It’s been 35 years since pianist Bruce Hornsby scored his first big hit with “The Way It Is,” a song that dealt with homelessness and institutional racism, on an album that went multiplatinum.
Since then, the Williamsburg native and Grammy winner has performed with a variety of artists from the Grateful Dead and Branford Marsalis to Bela Fleck, Chaka Khan and Bob Dylan, to more recent collaborations with the late Leon Russell, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, guitarist Vernon Reid and James Mercer of the Shins.
For decades, he’s also contributed music to the films of Spike Lee. Hornsby’s most recent album, “Non-Secure Connection,” features adventurous songs that lyrically explore topics from “civil rights to computer hackers, mall salesman to the Darwinian aspects of AAU basketball.”
The pianist will be performing at Brown’s Island with his band, the Noisemakers, on Thursday, June 17, in a pod-seated concert that will take place rain or shine.
Style Weekly interviewed him by email last week.
Style Weekly: So how was your pandemic?
Bruce Hornsby: We were very fortunate in that after all the tours were postponed or canceled we were able to hole up at our house in Williamsburg, make a grocery run every week or so, make masked visits to area family, and I was able to go into my studio and try to make something new every day. It was a very fecund time for me because I didn’t have to [or] couldn’t go anywhere, I could try to go deep on a creative level the entire time. We made our efforts to help friends in need, kept in close touch and tried to take the pandemic seriously.
You’ve had a long, diverse career where it seems like you’ve stayed true to your own artistic muse. After scoring big hits early, how have you managed to chart this more adventurous path for yourself?
“The Way It Is” was a real fluke, a wonderful accident commercially; most of the execs at RCA thought it was a B-side. It broke in England, on BBC Radio One, then spread internationally and then became a hit in the U.S. So the label pretty much left me alone and allowed me to do what I wanted to do musically for 18 years. They were very supportive, through eight presidents!
I’m a lifelong student, always in search of new inspiration and new musical areas to explore, and new literary areas to explore as a reader, to broaden my knowledge and aesthetic as a writer and a curious person in the world. So I guess I would say that my stylistic journey over the years has been a natural and organic one, based on what moves and interests me.
Do you consider yourself a Southern musician, or do those distinctions not matter as much in music as they do in writing?
Earlier in my career, through maybe the first four albums, I had a clear idea about making my writing have a very strong sense of place, that place being this area I’m from. Gradually that idea felt limiting and I ranged farther afield, and keep ranging.
Has the sampling of your music provided you with a revenue stream that allowed you to pursue more adventurous music in your own career?
I love what Tupac did with “The Way It Is” in “Changes” (and I also love the checks!), along with E-40, Akon, Snoop Dogg, Mase, and several others who have used it to create new songs for themselves. It also gave me credibility with my son Keith’s friends when he played AAU basketball in Hampton and Newport News from 2002-2010. In the big picture, the hip-hop interest in my music – mostly just the one song – has been a solid part of my revenue stream, as you say, but not nearly half of it; film composing for Spike Lee, live playing, and the many collaborations (the Dead, Bonnie Raitt, Henley, Chaka Khan) and my records have made up most of it.
How did you initially hook up with Spike Lee?
We met through our mutual close friend Branford Marsalis, at a restaurant in New York City, and instantly decided to make a video together. We became friends from then on, and he has continued to call me ever since. My work with Spike has grown and become deeper and more intense through the years. We’ve been collaborating for 27 years, starting with his directing a video for me in 1992. Then he would ask me every few years to write and perform a song for one of his films – “Clockers” in ’95 and “Bamboozled” in ’01. A few years later, he started asking me to score films for him, a way more involved and comprehensive assignment. So from 2008 until right now, I’ve been writing film music, scores for him. A long, fruitful, very creative partnership.
A lot of your new songs, lyrically, are inspired by books you’ve read. Is there a particular writing genre you prefer?
I guess one could pompously describe my preferred writing genre as literary fiction. I’m not sure what to call it personally, but I’ll give examples to show my basic reading scene: Don Delillo, David Foster Wallace, Ben Lerner, Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Franzen, James McBride, and recently Kazuo Ishiguro. This reading has broadened my lyric-writing horizons in a major paradigm-shifting way.
I imagine that your ideal fan would be pretty open-minded musically. Have you found that you have fans who are willing to follow you different places, or do they break down more by periods of your career?
My audience has been diverse since I started playing with the Dead in 1990. Dreadlocked, dancing denizens grappled for years at our concerts with stockbrokers and their wives. Recently we have acquired a coterie of younger audience members and they tend to be people who have become deeply involved in what I’ve done, the whole oeuvre, as opposed to a more soft-core fan who knows only the early music. I’m sure a lot of people who were interested early went away years ago, and there’s no stoppin’ them!
The Noisemakers will be with you in Richmond – what can you say about them?
The Noisemakers band is made up of players who bring something to the musical party that has a lot of depth, a lot of gravitas in several different musical areas, whether it’s a great groove and feel, great improvisational melodic sense, an ability to come up with musical parts on the spot that meld with the rest of the band, someone who is sensitive to the interstices, the spaces between other parts, and a good listener, because we just wing it a lot, and the players need to be aware what’s happening in the moment and react quickly and well to that.
Can you elaborate on “melodic angularity” for the average person?
I would define melodic angularity as the usage of wide intervallic leaps using atypical, more dissonant and chromatic intervals like 7ths, flat 9ths, the tritone (“the devil’s interval”), etc. That explanation probably made it less understandable! I try to find a middle ground. I think it’s very easy to be straight down the middle, to write and play the very straight, simple music. I think it’s also easy to be completely out there, very obtuse and obscure, saying oh, they don’t understand. For me, the difficult thing is to find a middle ground where you’re reaching and broadening your language but still connecting with someone perhaps used to hearing – for an entire lifetime – only those seven white notes and those simple chords.
Lotta Deadheads in Richmond, so I feel obligated to ask, what do you miss the most about Jerry Garcia and do you still sit in with any of them periodically?
I miss his humor, insatiable intellectual curiosity, beautiful tone (on the guitar), and his way of truly playing through the chords of a song rather than just playing licks or pentatonic scales. And Dead And Co. don’t need me a bit, they’ve got the great Jeff Chimenti on keyboards. … What I most remember about the Hampton Coliseum shows was the session we did at my house, when Garcia came in to play on my record “Harbor Lights”, after which we pretty much rolled to Hampton and played the gig right away.
What kind of advice do you give musicians starting out these days?
Try to find your own voice, your own style that sets you apart from the rest. Be a tough self-critic. Emulate others to learn how to play, write, sing, whatever is your interest, but at a certain point one must try to trade imitation for innovation. Then you will have a chance to arrive at a musical place that is unique to you, to create your own stylistic niche. That is the most satisfying and fulfilling place to be.
Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers perform at Brown’s Island on Thursday, June 17, at 7 p.m. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Pod seating. thebroadberry.com.