Linda Ronstadt, A Hispanic Heritage 'Legend,' On Staying Connected

Oct 4, 2020
Originally published on October 4, 2020 11:10 am

Linda Ronstadt — the chart-topping, Grammy- and Emmy-winning Rock & Roll Hall of Famer — is due to be honored again this week. This time, she'll receive a Hispanic Heritage Award, in recognition both of her pop music and her smash-hit mariachi albums. Ahead of the virtual ceremony, which will be broadcast by PBS on Oct. 6, she joined NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro to talk about the role of her Mexican-American identity in her career and what music she's been listening to lately. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Lulu Garcia-Navarro: A lot people didn't realize that you have roots in Mexico until you released your mariachi albums in the late 1980s. How much of an influence did those roots have on your singing?

Tremendous. The singer that had the most influence on my singing style was Lola Beltrán, who is sort of the Piaf of Mexico. You know, Mexican culture is often so taken for granted it's sort of invisible in the United States — it's hard to get through that screen. It wasn't anything that I hid, but it was not as acknowledged as whatever else they were acknowledging.

My vocal style is very influenced by Mexican singing — it's a belt style. I wasn't influenced by blues or [the] Black church as much as most rock and roll people were. I was much more influenced by Mexican music singers and rhythms.

It's now been seven years since you announced that you had Parkinson's, but you've been busy lately. You're featured in an upcoming documentary called Linda and the Mockingbirds.

I had planned to take this trip with this cultural group that I work with called Los Cenzontles. They teach young children from the ages of 6 to 19 how to play traditional Mexican music, how to play the instruments, sing and dance, and they also teach visual art. It's one of the most exciting things I've ever been involved with; I've been working with them for almost 30 years now. They teach children to play music, not to be in performing fields but to use it socially, to express their emotions and to communicate with each other. And the kids that come out of that program have a much better chance of finishing high school, there's fewer teen pregnancies, more people go to college and finish. Some of them turn out to be really great professional musicians, [but] that's not the goal. The goal is to teach them how to have tools to socialize in a way that connects back to their original culture with pride and dignity.

We had a film crew going with us to Mexico, because they were trying to get the end of [a different] documentary they were making about me. Somebody else, I guess, was cooperating with it and they wanted to have an interview. And I said, "If you want an interview, you have to come to Mexico and interview me there." I figured it would be more fun to do that than sit in my living room and be a talking head.

YouTube

You've been working with that group for about 30 years. Why is it so important for you to connect with your heritage in that way?

Well, I grew up in the Sonoran Desert, which is an area that exists on both sides of the border. In fact, my family was in that part of the world before this was a country, so to say that we're newcomers is a bit of a stretch. Even here in California, my family came here in '70, '69. So, you know, I resent anybody saying, "Go back where you came from." It's been easier for me because I'm light-skinned and I have a German surname, so I'm sort of a secret Mexican-American. Some people don't realize who they're talking to, and they start making racist remarks.

Has that happened to you?

Oh, yeah. To my father too. He'd be at a cocktail party and somebody would start saying, "These Mexicans that come in here," ... or some ethnic slur. It's not a good thing to do to my dad.

How would he react?

Well he's very stern. He'd put up with no racist talk.

You must have inherited some of his outspokenness. Last year, during a dinner for the Kennedy Center Honors, you very famously took Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to task for "enabling" President Trump. What happened after that? Were there any after-effects?

Chief Justice Roberts came to my box about the following night with Nancy Pelosi and was full of praise — not about that specific thing, but in general. And he sent me, then, an autographed picture of himself and the two of us together. So they couldn't have been too mad [laughs].

What music is getting you through this moment? You know, often in times of difficulty, people gravitate to certain types of music or particular songs that give them comfort. Do you have any of those?

