Music Interviews

Bruce Hornsby: “Most people in the pop world want to live a white note life. I’m interested in a little more adventure” – Interview

The Way It Is singer on scoring for Spike Lee, guarding against chromaticism, his latest album ‘Flicted, and the continued resonance of his best known hit

Bruce Hornsby

Bruce Hornsby (Photo: Tristan Williams)

Bruce Hornsby is on screen. It’s morning in East Virginia, and he has joined musicOMH to chew the fat on an extraordinary period of creativity for the singer-songwriter. He is an energetic presence throughout, a mischievous one too, and greets your interviewer with a few words we can’t possibly repeat here.

Hornsby has made three albums in the last five years, dispatched with very little ceremony – Absolute Zero in 2019, Non-Secure Connection the following year and ‘Flicted, released in May this year. He has a slight concession on his creative streak, however. “These last three records are albums where I think exactly 60% of the music is derived from music I’d already written for Spike Lee, for unknown film scores. That means half the work is done, and it makes fecundity easier. I worked for Spike as a film composer for around 11 or 12 years, from 2008, and in that time I wrote around 240 different pieces of music – and he probably used about half of them. Some of these cues, as we call them, ranged from 40 seconds to five minutes. They started like songs, and were crying out to be expanded into songs with words and melodies. In 2017 I finally got around to doing it, and that became the album Absolute Zero.”

It was a very different approach to writing. “Usually I’m just a guy at a piano, or lately a dulcimer, if I want to write some folk music. It only has white notes, which guards against complexity and chromaticism – the dodecaphonic and 12-tone music that I’m fond of. There is some 12-tone music on these three records, but I’ll go into that later if you’d like. It’s probably boring for most people, but it’s music school nerd stuff, which is what I like.” I express my agreement, at which his face brightens further. “OK!” he says, “Well, I’m really your friend.”

On the music of these last three albums, Hornsby’s voice and piano work together, starting and finishing the same musical sentences as though they were almost one instrument. “I’m not surprised to hear that,” he says with some satisfaction. “I’ve been doing the same thing, singing and writing and playing, for a really long time now, so it doesn’t surprise me to hear, but that’s the first time someone’s ever actually made that specific comment. When I’m writing to already composed music maybe that’s a little easier, because I leave a little more room for the music. It’s a different approach to sitting at a piano and writing a song. I think there’s a symbiosis there, as well there should be after 45 freaking years.”

Hornsby’s latest, ‘Flicted, the third of his Spike Lee trilogy, includes his responses to the pandemic. Some of these are conflicted, though he puts me right on the source of the abbreviated title. “Flicted is short for ‘afflicted’ – not ‘conflicted’ – hence the title. When I call the record ‘‘Flicted’ I am writing songs that are tangentially related on a lyric level to these times.”

Two of the standout songs are Days Ahead and Is This It, an observation prompting raised eyebrows from our host. “OK, interesting,” he says. “Days Ahead is clearly written in response to the last two years that the pandemic shut down. The words are for the most part written by my long time friend Chip deMatteo, who I’ve known since kindergarten. We’ve been pranksters together, pulling shenanigans since fourth grade! From eight through 12 we had a band booking company called Zappo Productions, which booked only the worst bands in our town. They were terrible and we reserved the right to name them. We had such bands as The Uncommon Cold, The Benign Tumour, Polly Nomial And The Logarithms – Polly being the girl singer. It was kids seeing what we could get away with, and we sold worthless stock and fake raffle tickets, miscreants and sinners together.”

Their friendship has a strong understanding. “I said to Chip, ‘Hey look, we’re in this shutdown, and it seems like a fertile area for lyrical inspiration.’ He wrote this thing, and I wrote the chorus using a lot of the words he’d already used. Is This It was written before all this. I can see why you think it would be during the pandemic but it is a wry look at the whimsical arbitrary nature of living and dying.” He quotes the lyrics: “’Walk outside your house you could be sitting duck, Man serves you with papers and says real nice good luck, In your car and here comes a deer flyin’ cross the road, Or a man pulls up beside you and does what he’s been told’, you know? So right, ‘Is this it, is this the end of the line?’ It’s a song not to be taken too seriously, there’s a light-heartedness about the lyrics. You can hear me singing that not in a serious way, it’s a bit of a piss take, a sardonic look at life and how I could be gone in the next minute.” As it turns out, he wrote the song in 2016-17. “I recorded it for Absolute Zero but didn’t really capture it. There’s another dulcimer song on that record called Echo Location which I’m quite fond of, and which fitted in more – and even more so Non-Secure Connection, which is the weirdest record of all.”

