Interview: Jimmy Webb

He is a legendary songwriter to the stars and he's playing an intimate concert in Norwich next week. Jimmy Webb told KEIRON PIM how he's happy now to take centre stage.

Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Richard Harris, Glen Campbell, The Supremes…the list of artists for whom Jimmy Webb has written hit songs spans the spectrum of popular music.

Webb always had a parallel career as a solo artist, however, and last year he took stock on more than 40 years in the music business by releasing Just Across the River, a retrospective album in which he reclaims many of his greatest hits for himself.

Songs such as Wichita Lineman, Galveston and By the Time I get to Phoenix, all famously recorded by the country singer Campbell, are stripped down by Webb, whose warm vocals are backed by his own piano, subtle contributions from a crack team of Nashville session musicians and guest vocals from famous friends such as Campbell himself, Willie Nelson, Mark Knopfler, Billy Joel and Lucinda Williams. The result is an intimate air in which the lyrics sound as if they are being addressed personally to the listener, and that should remain the case at Webb's gig in Norwich next week.

Only a few tickets remain for his show at Norwich Arts Centre, which he'll perform solo. As he tells it, the music is only part of his performance. His dry humour comes across during our telephone interview, and forms part of the show.

'I'm going to talk about this particular album and some of the backstory of those relationships and how we came together on the same record,' he says. 'Interplay with the audience has become a really important part of my show in recent years. It's meant to be humorous and light-hearted and counterbalances some of the gravity of the material.'

While he has a big reputation – Webb is the only artist to ever receive Grammy awards for music, lyrics and orchestration – playing small venues such as Norwich Arts Centre suits him very well.

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'I enjoy it more,' he says. 'I love to be close to an audience, and then after the show I love to talk with people.

'My music is directed at the individual listener, and a subtle acoustic environment where you can make out the words.'

Webb was born in Oklahoma and grew up in a strictly Christian family. He's plainly a thoughtful man who has rediscovered a different form of faith in recent times, which he describes as 'transcendentalist more than Christian', observing that he has a strong sense 'that there is a power greater than we are' that provides inspiration for him while he's songwriting. His mid-western upbringing infuses his music, a rootsy Americana that speaks of road trips, late nights and lost loves.

But as a lifelong student of music and songwriting, he cites influences from country to classical. The prospect of coming to Norfolk prompts him to mention the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

'I love Vaughan Williams' Norfolk Rhapsodies,' he says. 'I'm a big fan and have been for years, even before he sort of became chic. Even when I was a teenager I loved The Lark Ascending.'

'Just Across The River' came together at the behest of producer and long-time Webb collaborator Fred Mollin, who wished to honour his career and his contributions to American music. Mollin says of the album: 'This record is a homecoming for Jimmy. His songs are true classics and they could provide the soundtrack to your life.'

Webb adds: 'From the very first song, first take, first note this record seemed blessed. I hope everyone else feels what we did as we listened to the first rough mixes. And then as each piece fell into place, a fully realised, conceptual work of art emerged.'

Recording the album over two days at Nashville's Sound Emporium enabled him to get exactly the sound he wanted for Just Across the River.

'My friend Fred Mollin suggested that we go down to Nashville and promised me it would be the most wonderful musical experience of my life. People are always talking about the magic of Nashville and how everything comes out perfect, and for me it was that experience. I found myself enjoying making music for the first time in a long time.'

And in turn, as he relaxed into making the album he found that in his mid-60s, his vocals had acquired a warmth and depth that they lacked when he was younger. Where once he was more comfortable writing for others, for instance handing the epic Macarthur Park over to the Irish actor Richard Harris, now he has the confidence to take centre stage.

'In a way it's the most genuine place I have been in my life. My voice as a physical instrument continues to get stronger as I get older. I'm not bragging, I'm just very fortunate to have something going on vocally. I'm a late bloomer – I'm very confident now when I walk on stage that I can deliver these songs.'

n Jimmy Webb plays Norwich Arts Centre on February 10.

n Just Across The River is out now.

n Further listening: