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Capitol Records’ VP of A&R T Bone Burnett on Elton John’s ‘Beautiful’ New Record, Taylor Swift vs. Apple and Making Music for ‘True Detective’

Master producer-supervisor T Bone Burnett talks about "True Detective'"s rocky season, Taylor Swift vs. Apple and why he's happy not to be working with his wife.

Joseph Henry “T Bone” Burnett doesn’t actually have a desk in his office at the Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood, but a symbolic résumé of his long career can be gleaned from the artwork on the walls. Framed Alpha Band posters from the late ’70s represent his (mostly abandoned) career as a recording artist. A painting by John Mellencamp is a tip-off to his subsequent legacy as one of the most celebrated producers of the era, with career-redefining albums by Elvis Costello, Elton John and Robert Plant & Alison Krauss among the dozens he has helmed. Photographs by director Wim Wenders point to yet a third career, as a film composer and music supervisor especially known for Joel and Ethan Coen films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis, along with the TV series Nashville (executive-produced by his wife, Callie Khouri) and True Detective. His Oscar and 11 Grammys? At home in a closet.

As ever, Burnett, 67, has no shortage of high-­profile projects in the can, including the upcoming PBS documentary American Epic, a history of regional recording in the ’20s and ’30s, produced in collaboration with Jack White and Robert Redford. He’s taking on more roles still, like leading his own Capitol Label Group imprint, Electromagnetic (first signing: Los Angeles band Mini Mansions), as well as developing multi­media ideas for the other Capitol labels. But there’s little chance of these executive functions turning Burnett into “a suit” — even if he was one of the first guys in rock’s post-counterculture era to start donning formal wear full time.

T Bone Burnett
A painting by John Melloncamp serves as a visual focal point for T Bone Burnett's 12th-floor office in the Capitol Records Tower. Christopher Patey

How has your focus shifted since you teamed up with Capitol?

One new thing is publishing — I made a deal with Spirit Music to publish young songwriters and help place things for people in film and TV. And [Capitol chairman/CEO] Steve Barnett and I are ­working closely — he’s as good as the very best people I’ve worked with in the record business. It reminds me a lot of working with [legendary label heads] Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin in the ’80s at Warner Bros. I’m spending a lot of time looking at ­developing shows and films based around music, working on vehicles for any of the artists there.

T Bone Burnett Partners With Spirit Music Group to Develop New Artists

For the last 20 years or so, you’ve kind of been the king of movie music supervisors, although you’ve obviously been very selective about what you’ve done.

I started that really back in the 1980s, when it was clear that with CDs, the record companies had essentially released masters of the product they were selling. With vinyl records you had a twentieth century/almost-nineteenth century machine to press it all up, but with CDs anyone could reproduce them at quality infinitely. So it was clear they had opened up Pandora’s box. So to speak! No plug intended, you know. [Laughs] So I started getting into visual media and more or less got out of the record business at that point, because it was clear that there were rough seas ahead. Now I’m very interested in the record business, because I feel we’ve come out of it before the other businesses have. I think there are several forward-thinking people now at record companies interested in investing in artists in the twenty-first century.

I recognize the sharing economy as an important factor of modern life, and it could possibly be what we’re left with in the wake of the end of Darwinian capitalism. But for the meantime, we’re certainly at the end of an age where art led our civilization for centuries. And the idea of investing in the arts as the way forward is still important. And so I’ve been spending a lot of time looking for ways to build platforms for young artists to be seen and heard. God, that’s a seriously long answer, huh?

In 2013, you had a quote about Silicon ­Valley’s effect on the music business: “We should go up there with pitchforks and ­torches.” Are there any recent developments you have found encouraging?

I think so. In the first quarter of this year, the record industry was up 14 perent. And that’s from streaming. And streaming is the future. You know, there was a time in 1986 or ‘87, about when The Beatles’ CDs came out, that I said from the stage of McCabe’s, “In the future we won’t have albums and cassettes and we won’t even have CDs. We’ll just have devices that pull down music from the satellite.” And it’s been clear that this has been coming since then, and it’s finally arrived. The promise of that, in the past, when we first started talking about what’s now called streaming, was that as soon as a stream happened, the money could be divided among the creators, instantly. That was a very utopian ideal. That part of automation hasn’t been coded yet.

You know, starting with the Gutenberg press, until the world wide web, we lived in a copy society — a society that made mechanical reproductions that could be produced and sold infinitely at high quality. So we’re moving from that to a system where there’s one copy that everyone has access to. And in that system, every time that copy is accessed, it is a transaction. We need a new field of what I would call transaction rights, so when a (stream) takes place, a small payment goes to the actual creators, rather than into a black box and divided according to what keeps another entity running. If we do that, the democratizing process that’s been much publicized about the Internet can actually begin to take place. Because what’s actually happened through the world wide web is, in the last system, there was an 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the money was made by 20 percent of the acts. Now it’s the 99/1 rule: Ninety-nine percent of the money is made by one percent of the acts. So the process of implementing the Internet has led to the opposite of democratization. So that’s something that I’m looking at, regarding Silicon Valley, and I think it’s something that reasonable men can all agree on.

