LONDON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 03: Bruce Hornsby performs on stage at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire on … [+]
Bruce Hornsby is a musician’s musician. Having collaborated with everyone from the Grateful Dead, Phil Collins and Bonnie Raitt to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Don Henley and Ricky Skaggs, the Grammy winner is one of those acts, like Carlos Santana, who celebrates and embraces all forms of music.
That shows on his superb new album, the eccentric, intriguing Non-Secure Connection, which features Living Color’s Vernon Reid, the legendary late Leon Russell, the Shins’ James Mercer and Vernon. But this is very much Hornsby’s signature piano style driving the train on Non-Secure Connection.
I jumped on a call with Hornsby recently, from his home in Williamsburg, Virginia. “We live out in the woods, but really close to town, so it’s all fine,” he says. We discussed the new album, how the song “Anything Can Happen,” featuring Russell, came to be, Tupac Shakur’s adaptation of :The Way it Is” for “Changes” and much more.
Steve Baltin: As a fan I was excited about “Anything Can Happen,” featuring the late Leon Russell.
Bruce Hornsby: That is a song I wrote with Leon. Rolling Stone magazine reached out to me in 1988 and said they were doing a pictorial essay called “Musicians And Their Mentors.” So they asked me to be a part of it and they asked me who I would pick. So I said, Elton [John] cause Elton and I were friends at that time. I sat in with him a couple of times at Madison Square Garden. He was just a real supporter of my music. I’d met Leon once but I didn’t know him well. But they told me, “No, Elton has been picked already, so pick another one.” So I said Leon. They reached out to him and he was all for it. So on Rolling Stone’s dime they flew me out to his house in Hendersonville, Tennessee, about 30, 40 miles from Nashville. And we got to know each other for two days while they took pictures of us, we became friends. When that was over, the end of that two-day session, I said to him, “Hey, Leon, if you’d like to try to get back into this crazy game, I don’t know if I can help you. But I would try my damndest if you want me to.” So he said, “Okay, I’ll think about it.” That was summer of ’88. And then Christmas Eve around midnight I get this call and it was Leon saying, “Well, I’d like to take you up on that offer.” I got him a deal at Virgin so then I started riding around with him on his bus when he did this one little tour of the Northeast. We would fool around on the bus all night with little keyboards and got some starts for the record. Then I went to Hendersonville after that and I would be there three or four days a month for the next eight or nine months. First session he looked at me and said, “Hey, Bruce, write me a Barry White track.” So I’m thinking, “Okay, this is an interesting assignment.” I put together this track with these modernized chords and a little bit of a gospel flavor in the chorus. And he thought it was okay enough to want to continue. He gave me a red notebook full of lyrics he’d written and said, “Pick me one to sing.” He proceeded to crush this thing. We couldn’t believe how fantastic it was, his first take of the song “Anything Can Happen.” So that became of the title track of the record. And that’s what I played for the record company when I went to see them later on. [But] I felt we didn’t really capture the song well enough on the record. I felt we missed that one even though it was the title track. So for years I’ve wanted to rerecord that song I had this great demo, rough mix, but I wanted to rerecord it. So I finally got around to it this time. So it’s an old Leon and Bruce song rerecorded with a little bit of Leon’s vocal ghosting for the first two thirds of the song under mine and then he comes out and you hear him sing with me harmony. So that’s how it happened from the command, “Write me a Barry White track.” This is our Barry White track.
Baltin: How have you seen your writing or the topics you write about change?
Hornsby: My first record was called “The Way It Is,” that was the song that broke us. And that’s a protest song very clearly. So my most well-known song of my career is a protest song. And now, on my twenty-second record there’s a protest song on this too. And this was obviously all done before the terrible Geroge Floyd murder and subsequent amazing horrified response to that. I call this a “Bull Connor Moment,” this George Floyd tragedy. Back in ’64, as a whole lot of people know, Bull Connor was a police chief of the Birmingham, Alabama police force. And he was well known for putting the hoses on the protestors in the city. And this awful footage of this act of Bull Connor’s was filmed and then went viral the only was something could go viral in 1964. All three of the major networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — showed this film on their evening news. And this shocked and horrified the nation, most of whom were not aware of what was going on in the south during the Civil Right movement. So that changed the consciousness in America. That Bull Connor moment. And so subsequently later that year LBJ and the Congress was able to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that I referenced in the third verse of “The Way It Is” for instance. So just like that we have this viral moment of this horrific act and everyone in the world sees it instantly, way different from ’64. So the same thing happened, this just galvanized public opinion. So it’s very much like that and hopefully something will happen the magnitude of the Civil Rights Act of ’64. We’ll see, but it’s been an amazing time.
Baltin: How does that tie into “Bright Star Cast”?
Hornsby: So my song “Bright Star Cast,” I wrote it last year. Another of my attempts at writing a civil rights anthem. I got the great Jamila Woods to sing with me, Chicago singer/songwriter/poet, and Vernon Reid plays guitar. Some of my Eau Claire friends from the Bon Iver crowd, they played on the record. So from “The Way It Is” on my first record to “Bright Star Cast” on my twenty-second record, I think “Bright Star Cast” is my seventh song dealing with race in America on some level. It’s never been far from my mind, I’ve always been passionate about it and so I’ve continued to write about it.
Baltin: Talk about the importance, for you, of staying current with what is happening in the world as you make music.
Hornsby: I am looking to reflect the times in which I live, so this new record has a song about a computer hacker, the title song, “Non-Secure Connection.” And on and on. The first song on the record is about the positives and negatives of the drone culture that pervades our world now, with a little apocalyptic, Biblical prophecy thrown in there for maybe a little controversy. So I’m always looking to write about what is interesting to me. It takes me pretty far afield. There’s a song on the record called “Porn Hour,” which is a song about innovation in the early days of the internet.
Baltin: And look at how many times “The Way It Is” has been covered. Obviously though the Tupac version, “Changes,” is the most iconic.
Hornsby: I love the lyrics, such a positive message, such a soulful message. A cassette showed up in the mail, back in the waning days of the cassette era, from the Shakur Foundation. It was about a year after Tupac had been assassinated. And it was a way dirtier version of this song they had found going through his voluminous archives. I got a note saying, “We found this, it’s very special. We wanted you to know about this and also we wanted to discuss with you the publishing splits.” So we had a nice back and forth about that. And it just kept on going. “The Way It Is” has been recorded so many times by rap artists. It’s something I’m proud of.
Baltin: Who is the dream hip-hop artist to work with?
Hornsby: Your saying that makes me think back to a time, a couple of years ago I was in Eau Clare working with Justin Vernon and his merry band of musical killers. And I was playing him some tracks. some pieces I’d written for Spike Lee film scores, that I thought needed to be expanded into full songs with words. I played him this one and he really started reacting to it. He turned to his engineer and he said, “I gotta send this one to Chance,” because I think Justin and Chance The Rapper work together now and then. So I thought, “Oh wow, that’s crazy. I don’t hear that, but what do I know?” He just took the song and wrote over it for his own record. So it became the song “Man Like You” on the last Bon Iver record. So that’s the closest I’ve ever come to Chance The Rapper.
Baltin: I love the album title, which seems to have a double entendre in today’s world where people are losing social skills due to technology.
Hornsby: I titled the album Non-Secure Connection, one reason is I wanted to draw attention to one of the weirdest tracks on the record cause I like the weird. But mostly I titled it Non-Secure Connection because I think it gave an overall sense, it described the world that we’re living in now. The anxiety, the insecurity of it all, the existential issues that we’re dealing with. So Non-Secure Connection felt like it was of the times, of the era.