Bruce Hornsby Is Still Seeing What He Can Get Away With

Since "The Way It Is," the visionary songwriter has made his mark on so many genres. His latest, Deep Sea Vents, dives once again into something new.

March 6, 2024

Press play on Deep Sea Vents, the new collaboration from Bruce Hornsby ’74 and the sought-after contemporary classical ensemble yMusic, and one thing quickly becomes obvious: This is not Hornsby resting on his past successes—many and multifaceted as they may be.

Over the past forty years Hornsby has amassed one of the most varied catalogs in modern music. "It's not boring anyway," he joked in a phone interview last month.

To summarize, incompletely: There's his deep well of thoughtful, slightly askew pop-rock songs, beginning with 1986's The Way It Is, whose title track helped launch Hornsby's career and then enjoyed a bank-shot second life as an iconic 2Pac sample. There are his contributions to the jam music world (most famously as a live keyboardist for the Grateful Dead for a number of years in the ’80s and ’90s); his bluegrass group with Ricky Skaggs; his jazz trio with Jack DeJohnette and Christian McBride; and his many screen scoring projects with director Spike Lee. Then there's his more recent emergence as a key collaborator in the modern indie music world, working with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig, among others, and sharing the stage with indie-jam crossover act Goose. Also, should we mention he played the memorable piano part on Bonnie Raitt's classic hit, "I Can't Make You Love Me"?

Watch Bruce Hornsby join Goose for their live cover of "The Way It Is":

Yet the wry, experimental chamber pop of Deep Sea Vents, released under the collective moniker BrhyM, sounds like nothing else in that discography, and proves he still has more sonic territory to explore, even if he needs to survey the ocean floor to find it.

The Wild Whaling Life

"I'm just always looking for the new, and looking for inspiration in new places, and also looking not to repeat myself," said Hornsby, describing himself as a "wandering minstrel, stylistically."

"Something just presents itself emphatically, saying to me, 'This is where you should go. This will not be denied. Do this, don't f*** around. Deal with this right now.' And so I try to listen to that loud voice."

The inspirational touch-points across these ten tracks are vast. He draws on a New York Times science story ("Deep Sea Vents"), web research on the platypus ("Platypus Wow"), a decades-old family joke (the song "Barber Booty" is a nod to how his sons used to pronounce their family barber shop, Barber/Beauty, as young children), and a couple Stephen Crane poems recalled from an eighth-grade English class ("Deep Blue"), among other sources.

Listen to 'The Wild Whaling Life' by BrhyM

Hornsby's voracious curiosity has always been an engine for his creativity, and literature has played a particularly significant role in his compositions. "My reading life has, for the last many years, completely influenced my songwriting life," he said. Prior to Deep Sea Vents, there have been songs referencing novels by Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, for instance. And then there's "The Wild Whaling Life" on this new album, which came together as Hornsby was reading Moby-Dick during the pandemic.

"[yMusic] sent me this track around late November of 2020," he recalled. "And their track just sounded like the book. A lot of the sounds they were making sounded sea-like. Seagulls and bushy ocean birds making sounds. And so it just led me to this place where I thought, 'Okay, let me go back through this book that I've been reading." So Hornsby flipped through marked-up passages and margin notes, eventually shaping those ideas into a celebration of a life that sounds a lot like the one he's been lucky enough to lead—a wanderer, feeling pride in pushing forward, always in search of the big one. "This is what I chose for my life's work," he sings, "It's the wild whaling life for me."

I Am the Platypus

While Hornsby has never shied away from weighty subjects in his songwriting ("The Way It Is" alone tackles issues of class, race, and social progress), he's also one of the only songwriters of his stature to follow that loud voice of inspiration into songs of humor and frivolity. For evidence, look no further than the skronky, honking "Platypus Wow."

The song began as a yMusic demo with the word "duck" in its working title, and by a series of associative leaps from the horns' quacking and the title's billing, Hornsby found his way into a deep dive on the egg-laying mammal and its ilk.