I think streaming is the right model for the future — it obviously is. A lot of habits are changing fast. HBO is going to streaming. Netflix has been probably the most incredible story of the last 10 years. But I agree with Taylor Swift: A laborer is worthy of his wages. I do think it was interesting to watch a 25-year-old woman face down Apple. That was encouraging. Because that’s where the power lies: in the artists. There was a very well-orchestrated campaign against Metallica when Lars (Ulrich) came out and said “Somebody’s gonna be making a lot of money from this, but it’s not gonna be the musicians.” I think it’s clear now that the audience is saying, “Yeah, that’s right: musicians should be paid.” For a long time we would hear: “The market has spoken.” And I would respond, “Yes, and it will speak again.” And now it is, and in an interesting way… The artists will build back up a culture out of the ashes of the Internet. That’s a guarantee. It won’t be the technologists.

The whole way of looking at it, is being replaced with a new set of metrics. We’ll see how it shakes out. The good people are good, and people who aren’t as good just aren’t as good. I still like that old… I only got a taste of the time when everybody used to play piano around the house all the time. My mom did a little bit when I was a kid and my aunt did quite a bit when I was with her. And they were really good; they could entertain. That came from a time when people entertained themselves, before the media, before the age of mechanical reproduction. Now it could be that it’ll all turn into people making YouTube videos and that’s all anybody watches because we’re drowned in it, and then we’re an idiocracy. Then Mike Judge becomes the prophet of truth and doom. It could go that way. But I like the idea of there being really inspiring people that lead the séance.

T Bone Burnett
Books on T Bone Burnett's coffee table in his Capitol Records office in Hollywood. Christopher Patey

As a producer, you had an image as the guy who worked with heritage acts. Lately you’ve done Striking Matches, Mini ­Mansions, Secret Sisters and Rhiannon Giddens, all of whom are under 40. Is that intentional?

Well, you want to do the right thing by people, and it’s tough to put out a record these days for the heritage artists, as you say. If I can get a handle on it, that’s rewarding to collaborate with a veteran when we can make something together that’s vibrant and vital. But you have to create something powerful to cause somebody to buy this new record rather than one of the 30 other records [by the artist] they have, and especially in this singles environment we have at the moment.. Short of a real clear vision, it can be disappointing for the person. And it’s disappointing for me, certainly. I feel like there are records dying over the counter that are selling 10 percent of what they would have sold in the good old days. So I don’t want to set somebody up for disappointment and waste a lot of time and money if it’s not going to turn into something really wonderful for them. Especially somebody who’s been doing it a long time — a lifer.

As for the kids, it wasn’t a conscious decision. Some of the other projects I was doing, like Inside Llewyn Davis, brought a lot of younger people in and led to other things. I’d been following the Punch Brothers for years. And Striking Matches, those kids are flat-out good. They inspired me with their musicianship and their tone, and they just absolutely go get after it. And if you can help frame something for a young act, you can set them up for long runs. I’ve done that several times in the past, where I was around at the beginning of an act and helped frame them, like Los Lobos or the BoDeans or Counting Crows or Gillian Welch.

The other thing is, if you’re going to be in the record business or even the entertainment business…  When I was a kid, there weren’t a lot of 70-year-old people selling music. Maybe Jimmy Durante might have sold a couple of records one time or something. [Laughs] And also… the older people aren’t even interested in making records that often. It’s a lot of work and focus. Jerry Lee Lewis and I were talking about doing a record, and I came up with this crazy-great playlist for him. Like “Tower of Song” by Leonard Cohen: Read that lyric and think of Jerry Lee singing it, and you can see he would absolutely murder it. But, you know, he’s just too old to learn it. It’s too many words! There’s a great old story that’s hung around Capitol. When Sinatra was recording there, one time they had arranged “If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot for the session, and Sinatra turned over the page and looked at it and said “Too many words” and dropped the page to the side. And they went to the next song.

Are you doing a follow-up to The Diving Board, the record you produced for Elton John?

We just finished a new Elton record that’s ­beautiful. It’s a very upbeat rock’n’roll record. That last album was a particular group of very personal material; this is broadcasting. That one was a parlor record; this is a festival.

T Bone Burnett
Two of T Bone Burnett's toys in his Capitol Records office in Hollywood: a Mellotron and a Swarmatron. Christopher Patey

Were you happy with the New Basement Tapes project, where Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James and others wrote and ­recorded new music for unreleased Bob Dylan lyrics from 1967?

