Public Media Arts Hub

T Bone Burnett on making music and fighting 'surveillance capitalism'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: And now to a rare interview with a man behind a lot of music you might have heard.

T Bone Burnett has produced songs for major acts, films and TV series. He has a new album of his own this month.

And Jeffrey Brown sat down with him recently as part of our arts and culture series, canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Behind the hugely influential soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" which sold eight million copies and launched the surprise rise of bluegrass music as a popular phenomenon, behind the unlikely 2009 album of the year pairing of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and recordings over the years by so many great musicians, he's a man you usually don't see, T Bone Burnett, one of music's most acclaimed producers.

Burnett is winner of 13 Grammys, an Academy Award, and many other honors. And, at age 71, he's just released an album of his own music, the first in 11 years.

He joined us recently at the Scholz Beer Garten, an Austin establishment that bills itself as the oldest operating business in Texas.

T Bone Burnett: Well, I have to say, I have never felt I had a career. I just take care of the thing that's right under my nose.

I try to choose things that connect to everything else I'm doing. And I think that's what integrity is, that your life is integrated.

Jeffrey Brown: Raised in Fort Worth, Joseph Henry Burnett took the nickname T Bone and began his career as a songwriter and performer.

And in 1975, he was picked by Bob Dylan to join the famed Rolling Thunder Revue, a group of all-stars, along with then lesser-known's like Burnett.

T Bone Burnett: I was being thrown into the deep end. I learned really everything I needed to know to make it through the next 50 years of my life from that experience, because it wasn't just performing, but it was storytelling using different artists and different songs and different voices.

Jeffrey Brown: And it was working with different artists that he made his name, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Counting Crows. The list is long.

T Bone Burnett: Ninety-five percent of a producer's role is support and encouragement.

You hopefully -- the way I do it is, I find the best possible people I can find to do the job, and then I get out of their way.

Jeffrey Brown: I have seen descriptions by musicians you have worked with where they're saying at the sessions, it doesn't look like you're doing all that much.

T Bone Burnett: Well, yes. I...

Jeffrey Brown: What are you doing?

T Bone Burnett: I'm listening.

One thing I know is, all the best art is made by artists working at full autonomy. And the more strings you attach to an artist, the more autonomy you take away from him, the less able he is to make music.

Jeffrey Brown: But so what are you listening for eventually?

T Bone Burnett: That's intuition. That's feel.

Or it's experience, too. I'm listening for resonance and tone, and I'm listening for the story. I'm listening for the story to get told.

Jeffrey Brown: These days, Burnett wants all of us to listen better.

In recent years, he scored the soundtrack for the HBO show "True Detective," filled with moody music he created with keyboard whiz Keefus Ciancia and percussionist Jay Bellerose.

T Bone Burnett: Scoring "True Detective" and the complex language of "True Detective" led us into this place of danger and mystery that seemed appropriate to the subject matter.

Jeffrey Brown: This visualization shows their new collaboration, a new experimental album called "The Invisible Light." It's the first of a proposed trilogy. Burnett calls it electronic and tribal music.

The big subject matter for Burnett these days, put forth in a full-throated critique in his keynote speech at this year's South By Southwest Festival, is the negative impact of information technology and so-called surveillance capitalism.

T Bone Burnett: Companies like Facebook shouldn't be allowed to behave like digital gangsters.

We all have strings attached to us now. Everywhere we go, we have different technologies zeroing in on us and following us, tracing us, tracking us, predicting what we're going to do, and trying to actually move us into doing things that we don't necessarily want to do.

The musicians have been the canary in the coal mine for all of this, right?

Jeffrey Brown: In what sense?

T Bone Burnett: The surveillance capitalists confiscated our stuff first. They took our music and said, information wants to be free, so we're just going to take your music for free.

Jeffrey Brown: Disrupting the music industry, which you have been part of.

T Bone Burnett: Yes. And then they made billions, tens of billions of dollars from monetizing, in the parlance of our times, our property that they had confiscated. Now everybody's feeling it, so people are listening now.

Jeffrey Brown: In the meantime, the T. Bone Burnett story continues,, as always, with a variety of projects and artists, among them, producing the just-released album by Sara Bareilles and scoring a forthcoming musical titled "Happy Trails" on the life of cowboy actors Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

T Bone Burnett: I don't want to do anything that's disconnected from the other things. I don't want to embarrass any of the people I have worked with in my life. I want to try to hold up a good standard for all of us.

Jeffrey Brown: Somehow, that's added up to a career, though, huh?

T Bone Burnett: I guess you can call it that. I think careers are for lawyers. And careers are perfectly good things to have. But, for me, this has just been my work. It's been my life, you know?

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the South By Southwest Festival in Austin.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.