Bruce Hornsby: Anything Can Happen
More than 30 years after scoring his first crossover hit with The Range and 25 years since his final show with Jerry Garcia, Bruce Hornsby finds a whole new way to reinvent himself with the help of Spike Lee and some of indie-rock’s finest.
There are many things Bruce Hornsby could be talking about, particularly his inspired new album. He could also be reminiscing about the string of hits that established him back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, starting with the chart-topping “The Way It Is,” or he could delve into the hundred or so shows he played with the Grateful Dead beginning in 1988.
And he’ll get to all of those in a minute. But first, Hornsby—calling from his home in Williamsburg, Va., the same city in which he was born in 1954—really wants to talk about The Beatles.
“If you look at their old, live performances, you’re just hearing some crazy takes,” Hornsby remarks. “They can’t hear a freakin’ thing; the people are screaming so loud! The sound onstage had to be horrible. There was no real concept of monitoring. But they’re staying in tune, man! Now and then, Lennon would go out of tune because he, more than anyone, was just hollering; he was shredding his voice in the most beautiful sort of rock-and-roll fashion. But man, their abilities were freaky. It makes you go, ‘Why did I even try to do this?’”
There are, of course, lots of reasons, and they’re all present on Non-Secure Connection, the previously noted new set the keyboardist/vocalist/composer released in August via Thirty Tigers. The 10-song collection arrives on the heels of 2019’s Absolute Zero. Like that recording, the largely self-produced Non-Secure Connection—Hornsby’s 22nd album—tosses any preconceived notions of who exactly Bruce Hornsby is in the trash.
As always, his piano work and singing are impeccable, and his compositions are innovative and full of surprises. There is, of course, abundant melody, but also several sharp corners and abrasive edges. There are sounds so alien that you might feel the need to double-check whose name is on the recording.
Bombshell transformations like these are what keep Hornsby going.
“What I owe an audience is what I’m most passionate about at the time,” he says, “And if I’m just going through the motions and saying, ‘Here’s that one from this year and here’s this one from this year,’ I’m doing a disservice to my audience. I used to be a little meaner about it than I am now, maybe snarky about it. But the music that I’ve been dealing with, the influences that have crept into my music—much to the chagrin of a lot of my audience—is the modern classical influence, which is very dissonant and atonal in lots of cases and just not for everybody.”
Besides, he adds, “My hardcore fans don’t give a rat’s ass whether I play those old hits or not. Frankly, they’d prefer it if I didn’t play them. They would prefer that I play songs that are more adventurous and more subject to development and stretching— that’s what they want to hear.”
Non-Secure Connection gives the “hardcore” contingent plenty of newness to absorb. Serving as something of a creative roadmap, Hornsby’s own written notes on the songs include a brief description of what each tune represents to him. This is not the stuff of the Billboard Top 10, to be sure.
“Cleopatra Drones,” the album’s opening tune, is “a rumination on the positive and negative aspects of drones, with a little Biblical prophecy,” Hornsby writes. The title track ties together the seemingly disparate subjects of “a hacker; chromaticism and code.” The intriguingly titled “Shit’s Crazy out Here” is “a song about the Darwinian, dystopian world of summer AAU basketball, Schoenberg meets The Beatles,” while the equally curious “Porn Hour” is “about innovators in the early days of the internet, Messiaen meets Canyon.”
To help him out, Hornsby called upon both old and new friends to lend their services on several tracks. Justin Vernon, the mastermind behind of Bon Iver, contributes what’s described as “aural atmosphere” to the title track, while singer Jamila Woods and Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid grace “Bright Star Cast,” a Civil Rights-inspired song that serves as something of a decades-later sequel to “The Way It Is.” On the latter, over a funky, urban beat, Hornsby—playing Wurlitzer electric piano and prepared piano—and Woods sing, “No matter what you do then, I’m determined to feel fully human/ Through unique, bold, arresting self-expression we’ll create our own names, own songs, own style/ Our way to be free and wild, wild.” Nodding to another generation altogether, “Anything Can Happen” is also the title track of a 1994 Leon Russell album that Hornsby co-produced with the since-deceased pianist, one of his musical idols.
