An Evening With Bruce Hornsby
An Evening With Bruce Hornsby
By mid-March 2020, Bruce Hornsby, in that now historical year, had
completed a brief tour of five concerts. “Then all of a sudden, wham!” Hornsby
remembers, “Everything shut down.” With “Non-Secure Connection” to release in
summer, Hornsby began promoting the album. “So that was fine,” he says, following
with an innocent refrain that would become spooky that pre-spring among active
musicians globally: “But our tours got postponed or cancelled.”
“’Flicted,” the album Hornsby then began to create, marks the conclusion of
what Hornsby calls a trilogy, inaugurated with the lauded “Absolute Zero” (2019), in
which the native and longtime resident of Williamsburg, Virginia intermingles his
diverse musical passions, recording not exactly a self-invented genre but a world of
vibrant sound and text all Hornsby’s own.
The twelve songs that comprise “’Flicted’ take their starting points from
soundtrack scoring, the visuals-linked area of music composition with a
distinguished history. Inexorably at home, Hornsby investigated again the “cues” he
had written for the director Spike Lee, with whom Hornsby has worked since 1990.
These abbreviated instrumental score passages had sparked song creation on his
two previous albums.
“I was stuck in my house,” Hornsby says, “so I gathered up some cues I hadn’t
used on ‘Absolute Zero’ and ‘Non-Secure Connection.” Additionally, he considered
closely a riff he had asked a collaborator from ‘Absolute Zero’ – Blake Mills, a Los
Angeles songwriter-producer and, as Hornsby describes him, “sprung-from-Zeus
guitarist” – to record. “Blake gave me,” Hornsby says, “about a minute-and-a-half of
this little thing.” For the final installment of his trilogy, Bruce Hornsby was off to the
And yet, the 2020 routes of the “’Flicted” songs were less determined by
European and American 20th -century modern classical composition than by the
fleet ear-bud zings and danceable grooves of 21st-century high-speed rail: This is a
Bruce Hornsby album informed by the lucid atonal challenges and serialistdissonant
flows of its two predecessors but significantly more pop. Produced by
Tony Berg, who adds his sense of 1960s Los Angeles studio rock to the mix, and
Hornsby, the broad impression “’Flicted” builds is not divorced from the formally
advanced “electric pop” of, say, a heavily streamed Taylor Swift-Zayn Malik duet.
This is bold.
The contributions on these songs, moreover, made by yMusic, the Brooklyn
chamber sextet co-founded by violinist Rob Moose, heightens the command of
energy, substance, and rhythm this Hornsby music wields. Rhythm especially:
“James Brown,” Hornsby says, citing the instrumental and professional rigor
famously, mercilessly enforced in bands led by one of the surest geniuses of any
music anywhere, “would not fire yMusic.” This is modern sound not as voiced by
Silicon Valley’s lushest tech but rather the blood and flesh and heart of top-flight instudio playing immemorial.
Hornsby casts “’Flicted,” as he did the new album’s two predecessors, with
the incisiveness Quincy Jones exercised on his own solo albums, always recorded
with various singers, musicians, and other creative and technical collaborators.
Throughout his long career – begun with his international hit “The Way It Is,” whose
romantic Steinway ecstasies the late rapper Tupac Shakur sampled on his track
“Changes,” anticipating the current era of The Song v. The Album in recorded pop –
Hornsby’s engaging tenor has proceeded consistently. Without employing the
idiosyncrasies of Bob Dylan or Neil Young, it travels its own singer-songwriter way,
elevating ruminations on Appalachian cultures or addressing urban literary and
scientific research with an everyday unruffled ease.
Other singers on “’Flicted’ include Ezra Koenig, of New York’s Vampire
Weekend; Danielle Haim, lead singer of LA pop-rockers Haim; Ethan Gruska, the
Hollywood artist, composer, producer, and member of several West coast indie
bands; and Z. Berg, formerly of the LA band The Like.
Recently Hornsby and Chip deMatteo, Williamsburg natives, friends and cowriters
since kindergarten, spoke about the songs on “’Flicted’.” DeMatteo, a
lyricist, writes with the concentrated dramatic force of the canniest theater writers
when providing texts for Hornsby’s musical compositions. “Days Ahead,” the third
release from the new album, focuses on the complex interlocking observations and
anxieties of anticipating periods of some real duration closed away from others,
separate and apart from routine daily conduct.
