Quantcast

A CONVERSATION WITH T BONE BURNETT

In the span of a 75-minute conversation, 13-time Grammy winner and Oscar recipient T Bone Burnett casually references the Transcendentalists, Jackson Pollock and even 16th century Papal master of ceremonies Biagio de Cesena.

He’s not being pretentious. It’s simply that Burnett is such a student of history and art that his cultural touchstones are even more varied than his prolific and wide-ranging resume. As one of music’s leading Renaissance men and tastemakers, Burnett’s to-do list of potential projects takes up three typed pages. He is considering producing six albums and scoring a number of movies. Plus, he has started a publishing 
company with Spirit Music Group in Nashville, and his Capitol-distributed label, Electromagnetic Recordings, continues to ramp up. And those are just the activities he can talk about on the record. Several other major projects are waiting to be confirmed.

The 67-year old Texan is basking in the luxury of choice. “Here’s the thing,” Burnett says, with obvious delight. “When you’re young, you’re just looking for anything to do, and then you get to be my age and you can do everything and you have to figure out what you are going to do.”

Sitting on the patio of the Brentwood residence, which houses his home studio, Burnett took a break from scoring and music supervising True Detective’s season two finale to talk about the semi-acclaimed HBO series, to passionately call for copyright reform and to discuss the wealth of activity surrounding him.


A True Detective soundtrack featuring music from the first two seasons rolls out Aug. 14 on Electromagnetic/Harvest. Are you happy that a soundtrack is finally coming out?
So happy. I was incredibly disappointed we couldnt get anything out last year. It was frustrating. The other thing was, there were many Spotify [True Detective] album playlists produced by whoever had a Spotify account, and the whole thing felt taken away from me. It felt like it was just ripped out of my hands and used by whoever wanted it to attract attention to themselves.

Why are the songs on the True Detective soundtrack only being revealed one by one?
This is not my choice. I would have it all up there, but it’s important to the creators of the show not to have any of the songs released before they air. Its all the original music from both seasons. There’s a Bob Dylan song on it, “Rocks & Gravel” from 1962, that’s never been released before. It’s in the first episode of season one. It’s all the things that you can’t get anywhere else, with the exception of the two theme songs.

You’ve very successfully matched music to image for more than 20 years, including all your work with the Coen brothers on films like O Brother, Where Art Thou. What do you like about combining the two media?
An extraordinary alchemy takes place when you put image and tone together in the right way. If you put one color up next to another color, both colors change. The same with the music. There’s some incredible freedom that takes place when you have an image to look at that’s requiring something from you. It doesn’t matter really what anybody’s going to think of it or if you’re good. All of those traps of self-consciousness that come into the creative process are sort of obliterated because you’re dealing with so much visual information that it’s overwhelming all of that. So it’s freer than jazz in a way.

How did you pick Leonard Cohen’s “Nevermind” as True Detective’s season two theme?
For me, “Nevermind” is the song of the century so far. I know some people were disappointed by the change in the song [from The Handsome Family’s “Far From Any Road”], but the tone of this season was so completely different from last season that I feel like it would have been almost dishonest to use that other song.

Last season, the show took place in the Louisiana bayou. This season we’re in Southern California’s arid desert. How does that affect your musical choices?
There are a lot fewer needle drops. There’s a lot less source music this year.

How do you and show creator Nic Pizzolatto work together?
What generally happens is they get a cut that they send to us. Nic comes over and we watch it and he talks about the dramatic shifts: “Something should start here. Then when he says this, the tone shifts from this to this. Then when this happens, the tone shifts again and then it should end here.” You get the pace of the scene. It’s all about the dramatic shifts that take place.

Your score is very minimalist both seasons.
The first part of the score of the second season you can barely make out because it’s so much a part of the world; we’re just adding tone. It’s getting less minimalist the second half. This is the most minimalist show possibly ever on television. At the end of episode six, there’s a party up in the Redwoods of powerful men and powerless women in this house. I thought, let’s see what would happen if they were listening to John Adams. We put it on and the thing scored; it was just the wildest thing. This John Adams piece, Harmonielehre, scored the whole last 10 or 12 minutes of the show in real time. So at that point, it’s like silent-movie scoring, and after that everything gets pretty big.

How did the bizarrely wonderful Nick Cave and Warren Ellis cover of the Gatlin Brothers’ “All the Gold in California” come about?
Nic wanted to use the song for the end of the first episode. I understood why he wanted to use it, but it was so consonant coming out of all this dissonance that it didn’t work. So I said [to wife] Callie [Khouri], Larry Gatlin and I are friends. I love Larry but we can’t put this Gatlin Brothers recording of this song at the end of this. Who could we use?” She said, “Nick Cave,” just like that. I thought, Of course. So Nic called Nick and Warren, and they said yes, surprisingly.

Do you see a scene and automatically think of a song that works? In episode four this season, as Pete Woodrugh heads home, upset after sleeping with his formal male lover, Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” comes in and it’s perfect.
Once again, that was Callie. A lot of it is Nic. I don’t need to be right or in control, I just like to help make it work. The thing I loved about that cue is the scene where he went back out to the freeway and there were all those people that couldn’t find their way back home. Then it resonated out. Most of the time you don’t want to put white on rice; you want to work against the emotion of the scene. Every once in a while it’s fun to go right into the thing unironically. 

Speaking of white on rice, neither season has relied on music from the region.
No. I gave Jackson [Browne] a commission to write a tune or two, but I don’t think he had time for it. I’d have loved to have brought Jackson in. 

