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Interviews

Burt Bacharach: At This Time

By Published: October 31, 2005

I've been in this business a long time...written love songs...never rocked the boat, never was political. At This Time, I am now very distressed. It grieves me

What the world needs now, it seems, is Burt Bacharach, as one of the greatest songwriters in pop history reemerges with At This Time, released internationally by Sony BMG on October 24 and on November 1 in the US by Columbia Records. At This Time features Andrew Hale of Sade serving as A&R project director, with contributions from trumpeter Chris Botti and singer-songwriters Elvis Costello and Rufus Wainwright, and Prinz Board (Black Eyed Peas), Denaun Porter and Dr. Dre kicking in rhythm loops and beats.

And for the first time, this master of melody features his own lyrics, written mainly with Tonio K., laments about the state of the world in general and the US invasion of Iraq in particular, with his own music. "This is a new kind of record for me, Bacharach allows. "People ask why a man who has been known for writing love songs all of his life is suddenly rocking the boat. I had to do it. This is very personal to me, and this is the most passionate album I have ever made.

The sheer numbers that Bacharach has accumulated throughout his career are simply staggering: Three Academy Awards, six Grammy Awards (including the prestigious Trustees Award with collaborator and lyricist Hal David), now into six decades of composing and recording, nine #1 hits, 48 top ten hits, and more than 500 songs composed.

Knowing that Hale serves as keyboard player, percussionist, songwriter and producer for the group Sade helps pinpoint the light sound and smooth grooves of the keyboard and horn melodies on At This Time. Bacharach is the sort of songwriter who could fall out of a boat and write something exquisitely tender and melodic before he hit the water. This music is romantic. But these are not your typical love songs.

The composer seems to understand that At This Time sort of swims against the current of his considerable body of work. He co-composed the opening "Please Explain with Porter (producer for Eminem, Li'l Kim, Method Man and G-Unit), then wanders and wonders over funk as slippery and skeletal as a hound's well-gnawed bone: "There was a song/ I remember/ Said, 'What the World Needs Now....' He also sings lead in the next track, "Where Did It Go?, in a voice desperately soft, almost falteringly gentle, seeming equal parts prayer and plea.

But even as its music rings like a pristine bell chime from the cathedral of classic pop, the lyrics to "Who Are These People, a showcase for longtime Bacharach admirer and collaborator Costello, could hardly be more pointed—and angry: "This stupid mess we're in just keeps getting worse/ So many people dying needlessly/ Looks like the liars will inherit the earth/ Even pretending to pray...

Frustration also boils over in "Go Ask Shakespeare, sadly gorgeous music set to Dre's bass and drum loops, its beautifully broken lyrics etched in Wainwright's longing voice: "I keep hoping for a better day/ It's a long time coming but I wait anyway/ Life's a miracle or a foolish tale/ I don't know—go ask Shakespeare.

"I feel it is the most important album I have made and I am very proud of it, Bacharach says. He further discussed his thoughts and emotions At This Time in this interview with All About Jazz.

All About Jazz: What do you hear as the first couple of singles—"Please Explain ? "Go Ask Shakespeare ? "Who Are These People ?

Burt Bacharach: I don't know about singles. I don't know what will get played on radio. I think I made this album just not thinking, "What can we get played on radio, what can't we get played on radio? and without consideration of the format of a regular three-and-a-half minute record. There is a short version that was made, an edit that works, of "Shakespeare, to get to Rufus earlier. I had to think about it because they're asking for even a shorter one. I think "Who Are These People is a very strong contender because it's very... a lot of power, you know?

AAJ: Are you going to do any videos for any of the singles?

BB: No videos coming up. All we've got is a DVD in a jewel box and it's really damn good, it's about the making of the record, my feelings, talking about my feelings. It's kind of brilliant, I like the way they put this DVD together; I'm very hard on myself, looking at myself and hearing myself talk, but it is the most honest that I can possibly be. Nobody's talked to me about a video. We have some really good DVD footage, which is me speaking as candidly as possible.

AAJ: Is the thinking that you could really invite trouble for yourself, create considerable controversy, if you used news footage or something similar for the videos?

BB: I am trying to do most everything...I will never get onstage like that. I'm doing two concerts this weekend with the Buffalo Symphony. We'll try two of these pieces for the first time in public. But I'll never get onstage like the Dixie Chicks, you know? We're going to do "Who Are These People and "Where Did It Go?

