“I guess you could say I’m a little restless,” famed pianist and songwriter Bruce Hornsby tells me via phone from his home studio in Virginia, where he is currently working on a film score for director Spike Lee. “I’m not much for playing the same thing over and over again, and that’s why in my solo concerts you’ll hear that the arrangements are not that close to those on my records.”
On any given night, listeners at a Hornsby solo show will bear witness to a mind-blowing mashup of musical styles. His acclaimed anthem “The Way It Is” may collide into Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Blues and boogie piano stomps often give way to atonal pieces by 20th century composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Elliott Carter. And the once sentimental ballad “Mandolin Rain” might be reborn as a mesmerizing, minor-key voyage. If all you remember about Hornsby harkens back to his days atop pop radio playlists, his solo concerts will leave you speechless in your seat.
So what’s an iconic musician to do after topping the charts and mining just about every conceivable musical genre behind the keyboard? If you’re Bruce Hornsby, you release a piano-less album written and recorded entirely using the fretted, Appalachian instrument the dulcimer.
Shortly before the release of his new album Rehab Reunion, Hornsby spoke with Keyboard about his relentless pursuit of musical inspiration.
Right before the release of your last album Solo Concerts you told me, “I’ve never been much for playing things the same way; that seems kind of like a creative prison. Try to stay out of that prison and continue to be open to new inventions.” Here we are a year or so later and your new album Rehab Reunion has you playing no piano whatsoever! Is this the kind of “new invention” you were referring to?
Well, yes, but it’s not really new. This is something that’s been gradually growing for the last 20 years. First off, I wear a lot of hats. People know me as “the piano guy,” and someone that is deeply involved in trying to play the instrument well. When you hear my solo concert, it’s an attempt at deep virtuosity on the instrument in the popular song context. That to me, frankly, is the most unique thing I do. I’ve developed it to a point that I think is special. But there’s also the songwriter hat that I wear, as well as the film composer one I wear with Spike [Lee]. So there’s the playing, the writing and, of course, the singing.
This new record is a songwriter’s record. I’m terrible at the dulcimer, in the sense that while I’m not really good at it, it takes me to a different place. My piano writing in the last several years has become very dissonant, and chromatic, influenced by modern classical music. I’m not really that interested in triads at the piano. But on the dulcimer, there’s such a limited palette you can paint with; it’s only the white notes and no chromatic scale. It’s an old Appalachian instrument, so you’re limited in your range. And I like those limitations.
How were you introduced to the dulcimer?
My relationship to it started in 1996. I took my family to the legendary Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax, Virginia. I was walking around the festival when I saw a dulcimer, so I picked it up and started fooling around with it. I just loved the ringing sound of it, so I bought one. It made its first entry into my music on record on my album Spirit Trail on the song “Shadow Hand.” It also made a major impact in 2004 on my album Halcyon Days on the song “Mirror on the Wall.” And in 2009 it really was the feature on the song “Prairie Dog Town” from the Levitate record. I wrote that song on the dulcimer. And while we were touring that record, we would have a little stripped-down acoustic set featuring it, with [drummer] Sonny Emory playing the washboard. Through the years, that became an increasingly popular part of our shows.
Then in 2011, I was playing the Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tennessee with my band the Noisemakers, and out of the blue, they asked me if I would do a full dulcimer set on the solo, singer/songwriter stage. I played everything I knew on the dulcimer for 40 minutes. I reworked old songs and I worked up a couple of new things. So this part of our concert just kept growing; it clearly connected with the audience in a palpable way. I started writing more songs on the dulcimer and then about two years ago, I wrote three songs with my friend and songwriting partner Chip DiMatteo, who I’ve known since kindergarten. Chip sent me some words to a song called “M.I.A. in M.I.A.M.I.,” and I started fooling around with them on my dulcimer. I’ve always said I’m in pursuit of ‘the chills,’ of that ‘goosebump moment,’ and this time I thought, “This is it.” That sent me on a month-long jag where I wrote more songs with him, and then one on my own called “Over the Rise,” the first song on the record, which to me is the best one of all. It’s sort of the epic opus of the album. It reminds me of old English folk music. So this movement toward the dulcimer as an area to write in was really cemented after that epiphanic month of writing those four songs. I thought, “This record is screaming to be made.”
