Jeff Bridges Abides: The Unedited Interview

ww-1-2With the recent release of his new movie, “Seventh Son” and his strange series of zany zen-like internet ads advertising his “Sleeping Tapes,” it seems to be the perfect time to share this unedited interview with the one and only, Jeff Bridges.

Most of us already knew Jeff Bridges as the coolest, most humble mofo in the movie industry, but then he went and added to that image by proving he’s a great musician and songwriter as well. After playing the tragic country music hero and winning an Oscar as Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart,” he soon after presented the world with a stellar self-titled country/folk album. A positive collection of well-constructed songs, Bridges teamed up with producer T. Bone Burnett and proved that he had even more to offer his fans. Hot on the heels of the recent movie, “The Giver,” Bridges somehow found the time to take his band of Abiders on the road this past fall. The show was immensely entertaining and if you were already curious about just how damn cool Bridges is, lets just say that in addition to performing his own songs, he covered Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live is To Fly,” “Looking Out My Back Door,” by Creedence, and sat down at the keyboard for an emotional rendition of a rare Tom Waits song from the “One From the Heart” Soundtrack. Not even Tom plays that one anymore. I was blessed to talk to Mr. Bridges over the phone just a few months ago to ask him about the music and more. Included are exclusive photos I took at his recent performance at the Wilbur Theater in Boston. Ladies and gentleman… Mr. Jeff Bridges….

ww-1JB: Hello. Jeff Bridges here. Hey Nolan. Is this Nolan? Hey Nolan, how are you doing?

NG: I’m doing all right. How about yourself?

I’m doing alright.

Gearing up for the new movie I assume?

That’s right. We’re doing a lot of press for that. And we’re prepping for the next tour which is coming up.

When did you start making music? Was it something you did before movies and did you ever have to choose between movies and music? Or was it something that came after?

I’ve been playing since I was 13 or 14, and as far as a time when I wondered if I wanted to go into that, I seriously questioned and asked myself whether acting was going to be my path. And as I grew older it became the path of least resistance. I took that path with the most energy, but the music has always been part of my life. I have a little studio and I like writing music and playing with my friends.

Tell me about the timeline of your self-titled album and your role in “Crazy Heart”. Which came first and did one inspire the other?

“Crazy Heart” came first and it certainly inspired my record. T-Bone Burnett and I have been friends for a very long time and I met him, oh about 30 years ago on “Heaven’s Gate,” and we played a lot of music on that. And that in a way gave birth to “Crazy Heart”. And after “Crazy Heart” was over, I became deep into the music and kinda restarted my musical thinking there and I thought if there was ever a time to live my teenage music dream, that would be the time. So I called up my buddy T-Bone and gave him a bunch of songs that I thought would be good and he liked them and that was that.

 What kind of advice has T-Bone given you over the years that has helped you along the way musically?

He gave me some great advice during “Crazy Heart” that stuck with me through the album as well. T-Bone really likes to make a universe that comes from an alternate universe. When we did the music from “Crazy Heart” he didn’t want to copy anyone’s style, he wanted to make music that was fresh, familiar, but different. He didn’t want it to sound like anyone else. He made me a list of all of the guys that my character Bad Blake would have listened to while growing up in Fort Worth. He knew what he was talking about because that’s where he grew up. He said “you’d be listening to Merle Haggard, Hank Williams and those guys, but you’d also be listening to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Beatles.” I asked if I’d be listening to Captain Beefheart? And he said “Oh yeah! You’d be listening to Ornette Coleman too.” That was also for the idea for the Jeff Bridges album too. It didn’t have to be a pure country album or a pure anything.

You were also on “Heaven’s Gate” with Kris Kristofferson, and he was someone who went the opposite way—from music to film. Did you learn anything from him? Did he have an impact on you? Was he someone you looked up to that merged the two careers?

He’s a big inspiration as a songwriter. He’s just phenomenal. Getting to act with him is just wonderful and he’s just great in that movie. We saw each other not too long ago at the Austin City Limits 40th anniversary and we had a great time together.

