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T Bone Burnett Wants to Make Music to Heal Shrinking Attention Spans

Category: Entertainment,Music

Joseph Henry Burnett, known as T Bone, has spent most of his long career in music behind the scenes. He has won 13 Grammy Awards as a producer, music supervisor and songwriter for albums including “Raising Sand” by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss and soundtracks for “O Brother, Where Are Thou?,” “Walk the Line,” “The Hunger Games” and “Crazy Heart,” which also brought him an Oscar for collaborating on the best original song. Lately his projects have included producing Sara Bareilles’s new album, composing and choosing the soundtrack for HBO’s “True Detective” and working on the debut of a country singer, Logan Ledger.

But every so often, Burnett carves out time to record under his own name. This week he releases “The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space,” the first album of a planned trilogy he recorded with the keyboardist Keefus Ciancia and the drummer Jay Bellerose. On his own and in his collaborations, Burnett has become known for twangy, rootsy, naturalistic rock. But “The Invisible Light” veers into stranger territory.

Drumbeats lurch and sputter amid eerie, amorphous electronic sounds; instruments like guitars or pianos are relegated to the far distance. In that setting, Burnett speak-sings his way through free-associative songs that contain biblical allusions, echoes of the blues, tall tales, lovers’ plaints and warnings about disinformation, the cult of personality and the encroachments of technology. (The trilogy’s next installment, Burnett said, “is more rocking, more punk rock, and the third edition gets very, very jazz, pretty out there.”)

A conversation with Burnett, 71, easily wanders from musical particulars to philosophical speculations and back. He spoke from his home and studio in Los Angeles, where he makes most of his music; he had been awake, he said, since 4 a.m. The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

The songs on “The Invisible Light” revolve around technology and theology, with some very dark tidings.

I called it “The Invisible Light” for two reasons. It’s from T.S. Eliot’s “Choruses From ‘The Rock’” — he refers to divinity that way. But also, I’m actually optimistic about humanity’s chances, and in all this darkness some light is also contained. Except you have to really listen into it to hear the mirth and the optimism.

You also name-check songs like Delbert McClinton’s “Victim of Life’s Circumstances.”

The whole album is full of references, and that’s part of the notion of it. Because artists really do only one thing. Artists say, “I went to this place at this time and I saw this thing and it was good.” And we mark it, we mark the things that we think are important and worthwhile.

The material isn’t exactly songs or spoken words. How did it come together?

I started writing a play with Marshall Brickman, and the ambition for the play is to get it to Broadway one day. That led me to study Frank Loesser, and Lerner and Loewe, and Stephen Sondheim and all the great Broadway writers. Writing for theater is very different than just writing hillbilly songs or rock ’n’ roll songs. You only have a couple of hours to tell the story, and everything in the song has to be part of the narrative. It takes a great deal of discipline.

And so I started getting up at 4 every morning and writing for several hours when everything was quiet. I finished writing the music for the play in about a year.

But because I’d gotten in the habit of waking up at 4 in the morning and writing, I’ve continued doing that, for about the last three years. It’s this evolving poem that must be about 5,000 lines now, which I would guess someday I will publish as a poem. That became the sheet music in essence. I would pull a group of lyrics out of this stuff and give it to Keefus and give it to Jay, and we would just start jamming.

Melody is really codified inflection. In all of the lyrics there were melodies already hanging around in them, ghost melodies, and some were specific melodies. It’s maybe a form of Beat poetry. I certainly still think of myself as part of the Beat Generation.

One song, “A Man Without a Country,” ends with two full minutes of ambient landscape sound, almost silent. Why?

One could think of this album as a film that hasn’t been made that we’re scoring. Part of what we’re after is the fact that the electronic universe has been shrinking and fragmenting our attention spans for decades now. I want to create periods of time where people can just sit in pure sound without stimulation, where we can allow ourselves to relax into pure sound. It’s not really that nothing’s happening. It’s something’s happening but we don’t know what it is, so to speak.

Musicians praise the drum sound in your productions, and drums are way up front on this album. What’s the secret?

There was a time in the 1970s when everybody was dampening down drums and trying to take all the overtones out and focus purely on attack. But all of the most interesting sounds of the drums are the sounds of the overtones that react with one another and create other melodies and other rhythms within the piece. Which are the very things that get covered up by the guitars and the basses and the more normal instruments that are brought forward in a mix.

By taking all those away you’re able to hear what the drums actually are doing. We do it by playing very, very softly so that the attack is minimized. The trick, if it’s a trick, or the technique since it is technology, is to place the microphones so that they hear all of the tone and the overtones of the drums and then they also hear the tone and overtones of the adjacent drums. The room we’re recording all these pieces in is a very small bedroom, so you can only play so loud.

Yet the sound of the tracks suggests huge spaces.

That is the idea, to conjure these open, wild spaces. We wanted it to be an indefinable place, a dangerous place, a dark place, yet within it there’s all this life.

There are also a lot of warnings: about a “celebrity-in-chief,” about lies and willful self-deception.

There’s an extraordinary experiment in behavioral modification going on now. We live in a time now where leaders emerge from fiction and create the politics of eternity where there are no facts. That’s an extremely dangerous place to live. The “politics of eternity” is from Timothy Snyder’s “The Road to Unfreedom.” I think it’s the most important book of the 21st century so far. It’s a well of sanity.

Do you think about who your listeners are?

No, other than that the listeners are human beings and I have a love and a caring for humanity, and I hope that comes through. This is anti-anti-human music. There’s a lot going on in the world that is anti-human at the moment, and this is fighting that.

Art has to be irresistible. It can’t be pedantic or instruct or preach. I certainly have been accused of preaching in the past, and I hope I’ve overcome any tendencies I’ve had in that direction. More than preaching I’ve been raising the alarm. Hopefully I’ve gotten good enough at it so that I’m not preaching, but just ringing the bell.

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