I listen to opera a lot on YouTube. I love it because I can hear one soprano singing an aria from La Traviata, and then I can hear five other ones from different times, from Rosa Ponselle to Maria Callas to Anna Netrebko. It's fun to be able to compare them. But recently, I reinstalled my turntable and got my vinyl albums out, and I put on Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. It was a revelation. Brian Wilson is a genius; I love his music. It cheered me up.

Do you have a big vinyl collection?

No, I have only about 10 records. I gave up all my vinyl when CDs became so ubiquitous, but I never thought they sounded as good as vinyl. So I just got a couple of vinyl pressings of some classic things that I like. Rubber Soul. Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, which is a perfect record. Blue by Joni Mitchell, which is another perfect record. Graceland by Paul Simon — all of his records are great, but I'm fond of that one because I sang on it.

Is it true you've discovered a new favorite of yours through NPR's Tiny Desk concert series?

Oh, the South Korean band! What are they called? SsingSsing, I love them!

Tell me why.

They sound like traditional Korean singing, [mixed] with David Bowie, in a garage band. They're totally original; I love them.

Do you have a message for the Latino community at this time since, this is a Hispanic Heritage Award?

Well, keep your powder dry and keep fighting. You know, there's a lot of abuses by ICE in the jails, and the private prison corporations are taking advantage of the fact that they can lock people up for long periods of time with utter neglect. The fact that they're locking children up in cages and separating them from their families, it's just cruel beyond words. It's such a disgrace. People are in the streets rioting — not rioting but they're demonstrating in the streets. They have to keep demonstrating.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN WILL I BE LOVED")

LINDA RONSTADT: (Singing) I've been cheated, been mistreated. When will I be loved?

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Linda Ronstadt, chart-topping, Grammy and Emmy-winning Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, is due to be honored again this week with a Hispanic Heritage Award. It's in recognition both of her pop music and her smash-hit mariachi albums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POR UN AMOR (FOR A LOVE)")

RONSTADT: (Singing in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Linda Ronstadt joins us now. Welcome to the program, and congratulations.

RONSTADT: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A lot of people didn't realize that you have roots in Mexico until you released your mariachi albums in the late 1980s. How much of an influence did those roots have on your singing?

RONSTADT: Well, tremendous. And the singer that had the most influence on my singing style is Lola Beltran, who is sort of the Edith Piaf of Mexico. You know, Mexican culture is often so taken for granted and sort of invisible in the United States, and it's hard to sort of get through that screen. It wasn't anything that I hid, but it was just not as acknowledged as whatever else they were acknowledging. My vocal style is very influenced by Mexican singing. It's a belt style. I wasn't influenced by blues or Black church as much as most rock 'n' roll people were. I was much more influenced by Mexican music singers and rhythms.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you are featured in an upcoming documentary called "Linda And The Mockingbirds."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LINDA AND THE MOCKINGBIRDS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Linda invited our group, Los Cenzontles, to join her going to Mexico. We're going to play music...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I must ask, when did you find the time to make a documentary? Because I'll note that it's now been seven years since you announced that you had Parkinson's.

RONSTADT: Well, I didn't make the documentary. I mean, we had a film crew going with us to Mexico because they were trying to get the end of the documentary they were making about me, which I also didn't make. But if somebody else was making it, I was cooperating with it. And they wanted to have an interview, and I said, if you want an interview, you have to come to Mexico and interview me there because I had this trip planned. And I figured it'd be more fun to do that than sitting in my living room and be a talking head.

And I had planned to take this trip with this cultural group that I work with called Los Cenzontles. They teach young children from the ages of 6 to 19 how to play traditional Mexican music, how to play the instruments, sing and dance. And they also teach visual art. And it's one of the most exciting places I've ever been involved with. I've been working with them for almost 30 years now. They teach children to play music not to be performing fields but to use it socially, to express their emotions and to communicate with each other. And the kids that come out of that program have a better - much better chance of finishing high school. There's fewer teen pregnancies. More of them go to college and finish. Some of them turn out to be really great professional musicians. That's not the goal. The goal is to teach them how to have tools to socialize with and a way to connect back to their original culture with pride and dignity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Working with that group for 30 years, tell me why it's so important for you to connect with your heritage in that way.