“The narrator,” deMatteo says, “dreads the accumulation of the coming
weeks, the uncertainty of knowing just how their potentially suffocating natures
may unfold, what will happen.” Following that lay the immediate futures of those
time periods: “And then the knowing,” deMatteo says, “that going outside as before
only mirrors the same concerns.” The text offers a terrifically concise, devastating
portrait of the often-warring emotions in the pandemic.
Hornsby began his own comments with “Sidelines,” which opens “’Flicted,”
continuing in sequence.
This is the first song I wrote, from the minute-and-a-half bit Blake recorded. It’s a
song about hysteria in various forms, starting with the Salem witch trials of the
1600s, moving into a dystopian scene inspired by Don Delillo’s great novel
“Underworld,” where someone is driving and passing road signs, and having the
signs become reality in his or her mind as he or she moves along. That’s the first
two verses. The third references the pandemic era. The song features angular
melodic content, which comes from the classical world, and a pointillistic
instrumental section. Ezra Koenig sings seamlessly with me.
This song also has a bit of lyrical inspiration from the same Delillo novel. It has
Bruce H. McGuinn playing twelve-string Rickenbacker. It’s a song about a serious
narcissist who is humbled by circumstances he can’t control – in this case, again, the
pandemic. It is not stated, however. I refer to it as “Pestilence Takes Its Turn.” As to
the subject matter here, I’m obeying Nina Simone’s edict that the artist must reflect
This has a string quartet where I told them just to play all effects – you know, violin
effects like pizzicatos and glissandos that color the whole song. The songwriting
content definitely is coming from the minimalism of the Julia Wolfe, Bang On A Can
crowd. It features Ethan Gruska on celeste.
Too Much Monkey Business
This is the first time I have put a cover on a studio record, but it’s turned inside out –
it happened years ago – by Leon Russell. He and Elton John were my boyhood piano heroes.
Maybe Now, Bucket List
These two songs form the EDM corner of the album’s sequence. I love Frederic
Rzewski. He wrote a piece called “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” basically using the
piano to sound like an industrial plant. I always wanted to do something with that
feeling. I wrote a cue “Factory Dance” which dealt with my version of what I call
“industrial machine piano.” That’s all through “Maybe Now.” It is noisy on the lower
end of the piano a few times. It’s my homage to Rzewski. With “Bucket List” I play
my scratchy-ass fiddle stylings. It sounds like some old Roscoe Holcomb type
records to me.
After the three jamming songs before it, I offer this as a palate cleanser; the
sequence here needs a breath. The intro, like the string part afterward, that’s
minimalist, Philip Glass-ian. I love Danielle’s vocal part and Rob’s in the intro as well
– it keeps coming back here, as well as throughout the song. When Tony heard the
song, he instantly heard it as Brian Wilson-esque. Tony was an apprentice for
producer Jack Nitzsche in the 1960s. He had fun ideas for this, and I love all the
production flourishes, the Sixties Wrecking Crew pop aesthetic.
This is a science song: it’s about light depiction and ranging, where archeologists
are, for instance, allowed to see through dense forests, dense wooded areas, into
things buried. I used it as an analogy in this love-gone-wrong relationship song,
uncovering hidden clues, showing what the couple in the song didn’t do right,
locking in the lidar, scanning in 3-D. Dulcimer folk meets modern pop, seems to me,
here. Tony’s love of vintage instruments added flavor.
Is This It
This is my version of what Dylan called his “wild mercury sound” of the mid-Sixties,
an era that Dylanophiles lionize and deify. It uses dulcimer and electric sitar, with
yMusic showing up two-thirds of the way in glorious fashion, just to change the
This song protests inaction and indifference in the face of wrongdoing. Musically it’s
yMusic and some modern, minimalist classical influences.
Simple Prayer II
The first “Simple Prayer” was on the “Levitate” album from 2009 . This sequel
features two great singers: Z. Berg and Ethan Gruska.
Originally this was written for “Absolute Zero.” It features Jack DeJohnette playing
with a string orchestra. This song felt like the fitting final piece to close the trilogy,
bookending with its spiritual and textural cousin, the first song on the first record.
It’s a rumination on string theory, theology, ornithology and the invisible forces that
rule our existence.
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