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T Bone Burnett Gets Drolly Historical Narrating a New Spotify Music Series, 'Drawn & Recorded'

T Bone Burnett attends the 17th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference
Anna Webber/Getty Images for Americana Music

T Bone Burnett attends the 17th Annual Americana Music Festival & Conference on Sept. 22, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.

The producer teamed with ex-Viacom exec Van Toffler and Spotify to premiere a series of 10 animated shorts about figures ranging from T.I. to Louis Armstrong.

T Bone Burnett has worn a lot of hats in the music industry — artist, producer, guitarist, film music supervisor, A&R executive, label chief. And foremost among them -- unofficially, maybe -- has been raconteur. So why not voiceover artist? His latest gig is as narrator of Drawn & Recorded: Modern Myths of Music, a series of animated shorts that premieres this week on Spotify.

Drawn & Recorded is a collection of 10 true-life music tales, literally drawing on stories associated with legends from Blind Willie Johnson to Brian Jones to Kurt Cobain to… well, even the great Scott Stapp of Creed. Other subjects of the hand-drawn, Burnett-narrated shorts include Louis Armstrong, ODB, Merle Haggard, T.I., the Myna Birds (the seminal Neil Young/Rick James band), Gregg Allman and Motorhead.

Although the initial run is just 10 of these mini-films, mostly in the four-to-five-minute range, “I want to do hundreds of them,” Burnett tells Billboard. “I look at this as the first album, except this album is storytelling with music and with really good drawing. I’d like to release it at some point as an album as well — season 1, I guess, is the television way of looking at it.”

The typical Spotify viewer might be drawn first to a Drawn short like the one that explains where Cobain got the title “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But Burnett says “Blind Willie Johnson in Space” is “the one people should see first. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever been a part of in my whole life. Blind Willie Johnson’s story takes in space and time and music and technology — it’s a huge story.”

The Blind Willie short was the one that animator and co-writer Drew Christie did on his own, first, and sent to Burnett, asking if he’d narrate. Burnett suggested making it the first of a series, and brought it up over dinner with his old friend Bill Flanagan, the veteran rock journalist-turned-MTV Networks producer. Flanagan came on as co-writer and producer and called his former boss, Van Toffler, former CEO of Viacom’s cable music wing, who early this year launched a new production company, Gunpowder & Sky.

“I love this whole team,” says Burnett. “Drew Christie is an amazing talent and amazing character, and also I’m getting to work with Bill Flanagan, who’s a great old friend, and Van Toffler, who’s a great new friend. This is, in my view, storytelling on an extremely high level. Drew and Bill are very, very strong storytellers with a great breadth of knowledge and experience and insight. So we’re doing something [that] on the surface it looks a lot easier than it is. A lot has gone into every one of these little short stories. Spotify has come in as a great partner, too, so I’m happy to be working with them.”

Burnett says they’ve already discussed about 40 stories from music lore they’d like to do, and he says they’re sticking with ones that have some historical veracity and shying away from tall tales and urban legends. “We’re really trying to get it right,” he says. “Although the Louis Armstrong one has been told so many times by the jazz musicians that we kind of averaged out the different versions of it, if you know what I mean.” He’s referring to the short about how Armstrong supposedly used an unsuspecting Vice President Richard Nixon as his drug mule at a customs stop. “I think that is a true story, but the actual hard facts of it would be impossible to know.”

Drawn & Recorded fits in with some of Burnett’s other historically minded multi-media projects, like the obviously longer-form documentary American Epic, due out next year. “It’s very important to me that we value our cultural heritage in this country, and I think this is an interesting way of doing it,” he says. “I love animation because you don’t have to obey the laws of gravity. Hopefully we’ll be able to round up enough people through telling different eras of story, to be able to put an archive together that has some actual historical value, even though it’s done in a light-hearted medium and in a light-hearted way.

"I’m not gonna try to go back in time or try to make America great again or anything like that," he continues. "But I do know that it’s important for us to remember our cultural heritage, and, as we move toward globalization, it’s important to remain part of a tribe.”

Toffler says that when Burnett and Flanagan approached him with the Blind Willie Johnson short that was effectively the series’ pilot, “I think I watched it about five times back to back. I think part of the charm for me was a pacing of the storytelling that is not the norm now in the digital age, particularly with short-form, and it was also a wonderfully hidden gem about a great musician. I was about to launch a new content studio called Gunpowder & Sky after running MTV and VH1 and CMT for about 150 years [actually just 28]. We went around and pitched doing this series of shorts to a bunch of different players, from HBO to iTunes to Spotify. And ultimately Spotify felt like the best home for it.”

It didn’t hurt that Spotify’s newly acquired global head of content partnerships is another former employee of Toffler’s: Tom Calderone, the ex-president of VH1.

“And look,” says Toffler, “I built a career on short-form, and I love music, and I wanted to stay around it. Had I stayed at MTV or VH1, this is the kind of stuff I would have loved to have done. It sort of feels like a great evolution of music video."

Toffler adds: "Dude, I just want to mess stuff up all again. I want to go on all platforms and tell stories, whether it be in one minute or 90 minutes -- particularly when young people are consuming stories in microfilm form, and watching two-minute soap operas every day on their cell phones. I love that creative folks like T Bone and Drew are open to telling stories in different ways.”

How does working with Spotify fit in with Burnett’s widely reported remarks from the Americana Festival recently about how free streaming is wrecking the music industry? “Spotify isn’t the enemy, in my view,” he says. “I believe the future is streaming. Look, I’ve been saying for many years that the Internet is a broadcast medium, and it needs to be treated and regulated like a broadcast medium. Streaming is not going away. I believe that eventually there’ll be a statutory rate reached across all broadband, as it is across all broadcasting. I think the future is a combination of streaming, or 21st century broadcasting, and vinyl, which is still the most durable, best-sounding physical medium we have. I’m investing in vinyl and streaming.”

He’s in the early stages of work on a solo album he expects to have out in late 2017 or early 2018, followed by a tour. And he’s spent a lot of time thinking about the mixture of deluxe vinyl and windowed streaming he might use to release it. But the biggest news is any album from Burnett at all. “I’m trying to set my jaw to be an artist again, and I’ve been writing so much, and it’s so rewarding,” he says. “And I want to go play. So I keep trying to break through that resistance that I have to doing that, to getting out and to putting myself out there like that.”

And his voiceover career? “I’ll take it, man,” he laughs. “I like that work. If you’ve got a good story to tell, I’m there.”


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