On His Own Terms

Years after experiencing pop stardom, hit songs, Grammy Awards, and platinum-selling records, Bruce Hornsby '74 continues to seek new musical challenges.

  Photo by Sean Smith

Drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Christian McBride; and singer/songwriter/pianist Bruce Hornsby, are sitting backstage after a concert at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton, Massachusetts. The trio has just finished the first date of an August tour coinciding with the release of Hornsby's latest CD, Camp Meeting. The disc is Hornsby's first jazz album, released after a 22-year run in the pop world that has netted him a string of hit songs, album sales approaching 11 million, and three Grammy Awards. With the excitement of the first gig still palpable, Hornsby is doing a postmortem: what went well and what he wants to tighten up before the group's next performances at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Hollywood Bowl.

The trio's wide-ranging program includes several solo piano/vocal renditions of deep album tracks, all 11 selections from Camp Meeting, and two movements from Anton Webern's Variations for Piano, Op. 27 tossed in spontaneously. Among the highlights were Keith Jarrett's introspective "Death and the Flower," up-tempo readings of songs by John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, the bluegrass-inflected Hornsby original "Stacked Mary Possum," and a lighthearted version of "Talk of the Town" that featured DeJohnette drumming and trading vocal lines with Hornsby. The Northampton audience called for multiple encores that ended with a minor-key solo rendition of Hornsby's hit "Mandolin Rain."


The late Dean Earl (left) and Bruce Hornsby reunited at Berklee's Licks Cafe when Hornsby paid a visit to the college in 1991.  
Photo by Andrew Taylor  

Unlike most pop-star forays into the jazz universe, Hornsby's Camp Meeting challenged him seriously as an instrumentalist. Placing himself at the vortex as the pianist in an all-instrumental trio album backed by two revered jazz veterans is something few, if any, singer/songwriters would attempt. This project shines light on Hornsby's formidable piano chops and reveals his unique jazz voice. It comes after 10 albums as a leader and critically hailed collaborations with an array of artists that includes the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Branford Marsalis, Ricky Skaggs, Bonnie Raitt, Béla Fleck, Pat Metheny, Willie Nelson, and scores more.

When his first album, The Way It Is, broke out in 1986, it was readily apparent that Hornsby was not your average singer/songwriter. His songs revealed him as an artist with something to say as well as a consummate musician of stylistic depth and breadth. He has said that he always wanted to create radio hits, but on his own terms. He accomplished that goal with songs like "The Way It Is," "Across the River," "Every Little Kiss" and others that offered a pleasing juxtaposition of jangling piano accompaniments, warm analog synthesizer pads, and metronomic drum machine grooves supporting Hornsby's clear and sincere vocals. His catalog reveals deep roots in American musical soil and has yielded a crop of tunes colored by pop, r&b, folk, jazz, bluegrass, gospel, and 20th-century American classical music elements.



While Hornsby's stay at Berklee was brief, it's evident from conversation and visible in the artwork of his Spirit Trail album (whose liner notes include his Berklee photo ID) that his time spent at the college was meaningful. Like other educated and idealistic musicians, Hornsby approached the music business hoping to build a career with mass appeal that was based on uncompromising musicianship. Two decades later, Hornsby is still making music on his own terms.

Can you describe your musical beginnings?
I got really interested in the piano during my junior year of high school; I was a jock before that. When it came time to go to college, I wanted to be a musician, but I didn't feel I was good enough to say that without be laughed at by everyone, including my parents. I spent one year at the University of Richmond, [Virginia], and that was long enough for me to say, "I don't care what people say; I want to be a musician."

I applied to Boston University. When I went up to visit the school, I ended up spending much more time at Berklee than at BU and decided to go to Berklee. I was lucky that I didn't have to audition to get in back then, because I'd only been playing piano for three years. I had taken the Berklee correspondence courses in theory and arranging while I was at the University of Richmond, so I was able to test into the accelerated course. I was at Berklee for the summer and fall semesters of 1974 in an advanced program that crammed a year's worth of courses into each semester. Dean Earl was my piano teacher. He was a beautiful guy, very easygoing. Dean was not that concerned if you weren't really prepared for your lesson. He was the opposite of Vince Maggio, my teacher later on at the University of Miami [UM].

