Photo: Sarah Walor
Bruce Hornsby Talks New Album 'Non-Secure Connection,' Working With Spike Lee And His Ongoing Support Of Civil Rights In His Music
Bruce Hornsby is constantly on the search for new sounds to explore and fresh ways to express his thoughts. In 1986, the GRAMMY-winning singer-songwriter set the tone on The Way It Is, his multiplatinum hit debut album with his original band, Bruce Hornsby And The Range. (The album ultimately helped him and the group score the Best New Artist win at the 1987 GRAMMYs.) He later made an impact during a stint on keyboards with The Grateful Dead and dabbling in a variety of genres on his albums, including ventures into folk, jazz, bluegrass and even classical music.
"It's just a byproduct of a constant search for inspiration, a constant search for the new, a constant search for growing and evolving and improving your craft and your creativity over a long career period," Hornsby says of his wide-spanning musical projects in a recent phone interview with GRAMMY.com. "And so, I'm just intellectually, musically curious or musically, intellectually curious ... I'm doing this for people who are interested in a little bit of musical adventure."
His latest albums—2019's Absolute Zero and the newly released Non-Secure Connection—find him exploring yet another genre: film scores. Thanks to his work on music for multiple Spike Lee films, including 2018's BlacKkKlansman, Hornsby realized he could turn a film score cue into a song. He uses piano as well as instruments like the electric sitar and Chamberlin to create atmospheric, cinematic songs.
"I think a filmmaker's telling the story, using music to augment the emotional quality of the film, and I'm doing the same thing here," he says.
Released Friday (Aug. 14), Non-Secure Connection features a wide array of guest artists and musicians who further enhance the songs: The Shins singer James Mercer, singer and poet Jamila Woods, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid and Bon Iver leader Justin Vernon. Album standout "Anything Can Happen" features the late Leon Russell, who co-wrote the track and appears on it courtesy of a demo that he and Hornsby recorded together more than 25 years ago.
Lyrically, Hornsby has plenty to say on Non-Secure Connection. He muses on topics such as computer hackers, mall salesmen and the "Darwinian" aspects of AAU basketball. A longtime, ardent supporter of civil rights—his 1986 hit song, "The Way It Is," references the civil rights movement of the '60s—the singer continues to address the social issues of the time across the album.
"Nina Simone said it best: 'It's the artist's job to reference the time in which we live.' And it's a bit like folk music. Lots of folk music has reflected through the years the world in which those writers wrote. And so, this is me doing my version of taking Nina Simone's charge and running with it," he says.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Bruce Hornsby to discuss his latest album, Non-Secure Connection, his longtime affirmation of civil rights in his music and how working with Spike Lee inspired a new sonic direction.
Songs such as "Bright Star Cast" and "Non-Secure Connection" feel very timely, with lyrics about civil rights and connections with each other.
Certainly. It's all of a sudden timely again, not that it's never not timely. The problems of American racism are always evident; you don't have to look very closely to find them. But certainly, the George Floyd tragedy has galvanized the scene, galvanized anyone who was at all sympathetic to the race issue and Blackness in America.
It's sort of serendipitous … that I wrote this song "Bright Star Cast," which is an attempt at a civil rights anthem. But it should be no small surprise because my career started with a song about racism: "The Way It Is." And this will be now the seventh song I've written that deals in some way with the race issue in our country.
And you mentioned "Non-Secure Connection," which is a song about a hacker, and that's, of course, very much sort of au courant in the current zeitgeist.
Nina Simone said it best: "It's the artist's job to reference the time in which we live." And it's a bit like folk music. Lots of folk music has reflected through the years the world in which those writers wrote. And so, this is me doing my version of taking Nina Simone's charge and running with it.
When it comes to singing about racial equality, do you feel there's a constant search for finding the right words to express your feelings about it?
Well, there's a constant search to find the right words to express really anything. If you're trying to do something of some worth, then that's not easy. I think in everything I write, it's difficult to find the best words, and I struggle with it, just like any songwriter who's serious about it probably would and probably should. But I can make also this statement about what's happening now to me. The George Floyd tragedy is a Bull Connor moment in our history, a second Bull Connor moment.
In 1964, during the heyday of the civil rights movement, especially in the South, there was a protest going on in Birmingham, Ala., and the police chief in Birmingham, named Bull Connor, brought out his force and turned hoses on the protestors. It was just a horrific scene, and someone captured this on film … As soon as they could, they showed [this film] on the national news ...
And so, this film of this terrible local response to a civil rights protest, again, it shocked the country when they saw this … that just made the country aware of what was going on, and they previously had not been. And several months later, [President Lyndon B. Johnson] and the Congress passed the Civil Rights Act Of 1964. And I think a large part of what enabled them to do this is that footage from Bull Connor's police-hosing moment.
And so, this is a Bull Connor moment right now, because the video of that terrible, basically murder of George Lloyd—that went viral in a way that they couldn't think of in '64, obviously, [without] the internet. It went around the world and inspired the same response; that's why I call this a Bull Connor moment.
And hopefully, it will have the same effect. I mean, that was a major law passed, the Civil Rights Act Of 1964. I refer to it in my song, "The Way It Is": "They passed a law in '64 to give those who ain't got a little more."
You wrote the song "Sh*t's Crazy Out Here" about AAU basketball. Can you explain that connection?
If you're a serious basketball aspirant as a child, as a young hopeful, and you have a very solid to great talent, you're probably going to be playing in what's called grassroots basketball, summer basketball, also known as AAU basketball. AAU stands for the Amateur Athletic Union. My son, Keith, went through that crucible from age 10 to 18. This song comes from some of his experiences that he would tell me about.
