T Bone Burnett has had one of the most storied careers of any living American music-maker: After touring with Bob Dylan's legendary Rolling Thunder Review in 1975/76, Burnett made a name for himself as a genius in the studio, going from producing platinum hit records like the Counting Crows' "August and Everything After" and Gillian Welch's "Revival" to putting together the Academy Award-winning soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and coaching Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon through singing for the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line." Last week, Burnett released the first studio album under his name in 14 years, "The True False Identity." We spoke to Burnett by phone about the new album and what's on the horizon.
It's been 14 years since the last album -- what was the impetus behind the decision to start recording your own stuff again? And how do you feel about heading out on the road to tour?
Everything just converged. In 1992, I made a record called "Criminal Under My Own Hat" -- that was the last record I made, and I decided to kick back after that. It wasn't an unhappy or an uncomfortable thing, I just didn't see where to go, so I decided not to just walk off into the darkness. But I started working in other media: I started working in the theater with Sam Shepard, writing music for his plays, and I started writing in characters' voices rather than in a singer-songwriter type voice.
That experimentation continued when I got asked to do some films. The Coen brothers asked me to work on "The Big Lebowski" with them, and then we've done a couple other films -- we did "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "The Ladykillers" after that. And so I've just gotten into a whole different way of thinking about music and thinking about how to perform songs, and the freedoms and the possibilities of a live performance. In that process, I wrote a bunch of other songs that were just strays, and then it started taking shape, and then finally it just was there, and I decided to just do it.
Now I have a chance to go out and play music with the best musicians I've met in 40 years of doing this, and it's irresistible. There's nothing in the world more fun than playing music, for me at least.
Do you think now is a particularly interesting time to be making live music? People like to look at the places where music and politics overlap these days -- would you say the record is overtly political, or is that beside the point?
We're coming out of a period of time in this country that has been way, way, way too uptight. You can look back over the history of art and you can see periods of time when people wanted to take a good hard look at things and periods of time when people didn't want to take a good hard look at things, where people wanted everything idealized, and we've come through such a period right now.
The thing I do feel is an explosion of music and creativity and freedom coming because we've all been you know, there was a revolution in this country that started after the Second World War and went for about 30 years, and as an eyewitness I have to say that the world is much better off now than it was before the revolution. At the end of that revolution, which ended in the mid-'70s, a counter-revolution began, which wanted to undo all of the work of the revolution and turn the clock back to before all of that happened. That counter-revolution has really held sway for the most of the last 30 years or so in the country, and it has now run out of steam. A new member of that counter-revolution gets taken to jail or indicted or involved in some scandal every day, and this is always the thing that happens with fundamental thinkers. One of the reasons I'm making this record now is that I sense this coming freedom, so I want to be a part of that.
I don't even think of it as political, because it's more social. The issues are more about who we are as a people and who we are as a culture. I'm not a pundit and I don't follow any politicians -- literally and figuratively. I'm not interested. I'd much rather spend time finding out what Oscar Wilde thinks than what any politician thinks.
Speaking of that coming freedom, are there any younger artists out there you're particularly excited about?
Yeah, there's a woman named Jessica Hoop who's really interesting. She's one who hasn't really surfaced yet, but she's an incredible young recording artist. I love that band the White Stripes, I love Jack White, he's an incredible young musician. And the Arctic Monkeys, that great little punky English band -- a throwback to the Jam or something like that. You know, they've just learned to play their instruments, but they play them with so much raw ... enthusiasm -- is that the right word? So much joy. It's like, 'Wow, if I do this, this is what happens.' Which is the kind of thing we're going for [on the album], but coming at it from the other end.
-- Scott Lamb