Interview: Carla Olson on the joys of collaborating and producing

Credit: Dietmar Kohl

Celebrating a life of playing and listening to music and tipping her hat to Paladin.

Carla Olson first came to the wider attention of the listening public with her band the Textones who were part of the Los Angeles new wave scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. She has just released her third album of duets and collaborations that celebrate the music she has enjoyed as a listener herself, ‘Have Harmony, Will Travel 3’, which includes duets with the legendary Gene Clark and the Hollies Allan Clarke, as well as a smorgasbord of guitarists, including Eric Johnson, Jake Andrews, and Laurence Juber.  Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Carla Olson at her home in Los Angeles over Zoom to discuss the latest instalment in the ‘Have Harmony, Will Travel’ series, and why she gets great satisfaction from her work as a producer. While she may have been born in Austin, her career has been centred in Los Angeles but she shares how much the British Invasion of the ‘60s influenced her own music. There is a poignancy to her reflection on working with Gene Clark in the ‘80s until his untimely death in 1991. Finally, if any of our older readers get a sense of déjà vu with the series title ‘Have Harmony, Will Travel’ Carla Olson confirms that it was inspired by the TV series ‘Have Gun, Will Travel’ which aired in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s with its central character, Paladin, and she also admits to as a child enjoying the music and cover of Marty Robbins’ ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’, particularly his black attire.

How are you and where are you?

I’m very happy and at home. I work from home most of the time unless I’m in the studio working on an album, a mix, or a recording or something. Right now I’m trying to catch up on my writing because a lot of my projects are out or imminently coming out, and I’m really excited to be talking about this with you guys. I was supposed to be in the UK in October but that didn’t happen because of cataract surgery I had and I wasn’t allowed to fly, so I’m probably going to have to wait until spring now, but I can’t wait to hang out with you guys.

You are now up to ‘Have Harmony, Will Travel 3’ and you have been a band member and producer, and you have played with musicians across genres. Why do you think you are such a musical collaborator?

I think playing alone is fine if you like doing that or have to do that, but I love collaborating, I love playing with other musicians, and I love recording with my friends and people I’ve never met before. I love singing with people, and it is really about the conversations you are having. One person is a solo and two is a conversation.

You sound as if you are still excited about it even after all these years.

Oh yes, it is great. I love this new album, I’ve been working to get this group of guitar players together for a long time on these songs which are some of my favourite songs of all time. Also, the people I’ve sung duets with, and one or two have passed away, but we managed to get some things recorded before that happened, and I’m just so pleased these records are coming out now it is just a perfect time now.

The collaborators on the album are amazing. As far as the guitar players go, and you’ve played with Mick Taylor in the past, what draws you to great guitar players?

Like a lot of people of my generation, I was born in ’52, when the Beatles came on Ed Sullivan, and my dad was a classical pianist and also played in big bands backing up singers in resorts in New York State, I just wanted to play in a band, I didn’t want to play solo which is ok to learn but I really wanted to play in a band. A lot of that gets down to playing guitar, and my heroes in the early years were the Ventures and the Shadows, instrumental bands, because the guitar was the voice, sorry Cliff, and Hank Marvin and Nokie Edwards were the guys I learned to play guitar listening to. Also of course Jeff Beck when the Yardbirds were in their post-Clapton phase with Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in the band. We had little turntables and you’d go buy the singles and you could play the singles at 16 rpm and slow down ‘Jeff’s Boogie’ until you could pick the licks off of it. My buddies, except for one or two girls who played guitar, were all guys and they were all heavily into the Bluesbreakers and the British blues scene, and we were also influenced by the Kings, B. B., Albert and Freddie and other heroes who we aspired to play like. I was into the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers big time, those were my real influences, Peter Green especially, wow, it doesn’t get any better than Peter Green. So that’s my answer to your question about guitar players, and I’ve got a few on this album that are pretty legendary.

You’ve got some of the younger generation of guitar players on this album.