“My Resolve”—another highlight and the album’s lead single— features a vocal from Shins frontman James Mercer. Hornsby and Mercer had actually never met before they collaborated on the tune. “I was influenced by The Shins’ ‘Split Needles,’ so I said, ‘Well, hell, I’ve got a little Shins-esque part here. Why don’t I reach out to this guy and see if he’d be interested?’ We connected through the channels and he heard the song and went, ‘Yes, I’m in.’” For a joint appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the pair taped their respective parts remotely using a split-screen effect.
“It really resonated with me,” Mercer says, when asked about “My Resolve,” which he describes as being “about the creative process, the mystery of inspiration. As I get older, I ponder the same issues. Life can feel stagnant when compared to those certain moments of musical transcendence. So you keep chasing it. I had to rally my confidence to go ahead and jump into it, for sure,” he adds, “But I’m just so proud—there are very few musicians and songwriters as respected as Bruce Hornsby.”
A handful of Non-Secure Connection’s cuts feature orchestration and string arrangements by Rob Moose and several selections— as was also true of Absolute Zero—began as film cues for various Spike Lee “joints.” Hornsby has been creating scores for the Oscar-winning writer/director since 2008. “I call myself his B-team composer,” says Hornsby about Lee. “[Jazz trumpeter] Terence Blanchard is, and has been for many years, the go-to guy. So he’s going to do BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods and all that, and I’m going to get the deep indie films, like Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Red Hook Summer. But I thought, after years of doing this for him, that a lot of this music sounded like it wanted to be expanded into songs with words. I started doing that on Absolute Zero, and it just took me to a more cinematic-sounding place.”
Bruce Hornsby’s journey has been unpredictable and circuitous, to say the least, but there have always been hints of where he was headed. In the mid-‘70s, fresh out of high school, he played in a Grateful Dead cover band called Bobby Hi-Test and the Octane Kids, with his older brother Bobby. Bruce tooled around in the Williamsburg-area club scene for a while, briefly tried Los Angeles, returned to Virginia and, in 1982, joined the band Ambrosia even more briefly—just as it was falling apart. He and that band’s bassist, Joe Puerta, toured as members of singer Sheena Easton’s band before the two musicians, along with multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, guitarist George Marinelli and drummer John Molo, formed Bruce Hornsby & The Range in 1984.
After signing to RCA Records, The Range first charted in the summer of 1986 with “Every Little Kiss,” which stalled out at No. 72. A couple of months later, they broke out in a big way when “The Way It Is”—an anthem that bravely took on racism at a time when few artists vying for the pop charts were willing to—vaulted to No. 1 and earned Hornsby a Best New Artist Grammy. (He’s been nominated 13 times in all.) The following year, “Mandolin Rain” also entered the Top 5, followed by “The Valley Road” in 1988. Each of the hits showcased Hornsby’s sophisticated musicality via superb keyboard work and irresistible vocal performances, and the band’s albums—including the back-to-back platinum-sellers The Way It Is and 1988’s Scenes From the Southside—allowed The Range to exercise their versatility and virtuosity in several different settings.
As the ‘90s kicked in, though, Hornsby’s sales figures were already beginning to flag, and he was getting restless artistically. The Range’s third and final album, 1990’s A Night on the Town, featured guest spots from jazz greats Wayne Shorter and Charlie Haden, as well as banjo master Béla Fleck. But, by late 1991, the group had split. Hornsby’s debut solo album, 1993’s Harbor Lights, was an exquisite creation that featured guest appearances from Pat Metheny, Branford Marsalis, Bonnie Raitt and Phil Collins, as well as Jerry Garcia. The album peaked at No. 46 but Hornsby, who playfully labels himself during his hit-making years as “Mr. Adult Contemporary of the ‘80s,” wasn’t all that concerned—by that time, he’d already decided to leave behind the confines of the pop world, whatever that might mean for his bank balance.
“I’ve never stood still, and I’ve got the nasty letters from all these years to prove it,” Hornsby says. “But there was a reason for those. I’m not playing for that person who’s looking for the stroll down memory lane. That’s a creative prison. I’ve never chosen to reside in that prison, to shackle myself.”
