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Interview with Will Ackerman, April 2020
Interview with Will Ackerman, image 1
Photo by Irene Young
I always thought it would be fun to interview Will Ackerman, founder of Windham Hill Records and the Imaginary Road Studios, but I have to admit that I was a little intimidated to ask since I consider myself “a little fish in a big pond” and he is so well known. I was very pleasantly surprised when Will’s assistant, Virginia Andrew, emailed me and suggested we do an interview to talk about some of Will’s ideas about working remotely with artists during the pandemic and some other upcoming plans. We also talked about some of Will’s history, so we covered a lot of territory! Enjoy!

KP: Hey, Will! I hope you are doing fine back in Vermont during the Covid-19 pandemic
WA: There was a phase I suspect many of us have gone through in regards to Covid-19. In my case, paralysis set in and I was pretty much catatonic. A few days ago, I found myself in the meadow with Susan beginning to put the veggie garden together for this year. We’re determined to look forward. 

KP: Looking forward is a necessity, but it can be a challenge! 
I guess things are pretty quiet at Imaginary Roads Studios right now. I understand that you are looking to work remotely with artists while so much of the world is shut down. What do you have in mind? 

WA:  The studio has been closed since January and I sorely miss doing what I love to do. So here’s what I see as some possibilities for my working with artists remotely:
     I am happy to listen to any work a musician might like my comments on, whether this would be for a project that I might produce or not. Historically, I’ve offered these services ONLY on projects I would be producing. 
     If I were listening to a body of work, I could tell you which pieces are the strongest and which pieces best stand together for a full album project… or for a shorter EP program.
     I could offer suggestions about the arrangement of the pieces… “hey, that short two-chord section was killer !!!  give us more of that !!!.”
     I might look at the overall group of pieces and see an unbalanced program…. “We need to hear more minor key pieces” … “we need to break up the predictability of the pieces’ lengths”, etc. 
     I could follow this through including the song order and prepare for you to master the recording.

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Will with Tom Eaton.
Lastly, if the volume of the work on a project is sufficient to warrant it, you would have access to my name as co-producer.  
KP: Would Tom Eaton still be doing the mastering, producing, and/or engineering on these projects?
WA: Yes. Tom is an award-winning engineer and is the engineer I work with exclusively these days. He is simply the most talented engineer I have ever worked with in my life - which is saying a lot !!! When not working with me at my Imaginary Road Studios here in Vermont, Tom works out of his own studio in Massachusetts.  There he can do all mixing and mastering of projects. 
Tom’s mastering services will be available regardless of whether the artist is working in the studio with us or not. As someone who worked for decades with the world-famous mastering engineer Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering, I now rely exclusively on Tom Eaton for all of my mastering.
KP: There is a very impressive group of session musicians on many Imaginary Road productions. Would they be available to work on projects, too?
WA: One of the beauties of working at Imaginary Road Studios (physically or remotely) is that you can have access to some of the greatest musicians on the planet. Not all of these players may be available at this time, although all of them have home studios and could do work soon. Here is a list of the players, their instruments, and some of the artists they have worked with:
TONY LEVIN : BASS  (John Lennon, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Peter Gabriel)
STEVE HOLLEY : DRUMS  (Paul McCartney, Elton John)
JEFF PEVAR : GUITAR  (Crosby, Stills and Nash, Ray Charles, Rickie Lee Jones, Phil Collins)
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Photo by Irene Young.

PREMIK RUSSEL TUBBS :  SAXOPHONES AND WIND SYNTH  (Whitney Houston, Sting, Santana, Duke Ellington, John McLaughlin)
CHARLIE BISHARAT : VIOLIN  (Mariah Carey, Bette Midler, Justin Timberlake, Rolling Stones, Alanis Morissette, Elton John, Beck, Tracey Chapman)
JEFF HAYNES: PERCUSSION  (Pat Metheny, Cassandra Wilson. Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Nora Jones, Brandi Carlile)

EUGENE FRIESEN : CELLO  (6 time Grammy winner with the Paul Winter Consort)
MARC SHULMAN : ELECTRIC GUITAR  (Suzanne Vega, Chris Botti, Vanessa Williams)
GUS SEBRING : FRENCH HORN  (Boston Symphony First Chair French Horn)
JILL HALEY : ENGLISH HORN / OBOE  (Jill has performed on dozens of Imaginary Road productions)
Tom is Imaginary Road Studio’s engineer and mastering engineer
NOAH WILDING : VOCALS  (Noah has performed on dozens of Imaginary Road productions)
KP: You mentioned to me earlier that you are starting a new Imaginary Road record label! How exciting! Tell us about it!!!

