Willie Nelson’s newest release, “American Classic”, features album art by Danny Clinch. Danny has photographed Willie many times over the last ten years, and it shows in the familiarity and intimacy of his portraits of the legendary musician.
We took some time to chat with Danny about shooting this work, being at home with Willie, and hanging out with a legend in his tux…
LEVINE/LEAVITT: What was it like to first photograph Willie Nelson versus how you shoot him now?
DANNY CLINCH: The first time I shot Willie was because I was friends with Daniel Lenois, who had just finished producing his album, “Teatro” (1998). I had always wanted to photograph him, so when Daniel suggested that I fly out to California and spend time with them while they played Willie’s new songs, I grabbed the phone and bought a ticket. What I have learned in shooting him all these years is something that holds true from that first time, which is that Willie does not like to pose. He prefers to be photographed as he plays and hangs out, which is good because that is the way I like to make photographs as well.
L/L: So one of the reasons the dynamic works is that you share a similar sensibility as artist and subject.
DC: Well put.
L/L: Talking specifically about this album, what was it like to shoot at Willie’s home? Did you have an idea of how you wanted to shoot before arriving?
DC: Well, we flew into Austin and arrived at Willie’s house with 2 hours to shoot. We set up a little makeshift studio in his home, but otherwise, we moved around quite a lot. I kept in mind that this album is one of “classics”, as opposed to “Country Willie”. The art director mentioned shooting him in a tux, and we all loved it.
L/L: Had you planned to capture that cover image with Willie on the balcony in the tux?
DC: We were actually waiting on a woman to arrive with props, and it turned out that Willie was ready to go sooner than expected. So the Art Director and I walked out to the balcony where Annie (Willie’s wife) and he were waiting, and I shot that image. I wanted to photograph him with a 1940’s film noir, hard-lighting sort of feeling, similar to the way you used to see images of Frank Sinatra. I wanted to convey the idea of “American Classic” without using a solution as obvious as a flag. As it were, Willie’s balcony railing is carved with stars and it really worked, which is just how I like to shoot, responding to my environment.