Legendary Grammy winning guitarist and new age icon Will Ackerman makes a humble and fascinating confession in his insightful liner notes accompanying Positano Songs, an emotionally compelling exquisitely composed, intricately arranged and played love letter to a town on the Amalfi Coast in Italy that’s also a very special place in his heart. “If I never wrote another piece of music, I would still have the years of writing and recording behind me,” he writes. “I honestly didn’t think it would be a devastating reality were my compositional career to be at an end.”
When his fans throughout the world, some of whom have been with him since his early days with Windham Hill – the influential label he co-founded in 1976 – hear his first official “solo” album in over ten years, they’ll be glad he kept composing at such a powerful and impactful level. As producer of hundreds of genre albums at his famed Imaginary Road Studios in Vermont, his participation in the ZMR winning supergroup FLOW and currently up for another Grammy for Brothers (a collaboration with longtime cohorts Jeff Oster and Tom Eaton), Ackerman’s hardly been away.
As incredible as all the projects he participates are, there’s something special and more personal about Positano Songs. His vision as a solo artist is still an essential part of contemporary music (and our culture in general) and we can all be grateful for his invitation to join him on this intimate, all at once heartfelt and whimsical journey.
JW Vibe recently had the opportunity to interview Will Ackerman about Positano Songs.
JW: When was the first time you visited Positano, and how did it become such a special, inspirational place for you?
Will Ackerman: I’m honestly not sure what year it was when I first went to Positano. I’m sure we can say it’s easily 20 years or so. The first time I went to Positano was inspired by an article in a travel magazine. I had been in Northern Italy a number of times, probably as the result of playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in the mid-80s. But though I don’t remember what magazine it was, the photos of Positano just looked like the sort of place I’d love. In those days you had big fat books about travel, probably Fodor’s, and I found this insanely beautiful hotel in Positano - Hotel Palazzo Murat - which had been the summer house of the King of Naples (when the kingdom of Naples included all of what is currently Italy).
I remember walking into the hotel and feeling like I’d known the place forever. Then a minute and a half later, I was meeting the manager of the place, Carmine Pallone who to this day is one of my closest friends on the planet. Some best friends you lose to geographical distances and some dear friends I think intersect with your life in a special way, but don’t survive the inevitable changes in growing older. Carmine has been there with me/for me for approaching 40 years now. One of the things about me and Carmine is that we really laugh a lot. I don’t mean drunk laughing… I just mean wonderful belly aching laughing. It’s a great way to cement a relationship forever. He’s seen me through hard times and great times and I’ve been there for him.
JW: Is Positano Songs the first time you’ve dedicated a full album to a single geographic locale? If so, what is the creative experience like as opposed to composing on many different themes and topics?
Will Ackerman: I hadn’t written anything new at the time, and I honestly wasn’t particularly worried about it. I’d recorded 12 albums or so and had won a Grammy. There was not a gun to my head, either from myself or the world outside. It did occur to me that if there was any place where I could get away from the day to day pressures in my life, it would be Positano, a place where I had friends, a place that is beautiful and inspirational. Bob Taylor of Taylor guitars had arranged for me to have a bunch of guitars delivered to me from Rome and I sat down the following day and music just happened. This was in 2015. Because of recording and touring with FLOW, then recording and touring with Four Guitars and then recording Brothers, it took me a long time to revisit those video-recorded musical sketches. To be honest, there’s nothing intellectual in the process for me. I just need to find a path into a space that borders on the sub-conscious, remove the frontal lobes and feel something.
JW: Your liner notes indicate that you were pleased with your great body of work and didn’t think it would be devastating if you never recorded another solo project. The passion you bring to Positano Songs seems to contradict that thought. What changed your mind and inspired you to seek inspiration in these beautiful and familiar surroundings?
Will Ackerman: I don’t see a contradiction in this. Intellectually I feel I’ve done what I needed to do as an artist, both for my own music and for the music of the musicians that I signed to Windham Hill Records - and with the people I continue to produce in my studio to this day. I would not have been heartbroken if my solo career was over. I just felt that by leaving home and the day to day and go to a place which I love and feel at home in, I might find the inspiration that indeed I did find.
JW: What is the story you are telling musically on Positano Songs? Is it a through line narrative or more like a collection of snapshots/impressions of the town and the Amalfi Coast?
Will Ackerman: My writing process is, if anything, subconscious. I have no idea where this stuff comes from. To insinuate intellect in the process is inaccurate. I just have to clear my head of thought and feel. I sometimes think of memories that could inspire me, but often it really is more like a meditation. Clear the mind and see what the heart has to say.
JW: Please choose a few songs and talk about their inspiration and how the music reflects the theme or title?
Will Ackerman: The “theme” is only that the basic concepts came to me in Positano. I have no idea where this stuff comes from and the inspiration (which I acknowledge is NOT of an intellectual origin) is more of a meditation with the heart and perhaps memory.
JW: How was composing music in the apartment above the home of your friend Paola’s parents different from your normal surroundings or at your home studio? Does such a change of venue change the creative dynamic?