WA: Obviously Michael Whalen saw some connection between me and my history as a label owner and producer to ask me to be part of his new venture…. something I am delighted to do.  I honestly believe we can produce some great music and I have faith in Michael’s vision as he respects my ears and heart as well.

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From left: Tom Eaton, Dave Lindsay, and Will. Tika is in the foreground!
KP: Between the two of you, there is a vast fortune of experience in the music industry. Will Imaginary Road Records be part of Myndstream?

WA: Yes.. you might want to talk to Michael about how this all fits together. My interaction with Michael is specifically around the new incarnation of Imaginary Road Records. He seems to have great faith in me for which I am very grateful. I am confident that we will produce some amazing music together.

KP: I really can’t imagine that anyone reading this wouldn’t know who you are, but let’s talk a bit about your very interesting history. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

WA: I was born in 1949 in Palo Alto, CA. I was adopted by the Ackerman family… Robert (Bill) Ackerman and Mary Jackson (maiden name) at 5 days old. My father was an English professor at Stanford. We traveled to Germany when I was 10 and lived there for a year and a half. My mother, who had battled depression all of her life, committed suicide when I was 12. My father drifted into another marriage with another English professor and I was sent to prep school in New England. I returned to CA to go to Stanford (it was free to kids of professors) and it was always assumed that I’d go into the family business (i.e. teaching). I got to the last quarter before graduation and decided I needed to get out of there ASAP so I wouldn’t continue on the path that was ordained for me. I somehow drifted into home building, became a licensed general contractor, and created a company called Windham Hill Builders with my cousin, Alex DeGrassi.

KP: It seems like a huge jump from doing carpentry work to becoming a record label owner, producer and professional musician. Was there a period of time when you were doing carpentry and music simultaneously?

WA:   Definitely…. My business card in ’77/ ’78  read Windham Hill Builders / Records / Music (BMI)… somebody recently sent me one of those business cards !!!  I was working on a job for John and Sandy Withers in Palo Alto… I had the roof off… safe bet that there wouldn’t be any rain in July… but, of course, it rained and destroyed the plaster ceilings and the oak floors downstairs … a disaster… I spent tens of thousands of dollars repairing this… obviously I LOST money big time… I decided I had to choose one or the other and decided to go with the label.
KP: So much about Windham Hill albums was distinctive - including the album cover artwork which usually had a beautiful photo with a wide white border and just the album title and artist name(s). Was that your design? It made it so easy to spot Windham Hill albums in massive record stores like Tower Music - especially the one in San Francisco! I guess I’m showing my age here, but that’s okay! I spent a LOT of my later teens and twenties in record stores in Berkeley and San Francisco and have an enormous record collection as well as CDs.

Interview with Will Ackerman, image 16
"Meditations" 2008
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"Returning" 2004
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"In Search of the Turtle's Navel" 1976
WA: The Tower Records store in San Francisco was the first store in the world to create a separate record bin for a record label when they created one for Windham Hill.    They found that people were coming into the store asking for what was new from Windham Hill … not necessarily the artist, but the LABEL !!!   The fact that the label typically used nature photos on the cover as a metaphor for the music inside also contributed to the sense of Windham Hill’s uniqueness. Russ Solomon (owner of Tower) was a huge supporter. Understand that I never thought I’d sell the 300 records I originally had to press. I think that in large measure, the label was blessed because it WASN’T chasing money.. that wasn’t the reason for it… it was all done for the love of it… and it worked.  

KP: No kidding! Where did the Windham Hill name originate?

WA: Windham Hill Farm.. a country inn in Southern Vermont. It is now officially a Relais and Chateau Hotel and arguably the most beautiful inn in Vermont. It was a place where I found a home as a kid who was very lost.. .Hugh and Mary Folsom took me in - in many ways.  