I did, I did, well you can ask the questions, but Jake Andrews, who plays on ‘Street Fighting Man’, his father was in Tracey Nelson’s Mother Earth, he was John “Tone” Andrews and he used to play with his teeth and behind his back. He was in another couple of bands with Box Scaggs and they were a big family of Texas musicians, so Jake is of the previous generation and Craig Ross is a little younger than my set. I went to high school with Eric Johnson, and he’s two years younger than I am and he is in the opinion of many people the virtuoso of our generation as far as people who I would like to hear besides Clapton, Beck, Hendrix, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, and Harvey Mandel as well. Eric was and still is considered to be probably one of the world’s better guitar players, and he’s my buddy. Laurence Juber used to be in Paul McCartney’s Wings, and when people say they were underrated, what, he was with a Beatle, that’s not underrated. Then there’s my buddy Todd Wolfe, we toured Europe for five weeks before the COVID lockdown, just me and him playing rock & roll songs with two acoustic guitars, and that’s hard work. He’s great, and I’m like the guy trying to hold down the bass and the rhythm, and trying to Chat to people in the audience, and he’s what I would call another virtuoso. I couldn’t capture Mick Taylor on this record, but I got him on a lot of records and I’m thankful I was able to work with him at the times we did. He is brilliant and wonderful to work with, and I think some of the most exciting moments of my life have been when I was on stage with Mick Taylor.

You mentioned a few Brits already, and you have Allan Clarke on the album. How did that come about?

We were all Hollies fans, obviously, and I would play in bands that did songs like ‘Bus Stop’ which is one of Allan’s signature tunes as far as being a singer goes. I used to switch off with another guitar player and we would play the dual lead solos in ‘Bus Stop’ and I got the second one, which I thought was much more interesting than the first.  Allan was introduced to me by my manager Saul Davis, and Saul befriended Terry Sylvester and Mikael Rickfors, the Swedish singer, in the ‘70s when Allan had left the band. I’m still friends with Mikael, I’ve got Swedish roots, my father’s family is from Sweden, and we touched base at one point and did some recording. My husband and manager Saul and I were in London, and Saul called Allan and said we were in town, and it was the time of the big floods when the Northern Line was shut down. Poor Allan was trying to get into London to see us, and we did manage to have lunch and he said he was done with music and just wanted to be with his wife and family.

Saul said to Allan that if he got half an idea, maybe a song lyric and he wanted to send it, send it along and we’ll see if we can pick up another chapter of his life. I didn’t hear from Allan for a couple of years, and then one day he was like I want to send you guys some song lyrics, and we were like, yeah, yes please. He sent these lyrics for ‘A Love That Never Blooms’ and I must admit I dawdled, I’ll get to this tomorrow. I eventually sat down and wrote the music and sent it back to him very crudely demoed. At that point he wasn’t recording at home, he was still trying to figure that part of it out, and he did eventually say this one’s on hold, and I really liked what you did and we are going to co-opt some of it and see what happens. Then he sent me another lyric, and that was ‘Hearts Of Stone’ and that ended up on ‘Resurgence’ his first comeback album, which was on BMG in 2018, and he did utilise some of my music which I was thrilled about.

Then he sent me another couple of things, and I had sent him a song lyric that I had written sometime in the ‘80s when I’d started writing about the homeless and the unfortunate. I don’t know, but all of a sudden it struck a chord with him and he wrote music and melody to it and sent it back to me. There was a harmonica solo at the top and he played guitar, so I went into the studio to put bass and drums on it and sent it back to see if he liked it, and he did. We went back and forth with the recording growing in leaps and bounds. He was working with GarageBand and I was in proper studios working uphill with COVID. The song he sent me back was ‘It Makes Me Cry’, and that’s on the album and it’s a duet. He sings his verses, I sing my verses, and then we sing together, and Laurence Juber plays lead guitar on it, and my rhythm section I’ve been using for a number of years, Paul Marshall bass and Benjamin Court drums, played on it, and Skip Edwards who is a keyboard player who was with Johnny Rivers, Lucinda Williams, and Chris Hillman, and he’s worked on nearly all the records I’ve produced or recorded for myself, and others, in the last say five years. So, that’s how it came about, and I was just so thrilled I sat down and cried when he sent the song and it is so beautiful I was really moved to tears, and it made him cry as well. That’s the story.