Hornsby’s sense of humour is often evident in these last three albums, with a glint in the eye often revealed to the close-up listener. Did he really sing that lyric, just then? “I’m singing in a way that’s not trying to be Mr Sensitive, the singer-songwriter,” he says. “I’m taking the piss, I’m having a good time writing about a serious topic.” He quotes from Hound, one of ‘Flicted’s standout songs. “Cruelty shifts and swirls around. At any time, you could be the hound or the hounded target in a flash. Positions change and now you’re catching the gas, getting the lash, getting trashed.” Taken from afar it could be thought as a bit comedic, but there’s a word in that song, the great German word ‘schadenfreude’. We think of that in a comedic way, but to me it’s taking pleasure in the misery of others. It’s a terrible thing to do, really, but sometimes, it’s really appropriate.”

“I don’t take life that seriously. I’m deeply involved, and beat it like crazy when I’m doing music, but mostly I just want to have a laugh.” – Bruce Hornsby

Musically, Hornsby has arrived at an experimental yet instinctive form of writing. “In my dotage I’ve been more interested in adventurous music again. I’m a music school geek, and I was very curious about modern classical music, which for many people is just anathema, they hate it. I understand that. Most people in the pop world want to live what I call a white note life. They want to be very ‘in the key’. Over the years, and increasingly in the last 10 to 15, I’ve had interest in a little more adventure, more chromaticism and more disturbance. I regularly inflict that on my poor unsuspecting audience, who haven’t kept up with some of them. They’re just there for their nostalgic night out, and I’ll give them a little bit of that, but I’m also going to try to bend your fucking ear for a minute, because that’s really who I am and who I’ve become, for better or worse. I’m obviously not doing any of this for ‘commercial reasons’, I’m just expressing myself, and that’s part of my expression.”

In this way he is revisiting earlier musical loves. “I grew up loving Charles Ives, the first truly great and indigenous American composer, and I went on from there. In 2003, after 18 years, I got dropped by RCA Records, but I landed very quickly on my feet at Columbia, and I got to make some records with the red label. I had the 45s – Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, etc – and that was a lucky score for me. When you sign with Sony, one of the great perks is that you have access to their catalogue for life. I went through their catalogue and ordered 176 free CDs. I really immersed myself in the Glenn Gould catalogue, because I’m interested in virtuosity on the piano in my half-arsed way, compared to those guys who are sprung from Zeus. Gould was very interested in the modern, and that turned me on to what’s called the Second Viennese School – the composers Schoenberg, Webern and Berg. I learned some of the Webern Variations, the Schoenberg Suite for Piano, and his Piano Concerto, and more recently music by Elliott Carter and Benjamin Britten. That music crept into my songwriting, most clearly on Non-Secure Connection – songs like Shit’s Crazy Out Here, Porn Hour, and The Blinding Light Of Dreams. They move in a chromatic language, which is my favourite style.”

It is inspiring to listen to Hornsby talk about his favourite classical music, and he goes further to extol the virtues of Olivier Messiaen. The song Porn Hour from the last album is mostly inspired by him, as he was well known to for going out in the forest and fields and transcribing the music of birds. I used that language in Porn Hour because you’re talking about the birds and the bees.”

The style of singing on these albums is intriguing too, moving freely between melody and speech but in a natural way. He puts this in context with an admission. “Look, I’m not a big fan of my early records. I’m really not a fan of that singer there, he’s a bit wooden – a little stiff. I didn’t like it then really – you could ask my wife. I was not happy with what I did on my first record, but I didn’t feel I had the power to push back and say, ‘This is all wrong, we need to start over’. Anyway, it was a huge success, and that’s great – but just because something’s very popular doesn’t mean it’s great. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really proud of the songs The Way It Is, or Mandolin Rain, or The Red Plains, the last song on my first record. So often people write the song, then record it and then learn how to play and sing it, and that’s been my case through the years. I’ve always been trying to evolve and grow in my music, as a writer and as a singer, so you’re hearing the fruits of that increasingly through the records. These three most recent albums are clearly exhibits A, B and C for that. So thanks for noticing, because it’s a really natural process. I’ve just loosened up over the years, so you’re hearing that, and it makes me feel good when people notice that.”