So you’re confortable working in that sort of “Elton John and Bernie Taupin” way of someone else writing the words and you putting the music to them?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Just on my own I’ve always written songs both ways; sometimes lyrics first, sometimes music first. I’ve never had one way to do it. I like the challenge of doing it both ways, and each one takes me to different places. Again, it makes it so I feel my music doesn’t sound the same. You’ll have a song like “What the Hell Happened to Me,” next to “Space is the Place,” next to “Cartoons and Candy.” They’re stylistically disparate, at least to me.
Hearing the opening track “Over the Rise” reminds me of how before the jam band renaissance of recent years, you were one of the first serious musicians to start veering in a more exploratory, “jammy” direction.
Well, it depends on what someone means when they use that term. I guess I’m “jammy” in the sense that I’m open to improvisation on my instrument. More importantly for me, though, [is that] the most spontaneous aspects of our shows occur when a song becomes reinvented. Or I turn one song into another, or I make-up new words. Or I’ll just cut the band off and go into a new section that I’m making up in the moment, and then they’ll come play it with me. Songs have come out of that approach. For instance, the minor key version of “Mandolin Rain” that I love—and that’s on the first Skaggs/Hornsby record—grew out of a little spacey section on the song “Big Rumble” back in 2002 at the Britt Pavilion in Medford, Oregon. Lots of times, “jammy” means really long songs and someone soloing over two chords for ten minutes. I think there’s really only about five to ten soloists in the world who are so gifted at true spontaneous creation on a soloing level, that they can hold an audience’s interest for even five minutes. But I’m not really interested in that, because I’m not one of those people. I’m a songwriter and an improviser, and I’ve always tried to find a place for all that in the music. But as I get older, the improvising is less important to me and I’m more interested in just writing and singing a really good song that moves me.
You’ve had a longstanding involvement with the Grateful Dead, culminating in you recently joining them for their 50th Anniversary Concerts, playing to more than 100,000 people at a time. Did working with them change your musical perspective?
I think it did sort of loosen me up, maybe, but I was already fairly open to “stretching” my music and changing it. I think how I was mostly influenced by the Dead has to do with their songwriting. I think they are so underrated as songwriters, and I was so happy to see Robert Hunter and [Jerry] Garcia inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. You see the indie world really starting to understand what an amazing body of work they have as songwriters.
I’m part of a Dead tribute [Day of the Dead out May 20th] curated by the indie rock band The National, which features Justin Vernon from Bon Iver and others. I think people are realizing more and more how truly transcendent the Dead’s songs are. Frankly, I realized it when I was around 18 years old and playing in my brother’s Grateful Dead cover band at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, playing at grain alcohol and frat parties. I thought the songs were amazing then, and as I got more involved actually playing with them, I realized they were even deeper than I thought. In a couple of instances, I’ve just completely ripped [off] grooves and vibes from the Dead. My song “Tango King”—at least the intro and the idea of a “swingy” song in an odd time signature—is a complete rip of a section of “Estimated Prophet.” When [the Grateful Dead’s Bob] Weir heard it, he just looked at me and started laughing and said, “Shameless.” [Laughs.] And I said, “You’re right. I only steal from the best!”
Your new album features a surprising rendition of your song “The Valley Road.” You seem to enjoy putting a fresh spin on songs your audience already knows. When did that process of reinventing your back catalog begin?
I don’t set out to do it. It’s just something that happens in the moment. It’s happened with “Mandolin Rain,” “The Way It Is,” and other songs of mine. For “The Valley Road,” I was playing the dulcimer during that Bonnaroo set, and I started playing something that reminded me of that old song, “There’s a Hole in My Bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza.” I started singing the words, “Walk on, Walk on” over it and I thought, “Oh My God.” So I just kept going on, singing the verses in 6/8 waltz time. And it just came. So it was just one of those moments. I’m always ready to receive. It won’t always come to me, but I’m ready to receive when it does.