For Burt Bacharach, what it’s all about is continuing to write and record music. Not many pop legends in their 90s are releasing new music this year instead of fondly gazing at their trophy shelves, but Bacharach, one of the most celebrated songwriters in pop history, has found a new partner and muse in Daniel Tashian, the Nashville-based singer, songwriter and producer. Tashian, who’s best known for his Grammy-winning work on Kacey Musgraves’ “Golden Hour,” harks back to his own earlier days as a band frontman by taking the lead vocals on their new duo project, “Blue Umbrella,” but it’s undeniably Bacharach’s historically identifiable melodic sense driving the five-song EP.
The full collection comes out July 31, but today sees the release of a characteristic ballad from the project, “Midnight Watch.” (LIsten to the music, below.) Bacharach and Tashian got on the phone from their respective homes in L.A. and Nashville to discuss the new song, Bacharach’s famous arranging finesse, and how they’re continuing to write together hundreds of miles apart.
TASHIAN: How’s it going out there, Burt?
BACHARACH: [Laughs.] It’s the same day as yesterday.
VARIETY: You have a new song, “Midnight Watch,” coming out this week. What can you tell us about that? It has a very late-night, lonely, “in the wee small hours of the morning” feel.
TASHIAN: The lyrics to that song have really taken on a new meaning for me in this lockdown time, because I find myself up quite late, looking at news or looking at Instagram, Twitter, all these kinds of things. And we’re all kind of on the midnight watch. We’re waiting for life to show some resemblance to the life that we knew. And so it’s sort of a theme song for a kind of loneliness.
BACHARACH: It didn’t start that way, but it’s become that way. It was very personal, looking to a woman, waiting for her to come back. And now we’re all on that form of midnight watch, you might say.
TASHIAN: I’ve always been really attracted to the work of Edward Hopper. And there was an article in the New Yorker recently about the imagery in Edward Hopper paintings and “Nighthawks at the Diner” and all that stuff. He’s got social distancing happening in his paintings. And it’s very sort of pertinent right now, or poignant.
You started working together the day after Daniel won big at the Grammys for Kacey’s record. Did his people call your people, or how did that come to be?
BACHARACH: It’s been one of those accidents, a beautiful accident that happened and wasn’t meant to be. Nobody said, “Hey, you and Daniel should write something.” Daniel just happened to make a demo of a song for Melody Federer, this singer I was working with, and that’s how we met. And then he wins a Grammy and is feeling good and comes over to the house. And I don’t know what kind of person I’m (about to be) dealing with. But the more time spent, the more I really adore working with Daniel. It’s very special.
Burt, you had probably heard Kacey Musgraves’ album and were impressed by that.
BACHARACH: Oh yeah, very much so. A beautiful album. And then he was going to stay in L.A. maybe another two days in the glow of the victory of winning Grammy album of the year…
TASHIAN: Yeah, it had a little bit of that “Wizard of Oz” type of feeling, like I kind of got to go to the Grammys and then go see Burt. “Blue Umbrella” was the first thing I worked on with you. I just remember feeling so inspired by where you had taken that lyric.
BACHARACH: What I find with Daniel is a full-fledged service provider. When I wrote with Carole (Bayer Sager), she wrote lyrics and I wrote music. With Elvis (Costello), we kind of combined with each other. But what Daniel brings to the table is a triple threat. He’s brilliant musically. He’s very lyrically brilliant. And he is a really damn good singer. And there’s been no ego involved. You come up with a chord; I come up with a chord. If it doesn’t work, no offense. “I like my chord better than your chord”? There’s no such thing. So much of what we are working toward started with almost a whole lyric Daniel would send me: “What do you think of this?” And I’d work on that, but with his lyrics all made sense. All the rhyme patterns all made sense. They fell in the right places. A batch of lyrics he’ll send is so musicalized in itself. Not that they have a tune on them yet, but they’re leading the way musically to where I could go.
TASHIAN: That’s good. I mean, it’s a new experience for me to just write words. I’ll be honest. I usually am involved more in the way that they’re sort of placed against the music. But Burt’s just so good at that. Now, maybe I might sing a note that could work in the context of what we’ve got, but chances are, we don’t need it. I remember on the outro of one song, I was tempted to throw in a little ad-lib in there, and Burt was like, “You know, I don’t think we need any ad libs in here.” And to me, that’s economy. That’s an elegant way to look at composing, because you don’t need an ad-lib if your melody is really good.
BACHARACH: Economy is a very good thing. I mean, I always believed that less is better. And if your arrangement is right…
TASHIAN: Burt, do you think people think of you and economy in the same (breath)? People may think, well, it’s not economical, because there’s every instrument that there is, from French horn to ukulele to every member of the orchestra is playing. But I think there’s tremendous economy in what you do.
BACHARACH: Thank you. You know, it feels very natural to me. I don’t like to get overloaded by anybody. I always think, are we overloading? Are the strings coming in too soon? Should there be strings at all? I examine a lot of options.
