Beyond calling Bruce Hornsby “a remarkable pianist,” the New York Times added, “The America in his music is one of countless connections and intersections…that’s still wide open and welcoming.” That’s a pretty good introduction to Hornsby’s latest album, Levitate, his Verve Forecast debut and first “solo” (kind of) project since 2004’s Halcyon Days. His two more recent, critically acclaimed collaborative efforts–the bluegrass-driven Ricky Scaggs & Bruce Hornsby, and the jazzy Camp Meeting recorded with Christian McBride and Jack DeJohnette–showcased Hornsby’s musical diversity; but Levitate‘s thirteen tracks return the three-time Grammy®-winner to the singer-songwriter/story-filled Americana that was at the heart of his most classic recordings. Levitate also is elevated by its musical ensemble made up of Hornsby’s touring group the Noisemakers (guitarist Doug Derryberry, bassist JV Collier, drummer Sonny Emory, keyboardist John “J.T.” Taylor, and Bobby Read on reeds), guest Eric Clapton (on “Space Is The Place”), and co-writing collaborators Robert Hunter, composer Thomas Newman (through a unique “arrangement”), and his old friend, Chip deMatteo.
Mike Ragogna: The recorder wasn’t on yet, I didn’t get you. Okay, let’s start.
Bruce Hornsby: I’m the enigmatic and inscrutable. You can’t really get me.
MR: But I just did. And so did Verve. What’s the story behind your label switch?
BH: I was signed in 1985 by RCA. Clive Davis dropped me after eighteen years in 2003, and then I signed with Columbia/Sony, and they merged with BMG, so all my catalog is at one place. I was with Sony Legacy, then signed with Verve, my third label in my … good lord … twenty-four years of doing this.
MR: Verve is pretty rich in history, it having been the home of so many great jazz and folk legends. It seems like the perfect label for your recordings.
BH: I signed with Verve over two or three other labels because we just felt that it was the right place. When we went to them, they instantly responded to the record, plus there was an historical reason … Bill Evans is one of my all time piano heroes, and he recorded for many years on Verve Records. When it came time to pick the CD cover art, they came up with something fancy for the label, personalized to me, and I said, “No, no, I just want the old Verve label like Bill Evans At Town Hall.” When I was on Columbia with Halcyon Days, I said I just want an all red label. I’m just a sentimental ol’ bastard in that way…
MR: Cool perks when you’re on a cool label. So, what’s behind Levitate?
BR: The goal for this record — the raison d’etre, I guess, was I felt we never made a studio record that captured the sound of our band, the Noisemakers. As you see, this is the first record called Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers. From note one of the first song, especially on the first four songs, I wanted it to feel like our band playing, and it was recorded the old fashioned way — a bunch of guys in a room playing together. The record, to me, splits up into three different four-song segments, the first four ending in a sort of anthemic ballad, “Continents Drift,” the second four ending in another one, “Here We Go Again,” and the final four ending with a funny song about the South, “In The Low Country.” The songs in the middle mostly tended to be, not so much live, but with modern loops and production techniques. “Levitate” and “Invisible” don’t have the sound of our band, really, but the first four and the last four are the sound of the Noisemakers.
MR: Many of these songs are great social commentaries and even historical docs, such as “Black Rats” that combines the two. I think it’s safe to say it’s the best wiseass ode to pestilence ever written.
BH: I think that’s a great way of putting it. It is a wiseass way of deflating the whole “Isn’t Our History So Great!” scenario. So many people like to whitewash history. And also, it’s a funny truth. People talk about our great Revolutionary War where we beat the redcoats. Well, you know, we probably wouldn’t have done it if Cornwallis’ army hadn’t been so f***in’ sick! You know, it was from whatever they had — “standing weekly on Yorktown battlefields with measles and small pox,” set to rhyme with “parasites decimated the red army of Cornwallis and his flock.” So, right, it is a wiseass way of deflating some of those myths or just the way people think of U.S. history.
MR: You’re always there with that line where people can go, “What? What did he just say?” like at the end of the track.
BH: It’s funny, I felt like I had to put an addendum in the tag because I didn’t want people to think that I thought this was such a good thing that we defeated the Indians in the 1600s. So I wrote the last “Where were the black rats when we needed them the most, there were slave owners to infect and the Joe Mengeles of the American West” sort of referring to the American holocaust of the Indians. I would think they would get the cynicism right away with the intro that goes, “In our beautiful pursuit of manifest destiny, we give ourselves great credit, we thank the good Lord so earnestly,” I mean, you’ve got to realize it right away, it’s like, “oh, okay…”
MR: Who’s rapping with you on “Prairie Dog Town”?
