Here’s a phone conversation we had about him:
Zoë: So, Hal Willner. I mean, music producer: is that enough of a title for him? It doesn’t even begin, does it, to describe-
Maureen: I don’t think so, no. He had such an ability to bring people together that you would never think would be together. He had such a knack for … I don’t even know what the word for it is.
Zoë: Well, he’s like a catalyst. But I think-
Maureen: He is like a catalyst, you’re right.
Zoë: But he’s also like a matchmaker.
Zoë: I think the amazing thing is that he would bring together people from this crazy, wide spectrum of musical backgrounds to do these extraordinary concept albums. Of course, that’s where I first know him from, not from Saturday Night Live.
Maureen: I think I was aware of him from Saturday Night Live, because I was a big watcher. I think he did that for what, 40 years, something like that? But then I did become aware of his concept albums, which were really interesting and creative, weren’t they?
Zoë: Yes! Lost in the Stars was the first one I heard. He’d done the Nino Rota album before that and I think a couple of others. But I’ve always been a big Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht fan—I directed a production of The Threepenny Opera in London, a milestone moment for me—and that just completely blew me away. I mean, Sting doing “Mack the Knife”!
Maureen: I have that on the playlist.
Zoë: Oh, great! Then, there’s Marianne Faithfull’s “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife.”
Maureen: Well, I am a huge Marianne Faithfull fan. I’ve always been a huge Marianne Faithfull fan. I remember when he produced her album with “Broken English” and “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” that was just genius. She just was reinvented from that point on. She was no more an ingénue and she was a total, like—a chanteuse. It was fabulous.
Zoë: Well, I almost feel that he was the person who saved her, certainly in terms of her music. Especially the Lost in the Stars thing, having her do something from Brecht and Weill is so perfect. I mean, it’s in her heritage—I think her mother knew Brecht and Weill, she has that whole heritage. But she went from that sweet little girl voice into that raspy “Broken English” voice, that was born out of years of all sorts of drugs and stuff, and created a completely different voice and a completely different persona. I feel that from the Lost in the Stars album onwards, it was almost like Hal was guiding her to the place that she needed to go.
Maureen: I agree. I think she was very fond of him. I would think they remained close until … I think she came out with some kind of a statement after he died. I think she was quite close to him and felt that she … I think they just had a close relationship.