You have Mickey Raphael playing with B. J. Thomas on a version of ‘Cool Water’.

It’s interesting, the original recording with B. J. and the Textones’ drummer, Rick Hemmert, and Paul Marshall of I See Hawks in LA on bass, and Mike Thompson one of the keyboard players for the Eagles and Don Henley, and I’ve used him on a lot of projects, especially the Paul Jones records I produced in 2008 and 2016. We went in to do what was going to be a song for a fundraiser for Matt Damon’s which didn’t actually happen because I guess he didn’t have the time to go back into that charity and start rebuilding again. He was thrilled we wanted to do a track with B. J. Thomas, and B. J. sang to a track I produced here in LA, and when the charity never wanted it he said why don’t you just put some harmony on it and just put it out yourself, and I was like, OK, I’m going to do that. I put the harmony on, and then I realised it needed another conversation.

I knew some of Willie’s players but I didn’t know Mickey, even though he’s from Dallas and I’m originally from Austin, I asked him to play on the ‘Americana Railroad’ album I produced a couple of years ago. That had Rocky Burnette with ‘Mystery Train’ and I was in lockdown and Mickey was in lockdown, and I had the track done and I asked him if he wanted to play on the track, and he said he’d be thrilled to play with Rocky Burnette, who is Johnny Burnette’s son, and he played harmonica on it and sent it to us as a file. Then another track, a John Fogerty track that is on there, ‘City Of New Orleans’,  which John had sent in for the project but it needed something, and I asked John if it was OK if Mickey played on it, and John was like, absolutely. That’s how I met Mickey when everyone was communicating in whichever way they could during lockdown because of the inability to play gigs or gather.

Every time I hear the B. J. Thomas track I feel like an intruder because he’s like a cowboy out on the range looking for water, and that song was on one of my favourite albums. My mother bought ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’ by Marty Robbins, red cover, black outfit. I co-opted the ‘Have Harmony, Will Travel’ title from the TV show ‘Have Gun Will Travel’ and one of my heroes was the star of that show, Paladin, with the same outfit, and Marty probably co-opted that from him. It’s a small world when we can all be far away but still make music together. We were all kind of desperate, and it was like how are we going to do this, let’s figure it out. Also, I guess in some way it is a lonesome-sounding track, and it is different to all the others, but that is kind of what we wanted.

You mentioned that you covered some of your favourite songs, is that why you wanted to do them?

Originally, the first ‘Have Harmony, Will Travel’ was all the songs, except for one or two,  from my childhood, and I wanted to cut songs with contemporary singers or people I either admired or knew personally, for example, Richie Furay who sang a Gene Clark song on that album. Most of those songs were songs that I heard on pop radio back then, which was a station called KNOW in Austin. This takes me back to the current album and the song, ‘Face To Face’, which we did with Eric Johnson, and that song was popular on the radio in 1965 or 1966 by a band called The Zakary Thaks who were from Corpus Christie, which is a couple of hundred miles from Austin. They actually toured locally in Texas and Louisiana with the Yardbirds in ’66. So I like to pick the songs that fit the guitar players but also things that I can sing, like ‘I Can See For Miles’, that song was my favourite Who song so why not do it, a woman’s never done it so why not grab the crotch and get up there and sing it, and that’s what I did. I played on it, and Gary Myrick, another of my childhood friends, and he’s from Dallas, and we got to be friends when I was 18, and he played guitar and I sang all the parts.

Another of my favourite songs is ‘Street Fighting Man’, that and ‘Wild Horses’ are my favourite Rolling Stones’ songs. So I thought we’ll try it sort of like a hybrid of the way The Stones did it live with Mick Taylor, and do some of the effects of the studio which is the sitar by Jonathan Lea. He is a wonderful guitar player, and he’s toured with Dave Davies as Dave’s second guitar player for a number of years. I played acoustic guitar in Open G tuning and Jonathan played electric guitar, and we tried with these songs to give a tip of the hat to the original recording, but also to make them our own at the same time.

