Interview: Producer Fred Mollin Talks Up Rhino’s Expanded Reissue of Kris Kristofferson’s THE AUSTIN SESSIONS
by Will Harris
In 1999, Kris Kristofferson released THE AUSTIN SESSIONS, an album which found him performing stripped-down versions of some of his classic songs, including a number of tracks which became far better known from other people’s takes on them. The end result was the album that both Kristofferson and his fans had always wanted, which is why it’s become so iconic over the years. Rhino has just reissued the album in an expanded form, adding a few additional tracks which were recorded during the original sessions. The reissue also features liner notes from producer Fred Mollin, but Mollin was also kind enough to hop on the phone and tell us in a bit more detail about the origins of the album, the process of recording it, the struggle to get it released, and how well it was received when it finally hit record store shelves.
Rhino: Was the recording of THE AUSTIN SESSIONS the first time you’d ever worked with Kris Kristofferson?
Fred Mollin: Yeah! There’s some nice, detailed liner notes that I wrote for the re-release, and it tells the story of the album, but…I had done an album in 1996 for my longtime artist Jimmy Webb, doing his most famous songs for the first time ever, and he did them very unplugged. It was just basically Jimmy on piano and vocal, with a couple of little extra bits here and there, and some guest stars. And the album was a tremendous success critically. We did it for a label that was called Guardian, which was part of EMI. We didn’t sell a lot of records, unfortunately, but it really was sort of a critic’s dream. TEN EASY PIECES was the title of it, and my A&R person at Guardian / EMI was Jay Landers, and Jay said, “I think we can do an entire series of the great songwriters doing their most famous stuff in this sort of timeless fashion.” And I was, like, “Uh, this is great!” [Laughs.]
So we did Barry Mann, of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, the great husband-and-wife songwriting team, and we did a beautiful record called SOUL AND INSPIRATION. And right afterwards, Jay said, “What about Kristofferson?” And I was, like, “Well, that’s a great idea!” And I had thought about it, because the truth was that Kris is…not known to be a great singer, per se. You know, he’s more of a Dylan-esque sort of character. But he’s an incredible writer, and he puts forth the songs – especially in later years – in more of a Dylan-esque way.
Now, the reason I thought this was a really good idea was because Kris had never been recorded properly, in my opinion. When he was just starting and all of his biggest songs were being written, he was being produced by the record label division of the small company that published him, and the truth of the matter was that these records that were made in 1969, 1970, 1971… They were really bad records. I mean, first of all, they sort of threw Kris into what I call the sausage factory in Nashville. You know, where the same people play on everything and the same three girl singers sing on everything. And they didn’t really understand who this guy was, and he wasn’t really a crooner, but they sort of made him croon. And these were the great songs, like “Me and Bobby McGee,” “For the Good Times,” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” but they were done so poorly that these records were not successful. And also, Kris came off as a guy trying to sing who couldn’t sing.
So I said to Jay, “I know these early albums, the ones that have all the hits on them, and…they’re terrible.” I’m sorry, they just were! At least in the sense that they didn’t understand who they had. It would’ve been like making Dylan croon or something, or putting Dylan into a sort of factory-oriented production. It’s just wrong. So I said to Jay, “I know that Kris is absolutely devoted to Bob Dylan, to the point where he actually took a job as a janitor in the CBS studios in Nashville when he heard that Dylan was going to be recording what was going to be BLONDE ON BLONDE there, just so he could be close and maybe have a chance to hear some of the music and maybe even have a chance to meet Dylan. That’s what he considered to be great music and great songs. And when BLONDE ON BLONDE came out, and HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED before that, those were the records that I know Kris wished he could’ve made. So let’s make that kind of record with Kris. Let’s do an album of his most famous songs, but I’ll bring in four great musicians who are perfect – they’re soulful, and they’re not just your normal session guys reading the notes – and let’s all make this record so that sounds like it’s got almost a Dylan vibe from those years.”
So Jay pitched the idea of Kris and his manager, along with my idea about how to do it, and they just loved it. And because I’d produced Jimmy Webb, who Kris really idolized… He said to me over the phone, “Listen, if you’re good enough to produce Jimmy, you’re good enough to produce me.” [Laughs.] And that was really lovely! We never met beforehand – we spoke on the phone that one time – and then we decided to make the album in Austin because Kris was in the middle of making a movie. They were shooting in a western part of Louisiana that’s relatively close to Austin, and we figured it was about a two-hour drive, and he could probably spend about four or five days on his days off to make this record, and I’d import two guys from Nashville and two guys from L.A. to be in the band. And we all sort of ended up in Austin in a very hot September, and it was absolutely an extraordinary experience, and one that probably everyone involved in the record believes was one of the greatest times they’ve ever had to make a record.
When it came time to pick the songs for the record, did you have a wish list of selections beyond the obvious selections?
You know, we really had enough on the album to do every song that was really well known of Kris’s. And that’s what we really wanted: we wanted to have the definitive versions in the style and the recording that Kris wanted it to be, which was this sort of Dylan / BLONDE ON BLONDE vibe. And he was so happy that we did it this way. And it was so much fun in the studio, and so much great work got done. As far as the actual songs, I think we overcut by about two songs, and I found those two songs when we started to do this re-release. I found them in my storage, and we baked the tapes and remixed. They’re two songs that aren’t as well-known of Kris’s, but they were, in fact, gorgeous songs. But in the end, EMI didn’t feel that we needed them, so they didn’t go on the album. But now on the re-release, they are! But, no, it wasn’t hard to pick the songs. We really had about 12 or 13 songs that were really American classics, iconic songs. So it wasn’t hard to pick .
