One of the most distinctive and prolific guitarists of his generation, Bill Frisell doesn’t seem to play as much as he seems to exist as an effortless gateway — whether he’s delving into atonal skronk, unspooling beautifully melodic instrumental passages, or sitting in with a diverse array of other artists, Frisell gives the appearance of an artist completely in tune with his muse. That mastery is apparent on Frisell’s latest outing, Big Sur, which takes a page from earlier efforts like Good Dog, Happy Man, casting his unmistakable tone in a gently beguiling setting whose bucolic simplicity belies his usual compositional wit.
Frisell spoke to Popdose on the eve of Big Sur‘s June 18 release, taking a few minutes between tour dates to talk over the phone while enjoying a hike outside his Washington home. Opening up about everything from the inspiration and process behind the new LP to his own artistic struggles and current outlook, he proved as eloquent and honest with his words as he is with his music.
So where are you today — at home, or on the road?
I just got home from a two-month stretch of being away, so it’s good to be back. I’m on my cell phone, because I was just determined to go for a walk. It’s pouring rain, but I’m going anyway. I just had to go — that’s one of the first things I do when I come home, to get myself back.
A lot of artists are having a harder time making the tour economics work these days, but you seem to have found a way to keep thriving on the road.
I’ve been lucky with that. I mean, I’m not rolling in dough, but the fact that I’m able to do it is incredible. It used to be that Europe was the only place I could play, and then eventually I got to play in the States, but it’s definitely a challenge. The airplane thing is just…well, the cost of it. I want to play, and I’m lucky to be able to do it all the time, but the way my life has unfolded, it’s like the only way I can make it work is to get on an airplane every other day, and the airlines just keep making it more and more difficult. There’s always some stress about whether you can get your guitar on and all that stuff.
But just the fact that I can keep doing it seems somewhat miraculous. I don’t have a huge audience, and I don’t have a huge entourage that goes with me. I carry my one guitar on the plane. It isn’t like some luxurious situation. I’m thankful for it, and I can’t imagine what I’d be doing if I wasn’t playing — that’s where everything makes sense. That’s my language. And I’ve been really lucky the whole way, right from my parents being supportive of the idea. Really, at every crucial moment where there was some doubt and I could have bailed out, there was someone who stepped in and told me to keep going — whether it was my wife, my daughter, or all the people around me. Even my management is made up of people I’ve been friends with for 30 years or so. I’ve just been incredibly lucky.
You have such a signature sound, and you’ve been a part of so many wonderful records, that it’s inspiring to hear you talk so openly about doubt, and see how fate could have conspired to send you in another direction.
Oh, man, no. It’s so fragile, the whole thing. I’m the only one who really knows how successful I am when I’m in the midst of playing or writing, and there are definitely a lot of ups and downs. Now there have been so many that I know I’ll probably come out on the other side, but it’s still unbelievably intense — it’s hard to describe the feeling. With music, you can never finish it, and whatever’s out in front of you is as large as it was when you started playing. If you let that get to you…you have to just be thankful for the opportunity to get into it every day, and not be overwhelmed that you’ll never be able to finish it. Every record I’ve made, I wanted it to be the best thing; I tried, tried, as hard as I could. I try to think, “Well, I’ll probably be able to make another one, so I’ll try to get it right next time.”
[Laughter] I think you’re doing all right so far.
Well, I don’t want to sound like I think I’m some kind of failure or something.
No, I know what you mean. In fact, I was just reading an older interview where you talked about something I discuss with a lot of artists, which is the idea that your style is defined by your limitations.
That’s definitely part of it.
But the flip side is that modern recording technology has removed a lot of the limitations that used to be sort of inherent in the creative process, and I wonder how younger artists are supposed to truly define their sound when there’s nothing forcing them to find it.
It’s blowing my mind now, going in the studio. The things you can do now, where just a few years ago you couldn’t — or things that used to take hours. Cutting tape and all that kind of stuff. I’m thankful to have had that experience, or just recording something live. I have mixed feelings about all this — or maybe not so mixed feelings. [Laughs] I’m still kind of intimidated by the computers, myself.
For writing, I still use a pencil and paper. I struggle with that — I know I need to get it together and learn to use other methods, but I feel so much more comfortable to sit down with paper and my guitar. I know it would make things easier in some ways to do it differently, but I look at it like this: A friend of mine sent me some of Beethoven’s sheet music, and it was incredible, all the marks all over the paper. All that energy. There’s something cool about that.
On the subject of technology in recording, it’s always been interesting to me that you managed to avoid being lured into that trap while you were coming up during the ’80s. Your albums always had a much more natural sound than a lot of other things that were going on in mainstream jazz at the time.
Well, for awhile I was using one of those Roland guitar synthesizers, and drum machines sometimes…
But you never made a fusion record.
Not really, no. But maybe that’s where those limitations come in. [Laughter] Maybe I just wasn’t good enough. I mean, maybe it’s my age. I graduated high school in 1969, when In a Silent Way came out, and the next year the Weather Report came out. If that’s fusion, I definitely came out of that — although I don’t know what fusion is anymore. But just in the years when I was in junior high school and high school, the music went from Miles Davis with Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock and Coltrane’s quartet into…well, you know. Things were changing every few months; it was like things were breaking apart, and I feel so lucky that I got to have a sense of moving ahead that way. It was like every record that came out, there wasn’t any question of it being a recreation or a rehashing of anything else, it was like everything was just moving ahead. I took it for granted at the time, but I’m glad I got a good feel for what it is we’re trying to accomplish.
