Possessed of a singular voice yet prone to wearing many hats, the writer, director, composer, and vocalist Rinde Eckert moves seamlessly among opera, theater, performance art, improvisatory encounters, and the world of contemporary music. He’s worked with such vanguard collaborators as the Kronos Quartet, Roomful of Teeth, Steven Schick, the New York Philharmonic, Paola Prestini, Eighth Blackbird, Jerry Granelli, Paul Dresher, and Steven Mackey – to mention only a few.
After almost 30 years of making records and stage productions, however, Eckert this week releases his very first solo album, The Natural World, on the National Sawdust Tracks label. On it, he accompanies himself in a selection of 13 songs, playing an assemblage of instruments that include the usual guitars and keyboards, and branch into wide traditional associations via hand percussion, wood flute, tenor banjo, penny whistle, and a variety of ukuleles. The settings frame Eckert’s operatic presence with intimate focus, minimally ornamented, as if floating before a billowing black curtain.
The album opens with a haunting rendition of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” that harks back to its origins as a Scottish ballad. But in “Bar Fight,” which could be a hillbilly picking tune (“Bar fight/Up all night/Couldn’t come down ’til the morning light/Shirt’s all bloody I’m a sorry sight/Gotta go to church but it just ain’t right”), that cultural resonance also chimes with an Asian influence. Elsewhere, Eckert offers a manifesto of sorts (“The Singer Sings,” lent meditative intensity by a droning shruti box) and a wordless falsetto (“Dry Land,” likewise hypnotic with its oscillating accordion and ambient keyboards). Each piece suggests a gemlike fragment of an evocative, mood-soaked suite.
Eckert celebrates the release of The Natural World on August 26 at National Sawdust, where he’ll perform works from his solo repertoire, working as a one-man band. Eckert recently spoke about the project, checking in from his residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH, where – surrounded once again by much the same array of instruments featured on his album – he is composing a new work.
You’ve made a career as a collaborative artist across many kinds of art-making. After all these years, you finally made a solo statement—and it’s really solo. What made this the right moment?
Partially, it’s been the evolution of my progress with these instruments. I’ve gotten a little better over the years at playing everything. I’ve also had to, in the past, develop solo pieces and there’s been a backlog of them. I realized I had a lot of solo material and I had been asked last spring to do a solo at the Kennedy Center. It was partially theater. This was under the auspices of Renée Fleming. She had picked five singers to be representative of American voices, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. In having to prepare for that, I had to drop a lot of the theatrical stuff and really concentrate on doing a solo performance.
Before that, I’d done a run across the country. I’d basically thrown some instruments in the car, and done a two-month tour, performing anywhere I could. This was part of the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. It occurred to me that I would love to reacquaint myself with certain parts of the country and certain friends that I hadn’t seen for awhile… so, why don’t I just drive across the country and I’ll do free concerts everywhere? It can be a gathering of friends, I’ll perform on a festival stage, I’ll do a classroom, I’ll be in your living room, if you want me to have dinner with a sponsor and do a performance for two people, I’ll do that.
I ended up playing a lot, solo, and as I was doing it there were certain pieces that developed. One of my last stops was in Berkeley, and I sat down with the producer Lee Townsend, and I was showing him what I was doing. And he was like, “Oh, man, let’s do a record! We’ve been talking about doing one for awhile and the material is all there.” So, I said fine, as I usually do, and then nothing was going to come of it. Then Lee called me up and said, “I’ve booked the studio. We’re going in the first week in December, so get ready.” I shipped out my instruments and we set ’em all up in the Fantasy studios and had a great five days.
Take us back a minute. What were those little shows like?
I literally performed for a guy over breakfast. He was a friend. There was a lovely couple in Denver who I barely knew. I happened to need somewhere to stay that night. I went to their home. It was a little bit of an imposition. It turns out that the woman who had taken a workshop with me was enthusiastic, but her husband was a little less so. We had some food for dinner. [Afterwards], the two of them sat, and I started playing and singing. Watching the husband’s face just melt was one of the greatest things. He embraced me and said, “Look, any time you’re in town, our house is your house.” There’s a wonderful difference that music can make. I was so grateful I could give him something in exchange for the accommodations.
[The tour] was full of those things. I had a wonderful living room concert in Hollywood with a bunch of people, some of whom I actually knew. I had this notion, “Ahhh, it’s a bunch of Hollywood movie people, TV people.” I was approaching it with a little bit of chagrin. I’ll play a little for them. I was expecting them to be a little distracted. Turned out to be a great concert. They couldn’t have been sweeter.
These things kept happening, over and over again. I was passing by Colorado and [composer and sound artist] Bruce Odland called me and said, “Look, I’ve been doing this thing out there called The Tank. It’s this big water tower that’s not being used, and on the inside it’s got this incredible delay. If you’re passing anywhere near Rangely, Colo., we can put you up and you can do a concert at The Tank.” I was charmed by the idea and found my way to Rangely, which is not easy. And it’s this unprepossessing tank sitting in the middle of this industrial wasteland. Bruce was there when I arrived, and I had a couple of hours to take a look.
