Bruce Hornsby interview: ‘I was a pretty bad pop star’

Craig McLean
·13-min read
Bruce Hornsby in 1990 - Wireimage
Bruce Hornsby in 1990 - Wireimage

Type “Bruce Hornsby The Way It Is” into YouTube and one of the first clips that comes up is the American musician’s 21st August 1986 appearance on Top of the Pops. 

“OK, mega record time now,” announces Radio 1 DJ “Wooh!” Gary Davies, mullet down his neck, jacket sleeves up his forearms, “23 in the charts, Bruce Hornsby and the Range!”

There, playing The Way It Is on a pristine white piano amidst a line-up including The Communards (performing Don’t Leave Me This Way), Prince (Girls and Boys), Depeche Mode (A Question of Time) and the gone-and-best forgotten German duo Modern Talking (Brother Louie), is an equally mulletted man in a boxy 1980s suit and 1,000-yard stare.

The latter could be because Hornsby and his band are, as we’re told by the other show host Bruno Brookes (mullet, rolled-up sleeves, rictus grin – check), “currently on tour in the States with Huey Lewis and the News”. Which means the musicians have probably flown into the UK during a couple days’ break touring to play the then-pivotal music show, and are promptly flying straight back out again.

Or it could be because Bruce Hornsby is a 31-year-old musical polymath, partly trained at Massachusetts’ august Berklee College of Music, and he isn't sure what he’s doing miming in a BBC studio, surrounded by a teenage audience who are a rhapsody in pastels and the left-to-right-and-back-again clap-dancing beloved of Eighties dancefloors.

As new pop stars go, the man is all wrong. “It was a total fluke, a wonderful accident that happened on Radio One!” Hornsby beams, exactly 34 years later, via Zoom, from his all-mod-cons recording studio in his home in Williamsburg, Virginia. That unexpected UK daytime airplay on the nation’s favourite meant that suddenly, “there we were, making our first video and appearing on Wogan. And Elton was on the show, too!” he recalls, delightedly, of Terry Wogan’s hugely popular TV chatshow.

“I’m getting my make-up done – this is before I learned to say no – and hear this unmistakable voice coming down the corridor: ‘Where’s Bruce f*ckin’ Hornsby?’ And Elton John comes in, wearing a Tina Turner wig, and throws his arms around me. And he was one of my heroes – him and Leon Russell inspired me to learn piano.

“So these great moments were happening in and around my befuddled, bewildered [head], flying round Europe doing all these shows. We did nothing but lip-sync! So, it’s a clownish affair. It’s idiocy, really.”

The following year, aged 32, Bruce Hornsby and The Range would win the Grammy for Best New Artist. But rather than cringe at the memories of it all Hornsby, wholly admirably, sees it for what it was: a great ride, with the fun lying in the very absurdity of it all.

“Look, I was a pretty bad at being a pop star, man. I was a schooled musician, and old for a new artist, and I was surrounded by New Kids on the Block, Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Haircut 100 and A Flock of Seagulls – a time of bubblegum music re-emerging. What’s wrong with this picture? It’s me!” he hoots.

Bruce Hornsby in 1990 - Sarah Walor
Bruce Hornsby in 1990 - Sarah Walor

Does Bruce Hornsby resent he resent his one-hit-wonder status (The Way It Is has some 82 million plays on Spotify)? Absolutely not. For one thing, he’s sold over 11 million albums in total. For another, the Virginia native already had some Peak Eighties Pop experience under his belt, working as a touring pianist for Sheena Easton.

“This was in the early Prince era – before U Got The Look,” he says of the Scottish singer’s collaboration with Prince on his 1987 landmark double album Sign O’ The Times. But Hornsby does appear in the video for her 1984 hit Sugar Walls, also written by Prince. “It’s totally laughable and I look like a real clown. But Sheena is a great singer. I don’t know if people realise that. Playing with her every night, I would see her bring it every show.

“Mind you, I’m a bit of a prankster, I don’t think she ever realised this, and I’ve never mentioned it but, man, shenanigans did abound behind her! Spitball fights with the monitor man. Our own choreography [when she performed] For Your Eyes Only,” he says, singing her 1981 James Bond theme and undulating his arms and upper body like a swaying palm tree. “That’s kind of who I am. I turned the gig into a big playground for the back-up band.”