One hallmark of that period was the rise of predominantly easily accessible melodies in jazz, and a lot of your work has been heavily melodic. How deliberate is that?
Maybe again, it’s that thing about the limitations, because I — I’m not putting myself in the same category as Sonny Rollins, or Miles Davis, or Thelonious Monk, but those people, for me, were the ones that are still at the pinnacle of whatever it is — improvised music. And they know the melodies, you know? They’re not just waiting for it to finish so they can go off and do some stuff. It’s in their blood, and it completely informs whatever they play. When you listen to Monk play any tune, whether it’s his or someone else’s, the melody is what shapes the architecture of what he’s playing, and I always think about that. I don’t want to ever lose touch with it.
I don’t always know the words to the songs I cover, but they can really affect the way you think about it. Or sometimes, in my head I’m hearing the sound of a singer singing the song — like if I do “A Change Is Gonna Come,” I’m hearing Sam Cooke’s voice in my head. That, to me, has a lot to do with it — it’s like this struggle with the imaginary voice in your head. Trying to get close to that, and again, coming up against my limitations. What comes out is just my own sort of shadow of what I hear.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about melody like this, because it’s easy to hear that approach in something like your version of Madonna’s “Live to Tell,” where you aren’t deconstructing it so much as you’re getting inside it.
Yeah, yeah. You go in there and you just kind of…mess around. [Laughter] I don’t know. All those things, I’m hearing something that’s a little beyond my grasp, you know? The sound of a person’s voice, or I’m thinking, “Wow, this sounds like the New York Philharmonic playing a major chord.” You never quite get there.
That’s the beauty of the creative process, I guess. And I think one of the really cool things about your latter-day records in particular is the way you seem to be trying to pull at the connective tissue between elements or genres of music that people like to think of as discrete.
Yeah, that’s always bothered me — that people fragment music that way. It’s all kind of artificial. Again, if I talk about the same people — Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and Monk — they would refer to everything that was around them as music. It was in the air. I grew up with surf music and the Beatles and I found that stuff later, so it only makes sense that I use where all that’s coming from. The older I get, the more I look more closely at that. For example, you listen to a Beatles record, and you can tell they were listening to Chuck Berry, right? You follow the thread, and if you follow it long enough, everything just hooks up.
It’s all happening in my head at the same time. It isn’t like a record store, where they have everything separated, or online, where a computer tells you that if you like this artist you’ll like a different one. That’s another thing — that’s so scary to me. It’s great in some ways that you can hear whatever you want, whenever you want. But to just let a program do everything for you and kind of show you where to go…I don’t know. As I’m talking, I can think of a positive for every negative I’m bringing up with that. It isn’t like I’m worried that music is going to die. Someone’s always going to be doing something heavy that we’ll eventually find out about.
Do you remember the last piece of music you heard that took your breath away?
It’s weird, because very recently, I went to this center in Vermont — it’s a place for writers. This is the third time I’ve gone there. My wife is a painter, so she was the first one to go, but it’s just a place I can write and be by myself. There are other people there, but I have a painting studio — it’s just a big white room, and I sit there with my notebook and write whatever comes into my head. It’s an amazing thing. I spent a month there, and it’s way up north in Vermont, in this extraordinarily beautiful place, and I didn’t listen to anything at all. I wanted to be in my own space. One day, I had to rent a car and drive into Burlington and back, and it was incredible, the instinct I had to turn on the radio — but I kept resisting it. It was amazing to just stay in that space, and realize the barrage we’re always under.
Getting into the airport later and hearing CNN blasting and everything, it was just like “What are we doing to ourselves?” If you stay away from that stuff for a minute, you realize how you’re being bombarded with it. It was kind of cool to not listen to anything. I’m sort of avoiding your question. [Laughter]
That story leads me into something I wanted to talk about regarding the new album, which is how location can influence creation. Your career is illustrative of that principle, in a way — from the more avant garde recordings you worked on in Europe, to the heavier things you worked on in New York, to the more pastoral sounds you started to explore when you ventured into the South.
I definitely was incredibly inspired by Big Sur, but in the end, I’m not sure how much of it was really the place, or just what the place allowed me to do. It’s hard for me to know. It felt like something that was already in me anyway. Some fully formed thing, and the location just allowed it to come out.
I still went through all the ups and downs I mentioned earlier. I had incredible moments of “Oh my God, I’ve totally screwed this up” — really intense doubt. But in the end, it is what it is, and I’m really happy with it. I always have that feeling like it’s never all the way there, no matter how close I get.
The last thing I want to talk about is your practice routine. Now that you’re off the road for a little bit, what’s your approach while you’re home?
Well, I have to go back out in two days, so while I’m home, there’s a lot of things like trying to get my laundry done. [Laughs] But then I’m going out to play with Charles Lloyd, which is so incredible for me, because that was one of the first concerts I went to back in high school. I’ve never played with him before, and I just got this big pile of music from him, so in the next couple of days, I’m going to be working on that.
That thing in Vermont, that’s rare…where I can go every day and get some kind of consistency. I guess what I do more is not so much practicing, it’s more trying to write, and the playing just kind of happens. I have my guitar all the time, but it isn’t practicing the same way it was 30 or 40 years ago. I still do it, and I know I need to, but it’s more about getting the music to come out with my fingers. You know?