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Anne Azzi Davenport
Anne Azzi Davenport
Between producing recordings for major music stars, writing soundtracks for films and TV and releasing a new album of his own, “The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space,” T Bone Burnett might be one of the busiest men in entertainment. Jeffrey Brown caught up with him at Austin’s recent South by Southwest to talk about artistic autonomy and why he has scorched Big Tech.
And now to a rare interview with a man behind a lot of music you might have heard.
T Bone Burnett has produced songs for major acts, films and TV series. He has a new album of his own this month.
And Jeffrey Brown sat down with him recently as part of our arts and culture series, canvas.
Behind the hugely influential soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" which sold eight million copies and launched the surprise rise of bluegrass music as a popular phenomenon, behind the unlikely 2009 album of the year pairing of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and recordings over the years by so many great musicians, he's a man you usually don't see, T Bone Burnett, one of music's most acclaimed producers.
Burnett is winner of 13 Grammys, an Academy Award, and many other honors. And, at age 71, he's just released an album of his own music, the first in 11 years.
He joined us recently at the Scholz Beer Garten, an Austin establishment that bills itself as the oldest operating business in Texas.
T Bone Burnett:
Well, I have to say, I have never felt I had a career. I just take care of the thing that's right under my nose.
I try to choose things that connect to everything else I'm doing. And I think that's what integrity is, that your life is integrated.
Raised in Fort Worth, Joseph Henry Burnett took the nickname T Bone and began his career as a songwriter and performer.
And in 1975, he was picked by Bob Dylan to join the famed Rolling Thunder Revue, a group of all-stars, along with then lesser-known's like Burnett.
I was being thrown into the deep end. I learned really everything I needed to know to make it through the next 50 years of my life from that experience, because it wasn't just performing, but it was storytelling using different artists and different songs and different voices.
And it was working with different artists that he made his name, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Counting Crows. The list is long.
Ninety-five percent of a producer's role is support and encouragement.
You hopefully — the way I do it is, I find the best possible people I can find to do the job, and then I get out of their way.
I have seen descriptions by musicians you have worked with where they're saying at the sessions, it doesn't look like you're doing all that much.
Well, yes. I…
What are you doing?
One thing I know is, all the best art is made by artists working at full autonomy. And the more strings you attach to an artist, the more autonomy you take away from him, the less able he is to make music.
But so what are you listening for eventually?
That's intuition. That's feel.
Or it's experience, too. I'm listening for resonance and tone, and I'm listening for the story. I'm listening for the story to get told.
These days, Burnett wants all of us to listen better.
In recent years, he scored the soundtrack for the HBO show "True Detective," filled with moody music he created with keyboard whiz Keefus Ciancia and percussionist Jay Bellerose.
Scoring "True Detective" and the complex language of "True Detective" led us into this place of danger and mystery that seemed appropriate to the subject matter.
This visualization shows their new collaboration, a new experimental album called "The Invisible Light." It's the first of a proposed trilogy. Burnett calls it electronic and tribal music.
The big subject matter for Burnett these days, put forth in a full-throated critique in his keynote speech at this year's South By Southwest Festival, is the negative impact of information technology and so-called surveillance capitalism.
Companies like Facebook shouldn't be allowed to behave like digital gangsters.
We all have strings attached to us now. Everywhere we go, we have different technologies zeroing in on us and following us, tracing us, tracking us, predicting what we're going to do, and trying to actually move us into doing things that we don't necessarily want to do.
The musicians have been the canary in the coal mine for all of this, right?
In what sense?
The surveillance capitalists confiscated our stuff first. They took our music and said, information wants to be free, so we're just going to take your music for free.
Disrupting the music industry, which you have been part of.
Yes. And then they made billions, tens of billions of dollars from monetizing, in the parlance of our times, our property that they had confiscated. Now everybody's feeling it, so people are listening now.
In the meantime, the T. Bone Burnett story continues,, as always, with a variety of projects and artists, among them, producing the just-released album by Sara Bareilles and scoring a forthcoming musical titled "Happy Trails" on the life of cowboy actors Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
I don't want to do anything that's disconnected from the other things. I don't want to embarrass any of the people I have worked with in my life. I want to try to hold up a good standard for all of us.
Somehow, that's added up to a career, though, huh?
I guess you can call it that. I think careers are for lawyers. And careers are perfectly good things to have. But, for me, this has just been my work. It's been my life, you know?
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the South By Southwest Festival in Austin.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Anne Azzi Davenport is the Senior Coordinating Producer of CANVAS at PBS NewsHour.
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