There were many good things about being in Boston. The Jazz Workshop and Paul's Mall were in business back then. I spent a lot of time there and heard a lot of great music. The Boston Public Library was also an excellent resource because you could check out records. I immersed myself in modern American classical music: [Charles] Ives, [Samuel] Barber, [Carl] Ruggles, [Aaron] Copland, et al. I learned a lot at Berklee and met some great friends. In December of 1974, I went back to Virginia and lived in a farmhouse. I was practicing eight hours a day and playing a gig at a local Hilton. After about eight months of that, I decided to go back to college and applied to UM.


  "I consider my songs living things that can grow and evolve through the years. . . If we played everything the same way, we'd be playing tractor pulls and county fairs as an oldies act."


At that time, did you hope to become a jazz musician?
I don't know what my aspirations were. Throughout my college years, I would go to record stores and buy an Ornette Coleman or John Coltrane album, but I'd also get the latest Joni Mitchell record. I loved jazz, but I'd always listen to the Joni Mitchell record more. I responded more to the singer/songwriter music.

At Berklee, I was into Dr. John, Professor Longhair, Leon Russell, and Elton John. I could play that style. But to play "Inner Space" by Chick Corea was a completely different musical challenge. At the University of Miami and at Berklee, I was shedding heavily and was a bebopper. I was always playing with people and trying to put together a jam session.

When did you start writing your own music?
I really didn't get into songwriting until after I graduated from UM in 1977. I went back to Virginia, put together a band, and started writing. We were discovered by Mike McDonald, who was then the lead singer of the Doobie Brothers. We were very influenced by Steely Dan, Pat Metheny's quartet with Lyle Mays, Danny Gottlieb, and Mark Egan, and the white r&b Mike was doing with the Doobies. Mike had heard us at our gig and tried to help. Through people he introduced us to, I got a songwriting deal with Twentieth Century Fox and signed a production deal with David Foster. So I moved to Los Angeles. David was just beginning to have success with other artists, but he didn't have any with me. We didn't get a deal. I wasn't signed by RCA until 1985.

How did the contract with RCA come about?
I refer to the years between 1980 and '85 as my gray years in L.A. I was bubbling under and was assiduously writing new songs and making new demos each year. I was always able to get in the door at the record companies, because they knew who I was and thought I had what it took but felt I wasn't ready yet. Frankly, I think they were right about that. David Geffen almost signed me in 1980 but then turned me over to his main A&R people, who passed on me.

My brother John graduated from Stanford and didn't know what he wanted to do next, so he started writing songs with me. We wrote together from 1980 to 1992 and broke the door down in 1985. I got signed with the least commercial and most stylistically unique demo I'd ever made. Figuring no major label would be interested in it, I gave it to Windham Hill because they were starting a vocal label. They offered me a deal, and I figured this was where I was supposed to be after years of trying with the majors. Finally, my lawyer played the tape for some big shots at RCA and Epic, and suddenly I got signed.

Did the tape include your first hit?
Yes, it had the first two hits, "Mandolin Rain" and "The Way It Is." The guy who signed me was Paul Atkinson, former rhythm guitarist with the Zombies. To me, the hits were a complete fluke. "The Way It Is" broke in England after a DJ at BBC Radio 1, Mik Wilkojc, was given the record by a completely befuddled British promotion guy. He started playing the song, and boom, it became a hit in England, then in Holland, then throughout Europe and other parts of the world before it made it to the United States. We were off and running after that. Everything we put out for a while was a hit. "Mandolin Rain," "Every Little Kiss," "The Valley Road," "Look Out Any Window," and "Across the River" were all hits. Huey Lewis had a hit with my song "Jacob's Ladder," and Don Henley and I wrote "The End of the Innocence," which was a big hit for him in 1989. There was a five-year period of radio ubiquity for me.

Did radio exposure bring you to the attention of other major artists with whom you started to play?
The best part of all this was not the success I had on radio. Frankly, the audience you acquire from having hits is a fickle, soft-core audience. They like you when you're having hits, and when you're not, they forget about you and go on to the next popular group. But from the hits, I gained some respect from other rock and pop artists. I started getting asked to play on records by Bob Seger, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Robbie Robertson, Don Henley, and on and on.