And then I have a thing of a situation: Where will I place them? We're going to place them after the songs, the songs that you have come to expect. And I don't know what the reaction will be. Do I expect some fallout here, along the way? The record hasn't even come out in the States yet. It comes out Tuesday. It came out Monday in England, one week in front, and started well the first day on sales. England is not the US.

The other thing is that I think I will let my music speak. I won't say anything. I will never say anything. I do not know what reaction I will get.

I also know how fast fallout can happen. In two and a half weeks I had a private date booked, an affluent gig with affluent people—I don't have to say where it is or who are the people involved, but it was a private date—whether it was a birthday or a celebration or an anniversary, I have no idea. They paid me a lot of money. They cancelled last night. So I think you've just to ride with that one. That's fine.

My feeling is: "Look, I've been in this business a long time. I've written love songs, I've never rocked the boat, never was political. At This Time, I am now very distressed. It grieves me. Did I go through Vietnam protesting? No. There's an interesting comment by another writer: All my life, I've written love songs. And you know what's involved, hearts being broken, you know? Relationships. "Only Love Can Break Your Heart, you know what I mean, you can go down the list, you know? "Anyone Who Had a Heart. Hal and I always dealt like that. It was just a powerful thing not only for us but for other people.

But this image from this writer was: These are still love songs about being broken-hearted, about hearts being broken. But instead of another person, the relationship breaking your heart, it's the situation: The war.

AAJ: I would agree that the music is romantic but as you say these are not romantic love songs in the sense we are talking about. You maybe had to work with a tension between form and content that you never had to work with before?

BB: And freedom, too—it didn't matter whether it ran five minutes or seven minutes, and nobody's looking over my shoulder. Nobody saying, "Hey, we can't get this played on radio. It'd be too tough to do.

A writer for the Irish Times, I believe, had talked to me on the telephone and said to me, "I like this album. What it feels like to me is like a clenched fist in a velvet glove. That's a good one.

There are no songs here. There are vocal interjections and observations. Was it intentional? It just came out that way.

AAJ: Who played keyboard and piano—was it you?

BB: I played all the keyboards. Did I have a second keyboard? Yeah, I did, someone else played some synth elements, you can see from the notes who played second keyboard on a couple of tracks. But everything featured—"Always Taking Aim, that's me playing. You know what I do: I conduct from the piano.

You'll appreciate this, I think: Everything's live. We put all the strings in one room, in the same room with the brass, the drums and the singers. Except for the Dr. Dre stuff, which was really very...You work with a loop, that in itself was an interesting aspect, to go to these drum loops that Dre had given me and build from there harmonically and stay melodic over it.

You look at a thing like on "Danger —that's Dre's title, "Danger —and it is dark, the bass line, man, it's just very ominous. And within the confinement and restriction of working with a drum loop, a bass loop, and that's what you're stuck with, and make something rich happen over there, put real instruments, strings, and then maybe the strings build and the orchestra builds but the drum loops, as you know with all drum loops, they stay constant, right? So what you do is, you bring in a great drummer like John Robinson in certain places, let him give you a downfill, go to the ride cymbal, whatever, so there's a humanistic thing coming in that also goes with the flow of the music.

AAJ: Knowing that Andrew Hale has been a lifelong member of Sade helps place the sound of this music in context...but what exactly does an "A&R project director do?

BB: He's a very terrific musician. He was there on all the dates, I played him the material. He's a great buffer, even when he ended up in the studio and didn't play on anything. He's a great keyboard player. To have Sade's top keyboard player in the band, and Andrew did the vocal for me with Rufus because the only time they could do it was in England, he can do things like that. He's a plus, you know? You can say to him, "What do you think about the eight bars here? I think we have little bit of excess fat. And he would say, "Try to leave it alone, live with it for a day. That sort of thing is really valuable.

It's not the same way that I worked with Hal, you know: He's in the studio, we wrote the things together, "Are the strings working on those eight bars? I don't know. What do you think, Hal? "Yeah, it sounds a little funny or something. Then you go into the bathroom and figure it out yourself—sorry!

I'll tell you one thing Andrew did that was immensely valuable: I said, "Listen, we have a terrible sequence, a terrible running order. It's your ballpark. You figure it out—it's your sequence. And he came up with a great sequence, what can I tell you.

