Bruce Hornsby Tells How His New Record Was Inspired by Spike Lee, the Shins and Civil Rights

Hot on the heels of his 2019 solo release “Absolute Zero,” Bruce Hornsby returns with its follow-up, “Non-Secure Connection.” The effort picks up where the last one left off and features some of the same collaborators, including Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Rob Moose, yet also sees Hornsby teaming up with the Shins’ James Mercer, singer/songwriter Jamila Woods, Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid and the late Leon Russell, who appears via a 25-year-old demo.

Hornsby’s last two albums have the same origin story. While creating film music for Spike Lee’s film projects between 2008 and 2019, Hornsby had a trove of musical ideas, some of which were used and many that went unused. These musical cues range between 50 seconds to four or five minutes long. Hornsby explains, “A lot of them sounded like they needed to be expanded or wanted to be expanded into songs. I’ve never written this way, so it basically helped me write a new kind of song. I feel the records share a cinematic quality for obvious reasons, because the music is earmarked for a film and so I think both records share that.” Hornsby describes 30% of the album as “modern classical,” which is “a bit astringent and acrid and dissonant.”

A motif from title track “Non-Secure Connection” was featured on the second season of Lee’s Netflix series “She’s Gotta Have It.” Hornsby explains, “Spike is not a fan of dissonance. He likes tonality, and ‘Non-Secure Connection’ is tonal, but it’s very chromatic. It’s rather dissonant in the melodic content, which is interesting.” Nonetheless, Lee used it and Hornsby felt the need to expand upon the theme for the album.

Not all the songs on the effort were pulled from Spike Lee’s leftovers. “My Resolve,” which is a far cry from some of the dissonant sounds on the album, was musically inspired by the Shins. As a fan of the group, Hornsby reached out to frontman James Mercer and asked him to collaborate on the song. He agreed and the two, who hadn’t met previously, became good friends.

Harking back to his 1986 breakthrough hit “The Way It Is,” which dealt with race relations in America, “Bright Star Cast” was inspired by Taylor Branch’s three-volume civil rights history books — “Parting The Waters,” “Pillar of Fire” and “Canaan’s Edge” —  as well as the New York Times’ 1619 Project. “I was inspired by a part in there that references the negro national anthem, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ and that started me off on the song,” Hornsby explains. The tune began as a music cue used in Spike Lee’s 2014 film “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.” It features Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, whom Lee brought in for the session. Hornsby decided to take the musical idea up to Eau Claire, Wisconsin to Justin Vernon’s April Base studio, where Bon Iver’s “merry band of musical badasses” recorded the song.

After recording the music for the upbeat track, Hornsby took it back home and wrote the lyrics inspired by his civil rights reading. With the help from Vernon, he tapped Chicago poet and singer/songwriter Jamila Woods to join him in a duet on the song.

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While the not-so-radio-friendly song “S—‘s Crazy Out Here” seems to be a microcosm of the pandemic world we live in, it is actually inspired by Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball. One of Hornsby’s twin sons is a professional basketball player in Europe, who is back home after the season was canceled due to COVID-19. Hornsby says, “It was just sort of the Darwinian experience, total survival of the fittest, a ‘don’t screw up or you’re coming out’ — that sort of thing. Consequently, ‘S—’s Crazy Out Here’ is totally a comment on this forgettable year of 2020. Let’s hope in one sense that it’s not forgettable. Let’s hope like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that something really tangible and powerful and meaningful comes out of this terrible George Floyd tragedy. Maybe in some respect 2020 will be redeemed in history if that happens. Let’s hope that occurs.”

Hornsby is renowned for being a touring member of the Grateful Dead from 1990 to 1992, playing over 100 shows with the band. He was tapped again to play piano for the 2015 Fare Thee Well concerts featuring the band’s “core four,” Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart, along with keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. Hornsby reflected on the five shows surrounding the Grateful Dead’s 50 anniversary.

“We actually played a lot of songs that the Dead almost never played, including ‘What’s Become of the Baby’ — that was Phil’s idea because he was really involved in the writing of some of those songs. That was great fun to play those early songs, and I hadn’t heard some of them to be completely honest, and I loved learning them. Trey (Anastasio) and I sang ‘Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)’ together as sort of a duet, which was a lot of fun. We rehearsed for about three weeks and the rehearsals went well and everyone was taking it very seriously. And it’s hard to learn that much music. I think we only repeated two songs, ‘Cumberland Blues’ and ‘Truckin’,’ over five nights. Learning about 100 songs is a tall order, so, look, there were times when it was probably a little loose.”

Adds Hornsby, “The audiences were amazing. It was such a joyful moment where 70,000 people at Soldier Field and Levi’s Stadium were just going apes—, just going so crazy. I continued to play, but I just had to look out and all around the 360 degrees to just take this moment in and to think to myself that this is real life, and this is truly amazing and it’s truly happening, and this is beautiful.”

During quarantine, Hornsby has been writing and recording demos for his next effort: “I wrote six songs in the first six weeks, and I’ve written a couple songs in the subsequent two and a half months.” Three of his new songs are specifically about the COVID era. If conditions permit, he hopes to fly to Los Angeles later this month to begin recording a new album with his band.