Hornsby, 65-years-young, is many other things, too. An active, progressive artist, for one thing. Right now, the reason for our talking, he’s preparing to release his 22nd album. Non-Secure Connection features collaborations with James Mercer of The Shins and digi-folk trailblazer Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver. The latter is a return favour after Hornsby co-wrote U (Man-Like), one of the two tracks released last year as the first singles from none-more-cool Vernon’s acclaimed album i, i.

Bruce Hornsby on stage with The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, in 1991 - Getty
Bruce Hornsby on stage with The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, in 1991 - Getty

He’s a keen student of music – he waggles in front of me his copy of 1953’s The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization by George Russell, “a legendarily important tome in the avant garde jazz world! And it lives in me!” Hornsby joshes (although, simultaneously, he means it sincerely). Similarly, he might playfully cite the “chromaticism and dissonance quotient” of his new, 10-song album. But all that’s a high-minded way of obscuring the fact that, beneath the experimental vocals and “melodic angularity” of his synth lines, there are some wonderful tunes on Non-Secure Connection.

He is, too, a ceaselessly exploratory musician with two further Grammys to his name (Best Bluegrass Album, 1990; Best Pop Instrumental Performance, 1994) and 10 nominations. He played live with The Grateful Dead over 100 times, sitting in with the band until the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995. He’s been Spike Lee’s score-composing wingman, on and off, since the early Nineties. Name a boomer musical legend and he’s recorded with them: Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, Don Henley, Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt, Robbie Robertson, Sting, Willie Nelson amongst them.

His time with Nicks came in 1988, when his pop fame was beginning, mercifully, to fade. He duetted with the Fleetwood Mac singer on her fourth solo album, The Other Side of the Mirror.

“She’s a transcendent artist to me,” he says, his irrepressible enthusiasm radiating out of my laptop screen. “And what a singer! Although I didn’t know the level of her ability until I got in the studio. We’re singing together round one mic. Then the producer Rupert Hine – who just passed – asked Stevie to move back a little bit. And he kept moving her back and moving her back, because her voice was powerful. She was blowing up the mic, and definitely blowing off my vocal.

“By the end of this, she was a good 10 to 15 feet from the mic, and I was a foot from the mic! That’s the power of her voice, just a big, thick sound.”

The Dylan collaboration came when Hornsby was invited to play on his 1990 album Under the Red Sky. He was living in Los Angeles at the time, and Was (Not Was) were in town producing Dylan’s 27th studio record. Hornsby had just played piano on the Rait's song I Can’t Make You Love Me, a huge American hit which was also produced by Don Was.

“I remember almost every detail of the Dylan session,” he says, as well he might, “but the most fun memory is me and the band just jamming on this one chord. Just playing away, trying to get into a groove. And Bob comes out. And he had previously emptied all his pockets, which were jammed with different pieces of paper – could be a napkin, could be a piece of hotel notepaper. Now he’s stood there, checking out what we’re doing, goes to the table, picks up a piece of paper, goes to the mic and starts singing. And that became a song on the record, TV Talkin’ Song. Talk about spontaneity!”

In 1993, Hornsby recorded his first solo album, Harbor Lights. There was an all-star line-up, including Garcia, Raitt, Branford Marsalis, Pat Metheny and Phil Collins.

“Phil reached out because he shared the same birthday as my [twin] sons, January 30th. So when they were born in 1992, he reached out to me with a congratulatory fax. He used to draw these little Cabbage Patch Kid versions of himself; that his standard schtick in a note or letter.”

Alongside the fax Collins, then one of the biggest artists in the world, expressed an interest in working together. Within a matter of months he was in the very room from which Hornsby is talking to me today. “And Phil came and sang with me on three songs, including Fields of Gray, and did some percussion. He was just game for whatever.”

Speaking of which: “We had a regular basketball game that we played at the local university, William and Mary, named for your King and Queen from the 17th century. I invited Phil, and he said he’d never played basketball ever, ‘but sure I’m coming.’ He didn’t know about the dribbling, so he’d just get the ball and run with it, like he was playing rugby.

“Fields of Gray is a song about my sons,” he adds. “And I have the greatest picture of Phil sitting on the steps of our kitchen, one of the boys in his arms, singing the song to the child. That’s an indelible stamp on my brain.”

And the collaborations kept coming. “In 2004 I did what I call my Bruce and the Brits record, where Elton, Sting and Clapton were my special guests. They were people who had reached out – ‘hey, I’m a big fan, would love to do something.’ And it worked out great.”