AAJ: Opening up the record with "Please Explain sure seems like genius. The way it opens softly but yet jumps directly into your themes, even your vocal, presents a great opening to the rest of the music.

BB: It was the last thing I recorded, the last thing I wrote. This last thing is very important: It's the first time I've ever written my own lyrics, though they were mostly written with Tonio K. What else can I tell you except that I am really proud of this album. I think it's as good as anything I've ever done, and I hope it's successful. It's going to ruffle some feathers, I'm already seeing that!

AAJ: How does Dr. Dre end up contributing beats and loops on a Burt Bacharach abum?

BB: With Dre, it was very basic. Dre, three years ago or about then, was starting his last album. A mutual friend thought we should get together and introduced us. We got together, talked about what his album might be, he gave me seven drum loops and said, "See what you come up with. I did three of them like Polaroid pictures, I didn't finish them, forty second things, no real instruments, just going into a garage band studio. Went into the studio and played them for Dre and he liked it, he thought the one thing that turned out to be "Go Ask Shakespeare —there were no words at the time—it could be a hit, he thought.

But he wasn't ready to start his album. He still had Eminem to go, he still had 50 Cent, so everything was on hold. He kind of just gave me his blessings. So I played some of those tracks for Rob Stringer, who was interested in making this album with me and runs BMG Sony in England. And we did that. And Rob said: "This what I want. Don't give me ten pop songs. I never wanted that from you. I know that you can take some chances. I know you can take some risks.

He said, "I remember 'Wives and Lovers' that you did, that seven-minute version where you have a big band with a string quartet inside and time signatures are changing, I think Grady Tate was playing drums, and it was just, on account of everybody interacting... A record that I'm very proud of, you know. So Rob said, "Take some chances. Take some risks.

So I started to develop the Dre things, and then we got to where they were longer pieces, some ran four or five minutes. And we drop the loop out sometimes, like in "Danger, you go to a middle section just with violin, viola, oboe and piano, and then you return to the loop. There's kind of like darkness about that loop and when Dre added the title "Danger, nothing could be more dangerous than the way that sounds. But it also sounded very "street-y to me, you know what I mean? It sounded like my familiarity with the urban market, which I've always been comfortable with. Always comfortable with these artists whether it was Aretha, whether it was Patti Labelle...

AAJ: You have such a great touch on piano, have you ever been approached about doing a solo piano record?

BB: No. I always wind up playing piano on the dates, even when we have another pianist. I just feel it. But I will tell you, one of the great moments I've had was doing the NPR jazz thing with Marian McPartland. Try to get a disc of that, you'll love it. It was a great experience for me, because it's just a treat having two pianos in the room and she's utterly brilliant. We had a great time. We must have done two and a half hours. Try to get yourself a disc. You'll hear me playing piano by myself and with Marian. We got into a great thing on "Alfie, I think you'll like it.

AAJ: Do you recall much of the televised tribute to you that was aired on TNT several years ago? After all the other artists had come out and performed your music, you sat at the piano and played a version of "Alfie all by yourself. You sort of paused at the middle part, eyes closed, momentarily lost in your own music, then sort of plunged right back into the music with the line, "And I believe in love, Alfie... Burt, after all this time, after everything you've been through and all the trouble you've seen, how can you still believe in love?

BB: Yeah, right. That was a great show, I remember that.

I believe in that lyric because I do believe in it. Listen and look at the last lines of the last song, "Always Taking Aim : "I know things may never ever change/ Things may stay the same/ But love is always waiting there/ Always taking aim.

Just remember the one thing that I said to you about love songs: I've always written them, about being broken, as always, but instead of another person breaking your heart, it's the situation. It's the war.

Selected Discography

Burt Bacharach, At This Time (Columbia, 2005)

Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory (Mercury, 1998)

Burt Bacharach, The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection (Rhino, 1998)

Burt Bacharach, Futures (A&M, 1977)

Burt Bacharach, In Concert (A&M, 1974)

Burt Bacharach, Living Together (A&M, 1973)

Burt Bacharach, Burt Bacharach (A&M, 1971)

Burt Bacharach, Make It Easy On Yourself (A&M, 1969)

Burt Bacharach, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (A&M, 1969)

Burt Bacharach, Reach Out (A&M, 1967)

Burt Bacharach, After the Fox (Rykodisc, 1966)

Burt Bacharach, What's New Pussycat (Rykodisc, 1965)

Photo Credit

Olaf Heine


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