Record producer T Bone Burnett talks about the industry, working with musicians, and good music.
So Raising Sand, the collaborative album between Robert Plant and Alison Kraus, produced by Fort Worth native T Bone Burnett, cleaned house with five trophies at Sunday night’s Grammys. Was anyone besides me not surprised? I guess it could have been a disaster, with all the egos involved, but anything Burnett touches tends to result in a work that ranges from all right to amazing. (If you know of a stinker, please write in.)
Back in 2000, Burnett invited me to follow him around for a few days when he was working on the music for a Sam Shepard play in San Francisco. This was just a few weeks before the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which he produced, became a huge success, and the press wasn’t exactly hot on his trail. He invited me into a world reporters rarely see: actors and musicians speaking frankly to each other backstage, at late-night dinners, and so on. And while I cringe a little bit by the story that resulted from the reporting (I overwrote, I gushed), I think about these interviews any time I hear a bad line in a good song and imagine him shaking his head.
Vine: How are you not like other producers? Why do people come to you?
Burnett: Probably people come to me for all the wrong reasons because a lot of times people don’t want what I have to offer them.
Vine: They want your name?
Burnett: Sometimes, yeah, I think so. There’s a little Zen koan about this young man who comes to the teacher and says, “I want you to teach me all knowledge” and the teacher takes a teacup and starts pouring it into a cup and fills the cup when it’s up to the saucer and fills the saucer until it’s on the table and the student says, “Why are you doing that?” The teacher says, “Because there’s no room. I can’t put anything into you.” That’s the hardest part about producing. People come to you, and they don’t know what they want. They don’t know why they’re coming to you. There’s some inherent distrust about somebody who calls himself a record producer, which I completely appreciate. It’s an ignoble profession going back to its very beginnings. It’s a very difficult psychological terrain with a person, having to build them up, set them up, make them look good, make them sound good, give them love and encouragement, support, confidence.
Vine: And then tell them they sound like trash!
Burnett: Yeah! Even when you want to put an ax in their head! It’s a difficult job because you have to edit. And people fall in love with stuff. Especially kids. I did, when I was a kid. You write something and it’s all perfect and it’s an important thing to you and you can’t let go of it. See, I’m watching Sam [Shepard] right now. He has taken out thirty minutes of this play. A lot of it was my favorite stuff, but it wasn’t working and he’s ruthless about it. That’s something kids get to: Everything is great. Everything is important, you know? And after a while, you start looking at it—instead of an album, you’re looking at it as a period of time. I mean, an album is a purely arbitrary medium; like Frank Sinatra invented the modern album. And that was because they came out with LPs when he was the leading recording artist. There was so much time you could get on an LP—20 or 22 minutes a side, which would be five or six songs a side, so that became an album. And now that we have CDs, an album can be 10 minutes or it can be an hour. Like books can be one hundred pages or thousands of pages. So all of that is changing, but we’re still in the midst of that change. That paradigm shift. So people don’t know how long or how many songs. And a lot of the times the songs aren’t good. But when you have to edit somebody, I’m telling you, a lot of people who want to look good are really bad live.
Vine: But it’s the line that stands out that they fall in love with?
Burnett: And you have to say, “It’s a bad line. If I let you do that right now, in ten years you’re going to say, ‘God, I wish you would have told me this was really bad.’”
Vine: Now you produce, but you also write.
Burnett: I basically think of myself as a writer even though I haven’t accomplished very much for a while. I’ve been writing a lot, and I’ve got a lot of stuff that’s getting ready to come out. I’ve been supporting myself in the same way Sam [Shepard] supports his theatrical endeavors being an actor, I support myself as a producer. This theater thing, nobody makes any money. Literally nobody. It’s amazing people do it—including the theater owner. Sam, it’s for art. It’s because live performance is incredibly important, and it’s becoming more and more important as everything becomes the same size as a CD and video game. Live performance is really where you learn. You don’t learn anything in the studio. You don’t learn anything about the music. Playing for an audience, you know the music can only be as good as the audience.
Vine: If the audience is boring . . .
Burnett: Then the music’s boring. If they’re not able to hear it. Or, you know, I’ve had it happen a hundred times in the studio: you’re working on a piece of music and someone from the record company comes in and brings his anxiety and frustration and insecurity and lack of openness. Their ears aren’t open. Suddenly, the piece of music sounds bad because they’re hearing it that way.
Vine: Is that your talent as a producer? You can get people to calm down in the studio?
Burnett: Definitely. That’s my racket, yeah. And as far as the record company goes, I try to get them to listen with my ears. That part is the trick.
Vine: Do you have to arm wrestle?
Burnett: Usually the market does the arm wrestling. At some point they sort of surrender because they’ve sold all these records. You say, “This is a beautiful tune, this is a great song.” And they’ll say, “It’s too long” or whatever because they’re just looking at all the reasons not to do it. But the audience will hear it and say, “Yeah this is a great song” and go buy it. So they’ll take care of it.
Vine: How do you choose projects?
Burnett: I’m not very logical about choosing projects. It’s an intuitive thing. I feel that you have to love the person. I guess that’s what it is. And whether that person loves me. You have to get a sniff of them, so to speak. A lot of stuff crosses my desk, and what usually happens is I hear about something four or five times from a bunch of places. It’s not analytical.
Vine: Would there be reasons not to do a project?
Burnett: There are always reasons. People don’t want to play; they just want to make a record. And that’s, sadly, the case of almost everybody trying to make a record. I really admire this woman Susan Tedeschi because she got out on the road and she got really good. I think kids want to make a record out of their bedrooms, you know? And they get a huge record deal because the companies start bidding on them before they have a chance to develop. Sinatra and all those people—they didn’t squeeze six months into a record, tuning every note, pitching every phrase, phrasing everything right, and moving it around. They made it because they were good enough. They didn’t need to use a better grade mike.