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Music and the Creative Spirit

Bruce Hornsby: Halcyon Days

By Published: February 23, 2009
BH: I got away with a lot with "The Way It Is" and "The Valley Road." And even now when I put out a jazz record or a bluegrass record, people will come up to me and say, "Wow, you are playing so much." And I'll say, "Well, if that's what you're thinking, then you are really missing the point. Two of my three biggest hits had me just blowing all over them." I was really doing this from the very beginning and just got lucky with those "wonderful accidents" when they became hits because they are not typical. I liken them to Mark Knopfler's "Sultan's of Swing." That was a top forty record but it was him soloing through the whole thing. So that's just rare and it's not going to happen very often but when it does happen, instrumentalists love it. Most of the calls I received were from my old music school pals who said they couldn't believe what I was getting away with on Top Forty (laughs). So it has always been there and I have always been interested in playing the instrument well and trying to find a place in my song writing for that to be expressed.

LP: Some of the most creative music never sees the light of day but you are one of the few composers who used a more complex creative approach in the beginning of your career and still became popular with mainstream audiences. Is that a sign that the audience might be able to grasp more than the record companies are giving them credit for?

BH: Well, I always think that's true. But I'm not going to say that my history or my success illustrates this necessarily but I certainly think that it illustrates that the uniqueness of style can be something that the masses are interested in. But to be perfectly honest with you, I think that "The Way It Is" in the best sense, on a hit level, is a novelty record because I think it had a unique sound, it kind of went down easy and I think people just responded to the sound. The fact that I was soloing was only important to my musician friends and the lyric aspect was something that I think was secondary to most listeners. People might have discovered the meaning on the 25th listening. The rare exception may be like your experience but it's just my feeling about it.

LP: You appear to approach your work in the same way as most artists regardless of the art form. You don't seem to be thinking about the audience or what they might want to hear or what their expectations might be. You are unique in that you use this approach but have still had success in mediums that focus on music as entertainment.

BH: I think there are a lot of musicians that don't make music that is obviously commercial. I guess a lot of us hope that people will like it but that's not really why we are making it. We are making it for ourselves. I'm just trying to create something that moves me, that is special and has a reason for existing whether it's on a lyrical level or on a musical level. When I made the jazz record, I wanted it to have a strong conceptual reason for existing. I wanted it to have a strong sense of style and I have always wanted my music to have a strong sense of place.

I happen to live in a great place out in the woods and when I look out my window, there is a muddy creek and also something really funky but really beautiful about where I live. So part of my goal is to make music that sounds like this place.

LP: You also have a very exploratory approach that travels beyond creative and traditional boundaries. Can you explain where this creative approach is from?

BH: Well, I think it comes from my basic personality, which is pretty open, but I'm also not someone who is satisfied with doing the same thing over and over again. I was always a terrible top 40 musician and when I was playing at Ramada Inns, I got fired a lot as a result of that. Our approach would be to only play the skeleton of the latest hit and then play a ten minute funk jam over it or do something completely different or take it completely out.

I guess spontaneity has always been important to me and if you have ever seen my band play, we are always interested in being creative and making the music new. And that really pisses people off who have come for the nostalgia of old hits or for their "stroll down memory lane." But if I offered that as my approach, the performance would be so lifeless and dead because it is so not me. It's not in my musical or personal nature to play it safe, and I'm just not going to be your "nostalgia vehicle." And because I am a song writer who has had success on the radio, that has painted me into an area where there are those expectations. I am more interested in the next move that will make the music new, keep it creative and also keep my band interested. I'm an old side man too and I know how stifling it can be to be the glorified live Top Forty juke box. It's not creative, and I refuse to nod to that expectation because to approach music in that way is a creative prison and I refuse to be shackled by that notion.

LP: So you are playing a genre of music...

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