"I just started doing a little research about the platypus, and platypuses' related cousins, which led me to some old cartoon characters that I knew from my sons' early days—Crash Bandicoot and Knuckles the Echidna," Hornsby said. "And so I just went from there, learning about this whole area and writing about it, with a light strain on a tone level, because the music had that."

The result is a track that manages to sashay along the boundary between absurdity and fascination, and that BrhyM successfully carry off on the strength and strangeness of their performance.

"Part human, part bird / Part beaver, reptile nerd / I'm weird just like you / Let's exult in greens and blues," he sings with a swagger, and it's easy to imagine Hornsby identifying with the platypus here.

"Because of the way I'm singing, I call it Sugarfoot of [funk band] the Ohio Players meets [20th century avant-garde composer] Pierre Boulez," said Hornsby—a string of words only this artist could credibly utter. "It's completely an odd match. I'm sure Pierre Boulez has never heard of Sugarfoot and vice-versa. I feel pretty confident about that."

A Zappo Production

While Hornsby admits that some of the "Platypus"-style larks in his catalog don't land with every fan, he's adamant that he "can't be imprisoned by that." He's following a creative impulse toward hijinks that goes deep into his own past.

"My songwriting partner and longtime friend since kindergarten Chip deMatteo and I used to have a company called Zappo Productions," he explained. "We were ostensibly a band-booking company, and we would only book the worst bands in town—and we would reserve the right to name them." So they put up shows for acts such as "the Uncommon Cold," "Soul Basketball," and "Polynomial and the Logarithms."

"They were terrible. We were terrible," he said. "We were just a bunch of kids from eighth grade to twelfth grade, just seeing what we could get away with."

Zappo Productions went on to write two musicals, Schenectady and, of course, Son of Schenectady, with such songs as "Curse You, Niels Bohr," and "Danish Bacon," modeling themselves after National Lampoon and the Harvard Lampoon.

"That was always part of our consciousness, and remains. We still consider that we're performing Zappo Productions. We're creating Zappo-esque content."

"I'm just always looking for the new, and looking for inspiration in new places, and also looking not to repeat myself."

— Bruce Hornsby ’74

Ear to the Wall

While Hornsby was a prodigious musical trickster from an early age, he came to the piano relatively late, in 11th grade. He spent two semesters in an accelerated program at Berklee, completing two years of coursework in that time. "I wasn't really good enough then, in my opinion, to take full advantage of what Berklee had to offer me," he reflected. "I had a lot to get together there."

What he remembers most about that time is the city's cultural scene, which made a lifelong impression. "Boston was, and is, such a town of deep culture," he said. "The Jazz Workshop and Paul's Mall were still there right down the street on Boylston, and I spent a ton of time there going to hear Keith Jarrett's American Quartet."

"I'd go two or three nights, hear Bill Evans Trio installed at the Jazz Workshop." Sometimes, when he couldn't afford another ticket, he'd go put his ear up against the outer wall on Boylston just to "hear what I could hear."

"I just immersed myself in modern music. I became a Charles Ives devotee . . . went to crazy modern classical concerts. . . . You could go pay a dollar and listen to the orchestral, symphonic rehearsals [at Symphony Hall]. So I saw Peter Serkin playing the Schoenberg Piano Concerto. . . . Those are serious life moments for me."

"Many years later," he said, "I learned the first five pages of the Schoenberg concerto, and have put some of that twelve-tone, dodecaphonic harmonic information into some of my songs."

It's perhaps unsurprising to learn that an artist who's been known to sneak bits of Bach's Goldberg Variations into his most recognizable tune is just as likely to crib from Schoenberg as from Crash Bandicoot, but the example is striking. Fifty years after his time at Berklee, Hornsby continues to draw on the whole scope of his experience and curiosity when he sits down to make something new. It might be funny, it might be serious; there's a good chance it could be both at once.

This has always been the lesson of Hornsby's career: follow the sounds and ideas that light up your brain, don't be held captive by others' expectations, and just see what you can get away with.

Watch Bruce Hornsby sneak some Bach into the middle to "The Way It Is":

Related Categories