So you said that Kris said, “If you’re good enough for Jimmy Webb, you’re good enough for me…”
[Laughs.] Yeah. He sort of drawled it.
I have to tell you just very quickly: I’ve interviewed Kris once, and it resulted in one of my favorite audio souvenirs. During the conversation, he was telling me about an actor who was a fan of his music, but he couldn’t come up with the actor’s name, so he said, “I’ll probably remember it as soon as I get off the phone. If I do, I’ll call you back.” Well, he was as good as his word: I have a voicemail from him where, with no preface, he says, “Hey, Will, the actor I was trying to remember was Robert Mitchum. It was Mitchum who was a fan of my stuff.” And then he paused for a beat, and he drawled, “This is Kris, by the way.” Because, you know, that’s not one of the most memorable voices ever or anything…
That’s fabulous! “This is Kris…” [Laughs.] That’s beautiful.
So when Kris actually got into the studio to work with you, did it live up to his expectations?
Do you mean when he got there, or afterwards?
A little of both, I suppose. But I was thinking specifically about the fact that he hadn’t actually met you beforehand.
Yeah, we met at the hotel the night before we started, and it was a lovely little meeting, and…I just told him, “We’re going to have wonderful musicians, plus your friend Stephen Bruton, who lives in Austin.” And he wound up being the only person that Kris actually knew, so it was really good to have Stephen there, because he was like family to Kris.
So I said, “Here’s what we’re going to do,” and when we started to record, it was just like magic. Kris had his guitar, he had his harmonica, and he was in his own booth, but he had really good visual between me and the band. We were all on the floor. But the musicians were fantastic, and it was just a soulful three days of tracking. And a lot of stories. He would just tell stories and laugh, and we would all be howling.
Afterwards, we did a few vocal passes on things, so I’d have some backup vocals, because I knew I’d lose him to the movie any second. And when I went back to Toronto, which was where I was based at that point, he just adored the things I added, and then we added some guest stars. We had a lot of people singing along on each song. We had Vince Gill, Alison Krause, Jackson Browne, Mark Knopfler… We had a great list of people who were dying to sing a harmony with Kris. And the vocals came out great, because we didn’t try to make Kris croon. It was conversational and – again – Dylan-esque vocals, and they worked like a charm. So everything about this record was exactly what Kris hoped it would be, really, to the point where he has always said from that day on that it was definitely the record he’s most proud of. He hates to play favorites, but he feels like this is the one that’s his absolute classic and his favorite. And it’s hard not to love it: it’s stood the test of time. It’s a very timeless record. And when I finished mixing, I sent it to him, and he just could not have been more in love with the record or more kind to me.
Speaking of Jimmy Webb, you first worked with him on ANGEL HEART, right?
Yeah, I’ve worked with Jimmy for 40 years, but ANGEL HEART was the first album I produced, along with my old partner. We produced that album in 1978, but didn’t come out until about ’82, because there were a lot of problems with the label initially, and suddenly Lorimar – which was part of CBS/Sony at that point – put it out. That’s a lovely album. ANGEL HEART is a great record, and it means a lot to me, because it was our first time working with Jimmy, and we had – again – brilliant musicians and great songs, and we worked really hard to give him an album that he could be proud of. And it’s really a fan favorite among the Jimmy fans.
I’m very much in the pro-Webb camp.
Cool! Yeah, we’re actually trying to have Sony in New York put out a release of the album sort of like what I did with Kris’s album, which is a re-issue collectible with extra tracks and so on.
Is there any project you’ve worked on that leaps to mind as one that you thought didn’t get the love it deserved?
Oh, I could probably think of a hundred. [Laughs.] I always feel that you can make a great record, even with a great concept, but lord knows that if the label isn’t putting the money behind it, it’s not going to do as well as it could do. So, yeah, my list is too long. There have been so many wonderful records that I’ve been a part of that I feel so proud of, and a great many of them didn’t get the love they needed. Some did. I do a lot of singer-songwriter records. I don’t do a lot of bands. But there have been so many albums, and I’ve worked with Disney for years, so I’ve done a number of projects for them. And some did great, but some… Well, you’re doing them because you love them, but if they don’t get the financial love from the label…
You know, going back to Kris’s record, that did pretty well without a lot of money behind it. Just to backtrack for a second, we finished the album, and Guardian was ready to put it out in about two months, but then all of a sudden EMI closed Guardian, and I lost Jay because he was no longer there, and we lost Kris’s record along with Barry Mann’s record because the label didn’t exist. I think EMI might’ve looked at the albums, but they decided not to put them out. So then I spent about a year and a half, and every chance I could I offered these albums to other labels in the hopes that they would buy them off of EMI or whatever. I’d probably gone through about 10 different scenarios, and finally a guy named Yves Beauvaies, a French guy who worked at Atlantic in New York, I went to him and had a meeting about these projects, and he said, “Oh, my God, I love these!”
So a couple of years after we did the album with Kris, it came out. It just came out on Atlantic. And even though they didn’t really put a ton of money behind it, they got him on The Tonight Show, they got him on a few other things, and we sold about 140,000 albums. Which, you know, wasn’t that big in those days, but for an album that didn’t really have a lot of money behind it, I thought it had done nicely. So I think that one was a lucky break. I don’t think we sold anything like that on the other songwriter records that we did. But Kris had a very good, very loyal fanbase, and I think that when they heard the record and realized that it was the record that Kris always wanted to make, I think that was a big reason why the record did as well as it did. And it did well enough that, when I approached Rhino, they said, “Listen, we would love to do this one. This is a record that people love and know.” And, of course, a lot of people don’t know it, so we’re repurposing it and having a chance to get those people who don’t know the record but that I think will love it.