KP: When did you get into music?
WA: I was always a music nut and loved music from a very early age. I had done a dreadful job at piano, but gravitated toward the guitar. The Kingston Trio came up in the Palo Alto area. The founder, Dave Guard, went to Stanford and Bob Shane and Rick Reynolds went to Menlo College a few miles away. I used to go see them rehearse even before they recorded for Capitol Records. Palo Alto was the birthplace of a lot of music around then… Joan Baez lived in Palo Alto and my babysitter would take me down into the basement of a building to listen to folk music…  I was such a rabid fan of the Kingston Trio that when they played the Masonic Auditorium as a benefit for San Francisco Mayor Shelly, the Trio’s manager (the very famous Frank Weber) got me a box seat … I was 12 ! The opening act that night, whose name appeared in very tiny print, was Barbra Streisand.

Someday I’ll tell you my Jim Lange story.

KP: Okay! This one was really good, though!!!

When did you start writing music?

WA: I began “writing” pieces in ’69 or so. I remain utterly ignorant of music from any formal perspective and I don’t read music: standard or tab. “Writing” music seems to imply some academic relationship to music. That’s not me. I had a rock band in prep school, but gravitated toward acoustic guitar when I went to Stanford…. playing in stairwells for the acoustics. People would come listen to me. That was encouraging. There was enough of a buzz that I told everybody to give me $5.00 and I’d make a record. The stories that follow from this are rather incredible, but that’s when the doors started opening.
KP: When did you release your first album, In Search of The Turtle’s Navel?

WA: 1976. I remember when the record pressing plant required a minimum order of 300 LPs and I  thought that I’d have 200 of these in my closet forever. 

KP: There is one for sale on Amazon right now for only $898.87 plus $3.99 shipping! 

How many albums of your own music have you released?
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"Autumn" by George Winston, 1980
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"Passage" 1981
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"Was It This Lifetime" 2018
WA: I honestly don’t know… 10ish? I never listen to my music.

KP: That’s okay as long as other people do!

How did you “discover” George Winston? Scott Cossu has told me that in the very early years, he and George toured together and George actually opened for him. It sure would have been fun to see them play together!

WA: In probably 1979, George told me that he liked my music and the music of Alex de Grassi. In typical fashion, George didn’t even tell me he was a musician. Alex and I were doing a concert at McCabes Guitar Shop which is in the LA area and George came to see the show. He asked if I’d like to go over to his place after the show… and we did.   George took out a steel string guitar at some point and played some great music and I suggested that I’d love to do an album with him. I was tired after traveling and the gig and I decided to crash at his place. He asked if it’d be ok if he played a bit of piano as I went to sleep. He went into transcriptions of music I was familiar with and then went into some of the music that comprised his AUTUMN album. I’d heard Keith Jarrett’s KOLN CONCERT LP and loved that and what George was playing reminded me of Keith’s work. It was very different from Keith’s work, but there was an openness and improvisational quality to it that I loved right away. George seemed to be more interested in doing a guitar record for Windham Hill and I really wanted to do a piano record…. I’d already released a piano album of my favorite pieces by Erik Satie, so we had some history with piano. Obviously it was one of the best decisions of my entire life - AUTUMN was our first Gold Record and then our first Platinum Record.

KP: I think have Autumn on LP, cassette and CD!

After Windham Hill was sold, I remember a great series of records that featured contemporary arrangements of classical music. One was A Different Mozart and was on the Imaginary Road label. Were other albums released on that label?

WA: I created Imaginary Road Records (the name derived from my studio Imaginary Road Studios here in Windham County, Vermont) after the sale of Windham Hill to BMG / SONY. I did this in conjunction with Dawn Atkinson, a brilliant producer and A&R person at Windham Hill. Chris Roberts has been a player in my life from the very beginning… first as the manager of a record store in Portland, OR ( I think Everybody’s Records in Portland, OR was the second retail store in the world to be stocking WH records … the PLOWSHARE BOOKSTORE in Palo Alto being the first ). When I sold Windham Hill, Chris was at Universal Records … specifically Universal Classics and Jazz. He gave us a great distribution deal.  Some of our releases were HARPESTRY, guitarist Rob Eberhard Young, A DIFFERENT MOZART, Jennifer Kimbal (from The Story),  SONG OF ANGELS (Gregorian Chant),  ON A WINTER’S NIGHT (kind of like the WINTER’S SOLSTICE recordings on Windham Hill).
KP: When did you start Imaginary Road Studios?