Collaboration is a thread running through Hornsby’s career, most recently with Bon Iver front man Justin Vernon. “I’ve been collaborating on a deep level almost from the beginning”, he says. “I’ve written with Don Henley and Robbie Robertson, and I’ve played on records for so many amazing people – Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan etc. These are people I grew up admiring, and now all of a sudden they’re reaching out to me as a younger artist, because they want a piece of what I’ve been doing on their music. Now all of a sudden, I’m the elder and I’ve started being referenced and nodded to by younger artists, almost exclusively in the indie or art pop world. The first and foremost was Justin Vernon, who started shouting me out in the press. I started getting all these Google alerts about interviews with Justin where he would talk about me as someone who inspired him in his formative years. I took note of this and checked out the music and went, “Wow, this is really great. This guy is something special.””

The two were soon to meet. “He reached out to me and asked me to do a duet. He always liked the way I played the Garcia Hunter song Black Muddy River, one of the great hymns of the Grateful Dead world, and he wanted to do a duet with me on that song. We spent two days getting to know each other and recording the song, and it just kept on growing. He asked me to play his Eaux Claires festival, which was amazing, with a modern classical stage. I get chills thinking about it! I then played Coachella with him, and then when I was working on Absolute Zero he invited me out to write a song, which became Cast-Off, which is probably the flagship on the album. In that same session, over four or five days, we wrote a song on his album called A Man Like You, which was on the last Bon Iver record. I was really happy about that, because I had a record that might actually sell.”

The next chapter of collaboration had begun. “Justin Vernon opened a door for me, and I walked into a room only to find there were a whole lot more people in that room who felt the same way about me as he did. So you see James Mercer from The Shins on My Resolve, the flagship song of the second record. Then this time, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend reached out to me like Justin did, to be a guest on his podcast. We became friends, and he sang on the song Sidelines. His girlfriend at the time, Danielle Haim, expressed an interest in singing on Days Ahead, too. There are all these little connections, and they all started with the Bon Iver thing. Lucky me, that all this happened – and I thank Justin for that.”

Hornsby finds collaboration to have lasting musical rewards, beyond his own audience. “A lot of my older fans really don’t like what I’m doing now, because they’re not really open to sonic manipulation,” he explains. “This record opens with backwards piano, and I love that – it crushes me, that kind of sound, finding a sound you’d haven’t heard before. That’s what I’m interested in, because I’ve done the other stuff. I think in and around this sonic trickery there are some basic sounds and ways of playing chords that are very much me through the years. My interest in vocal manipulation is purely about keeping the self loathing at bay, because I’m a self critic.” Here he learned from Bon Iver’s music. “Justin Vernon is one of the great sonic manipulators. That guy, he could sing the phone book and give you chills, but he’s interested in a different sound – the sound of tomorrow, not of yesterday, and that’s who I am too.”

“We need to always be vigilant – and so The Way It Is is still relevant.” – Bruce Hornsby

Our talk turns to the piano itself. While Bruce Hornsby’s style could be called radio-friendly, it is in fact very difficult to perfect from the outside, from personal experience. “Sorry,” he says, throwing up his hands. “On my middle period album Spirit Trail, in 1998, that was the record to portray this new area I dealt with when I turned 40, which was independence between the two hands. That was a piano-playing door that I opened before and found too hard, but at this point, I said to myself, ‘Okay, am I going to rest on my laurels like most of my singer-songwriter friends?’ Their fans love that, and they don’t get flooded with the nasty letters that I get. But that’s not me, so I decided to take this dive into independence of the hands. Singing while playing independently – fucking hell, that was hard. Two examples where that happens are The Blinding Light Of Dreams, on the Spirit Trail album, which took a long time to get together. Then there is the song Fractals on Absolute Zero. I’ve just tried to remain inspired and creative, continuing to push and let the cards fall where they may. My left hand has become a fairly good band on its own, because of all this work that I did, and my right hand is a pretty good soloist. I played Shepherd’s Bush Empire a couple years ago, on the Absolute Zero record, and a classical concert hall.”