Well, I’m thrilled with the way the recording sessions came out. That project was one of the most extraordinary events of my life, and I feel like it’s still a work in progress. We got five people that didn’t know each other together for 10 days and wrote and recorded 45 new songs. It was epic, and I don’t think that really came across yet. There’s a film we’re editing now that I think may end up being the definitive version of that whole event, a concert film we shot at the Montalban, where everybody backed each other up with a vengeance. It was a one-time, one-night-only show, and Marcus Heiny, who has done some stuff with us at Capitol before and has done a lot of stuff with Mumford and Sons, came and filmed it. It was guerrilla filmmaking, to be sure. I mean, we decided to do it that morning, practically. That show was really the fruit of the whole experience. By the way, there are another 20-some-odd songs that we haven’t released yet, and we might put out another album of that stuff next year. I look forward to being a steward of all of that material over the next several years.

Let’s talk about True Detective. People ­obsessed over the fact that you’re using ­different verses from the Leonard Cohen theme song for each episode and what that might mean.

There are so many reasons. One is, to me, “Never Mind” is the song of the century so far, coming from one of the wisest men in our culture. Probably most of the people who watch True Detective would never have heard that song, so I look at it as an extraordinary gift to the audience. It feels very much like Los Angeles right now: beautiful, dark, brooding, dangerous, covert. The reason the lyrics change is just because there are a lot of important lyrics in the song that all apply, and we’re doing our best to play the whole song for people.

There’s another piece that we used in the (sixth) episode: the second movement of Harmonielehre, the [1985] John Adams symphony, one of the most important works of 20th century minimalism. It crazily applied to this place and this world. I can tell you, just as a hint, if you read about what the second movement of Harmonielehre is about, you’ll see… Everything’s woven together very tightly. There’s been a lot of thought put into every one of these things.

True Detective is a show in which, however your credit reads, you’re essentially handling two different functions: composer and music supervisor. Is that more rewarding than just doing one or the other?

Yeah, that’s the best. I’m actually doing three roles, because I’m composing score, and then composing songs, and then choosing music for different scenes as source music. So you can break it down into three roles if you want to. Watching over the music for the show [in its entirety] is the most rewarding because you can move the tone around and it’s just the most complete experience. But it’s also incredibly great working with a great composer (while acting as music supervisor). Gabrielle Yared is a fantastic composer. Danny Elfman taught me so much. He’s got a beautiful way of looking at putting image and music together.

You’re aware of the backlash against the show’s second season?

That started last year, by the way. Everybody knew that was coming, the big backlash. This is a very difficult show this year. I notice people are having a hard time understanding… I’ve heard criticisms of the show, and almost all of them are “This is all clichés, and I can’t understand anything that’s going on.” [Laughs] Which is a beautiful dichotomy. I do think this is an ideal show to watch all at once. And I think people will be rewarded when they get to the end. Certainly what Nick’s doing is a 21st century form of literature at this point. Here’s the down side of the world wide web: People just say the same thing and rewrite the same joke over and over. We don’t want artists who the hive mind tells them what to do. The audience wants to be surprised and inspired. But there is an aspect of modern life where some members of the audience think that, even when it comes to dramatic presentations, there’s a joystick they’ve got their hand on.

T Bone Burnett
An album by Cajun-pop singer Johnnie Allen receives prime placement in Burnett's Vinyl pile. Christopher Patey

Your wife is still in charge of Nashville. You had some harsh words for ABC after you stepped down as music supervisor on the series. Have you paid attention to what your successor, Buddy Miller, has done?

Not at all. [Laughs.] But Callie seems very happy with how he has kept things going. There’s a volume of work with that show that, first of all… When Callie’s home, we’re happy to not talk about work. I work from an immersive place: I get so immersed in what I’m doing that I can’t take phone calls and I just live in that sphere that we create, sealed off from the world. While I was doing the show, I was sealed off for that. And now…


You’re happy to not have to think about it?

Yeah, really happy. You know, there’s an old saying that no marriages survive television. Well, ours has survived television! And will.

You had some harsh words for the network when you left Nashville, and yet you’ve continued with TV. Is the difference just in avoiding dealing directly with networks?

These things will take over your whole life if you let ‘em. They do 22 shows a year (with Nashville). There’s not enough time to do 22 shows in a year. There’s just not that much time. It’s miraculous it even gets done at all. And after you’ve worked weeks and months to get to a certain point, there is an element of corporate America that can be very capricious. But television’s (becoming) kind of a nice thing now that it’s been surrounded by the Internet. That’s all changing, too.

Here’s the thing I’ve decided. I’m in a place in my life that I have turned over a new leaf. I’m determined now to be affable at all times. And I spent my whole life as a freelance poet keeping my head above water in a corporate world. And I had to fight and I had to be tough, and it’s been an incredible ride. But at this point, I don’t want to fight anymore. So here’s what I want to do now: I want to be kind. I know this is a weird thing to say in an interview. So I’m only going to do things that I can do under my own power. And if I’m doing it under my own power, then I’ll take whatever comes, for better or worse.

This article first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of Billboard.