"Sh*t's Crazy Out Here" is a song about that dysphoria that occurs in this Darwinian world of summer AAU basketball, but it's also a metaphor for our crazy world now, and I feel strongly about that. But also, what may be of interest to some regarding this song is that to me, it's an odd musical juxtaposition of modern classical meets modern pop. I describe this song as Arnold Schoenberg and Elliot Carter meet The Beatles at the Boo Williams Sportsplex, which is the AAU basketball mecca of our area here in Hampton, Va.
Half of the songs on Non-Secure Connection were originally crafted while you were working on film scores for Spike Lee. What was it like getting exposed to his unique perspective and working with a different kind of music?
Well, I've been being exposed to Spike's unique perspectives for 28 years. We met in 1992 … The first time I worked with Spike, he directed a video for me for a song of mine off my fourth record called Harbor Lights, and the song is called "Talk Of The Town." It was actually one of those seven songs about race that I was previously referring to, and it's about the first interracial romance in my town and all the reaction to that. I've been working with him since '92.
Those five songs to which you're referring, they started off as film cues, as instrumental music, part of my score for various Spike movies in the last decade. I started doing this on my last record, Absolute Zero, and I've continued to do that. It was a new way of writing songs for me and took me to a different, more cinematic place for obvious reasons. I feel these two records, Absolute Zero and Non-Secure Connection, have that connection, that at least half of the songs come from that [film] world, hence the cinematic quality ...
[Spike is] an unswerving artiste, and he will go the extra length to get what he wants. That's always inspiring, and it makes me not want to settle in my own work. He has more stamina than two people in their 60s. He can just go and go all day, every day, from 5:00 in the morning to midnight—and then do it again, like I say, every day. He's a very inspiring person and just a great, longtime friend.
Film music is pretty conducive to storytelling.
I think that's true. Since I tend to be a storyteller in song, I'm not much of a "woe is me" writer, if you understand what I'm saying. I'm not much into the confessional writing. I love a lot of people who've done that, but they would mine that area a lot better than I would. I've tended to be more of a storyteller, or I guess a commentator, on the current scene. So yes, I think a filmmaker's telling the story, using music to augment the emotional quality of the film, and I'm doing the same thing here.
You invited a wide spectrum of guest musicians to play on the album, including Jamila Woods and Vernon Reid on "Bright Star Cast." How did you get connected with them for that song?
I wanted a woman to sing with me on "Bright Star Cast," and our great friend from Jagjaguwar, Eric Davis, hooked us up with one of their artists named Jamila Woods.
I wasn't familiar with Jamila, but I went and listened to her music and thought, "Wow, I love it. It's a beautiful and great sound." She's also a wonderful poet … She added so much to that track, as did Vernon Reid.
That track was a Spike Lee cue originally for a movie called Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus from 2014; Vernon played on the film version of that track. So I twisted and turned his performance around just a little bit to fit what we were doing, the song that I created on top of that piece of instrumental music and the film music. I've loved [Vernon] for years, a longtime friend and a great musician.
What did it mean to be able to pay tribute to your friend, Leon Russell, on "Anything Can Happen"?
Leon Russell was one of the two pianists that I heard when I was younger that made me want to play the piano. The first was Elton John. The second was Leon; he was one of my early heroes.
I met him years later after we had our career going fairly solidly. I met him at The Palomino Club in the San Fernando Valley, L.A., when I lived out in that area in California. We ended up getting together for a Rolling Stone photoshoot that they asked us to be a part of. I asked him if he wanted to try to get back into the crazy music game, and he called me.
About four months later—this is 1988—he called and said, "Well, I'd like to try it if you can help me." I was able to get him a record deal at Virgin Records in 1990. In 1991, we made the record gradually over the course of that year, and it came out in '92. I think the first song that we wrote together was sparked by him asking me to write him a Barry White track.
I tried my best to effect a Barry White feeling on a musical track. Then I picked some words that he'd written for him out of this notebook that he had full of lyrics. He sang it incredibly well, and that was the title song of that record, "Anything Can Happen."
In the end, I loved the demo we cut. This happens so often, that the demo is not really made much better, or it's actually made worse in the end, by polishing it too much. I always felt that the record we made was not as good as it could have been. I've always wanted to recut the song; this was my time to do it. We sampled a little bit of Leon from the original demo and flew it into the record. He's sort of a ghost behind me in the first part of the song. Then he comes in full force to sing harmonies with me at the end.
He passed about three or four years ago, and I spoke at his memorial service in Tulsa, Okla. Leon meant a lot to me, and we'd become good friends for many years. I guess it is truly a tribute to my old-hero-turned-friend.
Throughout your career, you've written albums in a variety of styles and have said that you're no trend-follower. Why do you feel it's still important to keep exploring in music even after 30-plus years?
I'd say it's not really about what's important. It's just a byproduct of a constant search for inspiration, a constant search for the new, a constant search for growing and evolving and improving your craft and your creativity over a long career period. And so, I guess I'm just intellectually, musically curious or musically, intellectually curious. And I'll deal with a broad range, stylistically, of music—from the most down-in-the-dirt, old-time folk and traditional music to the most avant-garde, atonal, modern classical music.
All of that is all that is used in my records. And some people really hate that, but I guess I'm not playing for that ... I'm not doing this for them. I'm doing this for people who are interested in a little bit of musical adventure. It's just the byproduct of my curiosity and, I guess you could say, insatiable search for new inspiration.