Really? How does one wrangle three egos like that? Hornsby shrugs. “I don’t mean this to sound egotistical, but I think there was a mutual respect there. So they didn’t show me that [side]. Maybe they don’t show anybody. Maybe it’s a fallacy to think that, because someone is iconic, they walk around thinking everybody wants their autograph. My experience was very easy and natural.”

Through all his mazy and amazing musical adventures, there’s been one through-line: Bruce Hornsby’s passionate commitment to civil rights. The plangent piano lines of The Way It Is, still a timeless evocation of classic mid-Eighties pop, elevate a lyric that addresses institutional racism and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Non-Secure Connection includes Bright Star Cast, which features Vernon Reid of Living Colour and was inspired by Lift Every Voice and Sing, the poem-turned-song that, in 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the “national anthem” of Black people.

Is he gratified that these songs have such resonance, or depressed that this fight is still being fought? “Well, both,” he replies. “I’m gratified the songs have a life and can maybe help raise awareness. But at the same time, it is really demoralising to realise that things haven’t changed that much.”

He points out that “probably the most well-known version” of The Way It Is was Tupac Shakur’s Changes, recorded in 1992 track and built round a sample of Hornsby’s song. “And just this year a young rapper from Chicago named Polo G updated Tupac’s version and it’s called Wishing For A Hero. The record is fantastic, and that’s gotten a good bit of attention as well. So it’s gratifying, again, that now there’s a third generation of young people who are aware of that song.

A “student of the civil rights era”, he likens the May killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police to “another Bull Connor moment”. He’s referring to the police chief in Birmingham, Alabama who, in 1963, had his officers turn fire hoses on peaceful protestors. This was filmed and shown on all three US television networks.

“As close to a viral moment occurred. The mass of America, which was probably uninformed about all this, saw this horrific footage. This changed the mindset of the country and allowed, within months, LBJ and the Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act.”

The filming of the Floyd killing and subsequent global outrage, he’s quietly confident, “will raise the consciousness” about another “miscarriage of justice… way more than any song could”.

His commitment to the cause is one of the reasons he and Spike Lee bonded (another is their mutual passion for basketball). He first met the filmmaker in 1992, over dinner in New York via their mutual friend, saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Hornsby asked Lee to direct a video for his Harbor Lights song Talk of the Town, about the first inter-racial marriage in his home town, “and all the consternation it caused in the local power-structure”.

They became friends, and he’d attend Knicks games with Lee when he was “up in New York”. Then Lee asked him to write a song for the end-credits to his under-appreciated 1995 crime drama Clockers, which starred Harvey Keitel and John Turturro.

“I think that’s in Spike’s Top Five,” he agrees, “and he’s made a lot of great ones. I wrote that song with Chaka Khan, and we did a video with Spike in Harlem – he wrapped a bunch of buildings like Christo would have.”

They’ve worked together for years – although he says, entirely without rancour, they’ve collaborated less on his more recent films (despite Hornsby scoring both series of Lee’s recent Netflix adaptation of his directorial debut She’s Gotta Have It). Yes, he’s featured on the score to 2018’s Oscar-winning Blakkklansman, “but I think he just threw me a bone there,” he says sanguinely.

“He asked me to do some silent film-esque music in the scene where the Klan are watching the old D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation. Terence Blanchard is his main composer there. I consider myself his b-team composer,” he smiles. “Spike'd have me do his low-budget, way indie movies – things like Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” he says of Lee’s 2014 horror.

But for the faultlessly proactive and inventive Hornsby, everything comes around. “Bright Star Cast was written over a [soundtrack] cue I wrote for that film,” he notes, “which Vernon Reid was on – Spike’s idea.”

And that, he says, is how the revered American guitarist – born in London to Caribbean parents – ended up on the completed, Justin Vernon-produced song on Non-Secure Connection.

Reflecting on the time when he was being asked to work with Dylan and Collins and Clapton, and on the period now where he’s in-demand from new-gen musicians like The Killers’ Brandon Flowers, Hornsby is tickled.

“I was the younger musician getting asked to work with these older titans in my world. Now I’m the old guy, and younger musicians are reaching out to me. That’s so special and inspiring, to step into their worlds. So it’s come full circle.”

Non-Secure Connection is released on Thirty Tigers on August  14