T Bone Burnett Inspires and Challenges Berklee Students at Campus Visit

Iconic producer, musician, songwriter, and film music guru T Bone Burnett shares knowledge with Berklee students and calls for artists to take collective action.

December 3, 2015

Berklee’s Shames Family Scoring Stage was engulfed in a palpable creative energy as students, faculty, and staff tried to keep their collective cool upon the arrival of T Bone Burnett for a master class on Tuesday, December 1, 2015. Peter Gordon, director of the Berklee Center in Los Angeles, noted that, for members of the Berklee community, Burnett needed no introduction.

Indeed, students already knew Burnett as one of America’s foremost music producers, given his work with everyone from bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley and blues hero B.B. King to more recent forays with contemporary roots music mainstays like Diana Krall and Steve Earle, to name just a few. Those in the Shames studio already knew of Burnett’s critically acclaimed body of work as an artist who got his start playing guitar with Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour.

They knew of his unique songwriting and cowriting with luminaries such as Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon, Los Lobos, and Roy Orbison. And they knew of him as the force behind music in films such as The Big Lebowski, Walk the Line, The Hunger Games, and 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou?—the latter igniting a renewed interest in American roots music that has since swept into popular music and consciousness in myriad ways.

Burnett engaged deeply in questions from students and moderators Bonnie Hayes, chair of Berklee’s Songwriting Department, and Rob Jaczko, chair of the Music Production and Engineering Department, over the course of a riveting two-hour session which focused largely on Burnett’s recent work with the New Basement Tapes, a supergroup consisting of Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), and Marcus Mumford (Mumford and Sons).

Watch a music video for "Kansas City" from the New Basement Tapes:

The group, hand-picked by Burnett, crafted music for long-forgotten and recently rediscovered Bob Dylan lyrics that Dylan was convinced to send to Burnett via a large box full of handwritten lyric sheets (Dylan’s initial idea, Burnett said, was to throw the pages away). As with the original Basement Tapes, the recordings, released last year as Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, took place in the basement of Capitol Records.

Here are some abridged excerpts from Burnett’s remarks:

On the New Basement Tapes:

“Marcus, Rhiannon, Elvis, and I had just done a show together in New York for [the Coen brothers' film] Inside Llewyn Davis, and Jim James and I had done some stuff together. Every person in the band could have had their own band. When you get five frontmen together, it’s just a different kind of collaboration...The more secure you are in what you do, the more willing you are to blend ideas and collaborate.”

On artistry:

“Risk is what separates the artist from the artisan. Artists go out into the dark to find out what those noises in the woods at night are, even if all signs tell them, ‘Don’t do it; you’ll be sorry.’ Then they come back and report what they heard…Generosity is the hallmark of an artist.”

On his approach to music:

“I view all instruments as drums and all music-making as tribal. A violin is just a drum with some strings attached, but it’s still a resonating chamber you attack with a bow or your fingers. A flute is a drum with holes in it that you blow through to make different pitches with that resonating chamber you attack with your breath. A band is, ‘Okay, we’re a tribe now. We’re going to be in this village right now and we’re going to tell people in the next village what’s happening over here.’ That’s all it is, really.”

On the importance of a music community like Berklee:

“Schools like this are important because people come together and you meet people that you’ll spend the rest of your lives with here, so you have that chance to have something like they had in Paris in the ‘20s, or New York in the ‘40s.”

On his preference for live instruments and analog tape:

“At breakfast this morning, they had some Muzak on, and I was listening to a digital drum track. You missed everything about the drums except whatever digital distortion was on them, and I was thinking, ‘This is not a good sound to send people off on a date with.’ [I'm] an analog shop, but digital is a fantastic tool for things like scoring and editing.”

On the producer’s role:

“Producing something is a real thing, but support and encouragement is such a big part of it. If you hear what an artist is saying, and they know you hear what they’re saying, and you can help them tell that story, it’s real clear.”

On artists’ rights and the future of music:

“An artist should be able to say what medium he puts his work on and what he charges for it. It’s an important transitional time. I think artists need to take collective action now, and that’s a conversation that we have to have in order to stand up for ourselves and to protect those who are coming up after us. When we were kids in the ‘80s first talking about this stuff, we said, ‘Won’t it be cool in the future when you’ll just have a device and you’ll be able to pull music down from the satellite? And there will be metadata in the file up there and as soon as anybody accesses the file, the royalties will be immediately spread out to the rights-holders.’ And we’ve gotten almost all of that done. So there’s work to be done and artists have to stand up for the value of art. At the end of the day, music is probably the most valuable thing we make in this country.”

Burnett’s remarks resonated with many of those in attendance, including Berklee songwriting student Miranda Inzunza, who is in her last semester at Berklee and working on a forthcoming EP.

“I’ll definitely experiment more with just letting things come out naturally,” Inzunza said. “All of the advice that he gave was pretty powerful.”