Singer, songwriter and producer T-Bone Burnett says his approach to making music is simple: "Just listen until it sounds right."
T-Bone Burnett tells Terry Gross that he's long past the point where he wants to try to control everything that goes into a recording.
T-Bone Burnett tells Terry Gross that he's long past the point where he wants to try to control everything that goes into a recording. Frazer Harrison/Getty
Burnett has been getting it right for a long time, and his latest project is the critically acclaimed film Crazy Heart, for which he wrote several songs for the main character — a broken-down musician played by Jeff Bridges. Bridges is not a trained singer.
"No, actually, I've done that before in the theater, where you have to ... turn it almost into rap music or something like that. Poetry, you know," Burnett tells Terry Gross. "But Jeff has music in him. Jeff has, he has the ability to make music. Making music's a funny thing. Like, one person could sit down at a piano and hit three notes, and it sounds like a cat on the keys, you know. Another person can sit down at the piano and play the same three notes, and it sounds like music."
The film offered Burnett the chance to take audiences back to his Texas roots with a varied score. (Burnett's collaborator was the late guitarist and songwriter Stephen Bruton.) The movie recently picked up two Golden Globe nominations — one for Bridges' performance and a second for Burnett's theme song, "The Weary Kind."
The accolade comes as just the latest in Burnett's storied career. He's toured with Bob Dylan and worked as a producer for renowned artists such as Elvis Costello and B.B. King. He founded the independent label DMZ, and as a songwriter, he's earned several Oscar nominations.
Fresh Air recently talked to Burnett about Crazy Heart, collaborating with Bruton and his supposedly "Zen" approach to producing records.
"Well, you know, I try not to touch the thing," Burnett says. "I have to say there was a time when I started out making records, producing music, that I wanted to control everything. I wanted everything to be — you know, I wrote arrangements out, and I wanted the drummer to play all the beats and the fills that I imagined hearing.
"And after a few months or years of that, I got tired of it and realized that I was always more excited by other people's ideas than my own," he adds. "So my method in going into the studio is to do as little as possible, just to show up and listen really hard until it sounds great."