I read somewhere that when you envisioned the Bad Blake character you envisioned him. Is that true?

That’s not true. He’s certainly one of the guys. I didn’t model it after Kris or anything. Our director Scott Cooper said that Bad Blake was the fifth Highwayman. You know, Willie, Johnny Cash, Kris. Merle Haggard? No, not Merle.

Waylon?

Yeah Waylon! Waylon was it. He was a great, great one.

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Bad Blake plays a character who has a rough, rough life and that’s where his songs come from. And I feel a lot of great country musicians get their inspiration from that as well. I don’t want to assume, but I feel like you have a pretty great, relaxing, exciting life. Where do you get your inspiration from? Do you feel the blues? Where do you get your songs from?

Well, I think everybody suffers man. You know, that’s just a part of life. I just kind of pull things from my own life. And things don’t always have to be about struggle. They can be about happy things. I also like working with my friend John Goodwin (misheard as John Goodman for obvious reasons). And we bounce stuff off each other. And things don’t always have to be about struggle. They can be about happy things.

So John Goodman helped you with your songs?

Well no. It’s not John Good MAN, It’s John Good WIN. Yeah those are two different cats.

So how long were these songs in the making? Were they written all at the same time? Were they culled from all over your life?

What songs? From the Jeff Bridges album? Yeah, I don’t remember all the songs on there, but a lot of the songs are older songs that I wrote in the past and I think I did some John Goodwin songs. There’s a song I wrote with T-Bone on the album. I was trying to write a song for Bad Blake, but it didn’t quite work for Bad Blake or that album. It was called “Slow Boat”. I did the lyrics and T-Bone did the lyrics for that.

ww-1-5Were you upset in any way that they didn’t use any of your original songs as the theme to “Crazy Heart”

No, not really. They use a lot of really great songs.

Your first record was very different then your most recent self-titled record? What changed in your songwriting and how do you see the overall change in style?

Well, there are some songs that I wrote on the Jeff Bridges album that are from the same period as the “Be Here Soon” album. With that album a lot of the difference was in the casting of the album. I produced the album with my dear friend and current musical director of the Abiders, Chris Pelonis and Michael McDonald. And both of those people influenced the record quite a bit. And with T-Bone, the band that he uses often became the sound of the Jeff Bridges album. For the “Be Here Soon” record, it was an eclectic mix, it wasn’t any of the people in the Abiders except for Chris. But there are some similarities, but overall the tone is much different on those albums.

Do you remember your first show and what year was it? How old were you?

My first show? The first thing that pops in my head is probably a hootenanny at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. It was with my buddy David Greenwald.

Were you in anyway nervous? Was there a feeling different than being onstage acting?

I find most often that I’m most nervous right before I get on stage and while I’m on stage I’m kind of relaxed. I’m kind of in character.

You’ll always have this place in people’s heart as the “Dude” and I was wondering if that gets old or if you relish it. Then I saw that your band is called the Abiders and realized you must find joy in that.

Hahaha (laughs). Yeah I’m very proud to be part of that film. It’s a wonderful movie. It would be one of my very favorites even if I wasn’t in that film. The Cohen brothers… they’re nasty.

ww-1-3Speaking of the Abiders, do you always tour with the same band or does it change over time and become about who is available?

It’s pretty much the same. Occasionally I tour with T-Bone, with the “Speaking Clock” tour, I toured with Elton John, Leon Russell and Elvis Costello among others. We toured a bit. But I love playing with the Abiders. They’re my homeboys. They’re the cream of the crop.

How many are in the band?

Five all together.

Do you have a favorite person you’ve felt blessed to shared the stage with?

Ah, yeah. A couple come to mind. John Fogerty invited me onstage at Sturgis– you know the big motorcycle festival. That was great. And then I did a movie with Bob Dylan and got to do stuff with him, which was fun.

How do you compare film and music performance? With film its almost like you put it in the oven and see what develops, while with music you get an immediate response. What do you like about each? Do you prefer one over the other?