‘In Another Land’  was by a local band, the Broken Homes, that Craig Ross from Lenny Kravitz’s band was in along with Jimmy Ashurst, they are the two remaining members of that band who are still with us, and they both played on the track. Jimmy Ashhurst lives in Italy, but he was in Buckcherry and he’s played with Izzy Stradlin and he’s a wonderful bass player. We cut that track as a tribute to that band, and they should have been huge. In LA they were considered to be the next promising thing, or whatever you want to call it.

Todd Wolfe is on one track that my Textones bass player, who’s from Leicester originally and has now moved back to Crouch End, wrote called ‘Lead Me’. He sent me a track and asked if I would put a vocal on it, and I put a vocal on it and told him I really liked it and asked him if I could put it on my record. He said yes, so thank you Joe Read.

When you started out it wasn’t so easy for girl rock & rollers. Did you get a sense you were helping break down barriers, or did you just do it?

I just did it. All my friends were guys, except for one friend who played acoustic guitar and another friend who was a classically trained violin player, and she bought herself a Hagström eight-string bass. We played in a high school band, and high school bands were a proving ground because you really had to want to do this and have some real moxy to get up in front of a bunch of people, especially guys, and just go here I am and I’m doing it. My friend John Steahely, who was in Jo Jo Gunne and played a short stint with Dylan, and I saw Jimi Hendrix a couple of times, and we actually had a meeting with him and took him to a club in San Antonio for him and Mitch to jam with a local band in 1968.

John practically taught me how to plug into an amp and get feedback, so when people were buying amps and stuff my first amp of any value was a red 100-watt Marshall stack, and I bought that in 1973 after playing my Les Paul Junior without an amp. My mom and dad were great, they just supported my music whole hog, whatever I wanted I just had to let them know and if they could get it for me, they would get it for me. When I bought that Marshall stack my friend Eric Johnson helped me put a fan in the head so that it wouldn’t blow up. What can I tell you, it has been a storied life and an honour to walk on any stage anywhere, whether it is a small room with friends or 45,000 people in Pershing Square, Los Angeles, for the Democratic Party candidate in 1984, Walter Mondale, who did not win, and unfortunately Ronald Reagan won, and there’s my politics sticking out like a sore thumb.

I’ve never been a shrinking violet, I love the stage, I love performing, I love an audience, and I love the feedback that you give that they give back to you. That’s the name of the games, and to perform is my absolute heart’s desire. My second heart’s desire is producing, and I really love producing other people and I have produced three albums this year. One was a duet with Stephen McCarthy from The Long Ryders that came out not quite a year ago, and then I did an instrumental solo album with Jake Andrews. Do you remember the song ‘Apricot Brandy’ by Rhinoceros, that is one of the standout tracks on his solo album that came out in July, and then there’s Robert  Rex Waller Jr. from I See Hawks In LA and that’s an album of covers, with the exception of one song. Goldmine has just interviewed me and said their favourite song on the album is ‘Girl Of My Dreams’ and that they weren’t familiar with the original by Bram Tchaikovsky. The coincidence of that is that Joe Read of the Textones played and toured with Bram, and used to say this is the best song in the world, nobody needs to recut it. I wanted to cut it with Peter Noone, but he kind of had his mind on live shows during COVID. Rob just knocks it out of the park I think, and my manager husband started the project with ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, and he’s obviously a big Walker Brothers fan. I guess Rob knew The Walker Brothers but that’s not his generation and when he started singing he had this beautiful baritone, much like Scott Walker’s baritone, and he also has a low tenor voice. The album is full of variety, it has downright pop songs, a couple of rock songs, there is something for everybody. I hope the Brits like ‘See The Big Man Cry’ when it’s released.

We haven’t talked about Gene Clark yet.

