Grammy-winning songwriter Bruce Hornsby grew up in a small southern town. In fact, he’s been there most of his whole life, and still calls the place – Williamsburg, VA – home. In the 70s and 80s,according to the artist, the region had a certain pervasive “narrow-minded” attitude. So, like any good songwriter, he wrote a song about it. That song was his first hit, “The Way It Is.”
Yet this was 1985, when its distinctive, piano-based sound didn’t seem to fit in the with popular music of the time, which included power-pop hits by Van Halen, Janet Jackson, Bon Jovi and Madonna. So the record companies didn’t get it at first, and it was rejected almost everywhere. Everywhere except RCA, that is, who signed Bruce Hornsby & The Range that year. “The Way It Is” was the first single and went to the top of the charts. It’s still the biggest hit he’s ever had.
Since then, though he had other hits such as “Mandolin Rain,” Hornsby has persisted in pushing boundaries – both sonic and social. That tendency continues to today with the release of his latest LP, Non-Secure Connection.
“Everybody thought ‘The Way It Is’ was a B-side,” Hornsby says. “But a guy from BBC Radio 1 in London heard the song, played it and it went around the world. That was that. It was a B-side no longer.”
Hornsby’s well-traveled track, which talks about racism and American social inequalities, would later famously be sampled by the late great rapper, Tupac Shakur, for his 1998 hit, “Changes.” And while that may be the brightest feather in Hornsby’s cap, it certainly has a lot of competition. The acclaimed piano player and songwriter has also worked with a number of other standout artists, including Oscar-winning film director, Spike Lee, on movies like Kobe Doin’ Work and a number of others. In fact, working with Spike helped spark a new creative idea for Hornsby – one that’s added new chapters to his long career tome.
Collaborating with Lee, Hornsby wrote hundreds of song cues, those bits of music for certain emotional moments in a film, or moments of discovery and the like. But as he worked on these cues, he discovered that he could flesh them out and turn them into longer, fuller songs. The virtuoso began doing so a few years ago, which led to his 2019 album, Absolute Zero, his first since 1998’s Sprit Trail. But Hornsby says he had such an enjoyable time making the 2019 LP that he wanted to undertake another. Enter: 2020’s Non-Secure Connection. The record reads almost like the work of a musical scientist not afraid to experiment.
“I’m often trying to make a sound I’ve never heard before, which often leads me to adventurous harmonic territory,” Hornsby says. “Most of the music in the pop world is standard, folky guitar chords. In fact, most of my corpus over the years is triadic like that. But in my later years, as I’ve gotten older and crankier, I tend to be more interested in finding a place for chromaticism in pop songs.”
Chromaticism has to do with stepping outside of a key of a song; its name refers to mixing up many colors, as opposed to one. The music of The Beatles and Stevie Wonder, for example, are chromatic. It gives his music a distinctively expansive sound, a fusion of jazz with rock, and distinguishes it from the normal diatonic chord changes of most popular music. On the new record, he also enriched the sonics by bringing in some great guest artisty, including James Mercer of The Shins and the singer Jamila Woods.
For a self-identified “misanthrope” and “hermit,” Hornsby sure does have a lot of famous people and memorable experiences in his life. Along with the Grammy, working with Spike, his association with Tupac and his recent star-studded album, Hornsby is rumored to have played (and beaten) Allen Iverson in one-on-one basketball. Not to be outdone, his son Keith is a current professional player, who has suited up abroad as well as locally with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and their developmental G-League team.
“Keith was the only white dude on his AAU team until he was about 17 or 18 and went to college,” he says. “When all his teammates realized I was the guy who wrote ‘Changes’ by Tupac, that gave me great credibility amongst Keith’s young friends.”
Today, Hornsby, like every other musician (and athlete, for that matter), is navigating the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine. He says he misses touring and playing in front of live audiences the most. Like many other musicians, he lost many months of gigs. For Hornsby, who used to go out on the road with The Grateful Dead for endless shows, it’s a big loss. For Hornsby, who grew up touched by the gift of music and the love of hard work, it’s the connections he’s made in music that sustain the magic of the creative act.
“When I was younger and I started having success,” he says, “the greatest result was the reach outs I got from older musicians that I admired all my life. Now I’m an older musician and all these younger musicians are reaching out to me, because I’ve influenced their music when they were coming up. And I’m always looking for a new adventure.”
Check out our full album review of the latest from Hornsby.