Bill Frisell is a consummate musician. Guitarist, composer, collaborator and tinkerer, he has developed his distinct sound – uniquely recognizable yet constantly evolving – over the course of his 35-year career.
The body of Frisell’s work is staggering—with over 250 recordings, 40 his own, it seems that he is always just hitting his stride. Yet the Grammy-winning artist is incredibly humble, reflecting on his work as an observer would speak, awe-struck, of a great miracle he has witnessed.
I caught up with Bill in April after his performance at UCSD of The Great Flood, his most recent collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison. The film, featuring a 75-minute suite of music composed by Frisell, portrays the devastating 1927 flood in which the Mississippi River breached its banks in 145 places and submerged over 27,000 square miles of land. The ensuing exodus of rural Southern blacks from the Mississippi delta to the Northern cities spawned the transformation of Delta Blues into the electrified Chicago Blues, Rhythm and Blues, and Rock and Roll.
Grab Me by the Ears: You’ve collaborated extensively with other artists throughout your career, particularly with artists in genres outside of music. The Great Flood was your third collaboration with Bill Morrison. Has the way you collaborate with him changed over the years?
Bill Frisell: All along, we wanted to do something where we worked together from the ground up, from the beginning of the idea. For the projects we had done in the past, Bill [Morrison] already had a film or he took preexisting music of mine – so I wasn’t really involved in the birth of the project. This project was incredible – we’ve known each other for a long time, and he was looking for something we could do together.
Bill [Morrison] was in Louisiana and came across a book called Rising Tide, which told the story of the great Mississippi flood in 1927. And he knew this was the one for our project. After I started writing some of the music, and as [Morrison] was gathering footage, we traveled together to New Orleans and up and down the Mississippi River together with the band, as we were learning the music and he was pulling the footage together. That made it super heavy and real – just to know what the air smells like, the temperature… What was really bizarre was that the river was flooding again last year, severely, when we were there.
GMBTE: Would you say the hardest part of that project was honoring the magnitude of the Great Flood, or was there any other aspect of this project that was more challenging than ones you’ve done in the past?
BF: This is oversimplifying it, but there’s the obvious thing about the way the music [of that era] changed because of the flood. People [in the Mississippi Delta] were playing acoustic instruments outside, and then they were forced to move north to the big cities, and then electricity comes along, and everything gets louder… There was a temptation to mirror that in the music. But there’s no way I can really play the music the way those guys did.
GMBTE: I noticed during the show that the music was more about evoking the ethos of the experience, and honoring it, rather than re-creating it.
BF: In the end of the film there are shots of Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Lockwood and all those guys playing. I didn’t want to mimic what they were playing. You know, my whole life has been affected by what those guys played, and I sort of found my own way of playing because of it. So [the film score] is more impressionistic than trying to imitate that music.
It’s almost like a dream…. I think of music that way a lot. It’s like an impression, what’s in your head while you’re dreaming.
GMBTE: More like a feeling, right? One that’s hard to put into words.
BF: Yes, and I don’t even know how it happens. I’ve been playing so long that I just trust it and go for it, hoping that it resonates with other people.
GMBTE: You say that it’s hard for you to define that experience, and you hope other people can find an affinity to your music… But as you write music, it’s clear that you have developed very symbiotic, finely wrought relationships with your other musicians. You know them very well, and they know you. When I was speaking to [drummer] Kenny Wollesen after the show in San Diego, he said “Bill never tells me what to do.” Yet he credited you completely for composing this suite of music. Do you compose with certain musicians in mind? Or does the end product turn out different than what you envisioned while composing?
BF: I have some kind of idea when I write, but I want it to be fluid and I don’t want to be attached to it. I really count on [the other musicians] to bring something to the music that I never would have imagined. And that’s the most amazing feeling. I can write a little melody and hear it one way, and then…
I don’t want it to be a static thing that’s going to be the same every time you play it. The way this whole piece is, I want it to be something that we can do over and over again, and every time it will evolve and change. I really don’t feel comfortable when the music doesn’t go anywhere or it doesn’t surprise you.
GMBTE: It’s a living art; it grows.
BF: I’ll write these melodies and I don’t even really know where they come from. And [the other musicians] find a way to bring them to life.
GMBTE: I understand what you mean about not knowing where it comes from. It’s almost indescribable. But I’ve heard people talk about that indescribable quality almost in terms of a musical spirituality—you can’t name it, but you know it when you feel it, especially with other musicians.
BF: I think that’s why I play music. It’s not about words…. and every time you describe it, or put a name to it, it limits you. You can try to corner it, but it’s never what it really is. That’s why I get so uncomfortable when people ask me what kind of music I play.
GMBTE: In speaking to artists, I’ve heard many different perspectives on how to keep the creative juices flowing. One musician and composer told me he walks away and does something completely different to get out of a rut, another artist says you must keep writing, keep writing constantly. How do you stay inspired?
BF: For me, it’s more a matter of just having the time. It’s just doing it. I love that, when I can just lose myself. My life has gotten so crazy, all this running around…. But the music itself is just so gigantic and amazing; I never seem to have any problem finding something to do. As long as I’ve got the time. As soon as I sit there for one second, in a quiet way, in my imagination one thing just starts immediately leading to another.
I guess I do get into ruts, but not really. If you come to a dead end – well, there are no dead ends. You turn left, and there’s something else there. That’s what’s so incredible. It’s like climbing through a giant tree… You can climb up one branch, or go down another one, or swing down to this thing. There’s always something in front of you.
I do get distracted. More and more lately, I need to go to hide out for a while… There’s a place in Vermont, Vermont Studio Center – I hid out there for a month to write music. Right before I saw you in San Diego, I was in Big Sur on a ranch for a week, just writing. Completely by myself. That was amazing. I’m lucky to be able to do that every once in a while.