WA: I sold Windham Hill in 1992. My accountants basically said that I needed to spend A LOT of money on something professional or the US Internal Revenue system was going to take it from me.  Creating my own studio had always been a dream for me and the need to spend money merged into Imaginary Road Studios… in Windham County, Vermont !!!  It’s an amazing place. Natural light, fresh air, views of the West River Valley. Our microphone locker is over the top. Matched pairs of vintage Neumann microphones rebuilt by Klaus Heine, the only studio with 16 tracks of Hemmingway preamps (I gather Peter Gabriel has 12). 
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Imaginary Road Studios

I had been recording at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch Studio… an amazing place, of course. They had 10 practice rooms and you could roll any piano in the world into the big room to record. I’d been working there for years. Dana Cunningham, a great pianist in New Hampshire, had found a piano in a store near her, rented it and had it delivered to Imaginary Road. Her hands hit the piano and I had never heard anything like it in my LONG history of recording piano. I called the guy who owned it and asked what price he wanted to sell it to me for. He said it wasn’t for sale… so I told him I had ripped off the load in door and re-clapboarded the outside wall and said the piano couldn’t be moved out of there. He was outraged, of course, but finally agreed to a price. Then piano tech, Bill Ballard, installed the Stanwood action in the piano and went over everything with a very fine-toothed comb. What resulted is what I sincerely believe is the best piano sound on the planet.

KP: What a fantastic story!!!

Do you have any idea of how many artists have recorded at Imaginary Road?

WA: I lost track a long long time ago. We must be at 80 or so including our session players.
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KP: I’ve reviewed a whole lot of them!

Weren’t you scheduled to do a Southern CA concert tour this year? I guess that’s probably been cancelled. 

WA: There was more than that tour on the books, but it’s all wait and see now. I am distantly hopeful that things may be better in the fall, but who knows….
KP: Do you still do much composing? 

WA: I have to leave my home to write music. People come here and talk about how meditative it is… and it IS, unless you own the joint and have a million things to do on the land… the very  large veggie gardens (about 1400 sq ft.), felling trees… milling for lumber (including hardwoods) and firewood. I don’t know which I love more my guitars or my tractor.

KP: You are also part of the group, FLOW, with Fiona Joy Hawkins, Jeff Oster and Lawrence Blatt.

WA: Yes, and we just received two awards from the 18th Annual Independent Music Awards! They are for "Best Song" in the New Age category for "Adrift at Sea" and "Best Producer" in the Instrumental category for myself and Tom Eaton for the FLOW album.

KP: Congratulations! Do you have plans for a third album?

WA: I’m beginning to hear rumors of this, but I’m not sure whether that’s really in the offing or not… I’d be happy to do a third album if Fiona Joy (F), Lawrence Blatt (L), and Jeff Oster (O) want to do another record, I’d love to.
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Click on album covers
to go to Kathy's reviews.

KP: If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

WA: It sounds corny, but I have absolutely everything I need or want. My marriage to Susan is the best thing in my life, I live in a beautiful place, I have the most beautiful and brilliant dog on the planet, and I get to make music for a living.
KP: That sounds like a great answer to me! 

Is there anything else you’d like to “talk” about?

WA: Pretty well talked out here… Susan and I will be making wooden bee hives in the woodshop together in a few minutes.   

If you are interested in working with Will Ackerman on your own project(s), either in the studio or remotely, contact him at will@williamackerman.com  for pricing whether for one song or a full-length program
Contact Virginia about mastering.  vra@sacoriver.net      
She has worked with Will for over 30 years and will be happy to help you any way she can.

Many thanks to Will Ackerman for taking the time to do this interview! For more information about Will and his music, be sure to check out his website!
Kathy Parsons
April 2020