I know, I know. A blue vinyl version of my album with Gene, ‘So Rebellious A Lover’, has just been re-released in the summer and it includes a 7 inch single of Gene singing a song in his house, and me singing the song with him in the house, it was recorded in his lounge on a little cassette deck. It is really a wonderful addition to the many reissues of that album. I’m so grateful I was able to work with Gene Clark, he taught me a lot about singing and how not to sing too loud, how not to waste a note, and to always write poetry if you have the chance rather than words. That was Gene, and he was the most wonderful person I’ve ever worked with.

I’m not sure he gets the full credit he deserves as an innovative artist.

No, but that was in part his choice to go solo and to always be evolving and moving forward. The colours of his palette were always changing, but I miss him, I miss him all the time.

The are also some Gene Clark tracks on the new album.

The story behind that is odd because we had the album mastered, the artwork was done, and everything was ready to go. Then someone contacted my manager to see if we wanted a tape of Gene in Nashville, and he was the original sound man and the tape was straight from the board. He sent us the tape which had more than the three songs but there were problems with the other songs, and I recorded on it. The fans want to hear it, and with Gene’s remaining son, Kai Clark, I’m happy to share it with the fans.

He was a truly great artist and innovator with different phases in his career.

Yes, and he was also a real prankster, a real joker, he loved to play jokes on people and be funny. Sometimes he’d pretend he was Jamaican and a Rasta, he was really funny and what I like to call a prankster. Everyone who worked with Gene never really had a falling out because he’d just walk away, but he never walked away from me, and we worked together until he died.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I’m listening to a jazz trumpet player who is young, and a bit avantgarde, and his name is Matt Von Roderick. I’m also listening to the guitar player from Moby Grape, Peter Lewis, who has a new album out, and his daughter Arwen has an EP out. I’m still listening to some of the albums from the ‘60s that are my favourites, I was listening to the Who’s greatest hits the other day, not Lifehouse but the really old stuff, ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ and ‘I Can’t Explain’. We were listening in the car last weekend to that stuff on the CD player, and we’re always listening to The Stones.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

I want to say thank you for all the support and the wonderful kind words I get from the UK, and my fans in Holland, Italy, and Scandinavia. So thank you very much, and I’m so glad people are trying different ways to see music, buy real music, and buy physical music. It is great to stream and to know that people are listening to your music at least, but to be able to touch and feel the media,  and all the pain that goes into the artwork, and how many times you proofread and how many things you check. So thank you to everyone who has been hanging in there with us on some of these products that should have been out earlier, but because of COVID, we couldn’t get them done. I also imagine a lot of you guys went to see the Long Ryders when they hit the UK, and please please everybody keep supporting live music. That’s what I really want, and we love you for it. I also think we have a couple of tracks in the can for ‘Have Harmony, Will Travel 4’. By the way, every day I read Americana UK, that email you send out is the first thing I read when I get up, I love it. Finally, thanks for supporting Gene’s music and keeping it alive as well.

You’ve also helped massively there as well Carla.

What can I say, it has been a big part of my life, so thank you again.

Carla Olson’s ‘Have Harmony, Will Travel 3’ is out now on Have Harmony Will Travel.
Gene Clark & Carla Olson’s ‘So Rebellious A Lover’ is out now on blue vinyl plus 7 inch single on Sunset Blvd Records.

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About Martin Johnson 414 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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toby codding

great to see this article on carla her work should be featured more in american music articles. Are the other two Have harmony still available?

Jeanne C Whittington

Thank you. Carla has always worked so very hard to be the best at whatever she does.!! Believe me as we grew up “inseparable ” since she was 4 and I was 5. We always shared a fascination for music and as a kid I traded in my clarinet for a 1963 Goya G10 Guitar. I was always more into the Folk and Blues and Carla was into Rock and Roll!! She went on to make a start in LA and in 1973 I went on Tour with Johnny Winter and his band, as Johnny’s Girlfriend ( off and on for many years!) I had been working on a melody for sometime…when one Christmas, Johnny and I put words to the song ” Hello Pretty Stranger”! It was more of a ballad. But he made it great ! It is strange to me that both Carla and I were able to live a dream we had…because of our love for music ! We were two very determined little “Tom boys” growing up! Now in our ’70s ..both have such wonderful memories of all of those adventures, together and apart!!