Talking with T Bone Burnett is like entering an alternate universe of free-flowing creativity. Within minutes it becomes obvious why such a wide variety of artists, in both the musical and visual worlds, are so comfortable working with him. With no apparent effort, he manages to pull off the seemingly impossible feat of being at once cerebral and literate, yet warm and down to earth.
Burnett’s story starts with his teenage years in Fort Worth, Texas, where he was exposed to a steady stream of not only the best musicians of the ’60s, but the finest visual artists of the era, as well—a training ground which would prove invaluable in his career. After opening a small studio where he recorded local bands and honed his musical chops, Burnett relocated to Los Angeles in the early ’70s, where his skills as a guitarist soon landed him an invitation to join Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder tour. Once off the road, Burnett formed the short-lived Alpha Band (which enjoyed critical acclaim but limited commercial success) before leaving to launch a solo career. Along the way, he found himself increasingly in demand as a producer, giving him the opportunity to work with such seminal artists as Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Counting Crows, Gillian Welch and the Wallflowers, as well as overseeing the soundtracks for The Big Lebowski, Cold Mountain and the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Most recently, Burnett helmed the lush Grammy-wining Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand, the 2010 soundtrack to Crazy Heart with the Academy Award-winning Original Song “The Weary Kind.,” and the Elton John/Leon Russell collaboration The Union.
But it was his phenomenal success with the bluegrass-laced soundtrack to 2001’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which sold nearly 9 million copies and netted four Grammys) that catapulted T Bone Burnett into the headlines. Ever since, he has come to be seen as the guardian and protector of the American musical heritage—something he has a deep and abiding interest in. For all this, the soft-spoken Burnett retains a humility—not to mention a contagious sense of humor—that belies the profound influence he has had on the worlds of music and film. To celebrate his birthday today, here are excerpts from an interview Howard Massey did for Performing Songwriter. Happy birthday, T Bone!
You’re renowned for your knowledge of American musical history, yet that’s not something you studied formally.
No, I didn’t. It’s just come from never stopping listening, I guess. I grew up in an incredible time. The Top 40 radio in Fort Worth would play Peggy Lee and Little Tommy Tucker and Hank Williams … and then the Beatles, four songs in a row. So it was really pre-genre, and also there was a group of young artists that hung together because we were so far out of the mainstream. There was always an interesting flow of people coming through town—people like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg—and a lot of different ideas.
Why did you open a studio of your own instead of going to college? Did you always have a desire to work in recording?
I’ve always been into sound. When I was in high school I was in a couple of bands, we went into a studio to do some recording, and I realized that you could turn a knob and incredible things would happen. The reason I got into music was that there was an old Gibson guitar leaning against the wall at a friend’s house—I hit the low E string, and it did its thing. I thought, “OK, what is that? I want to know what that is.” I was gone, right there.
Were you attracted to the sound of music, or to its emotional content?
I can’t differentiate between the two. It’s like color and line in painting; it’s part of the same thing—the tone is part of the emotion. But whatever it was, it was complex. Even before I first hit that guitar, there were songs that connected with me. There was this dark, mysterious world that music could evoke, and that’s all wrapped up in the tone.
Does every artist need a producer?
I’m sure there are some who don’t need another perspective; Dylan is probably one of those people. But we all need editors. Even in terms of lyrics, we need somebody with the kind of eyes that can see that you put the same word at the end of one line and at the beginning of the next one.
If you could pick anyone in the world to produce your next record, who would that be?
Well, nobody now, because I feel my team has gotten to a place that only we know about. Also, the yardstick I use as an endpoint is a very personal one. The place where I first heard live music, back in Fort Worth was a juke joint called the Skyliner Ballroom. All the best musicians came to town to play there. I remember seeing Ike and Tina Turner there when I was around 15 and how overcome I was by the sound and spectacle of it.
A few years ago, I wondered if I could go online and find a recording of them from that night, and I did. As soon as I played it I could immediately hear the room, and it hit me that it sounded like all my records! (Laughs) That was quite a realization—I’ve been trying to reproduce the Skyliner Ballroom in everything I’ve done. It’s because that’s where I first experienced that sonic excitement … and every other kind of excitement, too.
You’ve said that you always wanted to be the worst guy in the band. Why is that?