One of the neatest things I did, I started doing overtones in there with this 15-second delay. It was really beautiful. The mayor of Rangely thanked me for coming. These are all fairly conservative people, but once they’re inside this tank we’re inside some sort of holy and strange world where we’re just listening. There’s no way of explaining what this is. It felt like a great leveler. No one was expecting it to be one kind of music or another. They were just there having the experience. It felt righteous.
Were there certain songs that took a particular shape because of your experiences on the road?
The cover of “Black Is the Color” was something I was doing with these three blocks of wood. It was more or less a performance art piece. I had a couple of mallets and I was hitting these little resonant blocks of wood that were sitting in my lap. I had always loved that tune, so I just started singing it with these little blocks of wood. It was pretty strange and kind of wondrous. Then I started getting a little bit tired of the blocks. I thought, it’s not enough now. It wore its welcome out. And in the process, too, I got to know my instruments so much better… using all these little ukuleles, in odd tunings. Instruments come alive when you play them. Those of us who play instruments decided they have a soul, and when you don’t play them they get angry with you, and they don’t perform very well. Over the course of time all of these instruments felt like they really enjoyed being played, and by the end of the tour I felt like I’d made friends with them all and we were ready to step into a studio. They were going to be nice to me.
From what you’ve told me about your studio process, it sounds like there’s a fair amount of “allowing things to become” as opposed to checking off an agenda from a dedicated list.
It’s always a combination. Anybody who wants to continue being a viable creative artist, you have to know how to do both. I’ve had to learn how to arrange, how to just sit with a manuscript in front of me and write notes on a page. But then you run into places where you’re baffled, and you have to know how to give up. I just learned this two days ago. I’m sitting here in this cabin that at one point has been occupied by people like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland – they’ve both been here – and I was struggling. I’m partially here to work on this piece, on Mark Twain. I’d written a couple of pieces which were OK. And then I thought, I don’t know what I’m doing with this whole section, on the raft down the Mississippi. It has to sound kind of American, and I was working with a lot of complicated chord clusters. I felt like I was at a dead end.
I’m sitting at the piano, and this little voice says, “Let go. Don’t overthink it. It doesn’t have to be complicated.” And all of a sudden I play this little fourth and then I play the fifth and it’s this little tune [plays a few notes on piano to illustrate], adding this little other part. It sounded a little Coplandesque. It’s kind of Appalachian Spring-like. And then I’m thinking, there’s something underneath. All of a sudden you’re adding these ninth chords in the bass and it suddenly becomes this really beautiful expansive thing, and it sounds like the Mississippi to me. So that’s what I miss if I don’t sit at an instrument and let the instrument help me figure it out. You have to know how to go there and how to drop all your pretensions and wait for it. Let Aaron Copland help you. Or it might be Webern. The best stuff always feels like a discovery.
There’s an impressive range to the songs on the record. Some tap into a mystical, transcendental feeling and others would sound right at home in a honky-tonk. Obviously, you have big ears and are well-traveled, but how did these eclectic affinities develop?
My life has been really weird, stylistically. One has to just embrace what one is. I’m stylistically complicated and it’s just the way it is. I don’t think it’s been professionally useful. As I’ve grown I’ve become more comfortable with it. “Catbird” is, essentially, about that. It’s on the record and it evokes the catbird. They have 50 songs. They sing all the other birds. They imitate the birds, but they have one of the most beautiful songs of all the birds. Yes, you’re making the sound of a cardinal and you’re not a cardinal. But that doesn’t mean you don’t understand the integrity of the song. I’m not trying to be those things, but those things are a part of me. I’m not trying to make a claim on those things. It’s not an obvious reference, necessarily. That is exactly who I am, that mix of influences.
I’m the scion of opera singers. I have a degree in classical music and classic voice, so I have Schubert in there, and all these classical guys. But then I grew up in the ’60s, and I was playing coffeehouse gigs with a guitar, doing folk music, doing Dylan and Paul Simon, Woody Guthrie. Then, I also got involved with jazz musicians, and improvising. Then I got into the avant-garde performance art scene. All these different influences are, I guess, settling, and in this record they’re settled down. They know they belong together.
One thing about playing everything myself is I become the center post for it – my life, my experiences – and so it’s concentrated, anyway. There are no other forces in there that have a legitimate foothold on some other style. That gives it a particular cogency for me, because I played everything on the record and it’s my world. I think that’s why I called it The Natural World. Yes, it’s stylistically diverse, and that’s completely natural in this world. The catbird belongs in the natural world. Imitating other birds is what he is. And it’s a beautiful thing in a catbird, so we just have to relax and appreciate it.