TASHIAN: With this, I tried to find musicians that I thought would really play with a lot of sensitivity to this material and be open to your direction and my direction. One of the greatest comments came on one of the songs we were playing. It sounded pretty good, and then Burt got on the talk-back and said, “I think we need more romance from the rhythm section.” And I still hear those words in my head a lot when I’m working on things, because it’s such a great bit of direction. Burt, you have this way of putting the musicians in the mindset of the kind of mood that we’re trying to create, which is in my opinion is one of the most important things about record production, putting everybody in the right mindset.
BACHARACH: It helps if they all come together at the same time. That’s the key that I’ve always tried to strive for, whether it was going over to England with Cilla Black to do “Alfie,” at Abbey Road… I wanted to get 100 percent of everybody that was going to be in that studio. No overlays, no “We’ll bring the strings in later,” nothing like that. And try to get everybody reaching close to 100 percent. I must have tortured her. Because it really was a belief that I had, whether it was 37 takes on Dionne (Warwick)’s first record… The thing with Cilla Black, she kept looking at me like “You crazy man. What are you doing to me?” And it was all live, and I must have done close to 40 takes with her.
TASHIAN: Well, we didn’t do that with me. But I would have done it if you had wanted me to.
BACHARACH: We didn’t need to. And also, you know, you grow up (at a time) before you could paste things in so much and fly things in. You’d get a really good take, but there was a bad note that one guitar played, and you’d just say, “Well, we better fix that or do it again.” The thing with Cilla Black, I was going in not even knowing who was in the control room after flying all the way over to England. I keep saying, “I just need one more to get it right.” And this guy says to me, “You had it on take 4, Burt.” And it was George Martin. [Laughs.]
TASHIAN: YES. It’s usually the younger guy in the duo that’s trying to get the older guy to embrace technology. But in this case, it was Burt saying, “Hey, we can write songs on FaceTime. Let’s get these going.” And that kind of tipped me over the scales, that you wanted to do that. It’s a great bright spot in my day, working on things with you, and I always learn something. When we started the lockdown — six months ago? [Laughs.] How long has it been? — everyone was saying that the people who co-write were going to start co-writing on Zoom and FaceTime. And I was like, “I don’t know. I think I need to get a sense of where the person is at in the room in order to do what I do.” But Burt was all about it. And now the same musicians (from the EP) are gonna put their parts on in their own home studios, so we can continue to record that way.
Is it a new record of some sort you’re working toward now, with the EP already out?
BACHARACH: Who knows? It could be continuing this EP, or another project.
TASHIAN: A f—ing A-side, a B-side and a C-side. And maybe we’ll get to go to the seaside.
Daniel, when you first met with Burt, it must have been daunting — except, if your confidence level is ever going to be really up, it’s going to be the day after winning album of the year.
TASHIAN: That’s a thrilling moment that I shall never forget. And I wouldn’t have rather celebrated with anyone else. And you, Burt, had some really wise words for me, which were to keep going, not to sort of sit back and put your feet up and feel like you had accomplished something, because you’ve just got to see what’s next. And I thought that was really good advice for me at that point.
Burt, giving Daniel that advice about not resting on his laurels coming off the Grammys — that sounds very much like you. Because you don’t have to be working right now, and yet you are driven to. Do you ever have to push yourself to do it, still?
BACHARACH: If I was just sitting in my house alone… Working with Daniel. we have a purpose. I’m not writing with anybody else right at the moment. So I hope Daniel never leaves me. You know what I mean?
TASHIAN: [Laughs.] Oh no. Yeah. I’m not going anywhere. I think, too, the thing you realize in a pandemic time is you’ve got to come back to your fundamentals, the things that have been with you and have brought you comfort all along. And I think for Burt and I, and I hope it’s okay if I speak for you on this, music is a great source of comfort and solace during unprecedented times. And I’m really grateful to have my collaboration with you to work on. I feel compassion for people who may be in their homes and maybe they don’t have an artistic pursuit.
BACHARACH: I think we also can put some music out there that gets to somebody’s heart. I was having dinner with Howard Gordon last night. HE is one of the two show runners on “Homeland” and lives up the street, and he’s been a friend today since the days when he was running “24.” He’s one of the few people that have been in this house, he and his wife; everybody masks. And Howard was saying how much “The Bells of St. Augustine” affected him. A friend of his brother had died and they were broken up. So he sent him “Bells” and it made him feel good. So if you can make people feel good with what you put out there, that’s a hugely satisfying thing.
I think it’s also necessary for your health, that we stay kind of enclosed at a keyboard, a guitar, whatever it is, and whether you come up with anything or you don’t come with anything on that particular day or in that particular hour, you have touched home base. And that’s where you can get an enormous amount of peace. And not turn on the news. I recommend not watching before going to bed at night, because the dreams are too heavy-duty.
Well, thank you both of you for getting on with us.
BACHARACH: I’ve enjoyed talking with you. Stay safe.
TASHIAN: All right, Burt, I’ll give you a buzz in a little bit.
BACHARACH: Okay… [Not wanting to wait.] When can we work?