Renowned as a record producer and soundtracks guru, T Bone Burnett has been prolific in just about every way, except when it comes to his own albums. But the drought in his own discography is about to end. On April 12, he’ll release his first album of new studio songs in 11 years, “The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space,” on the Verve Forecast label.
Burnett gave Variety an exclusive run-down of the project, which goes up for pre-orders today and is preceded by a video teaser for one of the album’s seven tracks, “Being There.”
Although it’s easy and essentially accurate to think of it as the latest in a line of very sporadic solo albums, Burnett shares top-line co-billing with Jay Bellerose, the drummer on a great deal of his studio productions, and Keefus Ciancia, who’s responsible for “electronic sounds” along with Burnett. They’re the only players on the album, which definitely skews toward the experimental side — an outgrowth of three seasons’ worth of Burnett scoring the HBO series “True Detective.”
“There aren’t any guitars or basses or pianos or anything like that,” he says. “I would say in a nutshell, it’s trance music, it’s electronic music and it’s also tribal music. I wanted the drums because the drums are the oldest folk instrument. You know, it’s the way the old people talked to God; they would beat the drum to get God’s attention, or get the next town’s attention. And then the rest is the electronic parts, scoring the story that we’re telling, which grew really out of the work Keefus and I have been doing for ‘True Detective’ for the last several years.”
At the beginning of a recent listening session in L.A., where the album was accompanied by trippy visuals created live by a video artist, Burnett told the audience that they might want to get their edibles out. “That was a joke,” he emphasizes. “But the music itself is a form of edible, I feel. So I’m not sure it’s necessary. It might be white on rice, you know,” he says, laughing.
Burnett foresees the 42-minute album as the first in a trilogy that will fall under the “Invisible Light” banner. Another hour’s worth of material has already been recorded for the remaining two installments, and he hopes to return to the studio with Bellerose and Ciancia in February to finish up work on the other records.
The producer hasn’t been overly concerned with putting out records with his name on them in the latter stages of his career. He was a recording artist first and producer secondarily during the 1980s, but there was a 14-year gap between 1992’s “The Criminal Under My Own Hat” and 2006’s “The True False Identity,” while he produced landmark projects like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and a Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration, both Grammy Album of the Year winners. After 2008’s “Tooth of Crime,” there was another 11-year gap before he came back with this new project. What got him in the mood again?
“About three or four years ago, I started writing a musical, and it took me a year to write it,” Burnett says. “It was such a daunting task that I started waking up at 4 every morning and writing for three or four hours while it’s quiet in the house. After a year of doing that, I was finished with the play, but I couldn’t stop writing. I was in the habit, and I kept waking up at 4 and writing, and now I’ve written another 300-something songs.”
Not all of those 300 songs are earmarked for the “Invisible Light” trilogy, obviously. “I think I’m going to get more on a hip-hop tip and start releasing things every couple of weeks or something like that,” Burnett muses. “Sometimes it’ll be an album and sometimes I’ll just put out a song. You know, I don’t really know what I’m gonna do, but I’ve got so much stuff, and I think it’s good and I want to get it out there.”
Along with its very modern sound, most of “Acoustic Space” is in a spoken-word, beat-poetry-meets-psychedelic-TED-talk vein. Anyone who associates Burnett with the Americana or back-to-roots movements that some of his productions and earliest albums fell into will be surprised. But he maintains this approach, and that of “True Detective,” really is back to roots, for him. “When I started out recording music in the 1960s, we were doing sampling and cut-ups, and we would make sound collages, turning tapes around backwards and things like that,” he says. “So I started off in a very experimental place, and getting back to this is maybe a return to that thing I loved so much when I was a kid.”
Thematically, he says, “It is a dark record. But inside it, I feel like there’s a great deal of light. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to call (the overall trilogy) ‘The Invisible Light,’ because I didn’t want to candy-coat anything and I didn’t want to sing any happy songs to people who are in grief, but the same time I didn’t want to add to anyone’s grief. So I think taking a clear-eyed look at what’s going on in the world is helpful. And the basic question that we are asking in the record is: What are the ramifications of a century of electronic programming on people?”
“Acoustic Space” is very much a concept record, in that regard, using poetic language to address media- and web-fostered mass maladies. “We’ve gotten so facile at this sort of manipulation, at programming, that a large part of all of our societies have fallen under a hypnotic spell. So one of the things we’re trying to do with this record is create our own anti-spell, to use the trance to deprogram ourselves. And hopefully if anybody else wants to be deprogrammed, they can use that part of it as well.”
Meanwhile, Burnett also filled Variety in on his contribution to Alfonso Cuarón’s just-announced “Music Inspired by the Film Roma” album, which comes out in February. His track ends the companion project, and it’s called “Roma,” though he laughs when asked if he came up with a belated title theme for the movie.
“Alfonso is an amazing cat,” he says. “All the street vendors in Mexico have a call or a sound, and he sent me all these different sounds he had recorded and said, ‘Do something with them.’ So I was in the same mode (as in making ‘Invisible Light’), and I just put them to a beat and started turning them into a song and it turned into this really interesting piece of music, when you put the sounds of the street together. I guess we could have called it ‘The Streets of Roma’ or something. I just called it ‘Roma’ at the time because that’s what I was working on. I didn’t mean it as a title song! But I’m happy it is. It ends the record, so I think it’s appropriate, I think.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, Burnett says he’s interested in reaching and maintaining contact with the people who’ve maintained interest in his career, after all this time staying silent as a solo artist.
“We’re just going to start getting into conversation with the audience,” he promises. “I’ve never attempted to build an audience. I never even wanted an audience, myself, for some perverse reason. But there’s so many things I’ve done, and now I would like to get back in touch with all the people that liked the music in ‘True Detective’ and all the people that liked the music in ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?,’ just to see if we can’t go out and create a new way of thinking about things and a new group of people. You know, there are 2 million people on one ‘Big Lebowski’ page on Facebook,” he notes, referring to another of the many projects he’s done with the Coen brothers. “I’ve been in conversations with these people before, but I never tried to keep them going, and I’ve always kept all of different projects I’ve worked on discreet from one another. Now I feel like this would be a good time to tie them all together.”
Not that the phrase “fan base” is ever going to fall trippingly off his tongue. “I wouldn’t even think of ‘em as fans,” he says. “I just think of them as people that liked ‘The Big Lebowski’ and people that like ‘True Detective.’ And I like ‘The Big Lebowski’ and I like ‘True Detective,’ so we’ve got something in common! And certainly something in common that’s very important to me. So I feel good about reaching back out to all of these people.”
A track list for “The Invisible Light: Acoustic Space”:
- High John (9:00)
- A Man Without A Country (All Data Are Compromised)(8:12)
- To Beat The Devil (8:09)
- Anti Cyclone (6:32)
- The Secret In Their Eyes (5:53)
- Being There (6:11)
- Itopia Chant (0:12)