RONSTADT: Well, I grew up in the Sonoran desert, which is an area that exists on both sides of the border. In fact, my family was in that part of the world before this was a country, so to say that we're newcomers is a bit of a stretch. Even here in California, my family came here in '70, '69. So you know, I resent anybody saying, go back where you came from. It'd have been easier for me because I like to get in I have a German surname, so I'm sort of a secret Mexican American. Sometimes, people don't realize who they're talking to, and they start making racist remarks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Has that happened to you?

RONSTADT: Oh, yeah. To my father, too - he'd be at a cocktail party, and somebody would start saying, these Mexicans, they're coming here. And they'd call them some slur, ethnic slur. It's not a good thing to do to my dad.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How would he react?

RONSTADT: Well, he's very stern. He would put up with no racist talk.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I must say you must have inherited something of that from him, as well. You are very outspoken. And last year, during a dinner for the Kennedy Center Honors, you very famously took Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to task for, quote, "enabling President Trump." What happened after that? Were there any aftereffects?

RONSTADT: Chief Justice Roberts came into my box the following night with Nancy Pelosi and was full of praise, not about that specific thing but in general. And he sent me then an autographed picture of himself, of the two of us together and asked me to send a photograph of himself. So they couldn't have been too mad.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What music is getting you through this moment? You know, often in times of difficulty, people gravitate to certain types of music or particular songs that give them comfort. Do you have any of those?

RONSTADT: Well, I listen to opera a lot. I have to say I listen to opera a lot on YouTube, and I love it because I can hear one soprano singing an aria from "La Traviata," and I can hear five other ones from different times, from Rosa Ponselle to Maria Callas to Anna Netrebko. It's fun to be able to compare them. But recently, I reinstalled my turntable and got my vinyl albums out, and I put on "Pet Sounds" by The Beach Boys, and it was a revelation. Brian Wilson is a genius. I love his music. It cheered me up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOULDN'T IT BE NICE")

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Wouldn't it be nice if we were older?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's amazing. You got out your turntable. Do you have a big vinyl collection?

RONSTADT: No. I have only about 10 records. I gave up all my vinyl when CDs became so ubiquitous, but I never thought they sounded as good as vinyl.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NORWEGIAN WOOD (THIS BIRD HAS FLOWN)")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) I once had a girl...

RONSTADT: So I just got a couple of vinyl pressings of just some classic things that I like - "Rubber Soul," "Kind Of Blue" by Miles Davis, which is a perfect record.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS'S "SO WHAT")

RONSTADT: "Blue" by Joni Mitchell, which is another perfect record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAREY")

JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) Oh, you know, it sure is hard to leave here, Carey, but it's really not my home.

RONSTADT: "Graceland" by Paul Simon - all of his records are great, but I'm fond of that one because I sang on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER AFRICAN SKIES")

PAUL SIMON AND LINDA RONSTADT: (Singing) His path was marked by the stars in the Southern Hemisphere, and he walked his days under African skies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you have a message for the Latino community at this time since this is a Hispanic Heritage Award?

RONSTADT: Well, keep your powder dry. Keep fighting. You know, there's a lot of abuses by ICE in the jails and the private prison corporations taking tremendous advantage of the fact that they can lock people up for long periods of time with utter neglect. And the fact that they're locking children up into cages and separating them from their families is just cruel beyond words. It's such a disgrace. People are in the streets rioting - not rioting, but they're demonstrating in the streets. They have to keep demonstrating.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, you have meant a great deal to a great many people. That is Linda Ronstadt. She'll receive the Hispanic Heritage Award in a virtual ceremony this week that will also be broadcast by PBS. Thank you very much. And congratulations - felicidades.

RONSTADT: Well, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LINDA RONSTADT SONG)

RONSTADT: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.