Will Ackerman: However beautiful our home in Vermont is, it is also a place where a lot of work takes place…producing other artists in my studio, the planting and cultivation of an ever-growing organic garden, the raising of chickens, ducks and (until recently ) geese. I fell the trees and buck the trees and split our multiple cords of firewood with a 6 pound maul. This is a very physical place. Add to that the many people I produce in my studio every year with my co-producer and engineer, Tom Eaton. Though COVID has made for less productions coming into the studio, we have kept busy with those projects. My principal work in music has always been as a producer, going back to George Winston, Michael Hedges, Liz Story, Alex de Grassi and many others. I see my own music as almost avocational. My “work” has always been as a producer for others.
JW: It’s definitely a blessing to be so in demand as a producer for other artists and have the opportunity to work on collaborative projects like the two FLOW albums and Brothers. Yet is there any frustration about that schedule keeping you from developing song ideas like the ones you came up with in Positano? Are there sometimes tradeoffs when you have dual careers (artist and producer)?
Will Ackerman: Ah, so you came around to this too. I honestly consider my job in music is producing others. That’s just plain fun for me. I pick the people I want to work with. There’s no gun to my head at this point in my life. I can work when I want with people I admire and enjoy as good human beings. I’m wonderfully spoiled and take great joy in the freedom I have.
JW: How and when did you finally find the time to develop these songs to fruition and record them? How long did that take and what was the process?
Will Ackerman: To be honest, I can find music whenever I ask for it. Two months ago, I thought that it was about time that I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone of a four chord pattern and spend about a half hour pushing myself to something new and came up with a seven chord pattern, which I absolutely love and Tom and I will be recording it in a couple of weeks. JW: Now, onto production. What were the three guitars you chose to use and why did you choose them? How different are they in tone from the ones you had when you composed the songs?
Will Ackerman: Most of my writing is (and has been for decades) on my Froggy Bottom K Model guitar by Michael Millard. That has been the case for decades. The sound of the K model guitar has been my signature song for decades now. Michael now sells a guitar based on what he and I have evolved over decades now. The other guitar that I usually use for one or two pieces per album is the little parlor guitar that Michael Hedges gave me years ago. It’s set up in a weird way where the highest string is the third string…a strand string rather than a wound string which would always be the case. I frankly don’t know what others do with this sort of an instrument, but I just took it as Michael had it strung and ran with it. I’ve done one or two pieces on the parlor guitar for every album I’ve done in a couple of decades now.
Lastly, the Steve Klein jumbo guitar. Over the years, I have evolved into a session player for other musicians, doing lead guitar. I’ve gotten to be pretty good at it and my approach to lead work, also utilizing open tunings as I go, has become a new thing for me. This was the first time I did duets with myself. The sonority of the Froggy in combination with the Klein offers a clear differentiation in sound between those, so they have very different voices. That’s very much a new thing in my life and has much to do with the overall sound of Positano Songs.
JW:I know you and Tom Eaton have worked on hundreds of projects together. What specific role did he play in bringing out the magic of these Positano songs?
Will Ackerman: I have never turned over the role of producer of my music to anyone else. Over the years, I’ve come to admire Tom’s talents/heart/ears… and for once I could just be a guitarist and allow my realm to be entirely emotional and not need to have thought enter into the recording process. I just utterly trust Tom to be the subjective ears and heart of the project and just be free to dig in as deeply as I can emotionally. It was liberating beyond measure. It also held up a mirror to me to understand more about the role I have in other people’s music as producer, that they can come to trust me (and Tom) to be the thinking part of the process and let them connect to their inspiration in making their record(s). JW: I like how you bookend Positano Songs with solo pieces but the others have other instrumentation for harmony and coloring. Was the tracking intentional?
Will Ackerman: My music has generally been chordal. “Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter” and “Impending Death of the Virgin Spirit” among a few others incorporated both chordal and melodic structures, but generally my writing has been purely chordal.
JW: Likewise, what is it that you were looking for your guest artists, particularly Charlie Bisharat (violin), Eugene Friesen (cello) and Noah Wilding (voices) to add to bring the full emotions of many of these pieces to life?
Will Ackerman: I often use a melodic intro or A section which is pretty much me being self- sufficient, but I think move into a chordal pattern which creates an open space for brilliant players to provide something to work with my guitar while being a clearly separate source of melody. Charlie Bisharat is just superhuman in his capacity to generate melody. I’ve worked with Charlie since he was part of Shadowfax on Windham Hill. Eugene Friesen and I have worked together for decades as well. Eugene is also local, so I can get him into the studio when I need. Charlie and I work out of Village Recorders in Santa Monica, CA, and have for decades now. Noah is a wonderful vocalist who also lives nearby.
JW: How do you feel the music on Positano Songs reflect who you are as an artist and person right now? What was your favorite part about making the album?
Will Ackerman: I have only feeling to guide me, so there’s no escaping its reflecting me completely in this moment in time. I loved being surprised by myself… learning new things to do with a guitar and being able to just be a guitarist and not a producer for the first time in my life. Also, trusting Tom that music and being able to listen at the end of the day and feel that I had been what I offer people as a producer…to be free to feel, not think too much and just fall back into the arms of your producer and the sounds that are coming from a guitar which have nothing to do with thought and let it be purely an emotional world you get to inhabit. JW: Now that you’ve released this, should we expect more anytime soon, or will this be it on the solo front for a while?
Will Ackerman: I thought I’d cross the finish line and lean my chest into the tape and call it quits for a while, but it was so much fun that, as I mentioned above, new music is already happening!
For more information, please visit: https://williamackerman.com/