Would Hornsby be open to a more ‘classical’ approach? “Well, speaking of classical, my new record is just about done – and it was made with the New York Chamber ensemble yMusic, that plays on my record. I wouldn’t say it’s classical, but it’s certainly classical sounding – there are no drums. That’s coming out probably next year, unless we decide that I put out too much music, as it would be four new records in five years. It might be a little bit, ‘Oh, this tosser again?!’ I just want people to hear it because I’m proud of it.”

There are further exciting musical adventures planned. “I’m playing with the Omaha Symphony in Omaha, Nebraska in October, so I do symphonic concerts now and then. It’s a very different mode of expression. It’s not that free, but sometimes we have an ‘open section’ with a cue of a head nod. But classical music, in some form, is definitely my future. Absolutely.” Does he see much live music? “There aren’t a lot of concerts here in South Eastern Virginia, and I’m a bit of a hermit, an increasing misanthrope. My great friend Pat Metheny came through here about three months ago, so I went to his gig and had a great time. Also Branford Marsalis came and played with my producer. Branford’s a great friend of mine, and he actually plays on the upcoming record.”

Each concert brings different experiences for Hornsby, even now. “Well, I’m an improviser. That’s who I am. I majored in jazz music in college, so I’m very at home and at ease in a musical situation where everything’s up for grabs. I’m restless, so often in the middle of a song I’ll compose a new section on the spot a new section. I try to make it not harmonically complex, so the average musician with solid ears can hear the progression and play it, and then we’re off.”

We turn – perhaps inevitably – to The Way It Is, his best-known song and still a profound listening experience. Does he think it is more relevant than ever with the racial discrimination America continues to experience? He frowns a little. “Sadly, that is true. We have made major strides towards racial equality and tolerance, but not enough of course. Years from now I am sure we would have the same conversation. As the great Martin Luther King said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ It means we gradually become more enlightened. Obviously the last few years in our country have been alarming in that way. The racist right was always under the mainstream radar in our country, apart from some horrific event like Timothy McVeigh bombing the bureau building in Oklahoma City. Then it goes back under the radar screen, but then we had someone in office who knew that this group supported him.” He doesn’t mention names, but the subject of the conversation is clearly Donald Trump. “He basically created an atmosphere where this group felt no problem coming out into the mainstream, whether it was January 6 or the Charlottesville marches. That is a new development in American life, and it’s abhorrent – and we’ve seen it around the world in the French elections, and in Austria a few years ago. We need to always be vigilant – and so The Way It Is is still relevant.”

He is particularly modest here, for the song’s durability is nothing short of remarkable. “Last year, a great version was recorded by a young Chicago rapper named Polo G, called Wishing For A Hero. It’s fantastic – and he and I ended up doing a duet, just piano and rapper. The song has had an amazing run as a vehicle for the hip hop community,” he reflects. “Tupac Shakur’s Changes is quite possibly the greatest version of that song, and it surpasses mine – I get chills thinking about that version. I think 24 different hip hop and EDM artists have done versions of that song, so it’s had quite a life, and I think a lot of that has to do with the groove of it, but mostly it is the lyrical content”.

Our time is up, though Hornsby has been very generous with his words. We bid a cheery farewell. “I don’t take life that seriously,” he says. “I’m deeply involved, and beat it like crazy when I’m doing music, but mostly I just want to have a laugh – and we have had that, so thank you.”

Bruce Hornsby’s album ‘Flicted is out now through Zappo/Thirty Tigers. Tour dates and further information can be found at

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More on Bruce Hornsby
Bruce Hornsby: “Most people in the pop world want to live a white note life. I’m interested in a little more adventure” – Interview
Bruce Hornsby – ‘Flicted
Bruce Hornsby – Non-Secure Connection
Bruce Hornsby – Absolute Zero