I’ve had that view since I was kid and started playing music. If you’re the best guy in the band, you have to pull everybody along with you, and that’s a lot of work (laughs). But if you’re the worst guy, you’re learning all the time. If you play tennis, you like to play it with people who are better than you; it makes you a better player. I never had the desire to be the lead guitarist or the hot instrumentalist; I’ve always just gone for the groove. I really don’t look at things from a musician’s perspective. My main concern is, how is the story getting told?
There seems to be a distinctive “T Bone sound” that runs through not only your own records as an artist, but the records you produce.
It’s been a long, long process, but it’s been accelerating, especially the last 10 years, when I started putting a team together that I work with all the time. Everybody on the team is extraordinarily adventurous, and we’ve developed this notion of sound and music and rock ’n’ roll. I wouldn’t claim it as a “T Bone sound,” but we have invented a new dimension in sound.
I used to cast different engineers for different records, according to the engineer’s strengths and what I felt he could bring to the project. But finally I decided to work with Mike Piersante exclusively. He was a second engineer at Sunset Sound. We consciously developed this very complex, low-end world of sound. It grew out of an interest in modernist music and their approach to sound and composition. I wasn’t as interested in the very notes they were playing as the overtones being created.
How do you go about creating complexity in the low end?
First of all, I think of everything as a drum. An acoustic bass fiddle is just a big drum with strings attached that you attack with your fingers or a bow, but it’s still just attack and resonance. A piano is just 88 little drums—in fact, by combining notes, you can make thousands of drums out of it. And for me, it all has to do with the tribal storytelling that happens with music, so I don’t really care what’s hitting the backbeat, whether it’s a snare drum or a mandolin … as long as it’s getting hit in the right place with the right meaning.
So the attack of the instrument is just triggering the tone, and we’ve spent 10 years minimizing attack and maximizing tone. All of these other rhythms and beats get set up in the overtone structure, which creates a lot of mystery and a real sense of place. In contrast, the thing that a computer does best, which is to put all the notes on the right beats, becomes completely uninteresting.
Do you accomplish that by using compressors and limiters to hold down the attacks and emphasize the body of the sound? Your productions don’t sound especially compressed.
That’s because we actually accomplish it in another way: We play very, very quietly. The more quietly you play, the less attack and more tone there is. If you hit a guitar too hard, it chokes the note off; the volume of sound that’s attempting to escape from the box turns in on itself and cancels itself out, so the sound just collapses. The same with a drum: If you hit it too hard and leave the stick there, nothing happens. But if you tap it softly, you actually get a much fuller sound.
Does that approach require different miking techniques?
No, it mostly involves the kinds of instruments the musicians use—we have them play very resonant instruments. I use a lot of semi-hollowbody guitars, and the drums have mostly calfskin heads and they’re all double-headed, so there’s a lot of resonance. We’re not focusing on the slap of the bass drum; we’re focusing on the boom of the bass drum. I love the acoustic bass because it’s a less specific boom. Blending it with an electric bass can work well, too, and sometimes I even add a third bass—a six-string, perhaps, playing low chords. The idea is to get a great density of sound on the bottom end.
I’ve also long been fascinated by the way you can change the feel of a piece of music by changing its equalization, changing how quickly the note arrives in your ear. By changing the tone, you can emphasize the back end of the note, the low part of the note that arrives later than the first part. If you de-emphasize the high part and emphasize the low part, you can slow a song down tremendously, just by equalization.
You’ve said, “I use the technology in a way that’s either absolutely transparent or absolutely apparent; any of the middle ground is distracting.” What do you mean?
I’m talking about the fact that if you’re looking at a film and the lighting is too obvious, then it distracts you from the story that’s being told. Even if you find yourself saying, “That’s the most beautiful lighting I’ve ever seen,” it takes you out of the story. You want to light it so that, even if it is the most beautiful lighting ever seen, the audience doesn’t notice it. That’s what I mean by transparency: using technology in a way that attracts no attention to itself.
I could say the same thing about singers. I don’t want singers to attract attention to the fact that they’re singing. I just want them to say the word. That word has its own meaning; you don’t have to give it meaning, so just say it. If they do some affectation at the end of it, then they obliterate the word and you don’t hear it.
—By Howard Massey
Excerpted from Performing Songwriter Issue 110, June 2008
Photo by J. Emilio Flores/The New York Times/Redux