For T Bone Burnett, arguably the most important record and film music producer in the entertainment industry today, the only way to move forward is to take a few steps back. Whether working in a recording studio as an arranger and producer, composing music for film and television, or simply performing live onstage with one of the countless artists he has embraced and influenced, Burnett has come to realize that newer is not always better. He has dedicated himself to making sure the elements that built the past can be used to shape the future, believing much of the music and recording technology developed decades ago set a gold standard that has yet to be surpassed.
“There is such an avalanche of data coming at us all the time, and technology is turning over so quickly,” Burnett says. “Things are so impermanent that you have to adapt very quickly. We developed an adaptive mastering technology called code, to be able to deal with all the different sonic realities of the day. This is a time where all sound standards have collapsed. You want to do your best work and you want it to sound the best it can. At the end of the day it is all just survival.”
To that end, Burnett is doing much more than surviving. He has won Oscars, Golden Globes, 13 Grammys and myriad other awards as he maintains a schedule that makes him one of showbiz’s most in-demand pros. He recently completed duties as executive music producer and composer for his fourth film collaboration with Joel and Ethan Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and last year, did the same duties for Hollywood blockbuster “The Hunger Games” and ABC’s “Nashville.”
His theatrical music collaboration with John Mellencamp and author Stephen King, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” broke attendance records and generated rave reviews, in Atlanta, where it debuted. And on top of all that, he found time to produce Elton John’s comeback album, “The Diving Board.”
“Well, I am trying to adapt,” says Burnett, laughing at the demands he encounters. Keeping serenity, balance and focus in his life has been tricky, but he says it has been achievable. “The way I do it is by taking care of the thing that is right under my nose all the time, and also to adapt to the realities of the way the world changes. I have always worked across different types of media. I think that is the way modern storytelling is going.”
2014 will be no different.
He has taken on another music exec producer role for HBO’s forthcoming “True Detective” series starring Matthew McConaughey, and has begun working on “The Basement Tapes … Continued,” an album and film documentary that will resurrect 16 previously lost Bob Dylan lyric sheets from 1967, turning them into new songs and recordings, involving Dylan and some of today’s most acclaimed artists.
In addition, Burnett will launch Electromagnetic Recordings, a label venture with Capitol Music Group that will feature a roster ranging from Gregg Allman and Jerry Lee Lewis to the upstart band Mini Mansions, all under Burnett’s production helm.
“T Bone is quite simply one of culture’s most creative forces,” says Steve Barnett, CEO of CMG. “He is an influential curator and tastemaker, and his projects are consistently of stellar quality and integrity.”
The admiration is mutual. “Steve Barnett is a very interesting, energized, smart executive,” Burnett says. “(He) actually listens to, and believes in music as a force for good in the world. He has given me a base for which I can invest in some very good young artists. We’ll be doing films, television, records and tours. It is about music. The marketing focus is simple: it is music for people who like music. It’s all going to be good and it’s all going to be done analog. This is one of our things.”
The launch of Electromagnetic Records comes as Burnett celebrates 50 years of professional music making, which has taken him from a struggling musician and recording engineer in the Midwest during the 1960s, to sideman for Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, to celebrated artist and producer who has worked with Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson and the quirky collaboration of Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. That duo’s “Raising Sand” album, which embraced the country blues sound of the 1930s and ’40s, cleaned up at the Grammy Awards in 2009 with six wins.
“That was thrilling, that whole thing; working with those two mystical voices, together,” says Burnett. “It was extraordinary, and it sort of happened before any of us knew it was happening.”
Elton John feels the same way about working with Burnett, and credits him with helping him find his muse. “I started my relationship with T Bone with the ‘Union’ album with Leon Russell, one of the great joys of my life,” says John. “I went back to recording in analog, and I found my confidence again as a writer and the direction I wanted to go to.”
Burnett also plans another studio project with John, when the time is right: “He is nothing but a killer musician,” Burnett says. “I love Elton. I think he is way underrated as a musician.
“I have this idea that if you do something really good, people will like it,” he says of his work in the studio. “At every juncture I have gone with the best-sounding technology. So, I have 50 years of experience A/B-ing things, and finding microphones; finding guitars; finding things that sound good. It’s all about that. How do your record that person singing so that the listener can hear that person’s soul? It’s all about going for the content of the thing. I don’t use that in the 21st century way, I use that in the old course way. I am always looking for the heart of the thing.”
When the Coens came up with the idea of doing a film about a folk singer in Greenwich Village in 1961, the first person they knew that had to be involved was Burnett, who had collaborated with them on “O Brother Where Art Thou” and “The Big Lebowski.”
“T Bone is a great collaborator,” said the Coens in a joint statement for this article. “Just as in producing records where he always tries to serve the artist, in doing movies with us he only wants to serve the material. He has an uncanny ear for music and an uncanny understanding of what kind of music helps a scene or a story. Maybe those are two ways of describing the same kind of sensitivity. Since he only wants to serve the material he has the lightest touch, but gets the most profound results.”
Adds Burnett: “ I’m a facilitator for the Coens. Those guys are amazing artists. I think they are leading the way in which stories are told now. They are the most interesting and complex storytellers we have. With ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ it’s the tone of the storytelling. That is what everything we are doing at the end of the day is about — it comes down to tone.”
Today, at 65, Burnett says collaborating with the right individuals who hold his creative vision is the key to his success. “At this stage of my life, I believe it is important that we don’t work through conflict, but we work through love and pure creation. When I was a kid, I thought conflict was a necessary part of the creative process. Now, I just think conflict is a part of the destructive process.”