Willner navigates from folk to bounding main

By Chris Morris
The Hollywood Reporter
August 17, 2006

"I'm very lucky," Hal Willner says. Very lucky and very, very busy.

A man who always appears to have an infinite amount of music whizzing around in his head, producer Willner is everywhere right now. He served as music producer and concert director for Lian Lunson's current film homage "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man" and helmed Lucinda Williams' version of "Gentle on My Mind" for Will Ferrell's comedy hit "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby."

On Tuesday, Epitaph's Anti imprint will issue "Rogue's Gallery," a typically eclectic two-CD compilation of pirate ballads and chanteys.

The Williams production is something of a rarity, for Willner's forte has long been his freewheeling multiartist tribute albums. Since 1981, he has plumbed the catalogs of Nino Rota, Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Walt Disney's animated features. "Rogue's Gallery" was instigated by "Pirates of the Caribbean" director Gore Verbinski and his star Johnny Depp, who sold Epitaph's founder Brett Gurewitz and president Andy Kaulkin on the idea. The label executives then approached Willner.

"I said, 'Sea chanteys -- wow, perfect,' " the producer recalls. "I didn't know much about that stuff at all. Isn't that the perfect reason to take on a project?"

Cut in Seattle, Los Angeles, London and Dublin, "Rogue's Gallery" takes in a range of barnacle-covered nautical oldies, from the ripely gorgeous to the wickedly profane. Its 43 tracks include performances by such superstars as Bono and Sting; Willner familiars such as Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright and David Thomas; and such delightful eccentrics as Seattle musician Baby Gramps and English artist Ralph Steadman.

"I can't think of a project that I've had more fun on," Willner says. A second volume is planned for next year, just in time for the third installment of "Pirates."

The Shout! Factory box includes sometimes astonishing new readings of traditional songs by such artists as Sonic Youth and Roswell Rudd, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Gavin Friday, Mary Margaret O'Hara and David Johansen.

"I look at everything like a meal," he says, explaining his studio philosophy. "You got your entree, your appetizer, your dessert, the vegetable you hate that's good for you. ... Things that aren't even complete, you just go with it."

Depp's 'Pirate' touch on "Rogue's Gallery' CD 6/06