BH: I’m in there saying, “Watch your dry bones,” but the main voice there is a longtime voice from our records. His name is Floyd Hill, he’s about 77-years-old, and he’s the most trash-talkin’-est cat and one of the greatest people I know. Actually, on my record Big Swing Face, “June” as we call him — his name is Floyd Hill Jr. — had a great part in a song called “No Home Training,” and he talked a load of craziness. The “best” and dirtiest stuff we didn’t use, but we came close to the line on that one. I don’t know anybody else who can sound like that, you know, there are just some people who have a certain “sound,” and he has an amazing one, and I always wanted it on my records. On “Black Rats,” he’s also the guy going, “Jamestown!”
MR: Then after the fun and games, “Cyclone” gets more philosophical, especially with lines like, “I’ve got no answers of my own, and none have been provided.”
BH: You know those are Robert Hunter’s lyrics with a couple of additions from me.
MR: And the chorus sounds a little influenced by The Band.
BH: I love Levon, I performed at his Midnight Ramble last Fall up in Woodstock. He’s an old friend, and Robbie Robbertson and I wrote a song together for his record Storyville in ’92. Those guys are old friends of mine, and obviously, I love The Band. I totally hear it too, I can totally hear it as being “Band-ish.”
MR: The next song, “Continental Drift,” is another heartfelt track, and the 3/4 versus 4/4 timings are pretty seamless. Intentional?
BH: That’s one of my supposed clever tricks that I’m proud of. It starts in waltz time, then it goes into 4/4 gradually. To me, it’s fairly seamless, but fun. I’m a lifelong music student, and I’m always looking to find interesting ways of doing things in the songs whether it’s harmonically or, in this case, rhythmically.
MR: And then along comes “Paperboy.” Creepy.
BH: Yeah, that’s my Arnold Schoenberg meets The Beatles song. I’m really into 21st century classical music with its very dissonant, chromatic, harmonic language, and I’m constantly inflicting that music on my poor, unsuspecting audience. On the last record, I had a fairly dissonant moment in a song called “What The Hell Happened To Me,” and with this one and the song “Michael Raphael,” I’m dealing with more chromatic/melodic material. I’m really proud of those two songs in that way, and I’m finally utilizing this language in my music and in my songwriting more.
MR: There’s more of that dissonance in your title track which is an old movie theme inside out. Did you work on this with Thomas Newman?
BH: I didn’t do it with him, I just took his music and turned it into a song, so it’s sort of “money for nothing” for Tom. [Laughs] I was glad he liked it. He could have said, “Nah, forget about it, I don’t like it, please don’t use this.” But he liked what we did. I just loved that theme in The Shawshank Redemption score, and so I thought it would make a good song. I put this beat to it and wrote the song … it’s very simple, there’s not much to it. It’s doing its loop, and I think the verse is sort of my Righteous Brothers melody. I can here Bill Medley singing it.
MR: When your topics or characters are especially American, you seem to approach them with a lot of the same spirit as another Newman … Randy. And “Michael Raphael” pretty much matches his humor. Is he an influence?
BH: Randy Newman’s one of my heroes, I’ve always loved what he’s done. I rediscovered him about ten years ago with his box set, and I love his last two records, especially Bad Love, the one he made for Dreamworks. So anyone who says they hear Randy Newman in my stuff, I’m all for that, I love him. The lyrics on “Michael Raphael” were written by my old childhood friend, Chip deMatteo.
MR: Did you and Chip work on anything when you were kids?
BH: We had our own company — Zappo Productions — in junior high school and high school, and we’d book only the worst bands in our town. We reserved the right to name them, so we had such bands as “The Uncommon Cold” and “The Soul Basketball.” Anyway, he wrote (the lyrics on) “Continents Drift,” “Paperboy,” “Simple Prayer,” and “Michael Raphael.”
MR: On that last title, what motivated you to write about an Italian Renaissance painter turned musical producer?
BH: [Laughs] It’s about the archangels Michael and Raphael, and the reason we wrote that is the producer of the play we’re writing–by the way, some songs on this record are from our musical that’s called SCKBSTD–is named Michael Raphael. So we wrote this just to mess with him. That’s Chip deMatteo’s inane cleverness.
MR: Who’s overseeing SCKBSTD?
BH: Kathleen Marshall is signed on which is a coup for us because she’s one of the great Broadway directors. She has really helped develop the play, and it’s still in development … I still don’t think we have a strong ending yet, but it’s close.
MR: Are you able to nix anything you don’t like?
BH: I definitely have a lot of input, so sure.
MR: What’s going on exactly in “Here We Are Again”?
BH: “Here We Are Again” is a time-travel fantasy using physicists’ language in the lyrics, and harmonically, it has that little trick that takes it out of standard diatonic writing. It’s a love song utilizing physics, oddly enough. I don’t write many love songs, I never considered myself to be that good at it. I think it’s hard to write a really good one after all the years of thousands of them. But every now and then, if I feel I’ve got an interesting slant on it or way into it, I’ll write one. “Here We Are Again” is also for the musical.
MR: Then you’ve got “Space Is The Place” which sounds like jazzy rock romp with a little Parliament thrown in.