In a way I look at performing sort of like doing an improvisation with the audience… like we’re working on something together. If the audience enjoys the music it makes me enjoy it more. And vice versa, We feed off each other like that. And that’s like working on a scene with somebody. Because that’s my realm, the acting realm, I think of it in those terms. But it is great to get that immediate feedback.

You’re obviously not Bad Blake in real life. Who do you think most resembles you in a role you have played?

Well, gee I think physically, between movies I let my hair grow and my beard grow because I can always cut it off—so physically it would probably be the Dude. Inside, gee you know I think about the ethics and myself parallel to the character I’m playing. There’s an element of myself in every character. If there are things that are unshared in between me and my character, I kind of kick those to the curb.

You’re playing the Ryman and pretty amazing places like that. Do you feel like you’ve been accepted by the country and folk communities, or do you not even care about that?

I have in my mind been accepted. People I admire dig my stuff. I’m not sure about the whole community. I try not to think too much about that. I try to enjoy myself and have fun.

Is there anyone you’d like to sing alongside that you haven’t been able to yet?

I don’t really don’t think in those terms really. There are so many wonderful artists that I like and respect. I kind of take it as it comes. I’ve been talking to Judy Collins. She’s invited me to sing on an album of duets that she;s putting out.

You’ve been in Boston a bunch for movies. Are there things you like to do while you’re in town?

Boston, oh wow. Boston’s a wonderful place. Unfortunately on tour we don’t have much time to hang out, but there’s that wonderful little park. I’ve made a few movies there. They have swans. It’s not too big a park. I dig Boston a lot. Even when I was making movies I didn’t get to tour around as much as I would have liked to.

So, I read the William Hjortsberg biography of Richard Brautigan…

You read that whole thing. Wow! [Note it’s 864 pages].

So you are mentioned in that book a few times as being part of the Montana Gang when Brautigan was hanging out with the Fondas, Jimmy Buffet, Harry Dean Stanton, Warren Oates and a lot of notable people in Montana. Since I may never get to talk to anyone else who has met Richard Brautigan, I wanted to ask you what he was like.

He was such a great talent. Man those were some times. I met my wife during that period.

What’s your favorite of his books?

I really love the Tokyo-Montana Express. I feel like he fits so much into just a few words and simple sentence structure.

Oh yeah, that book is like poetry. He was just such a great talent. I always thought me and my brother would make a movie out of “Hawkline Monster,” but we might be getting too old at this point.

Ok, last question. I have to ask… What are your true feeling about the band the Eagles. Do you really hate the f**king Eagles?

That’s not me. That’s the dude, man. I ran into those guys at a party and those guys gave me a lot of shit. I said don’t take it personally man. It’s a movie man. The Eagles are fine. I dig Creedence too.

R.I.P Richie Havens (1941-2013)

Newport Folk Fest 2010

Newport Folk Fest 2010

Richie Havens passed away this past week at the age of 72. From his participation in the Greenwich Village folk scene to his unforgettable performance as the opening act at Woodstock, Richie Havens’ will always be known as one of folk’s founding fathers and an undeniable all-around musical legend. Known for his smile as well as his open tunings, unusual fretting techniques and devastating reinterpretations of traditional ballads and popular rock songs, his music as well as his kindness will never be forgotten.

I was lucky enough to interview Mr. Havens in 2008 as he prepared to return to the Newport Folk Festival for the ninth time. We spoke briefly as he waited for a plane bound for Monaco to talk about 50+ years of folk as seen and heard through his eyes and ears.

