The innovative uberproducer helms another stellar roots-rich soundtrack

By Michael Gallant

With fistfuls of hit records and more than a dozen Grammys under his belt, T Bone Burnett is one of music’s most accomplished producers. His credits run the gamut from Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison and Robert Plant to B.B. King, Elton John and Alison Krauss. But the big names only scratch the surface of his talent. Burnett toured as a guitarist with Bob Dylan early in his career and has released numerous albums of his own.

The in-demand producer has also forged a formidable presence in the film world, gaining widespread visibility in 2000 with his work on the chart-topping, Grammy-winning soundtrack for Joel and Ethan Coen’s blockbuster O Brother, Where Art Thou? Burnett has served as executive music producer for such films as Across the Universe, The Hunger Games and Walk the Line, a project for which he also composed the film score. He not only produced 2010’s critically acclaimed film Crazy Heart but also composed the score and

co-wrote many of its songs.

Burnett’s most recent cinematic collaboration is the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, which delves into the folk music scene of 1960s New York City. Actor and musician Oscar Isaac plays the title character, a struggling singer trying to find his way to success. Working closely with Burnett on the film were Marcus Mumford, serving as associate music producer of the soundtrack, and Justin Timberlake, who plays a folk-singer friend of Llewyn’s. One song, the novelty track “Please Mr. Kennedy,” features tight interplay between Timberlake and Isaac.

We spoke with Burnett after a concert promoting the movie in New York City. Filmed as part of a documentary for Showtime, the concert included performances by the Punch Brothers (who contributed to multiple tracks on the album), Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Jack White, Marcus Mumford and Elvis Costello (covering Timberlake’s parts on “Please Mr. Kennedy”) backed by Burnett himself. Here, the maestro reveals the creative process behind the film’s soundtrack.


How’d the Punch Brothers get involved?

About three or four years ago, a friend told me, “You have to hear this band.” They were just getting started in San Francisco, and I heard some of their music. Then I kept running into the band. Things like this have their own providence, and when things happen, they tend to come from every direction at once. Everywhere I turned, there they were. Chris Thile, the band’s mandolin player, is the Louis Armstrong of this generation. He’s a once-in-a-century musician.


Did you have to pull pop affectations out of Justin Timberlake?

Not really. Justin is just good, and I mean Bing Crosby–type good. He can act, he can sing, he can dance—he’s just great at show business. He knew what the part had to be—a white boy. He usually doesn’t do that, right? But he knows how to play a white boy when the part calls for it. Justin is much more of the hip-hop culture, to be sure. But hip-hop culture is just folk music in the electronic age, and it carries its message in the same sort of way.


Have you ever worked in hip-hop?

I’m actually working with Nas in the next two or three weeks, but I’ve done very little work with hip-hop artists. I understand it from the outside in, but not from the inside out, and to do something like that you have to understand it from the inside out. But I work in that same way—I’ve been working hip-hop for 30 years already.


How so?

When people are producing hip-hop, they usually put down a click [track], and then they put down a beat to the click. Maybe next they’ll record an instrument, and then somebody comes in and raps on top of it. Sometimes people will come in and just rap directly over the click, and then everything else will be produced around that rap. That’s sort of what I do—especially working in films. You put down a click and, if you’re scoring, then the dialogue becomes the rap and you score around it. You don’t put other sounds in the range of the vocal. You leave room for the message to come through, sonically. Sometimes I work by putting down a click, or a “thump track” as we’d call it, since we use a low-pitched sound. Then maybe layer on a beat and add more pieces from there.


What was your first hip-hop experience?

I was in New York at the beginning. When it started out with Grandmaster Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash and those cats, it was all turntables and sound that was blended in, and very analog. The breaks were just Kraftwerk. Now we’ve gotten to a point where digital technology has made the process so easy—too easy, really. It’s possible for there to be very little skill involved anymore, and that’s a problem.


Have you worked in electronic music?

I’m doing an electronic music score right now. It’s really fun. But it’s also really easy. Electronic music, in general, is easy. What Chris Thile of the Punch Brothers can do when he plays mandolin is amazing. To learn to play like he does, that takes 30 years of playing all day, every day. But right now, you can buy the right machine and do incredible things in no time.

What’s lost in the process?

Look at the calculations that a pianist makes when it comes to playing notes, both in timing and in the volume of one note versus the volume of another note. If you hit a certain note loudly, and then hit a second note much more loudly, certain overtones happen naturally. But if you switch things around—hit one note quietly and the other loudly, other overtones come out. With electronic music, all of that complexity gets cut out and the wonderful resonance of

music is taken away.


How do you deal with that?

First off, we record through a beautiful board from 1968, from Sunset Sound. It’s an API that is so soulful. Exile on Main Street and Led Zeppelin IV were done on it. It’s an incredible piece of equipment, like having a great old Fender Tweed amp—it’s got its own character and sound. So that’s in the middle of everything I’m recording.


How does that help?

Digital recording strips the harmonics out of a sound and you end up with just a sine wave, a primary note, a pitch. But you can put even a sine wave through that board and it will introduce harmonic distortion that’s very pleasant. In general, we’ve fought back by staying as analog as we possibly can and using digital only for what it does well, like editing.


Did you recruit Marcus Mumford?

Marcus and I met a few years ago and said then we should find something to do together. Once we had cast [actress and Mumford’s wife] Carey Mulligan, I got a call from Marcus saying, “Hey man, sorry to bother you, but what about this movie? Can I just come make tea and be a fly on the wall?” I said, “Well, you can come but you’re going to have to work.”

His version of “Fare Thee Well” was the first thing we recorded. And that first take is what made it on the record and in the film. One take—boom. That was just Marcus rockin’ out.


How did you record Oscar’s songs?

The performances in this film were all recorded in high def. We normally do pre-records of the songs in the studio before filming. We did that this time as well, but when we got to the set, the Coens wanted to record live takes without any guides. They wanted to go for the real thing. Oscar studied and wood-shedded, and we turned him loose.


How did the miking work?

For songs that were recorded live on set, we had an old microphone shell that we put a capsule in. Then we would have boom mics and lavalier mics. The original recordings were done to tape at Avatar [Studios in New York City], and a couple of those original recordings might have ended up on the soundtrack album, because they were fuller versions of the songs that ended

up in the movie.


The vocal effects on “Please Mr. Kennedy” became a group effort.

A lot of if was [actor] Adam [Driver], but all of us contributed, and it just turned into something else. I think I was the one who started doing the deep bass voice saying “Oh no!” like Coasters lines or something. Ethan came up with the “puh-puh-puh-please,” but Joel and Justin were coming up with ideas, too. We were shooting the scene on a good-sounding stage in a good-sounding room, and everybody was playing well. We did a few takes all the way through, but it took us most of the day to

get the song done.


If you could produce anybody, who would you choose?

They would be dead people. A lot of artists and musicians could ask me to make a record and I’d say yes, of course, but I’m more concerned at this point with holding the door open for the kids than any producing I would do myself. It’s just not a burning need of mine anymore.


Anyone in mind?

Who would be fun to collaborate with? I’ve worked with Kid Cudi and I really dug that—he’s a bad man. I like Dre—how he works, and his records. And Eminem—

he’s super-bad.


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