Starting in the late ‘80s, he offered his services to the likes of Raitt and Don Henley, co-writing and playing piano on the latter’s hit “The End of the Innocence.” In time, Hornsby’s name appeared on recordings by Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson and several other A-listers. But as most readers of this publication are undoubtedly aware, his highest-profile extracurricular activity is most certainly his association with the Dead. Hornsby first sat in with the band for a couple of songs at Buckeye Lake Music Center in Thornville, Ohio, on June 25, 1988. Following the July 26, 1990, death of Brent Mydland, Hornsby joined the Dead in a more formal capacity, helping them through a transitional period at most of their shows from September 1990 to March 1992 while Vince Welnick got acclimated behind the boards. And, even after he stopped touring with the Dead, Hornsby turned up on occasion through their final tour in 1995; he has continued to collaborate with members of the band over the years, participating in The Other Ones in 1998 and 2000, as well as the high-profile Fare Thee Well shows in 2015, among other groupings.
“I wouldn’t trade my time with them for anything, on so many levels,” Hornsby says about his tenure with the Dead. “It’s a deep experience to play with them. They touch so many stylistic bases of American music and I’ve always been interested in that myself. So I felt a kindred spirit there right away.”
As for what he may have brought to the Dead, Hornsby is reluctant to surmise, but suggests, “maybe a certain harmonic conception that’s not appropriate for everything, my sort of Bill-Evans-meets-the-hymnbook way of playing chords. Garcia always reacted really intensely to that sound.”
Hornsby also relishes several opportunities he had to co-write with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter—long after the Dead had called it quits, they worked up a tune called “Cyclone” that appeared on Levitate, a 2009 album Hornsby recorded with his post-Range band The Noisemakers. “He reached out to me out of the blue and said, ‘Send me some music,’” Hornsby says of that song’s genesis. He did, and two weeks later, Hunter emailed Hornsby lyrics for the melody he’d received.
While Hornsby says that he has “a different way of approaching spontaneity” than the Dead, he notes that one valuable habit he took away from working with the band was playing a week’s worth of concerts without repeating a song. “Anyone who doesn’t use a setlist has been influenced by those guys,” he says.
As the years have progressed, Hornsby has become even more unorthodox in his choices. His 2002 album Big Swing Face, his first official studio set with The Noisemakers, was considered such a radical departure—he played very little piano on it—that RCA label chief Clive Davis booted him from the label. Hornsby has also recorded albums of bluegrass (a wonderful 2007 collaboration with Ricky Skaggs) and jazz (Camp Meeting, that same year, with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette). Hornsby himself calls his career “an idiosyncratic journey.”
These days, on album releases like Absolute Zero and Non-Secure Connection, he’s moving even further from the center, and his gratification comes from the response the new music elicits from the fans he calls “the diehards.” Even then, he is aware that some are not going to be willing to take the plunge with him. “There’s certainly a fairly large coterie of fans who are totally put off by songs like ‘Non-Secure Connection,’” he says. “They might say, ‘What in the world is this?’ But overall, the response from the critical community has been amazing.”
Tony Berg, a longtime Hornsby associate whose long list of major production credits includes this year’s Phoebe Bridgers gem Punisher, as well as hit recordings by Peter Gabriel, Squeeze and others, is one of the diehards who is still very much on board. Described by Hornsby in the Non-Secure Connection liner notes as “Aesthetician and Ombudsman,” Berg says, “Bruce’s need to learn and grow is insatiable. Who else writes and performs songs, plays jazz with Jack DeJohnette, bluegrass with Ricky Skaggs, tours and records with a world-class band, scores Spike Lee films, and also sustains a beautiful marriage and raises two wonderful sons? He is as excited by 12-tone composition as he is by Howlin’ Wolf. His humor, on the other hand, has not matured in any way. He still takes delight in causing trouble.
“Non-Secure Connection continues Bruce’s desire to challenge himself and take us along for the ride,” Berg continues. “He loves to infuse even the most accessible writing with moments of subversion, unexpected harmonic choices, structural unorthodoxy, provocative language. It isn’t just Bruce’s knowledge of music and his tremendous techniques. What strikes me the most is his immediately recognizable style as a player. And while his writing demonstrates a fierce musicality, he is never a show-off. Everything is in service to the song. He is this brilliant musician—writing songs that are, at once, beautiful and lyrically ambitious—who also happens to be a generous, intellectually curious, wickedly funny practical joker. It’s impossible not to be impressed by him.”