How did you come to work with the Grateful Dead?
My band was opening for the Grateful Dead, and they'd ask us to sit in with them after our set. Jerry Garcia and I became friends, and he played on my third record. After their keyboardist Brent Mydland died, they asked me to join the band in 1990. I told them that I had a good thing going on my own, but I'd help out for as long as they needed me. I came into the gig with no rehearsal, winging it with them at Madison Square Garden. I played with the Dead for 20 months.

When you undertake a project with musicians of other styles, you get pretty creative. What was the reaction of the bluegrass players on the CD Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby when you brought in your song "Gulf of Mexico Fishing Boat Blues," which is in 5/4?
Everyone was fine with it. When I write in an odd-time signature, I want it to feel right and not draw attention to itself. I thought it flowed nicely, and those players didn't have any trouble playing it. Ricky and his group Kentucky Thunder are amazingly virtuosic and enjoyed the challenge.

Do traditional bluegrass fans think it's unusual to hear a piano in that music?
I've been catching hell from bluegrass purists since 1989 when I won a Grammy for playing my hit "The Valley Road" at breakneck speed as a bluegrass tune with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I understand their feelings, but I am proud of that record. I think it holds up. I have a long history of being on the wrong side of those guys, but I'm fine with that.

The traditional folks who naysay these efforts should go back to Bill Monroe, the inventor of the music, and see what he had to say. Ricky Skaggs's father-in-law, Buck White, is a great piano player who sat in with Bill on occasion. Bill mentioned that he thought the piano was a great bluegrass instrument.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band version of "The Valley Road" is just one of the many examples of your constant reinterpretation of your songs. It seems that you don't consider a song's radio version to be the definitive rendition.
Being a restless improviser at heart, I don't take the "museum piece" approach to my music. I'm not interested in the standard songwriter's approach, where you write the song, record it, and play it the same way for the rest of your life. I consider my songs living things that can grow and evolve through the years. I tell my audiences that if they came to hear the music really straight, they came to the wrong place. I feel that's why 17 years after my last hit song, I still have a very devoted audience. If we played everything the same way, we'd be playing tractor pulls and county fairs as an oldies act. I've weaned myself from the audience that wants to hear things just like the record and acquired one that follows me for the right reasons.

Most songwriters are only interested in playing their instrument well enough to play their own music, and a lot of music lovers in the pop and rock world are interested in a good song sung and played well; they're not interested in instrumental virtuosity. I'm a singer/songwriter who is interested in playing my instrument well. I'm always looking for a place to express that in a popular-song context.

How do you approach writing a new song?
It often begins with lyrics, but it can start with a musical idea too. I am always looking for inspiration, and it can come from a progression on the piano, a little melody, or a lyrical idea. I don't write too many love songs. I did that on a few early hits, but I very soon ceased to be about that. Now I go more toward oddball subject matter. On my last record, the song "Hooray for Tom" is about my son, who hates school. "What the Hell Happened" was inspired by people looking at youthful pictures of my parents, who looked like movie stars, and then looking at me and saying, "What the hell happened to you?" The subject matter can range far and wide.

After writing a lot of music, does it become harder not to repeat yourself?
When the page is blank, it can become difficult to do new things. You're always aware of your past. If I start writing something that is reminiscent of something old-unless I think it's truly great-I'll let the idea go. But there is so much music out there to be inspired by.

How many songs have you written?
I've written and recorded about 125 songs. That number doesn't include the old crappy ones that never saw the light of day. I've had 23 years of songwriting since I began recording. So 125 might not sound like a large number, but I don't have the time to just sit around and write. When you have a career and play a lot of dates, play on other people's records, and get asked to do movie songs, it is hard to find time to devote to just writing.