BH: Parliament, wow! Funkadelic! You know, my bass player and drummer J.D. Collier and Sonny Emory are both huge Parliament/Funkadelic fans, and they really brought that fact to life when they played on it. We had the song lying around and we recorded it with just some loops and machines, and it wasn’t that great. I played it for them, and interestingly enough, I had this Jane’s Addiction record that one of my sons liked. I played it for them and said, “This is the felling I’d like for this song.” And so they played that and transformed the song, hence, their songwriting credit because I think their contribution on a groove level really made the song come to life. And that’s Eric Clapton playing guitar on it.
MR: By the way, “In The Low Country”? Ridiculously addicting.
BH: Hey, we love our Bobby Labonte and the WWF. It’s about Williamsburg or lots of places in the South, really.
MR: As far as other projects, you recently participated in The Village compilation on Savoy/429 Records. How did that come about?
BH: It’s a Village folk scene tribute record they’re putting out soon. They asked me if I was interested in being a part of it, and I always loved the John Sebastian song, “Darling, Be Home Soon.” So I asked them if it was okay if I submitted that, they said yes, and I said, “Okay, I’m in.”
MR: How does the guy behind “The Way It Is” and “Look Out Any Window” feel about the current fracus over healthcare?
BH: I’m always surprised that people trust corporate America more than they trust the government. Corruption is rampant everywhere, but I don’t think that corporate America or insurance companies have given us anything that has the impact of or compares with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the G.I. Bill, Head Start or the Peace Corps for God’s sake! I don’t understand this knee-jerk hatred of government involvement when compared to the alternative.
MR: It’s such a misinformation campaign by these corporations and their political allies that’s actually been successful on many levels. On the other hand, you’ve got the democrats who refuse to bring their weapons to the war.
BH: I think the democrats and liberals in general have been cowed for years by the venom and vitriol of the republican campaigns to, for instance, turn the word “liberal” into a four-letter word. So now, lots of people like to call themselves “progressives.” You know, “liberal” means being broad-minded and open to things. It’s gradually changing, but it takes a while to realize there’s nothing wrong with saying you’re a liberal–it’s actually a beautiful thing. It’s been so demonized, and it’s interesting because “conservative” has meant opposition to the Civil Rights movement, you know? It was conservatives who were opposing it, though my conservative friends will say, “Well, they were democrats.” Okay, but that’s disingenuous because everyone knows that democrats in the South, up until the Civil Rights Act was passed, were conservative. So to say that is misleading, and my conservative friends, when pushed, will go, “Okay, that’s right, the conservatives were the democrats.”
MR: Switching gears a little, how do you feel you’ve grown as an artist since your early records?
BH: My whole approach is about improving and growing and evolving. I think anyone who’s stayed with us has seen the gradual evolution, and anyone who’s missed a big chunk and comes back to it will go, “Hmm, this is not what I expected.” That’s pretty much the reaction I generally get, which is nice. I think that if someone listens to this record and listens to the first record, it’s unrecognizable. Like the singing … it sounds like a different person.
MR: All those years ago, were you surprised at how big a hit “The Way It Is” became?
BH: Of course. You know, it was a fluke. It was a wonderful accident that occurred on BBC Radio in England. A guy over there heard it, put it on, and it instantly became a hit. Everyone at RCA thought it was a b-side, so that was a shock and a beautiful surprise. And then it just went from there. We had the other two hits and we could have kept releasing singles from that album, but we just stopped because we were ready to make the next record that had “Valley Road” and “Look Out Any Window” which were also hits. It’s funny, we didn’t think of ourselves as a Top Forty group at all, we just thought we were an American group utilizing accordions and violins, pianos and guitars. But then we went a long way in a hurry, and we found ourselves opening for the Grateful Dead, Steve Winwood, John Fogerty, and the Eurythmics, and that was a whole new arena for us. We had to grow up, we had an adult dose of learning how to deal in the big arena. That was the most difficult year I had, quite frankly.
MR: In Nashville in the eighties, your music was the talk of the industry.
BH: A lot of Nashville piano players would say to me years later, “Hey, thanks a LOT, motherf***er … for about ten years, all I’d get was, ‘Can you make it sound more like Bruce Hornsby?'” It was unfortunate for those guys, and I’ve apologized to them profusely for years for their having been inflicted with that.
MR: The next question comes from a friend of your family’s, Al Albert’s son Graham. “Who is your favorite Norwegian soccer goalie?”
BH: [Laughs] That would have to be Aiden Brown. I knew his dad when I was a kid. He went to William & Mary, played football and was always over at our house, and he was a friend of my parents who took him under their wing. So it’s great to see young Aiden all these years later. His little brother Chris came to private school here and ended up in Boston College as a goalie too. It was the illustrious jock Brown family.
MR: You and your brothers are big sports fans too, right?
BH: Yeah, that’s right, we’d shoot a little ball, sure. And now one of my sons plays, and his brother is a runner. We’re always competing at something.