This season, singer/songwriter Lera Lynn is a recurring character who performs in the dive bar frequented by Frank [Vince Vaughn] and Ray [Colin Farrell]. She serves almost as a Greek chorus. How did that come about?
It would just come into script suddenly. Nic would write me an email and say, “Write a song about this.” Then I would call Rosanne Cash and say, “Rosanne, write a song about this.” She sent three unbelievably beautiful lyrics, and Lera and I had a fairly easy time putting music to it. 

You write and record the song in one day and then shoot it the next?
That’s right. We run that razor’s edge. 

Are you enjoying writing again?
That’s what I like to do the most. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Burt Bacharach. I do still want to be Burt Bacharach.

Are you thinking about a new album?
I am, in fact. I’ve been writing so much for the last 15 years. I’ve got 200 or 300 pages of lyrics and stuff. I thought I would go through it and edit it and maybe put some photographs in or maybe put in a few reflections on things and do a book and a record. I think I’m going to do an electronic-music record.

Are you disappointed that the reaction to the show has not been as positive as last season?
It was inevitable. It already started during the first season. There’s an orthodoxy that seems to have hardened about the first season, which was it was really good for about four or five episodes and then it got really bad and the ending was terrible. I loved the ending.

You have so much other activity going on. Will there be more music from The New Basement Tapes, the collective of Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James and Rihanna Giddens that you put together to write music to unearthed Bob Dylan lyrics?
We did a concert at the Montalban Theater in Hollywood because we knew that it was going to be next to impossible to get that group together again. There was a [Showtime] film [Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued] done around the recording sessions that really didn’t capture what went down because the film focused on a couple of moments of artistic insecurity. It was an epic, monumental thing that took place. That film didn’t capture it at all. We felt like we wanted to do something to try to tell the story of what actually happened, so we booked this concert. Now we’re going to start cutting that together into a concert film and tell the story from this point of view. [It will] probably [be out] sometime next year.

What about another album? There are another 20-some “new” Bob Dylan tunes.
Right now I’m most actively thinking about getting the second film finished. Then we’re looking at the rest of the material and seeing how it might be released. For me, there’s a lot of life left in the original record, [Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes].

What else is on your plate?
I really want to start investing in some young artists. I’m looking at doing a 
monthly television show in Nashville at the Ryman to build a platform for young artists to perform live. We’ll have a heritage artist, a couple of current, established artists, and two or three young, unknown artists collaborate so that we can begin to build a strong foundation for the 21st century American music.

Do you have a network yet?
Were right on the verge of that. I would say we would start probably after the first of the year.

What’s going on with your new label, Electromagnetic Recordings?
When we first went to Capitol, the idea was more than I would partner up with people at the different labels: If I was doing a jazz record I would do it with [Blue Note President] Don Was, or a certain kind of record I would do at Harvest and a certain kind of record at Capitol, but I think we may now begin to look at it as more of a standalone label. I’m not sure how fast we’re going to move on that, but that’s what Steve Barnett’s starting to talk about.

One issue that’s keeping you and the industry up at night is transaction rights.
In the 21st century copyright has become irrelevant. Copyright is still completely relevant for all of the 20th century in previous materialsthe books, records, all of those things. Copyright should function to service those. Now, instead of this endless copying that went on with MP3s and all of that stuff for a decade or more, which wasted tremendous amounts of energy and gutted several businesses, we’re moving from a period of time where everyone would have an individual copy of something to a time where there is one copy that everyone will have access to. Because no one’s making a copy, there’s no regulation or there’s no sense of what’s fair in this new domain.

Do you have a solution?
Yes. I think the rule of the 21st century has to beand I think it’s a rule that everyone can agree onthat if anyone is making money from a transaction that the creators should share in that money. If we can bring this whole thing under the law so it’s not just the Wild West, so it’s not chaos… Another part of the solution is, if Google would quit linking to pirate sites [as they were recently legally required to do in Canada], they would go away.

It’s gotten so bad that Nashville songwriters can’t make a living anymore.
Right. It’s very tough. That’s exactly why I’m going in there to try to generate some income for the songwriters. One of the things we were able to do in Nashville that I was proud of is when we started my wife’s television show Nashville, we were able to persuade [ABC parent company] Disney that they weren’t going to be able to get any songs if they had to own the publishing on all of them. I made it a deal point that I wouldn’t come over if Disney had to own the publishing on the tunes because I wouldn’t be able to do any work. So that’s a new thing. They relented on that and that’s an important step forward that all of those writers that wrote for that television show got to own their material rather than give it away.

What do you think about Taylor Swift, whom you worked with on The Hunger Games soundtrack, taking on iTunes?
It shows you where the power really is. I also think it’s interesting that a 25-year-old woman could negotiate a better deal with Apple than the three major record companies that control 80% of all music sold in the world. The artists have to begin to reassert themselves, as Taylor did, because we are the ones that really have the power. I believe in the future there will be transaction rights that will exist within a walled garden for the arts. The arts are too important to humanity to let our culture be killed by technology.•

TOP 20: HOUSE ON A HILL
Harry shoots... (5/25a)
JUST CALL HIM HARRY "STYLUS"
...and scores! (5/25a)
NEAR TRUTHS:
SAFE KEEPING
What's the big deal? I.B. Bad has the answers. (5/25a)
ZACH ATTACK: BRYAN SETS NEW COUNTRY-STREAMING RECORD
A new brand of alt country, with a touch of Springsteen's Nebraska (5/25a)
SPRINGSTEEN UNVEILS 2023 TOUR WITH E STREET BAND
Speaking of the Boss... (5/24a)
SUPERSTAR RELEASES
Who's next?
MUSIC BIZ SPECIAL
It's Comic-Con for numbers geeks.
THE BIG CHEESE
Theories of evolution from 30,000 feet.
THE NEXT GIANT DEAL
A&R in overdrive.
 Email

 First Name

 Last Name

 Company

 Country
CAPTCHA code
Captcha: (type the characters above)