Meet me backstage: Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell

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.


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Turn me on: Feist

Venue: Orpheum Theatre, Phoenix AZ
April 22, 2012

Images by the talented Tyler Greene

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Meet me backstage: Seun Kuti + Egypt 80

Seun Kuti

“Music from Africa must always carry a message–because Africa, more than anywhere else in the world, needs its art.”

These are the words of Seun Kuti, the youngest son of famed Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti. Playing with his father’s band, Egypt 80, since the age of 8 (and leading the band since age 14, when his father died), Seun is a force majeure in his own right–a saxophonist and singer with a vocal sensitivity that I dare say exceeds his father’s.

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Turn me on: Soul Traveling

Speaking of records…

I recently learned about the podcast Soul Traveling, a creation by my friend and fellow musician/audiophile Keith Foster. Soul Traveling is part travelogue/part radio show, with each episode profiling a record store in a different city. The dude gets around, and he knows his music — particularly funk, soul, and jazz, and the podcasts are a sweet combo of commentary and audio samples from some of the vinyl that Keith scored at that store. How many places can you get introduced to a bitchin’ groovy cover of Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On,” as played by the Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra?

Take a listen:

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Turn me on: Pro-Ject RPM 1.3 turntable

I think this makes it official now. I’m a gearhead. This thing sounds so good, it makes me want to cry.

My new Pro-Ject RPM 1.3 turntable:

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Turn me on: Andrew Bird

Why yes, Andrew Bird, I do find you quite affable. Whistle to me any time.
Listen to his full performance at SXSW 2012

Andrew Bird's latest record, Break It Yourself, was released this month. Photo: Cameron Wittig 

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The Morning After: Quantic & Alice Russell

Venue: The Exchange, Los Angeles

March 22, 2012

Oh, how I loved this band. Quantic & Alice Russell reminds me of Soulive‘s funky younger cousin, recently moved to South America and visiting the states only briefly. Will Holland, aka Quantic, is a musician/DJ/producer from the UK and now based in Colombia. On this tour he comes bearing wonderful gifts: Latin-inspired percussion, rhythms, gorgeous melodies–and of course Russell, a British soul singer. (Are all killer female soul singers from the UK these days?)

The performance ended tighter than it started, mostly I believe due to the fact that there were some sound/balance issues during the first few songs and the musicians were having a hard time hearing each other. (It kills me when you can see musicians on stage repeatedly motioning for their mikes/audio to be turned up–I’d do it for you if I could, guys.) But once the deep and dynamic Russell hit her stride, I was sorry it was over.

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Meet me backstage: Zakir Hussain

photo: Susana Millman

One of the finest and most adventurous percussionists/ composers today, Zakir Hussain has played with everyone from The Beatles to John McLaughlin and Béla Fleck. Earlier this month, I spoke with the Grammy winner as he made a short stop in the US on his way from India to Trinidad. A true citizen of the world, Zakir shared some insights on collaboration, developing your musical “language,” and learning to play with American jazz musicians.

Zakir Hussain and the Masters of Percussion will be performing March 21, 2012 at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California.

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Turn Me On: From the inside

It’s gorgeous in here. These images were taken by Bjoern Ewers as part of a campaign for the Berliner Philharmoniker. The vastness, the light, the peace — stunning.
From top to bottom: violin, guitar, flute, cello, pipe organ.

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The morning after: Björk

Venue: Roseland Ballroom, New York
March 2, 2012

Björk is a master of universes big and small.

As evidenced by her latest project, Biophilia, she finds beauty in the microscopic and the cosmic, the ordinary and the sublime—at the same time taking risks and exploring technology in ways that make less savvy musicians look like fools. She is not to be taken lightly, even while wearing a sparkly blue inflatable balloon dress.

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