path to follow, that’s the path.”
She’s reteamed with her Famous Blue Raincoat co-producer Roscoe Beck.
“We really know how to do this, though we haven’t done it together in 30 years!” she says, then turns contemplative.
“My generation of artists has been hit pretty hard,” she notes. “For those of us who survive, there’s an urgency to keep on going. Look around at all our peers who have passed like Joe Cocker and just last week, Steve Young. I lost my dear wonderful, beautiful manager Linda Komorsky Liker in 2014, and two of my sisters died 17 days apart the year before. The antidote to the horribleness, if you know how to be a beautiful, decent, good and capable professional, is for God’s sakes, do it–and do it on a pedestal so that young people can see you! Write a sentence, paint a beautiful painting, cook a beautiful meal–it must be done. The most revolutionary thing you can do is persist in doing things well.”
“There’s a beauty to this time of life,” she adds, “a secret to this time of life. The worst thing our generation can do is stop talking about it.”
But “the truth is,” she concludes, “a bunch of us are pushing forward becuase we were meant to do this—and we really don’t need a cultural movement to believe in ourselves.”
To this end, she sang with Leonard Cohen in December for his recording project, and is working on her own book project.
“I have a wall full of journals that I’ve kept all these years,” she says.