The way it is now: Bruce Hornsby on sonic evolution and collaboration

Bruce Hornsby performs with his band the Noisemakers on a shared bill with Amos Lee to benefit the Charlottesville Free Clinic on Sunday at the Pavilion. Publicity photo Bruce Hornsby performs with his band the Noisemakers on a shared bill with Amos Lee to benefit the Charlottesville Free Clinic on Sunday at the Pavilion. Publicity photo

It’s hard to follow all of the creative turns in Bruce Hornsby’s lengthy career. The smooth-voiced innovator hit it big in the mid-’80s with “The Way It Is,” and his musical path since has been anything but predictable. He’s played in the Grateful Dead, ventured into jazz and bluegrass collaborations, and fostered a partnership with Spike Lee, composing music for a variety of the filmmaker’s projects. Recently his influence has been championed by a range of popular indie artists, including Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who has a big presence on Hornsby’s latest effort, Absolute Zero, one of his most heady, experimental albums to date.

With additional help from Jack DeJohnette, Blake Mills, Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and New York-based chamber sextet yMusic, the record, released in April, combines elements from Hornsby’s broad sonic palette into a bold 10-track statement. The versatile pianist/songwriter, a Williamsburg, Virginia, resident, spoke with us ahead of a co-headlining show at the Sprint Pavilion with Amos Lee on Sunday night.

C-VILLE: This record is what I’d call experimental chamber pop/rock. Was that a grand vision or did it come together gradually with help from the collaborators?

Bruce Hornsby: I’d say your description is pretty solid, although I might take the “rock” out of it, other than the Robert Hunter collaboration “Take You There (Misty).” There was a basic vision for the record from the start. It felt cinematic for a good reason—most of the songs started as film cues; film music I wrote for Spike Lee. But the chamber aspect came into full focus with some of the film orchestrations I already had, and the New York recording session with yMusic that featured Rob Moose’s soulful and creative arrangements.

When you’re writing a song, what typically comes first—the music or the lyrics?

There’s no one standard model. Lots of these songs were written, again, with music coming first because of the cues. But three songs were written with lyrics first: “Never In This House,” “Voyager One,” and “The Blinding Light Of Dreams.” Those three songs are extremely musically disparate, stylistically.

“Cast-Off,” which features Justin Vernon, has an interesting kind of self-deprecation in the lyrics. Can you explain what inspired it?

Justin and (music/producer) Brad Cook invited me to come to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, to work on new music and play a gig with them in 2018. I came bearing gifts—film music compositions I thought Justin may respond to. One of the pieces he liked was a cue that I called “Cast-Off.” I had decided I needed to write a semi-grand, end-credit piece, so I was listening to the end piece from the Tom Hanks film Cast Away, and got an idea from that. I came up with these words depicting someone who accepts and even embraces rejection; a song about humility and patience in the face of this. Justin added the pre-chorus and we were off.

At points, “Take You There (Misty)” has a throwback feel to your early work. What’s the story behind that one, working with Robert Hunter?

Hunter reached out to me in 2008 asking if I would be interested in writing a song with him. He asked me to send him a piece of music, and two weeks later I received an email with these amazing words syllabically matching my melody. That became “Cyclone” (from 2011’s Bride of the Noisemakers), and we’ve written three more since. “Take You There” took awhile to develop. I added the “(Misty)” to the title because I came to feel like it was my Father John Misty song.

You’ve tapped into collaborations with the likes of Ricky Skaggs, Spike Lee, The Dead, and Justin Vernon, among others. How are you able to gel with such a wide variety of artists?

The four names you mentioned, which happen to be the four deepest and longest-lasting collaborative relationships in my career, have some things very much in common: They’re all extremely high-level performers and creators in their very different fields of artistic endeavor. In every case they were people for whom my music was important, and so they reached out to me. They’re all artists whose work has moved me greatly, so every time my answer was an easy “yes.”

With an extensive discography, how do decide what goes into the current show? I imagine the new album songs will require some interesting arrangements with your band.

This record, for the most part, is a bit spacier, even trippier, than a lot of my earlier records, so there is a challenge in making all of it blend well together. In some cases we’re beefing up the arrangements so they can follow some of the early work. We’re also quickly finding ways to expand on the original record blueprint with the new songs, which is always enjoyable for restless musical souls.

You’re a Virginia native and you still live here. What keeps you in the Commonwealth?

I love that my mom is still around and I’m able to visit her every few days when I’m home, and that some of my old friends from high school basketball days still live around here and we can hang out a lot. Also, being a sentimental old fool, my sons were able to go to the same elementary school I attended.

Bruce Hornsby performs with his band the Noisemakers on a shared bill with Amos Lee to benefit the Charlottesville Free Clinic on Sunday, July 21, at the Pavilion.

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