On your new jazz record, Camp Meeting, you reveal the depth of your jazz writing and playing abilities. What prompted you to record this CD?
Pat Metheny nudged me to do it. A few years ago, he came to play with the University of Virginia jazz orchestra. I was asked to sit in, and we played the Miles Davis tune "Solar." I did an intro out front, and Pat said he thought it was very hip. We went out to a deli after the gig, and he told me I needed to make a record because I have my own way of playing jazz. To me, there would be no reason to make a record of me doing my Bill Evans or Chick Corea impressions. I told Pat I'd been working to arrive at my own harmonic aesthetic and a way of playing this music. He felt I had done it.

Through the years, Jack DeJohnette and Christian McBride have been asking when we could do something together, and I finally got up the nerve to call them up and say, "Let's try it." I come at this from a humble place. I know the jazz language enough to know that it's a lifelong study. I've had this all-encompassing career doing something else that has been influenced by jazz, but to really play jazz is a rigorous thing. I needed to hit the woodshed hard to even come close to hanging with Jack and Christian, who are ridiculous musicians. I hope that people will think that on a conceptual level, there's a reason for this record to exist.

Your description of your harmonic approach as one of "Bill Evans meets the hymn book" is evident in the material on Camp Meeting. Where did this mix come from?
It just came from listening to a lot of music and finding what moved me. Those sounds got under my skin.

How did you decide to use drum loops on a few of the tunes, such as on Coltrane's "Giant Steps"?
I wanted to do something different. I'd never heard anybody play up-tempo swing with a loop, so I tried it. I think the guys were a little unsure about it. I'm not sure Jack was so keen on it at first, but he was nice about it, and he played great with the loops.

The tune "Camp Meeting" strikes me as something other jazz musicians might want to play.
I would think so too. It's just a little different, but very accessible. It would be fun if it ended up in a fake book.

Was it a different process for you to write original songs as vehicles for jazz improvisation rather than for the pop genre?
It was. I only wrote three tunes and they are all very different from one another. The one I like the most is "Charlie, Woody and You." I took a very dissonant six-bar bit from Charles Ives and used it as the basis for a blues. I ended up using the harmonic language of Ives for the basis of the blowing sections. I wanted to find paths that aren't so well trod, it was a way to play the blues in an atypical fashion. I'm a big Ives and Barber fan, and I'm always interested in trying to find a place for that in my music.

The title song "Camp Meeting" is actually the subtitle for Symphony No. 3 by Ives. I just love the first three chords of that symphony, and I wanted to write a song based on those voicings and that progression.

The two ballads on the disc, "We'll Be Together Again" and Keith Jarrett's "Death and the Flower," add real poignancy to the mix.
Keith wrote so many great tunes when he had his American quartet. I think they are underplayed, so I try to draw attention to them. On both of these songs, I took a stark approach with two-note voicings. They give a very open feel. A lot of my nonmusician friends think of cocktail music when they hear jazz. I can't disagree on one level. I loved the Bill Evans approach, but if the chords get too lush, you sound like you are playing at the Ramada Inn. I wanted to go the other way and be elemental, primitive. That's where both of the ballads on the record are coming from conceptually.

You've done so much in your career already; is there more on your wish list that you still want to accomplish?
I just want to do what I do better. I still have a long way to go as a musician. I was commissioned to write a musical by some Broadway big shots who heard my last record and thought the songs "Hooray for Tom" and "What the Hell Happened" sounded like show tunes. I am doing that gradually. It's a new territory I'm delving into, and I like what I've gotten so far. I'm a lifelong student, and I want to continue to improve in the jazz and bluegrass styles. My solo piano playing has gotten better through playing solo concerts. I'd love to make a recording of that material.

While music is a huge part of your life, it's apparent that your family life is a top priority. Do you have any advice for touring musicians when it comes to the challenges of having a family life and a music career?
I don't have any amazing insights. My approach is to find a balance. When I'm doing music, I'm feeling guilty that I'm not with the family. When I'm with the family, I'm feeling guilty about not dealing with the music. It's a pleasant problem to have. I'm touring less these days, but in the past there were times when I was only home 20 or 30 days out of the year. It was just nuts. Last year, I was gone 180 days, and that was too much. I've missed enough time with my family; now I try to miss as little as possible. You don't get that time back. My boys will be in college in three or four years. Maybe then I will ramp it up again.