You’re one of folk music’s veterans and have seen it all over the years. What is your definition of folk and how has it changed over the years

I hear you. I’m very strangely involved in that situation. When all my friends in Greenwich Village became famous and started going on the road they would play blues festivals if they were a blues band. They would play rock festivals if they were a rock band. When I first went on the road with an album called “Mixed Bag” they didn’t know what to do with me then—and they don’t know what to do with me now. I sing all different kinds of songs. When I showed up to the first club it was called Johnny’s Jazz club and I freaked out completely. I don’t sing Jazz. Then I walked over to the front door there was a little bill in the window and they said “Richie Havens: Folk-Jazz singer. I went ‘really’. That’s what I do. It went on and on. Richie Havens: Folk-Rock singer. Richie Havens: Folk Singer. And I was very fortunate to be a part of all of these culturally based musics. I’m really blessed to sing what I think is myself. I’ve never changed what I do. I think folk music is coming back in many, many ways. There are young people in all of these colleges with open mic nights and there’s a lot of talent out there. Young people have picked up on the idea that folk music is a language; it’s storytelling. There were 13 of us in Greenwich Villlage when it all started. By the time they made it big there were thousands of people that were doing that because they were inspired. They carried the next wave. And the next wave made rock n roll an acoustic thing.

Has folk music been blurred beyond it’s old definition.

I don’t really think folk has been blurred if you realize that everything besides what we traditionally call folk is also a folk music. A lot of people don’t realize that folk is the music of the ‘folk’. It doesn’t matter if they’re past, present or future. You get to chronicle what you’re living. I call rock ‘n roll the first generation primal scream. It was about trying to get a voice. And I think we made it. At my age at that time we were living in the traditions of cultural folk and were singing about ourselves whereas folk music that we learned which we called traditional was singing about the past. Now it seems the new generation is actually bringing out some originality in what we have. I think they have taken full advantage of what’s affecting them.

Newport Folk Fest 2010

Newport Folk Fest 2010

You were in last year’s biopic, “I’m Still There” about Bob Dylan. Most people point their finger at Dylan for changing folk. What are your thoughts on that?

I think Dylan always had a tension towards rock n roll. And I think he made it [laughs]. You could see even back then that there was something different about him. He wrote a lot of songs that we saw with a cultural basis, but there was a line that divided his songs. Fifty-percent of his songs were love songs; the other half were chronicles. He was on a search to figure out who he was. He was able to change people’s ideas, people’s hearts and people’s ears. I call him the all-inclusive poet who got to sing his poetry.

You must have played the Newport Folk Fest before?

Yeah, 8 times… maybe 9 times. After doing that many, there were only 3 that it didn’t rain. I was fortunate to be at the ones that did, and I was also fortunate to be at the ones they called miracles where it didn’t rain. But no one moves. People set up and don’t move for three days. That was the first time that people didn’t move besides the Woodstock movie. That was it. It’s really a special devotion to a common cultural devotion. It’s funny to me. We never really looked at folk music as a really important part of folk music. Just to those that are traditionally into it. Those on the outside settled for the crossover.

You are best known for covering and reworking songs instead of your own material. Why did you decide to take that path?

I call myself a song singer. That’s what started me out. When I started singing Doo Wop we were singing our angst. When you come around like I did, I heard songs that changed my life. I knew I had found a new thing because I quit Doo Wop immediately. To me this was a broader scale where we could speak about ourselves on a much larger scale. I consider myself a song singer because the songs that you hear that I covered were actually being resang to me by myself. Those were the songs that actually changed my life.  Having done that I have the ability for a song to come to me and move me. I never sit down and say, ‘I’m gonna sing this song this way.’ I sing the song as I hear it the way that it moved me. Therefore these songs are for me as well as the audience. To me it’s so interesting to process what happens. I’ll hear a song and pick up my guitar and know for sure I couldn’t play it that way. I felt something, but I felt it in a different way. So that song would go in a box and 6 years later I’ll go ‘ah ha, that’s it. That’s how I do it.’ I get the songs to go through me. It always takes on it’s own tempo and it’s own meaning. It might be twice as fast. It might be half as fast. In these last three albums people have been saying that I’m doing something different. And I knew I didn’t know either. Then one day it came to me. The big secret it kept from me, ‘you’ve never sung songs in these keys before.’ That’s it– the pump is being primed again for sound and tangible lyrics.