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One on 1 Profile: Musician/Producer John Leventhal Plays a Big Role Behind the Scenes

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When Rosanne Cash takes the stage, as she will at Town Hall on March 18, her husband, John Leventhal, one of New York's more influential behind-the-scenes musicians, will be right next to her. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.

John Leventhal loves music so much, he'll play it with just about anyone.

"There was Simon and Garfunkel, and now, there's Mishkin and Leventhal," he says. "Why not? It could work."

He's quick with a joke, but Leventhal is absolutely serious when discussing the power of music and his decision years ago to make it his life and career.

"I realized, 'I don't have a choice. I have to try to do this. If I don't try to do this, I will be a miserable human being for the rest of my life,'" he says.

As a producer, songwriter and guitarist, Leventhal has become a staple of the music industry. He co-wrote and produced Shawn Colvin's "Sonny Came Home," which won the Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year in 1998. He's produced for and recorded with everyone from Willie Nelson to Marc Cohn and Paul Simon and his wife of nearly 20 years, Rosanne Cash.

Leventhal produced, arranged and co-wrote almost all of the songs on Cash's latest album, "The River and the Thread." They've collaborated on records for more than 20 years.

"We're both really opinionated, and we're kind of stubborn, and we can both be kind of cranky, and we've both been doing it for a while," Leventhal says. "So what we've learned is not to take it too personally, and if somebody's feelings get a little tramped on, I think we've gotten pretty adept at letting it go pretty quickly instead of holding on to it for like three weeks."

When Leventhal fell in love with his wife, he was joining a family with quite a musical legacy, becoming the son-in-law of one of the world's most famous musicians, Johnny Cash.

Leventhal: John's fame and celebrity is a little strange to live with. It's not your normal everyday thing.
Mishkin Now let's cut to the chase here. How did Rosanne deal with the Leventhal legacy of Westchester?
Leventhal: (laughs) Yeah, she probably had a harder time with that. She probably actually had a much harder time with that than I had with her dad.

Leventhal is a musician's musician, highly respected in the business. He says he's never regretted the fact that he's not a star.

"I like accolades and attention as much as the next person, but yeah, I think that I'm not wired to be an artist in the sense that you're talking about, i.e. the front person. It's not part of my DNA," he says. "I just love music, I love writing songs, I love making records, I love playing music, but I don't need to be front and center on the stage. It's just not part of who I am."

There was nothing really atypical about John Leventhal's upbringing. Born in the city, raised in Westchester, father had a store on 45th Street.

The story of his maternal great-grandfather, however, has the makings of a song: a Cuban immigrant who owned a number of pool hall/barbershop/bars on Bleecker Street, where a murder took place in 1885, as detailed in a series of stories in The New York Times.

"It turned out not to be my great-grandfather, but the police arrested him that night 'cause apparently, the weapon used belonged to my great-grandfather," Leventhal says. "So there's a series of four articles in which he's arrested and held in custody, and then the next day, he's released because it's clear he didn't do the murder. But in our family lore, he's quite a character."

Fast forward about 80 years, and Leventhal is in his first band.

"Johnny and the Originals. Who knew? See, it was already written" he says. "We're probably singing our existential opus, 'It Happened Because it Did.'"

Leventhal was 11 when The Beatles arrived in New York in 1964, and he was hooked. But it wasn't until his senior year at the University of Wisconsin that he told his parents that he was going to be a musician.

"I think my parents just thought I was an alien. I really, they just, I don't think they could understand on any level what the hell was going on with me. I mean, I couldn't understand it. I don't know how they could understand it," he says.

"They just couldn't relate to making a living as a musician, you know? I mean, there was no template growing up where I grew up to make your living as a musician. It just didn't exist."

He initially lived at home, joined some bands in Westchester and eventually, hit the road and honed his craft.

"It was never 'I am going to make it in the music business or I'm going to be a star or I'm going to be a record producer, or I'm going to be a Grammy-winning songwriter.' None of that was on the burner," he says. "The only thing on the burner was, 'Can I make enough money to pay the rent in my apartment and buy food?'"

Leventhal was already in the music business for 15 years before gaining any type of national prominence. He says that that actually was a good thing.

"I think if I had been in my early 20s and all that, I don't think I could have processed it in sort of as graceful a way as I like to think I did," he says.

"I was kind of very prone to self-criticism, was always like, 'Oh, that's no good. This is no good.' So, sort of a great leap forward. It helped that the first record I produced won a Grammy. I mean, I'm serious that it really helped. It sort of gave me an affirmation like, I can trust my intuitive self."

The records Leventhal produces and the songs he writes enjoy critical praise, but most of the albums he works on aren't huge sellers.

Leventhal: The nexus of art and commerce is fraught with a kind of dissonance, you know. There's nothing we can do about it. You just have to make your peace with it, and I mean, part of making your living as a musician is finding, navigating your way through the business part, which is not always that easy.
Mishkin: When did you make your peace with it?
Leventhal: I haven't. I'll be honest. No, it's a struggle. It's a process. It probably never ends.

Leventhal has made a career out of collaborating, and there's no sign of that changing.
And yet, he says, "There's a lot of music inside me that doesn't fit into collaborative thing I've done so far. So, you know, I'm always writing things, I'm always thinking about music, and at some point, I have to find a vehicle to sort of get that out there."

Either way, Leventhal will have no trouble tapping into the joy he first experienced listening to music as a kid.

"I think part of what I do when I produce records or write songs or even play guitar with someone is, some part of me is still trying to channel that kind of feeling into what I do. The magic," he says.

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