It will only take a few notes for those of you who are unfamiliar with the serene guitar work of Bill Frisell to become addicted. His subtle playing and pristine tone creates a unique and personal aural signature that Frisell adds to all his songs and especially any covers he puts his own spin on. For years, the 64-year-old guitarist has been a musical work horse, routinely touring while promoting new records, and still finding the time to be part of an ensemble for countless other musicians. His newest album, When You Wish Upon a Star, covers classic movie and TV themes from Frisell’s childhood. Tracks include the iconic themes of Psycho, You Only Live Twice, Bonanza, The Godfather, and, of course, the Jiminy Cricket classic, “When You Wish Upon a Star.”After a recent string of albums that covered John Lennon and classic songs of the California surf era, Frisell’s most recent endeavor conveys a more innocent childlike nostalgia. Each theme conjures up comforting memories — even as Frisell reinterprets them with his own unique arrangements. I talked to Bill Frisell about his new album and the power of these themes.
Why did you choose these particular songs to cover for this album? Did you have a childhood connection to these movies and TV shows?
I have to admit that there’s a little bit of autobiographical stuff going on there. Every piece on there has some a pretty strong association for me — not just with the film — but thinking about all the events or whatever situation was going on around me when I saw it. All kinds of stuff. It conjures up a lot of memories for me, it really adds weight to whatever emotion I’m putting into it when I’m playing it. The music itself is probably the first thing that draws me to it. There are so many amazing melodies and harmonies from that time. Just about everything on there has some kind of connection other than just to a movie.
Do you picture the movie or TV show in your head when you’re playing the theme?
It’s almost impossible to separate the music from the movie. The Godfather, or the Clint Eastwood stuff with Sergio Leone, or the Alfred Hitchcock — those are some of my favorite movies in the whole world. Bernard Herrmann’s scores for those movies are great. I almost hear the music, if I think of the movie. It’s like the sounds of the soundtrack come into my head. I can’t imagine one without the other.
How has the audience reacted to hearing such nostalgic and recognizable music? There’s also something really fun about hearing these themes.
I guess over the last few years I’ve done a bunch of these things — I don’t know what you call them — theme or tribute albums? I did the music of John Lennon a few years ago. The first time we did gigs, the very first time we were playing that music, there was no announcement to the audience that we were going to be playing John Lennon’s music or the Beatles’ music. It was awesome. We would start off with some sort of abstract thing, the audience wouldn’t quite know what was going on. You could feel it when they started to piece it together. It’s a cool thing. I’m sure there’s a lot of people that maybe haven’t seen some of these things and maybe it will draw them to check out the movie or that composer. That’s not why I’m doing — it’s a more selfish thing because I love it. I figure if I love it and figure out a way to play it, hopefully that will come across to the audience.
The album spoke to me as well. One of the first albums I bought was a collection of TV show themes that I used to play. It was comforting to me.
Oh yeah. I don’t know if it’s the same one, but during the course of doing all the research for this thing, I got TV Themes from the 50’s and the 60’s. I’ve heard those songs thousands and thousands of times. I took it for granted. My whole life I was hearing these songs or these little snippets of things. Then I listened to it, like you said you did, and man — it was unbelievable! It blew mind to really listen carefully to all those things and think about the guys that were playing that stuff. They walk into the studio in the morning, and it’s like, ‘okay guys, here’s this thing.’ They just read it probably once or twice, and that’s what we end up hearing for our whole lives.
Does it still comfort you and make you think of your childhood?
Yeah, that’s for sure. TV was — I guess it still is — some kind of a refuge. It’s been around, really my whole life.
Are there any current TV or movie themes you’ve enjoyed lately?
There have been some. I did some binge watching lately. There’s a TV version of Fargo. There’s a bunch of these mini-series things where I thought the music was really good. Do you know the one that takes place in Washington D.C.?
House of Cards?
Yeah, yeah, I really like that theme. I love the show. A lot of times, I will skip over the opening credits of something, but I love the whole opening thing on that. The music somehow got me with that one.
Each theme is instantly recognizable, but at the same time sounds drastically different from the original. How do you arrange the music to make it sounds like yours?
I’m not really changing anything. I do a lot of research, I guess. I try to get as close to what was originally there, I spend a lot of time on that. I am not trying to gloss over or skip over anything. I really want to find as much detail in the original thing and then write it down. What’s so important is the people that I’ve chosen to play the music. It’s not like I re-harmonized anything, or re-wrote anything, or changed anything. Each individual voice amongst the band allows everybody’s personality to come into it. It starts stretching and mutating a little bit. The starting point is just to know exactly what’s there. When we all play it together, all these other things start happening. That is kind of the process I go through for everything. I just really count on the personalities of the folks I’m playing with.
Which is more difficult, to write all of your own music or to arrange an album of covers?
There is no difference really, it is kind of similar. If I’m writing my own music, I’m sitting around day after day, just dredging up whatever comes up that I can write down. There is a point where it just becomes the same thing. If I’m trying to learn someone else’s song, I’m trying to get it to the point where it feels like it’s my song, and if it’s one of my songs, I’m trying to get it to the point where it feels like it’s someone else’s song. I don’t think one is harder than the other. It’s pretty similar actually.
Your albums Big Sur and Disfarmer were also made with very specific imagery in mind. How do you make music from imagery?
It’s hard to say. In the end, the music just ends up being something on it’s own. With those projects or other things I’ve done — I don’t even know how to say it — it sort of stretches me. I love just to sit there and play my guitar and write music with no idea of what it’s going to be. I have to get into that kind of state. The visual thing, it gives me some sort of extra inspiration or something. It will push me just a little bit out of my comfort zone somehow. Something usually turns up that I would not have thought of if I was just sitting there writing the music.
“If I’m trying to learn someone else’s song, I’m trying to get it to the point where it feels like it’s my song, and if it’s one of my songs, I’m trying to get it to the point where it feels like it’s someone else’s song.”
Can you listen to and enjoy your albums after you finish them?
The best time for me to listen to my own stuff is ten or fifteen years later when I forget what I was trying to do. That is when I can hear it as music. When I am so close to it, there is always that feeling of, oh man I should have done this or oh man I should have done that. Everyday I’m playing music, I am never at the point where I wish I was. I am always trying to get further where I am. So, it never feels finished or complete or anything.
I find it reassuring that someone of your caliber also second-guesses themselves.
I mean, it’s just like with anything. If you care about it and there’s no way you can ever finish it, there’s always something else to do. That’s part of the deal. You just have to get comfortable with that. We all have to try our best and, you know, keep trying. You never quite get there.
How does it affect your playing to revisit these classic and influential songs?
Well, that has been amazing. A lot of it is music that I’ve heard for such a long time, but have never actually played. Some of these things I sort of played a little bit many years ago. Now I’ve been playing for more than 50 years. It’s an incredible thing after all that time to re-examine something and see it in a completely different way. Then to actually play something that I’ve heard a lot, but never actually played. It’s amazing. I’m just still learning. A lot of it is seeing it for the first time. To physically put my hand on the instrument and play these things for the first time — it’s in so many ways brand new music for me.
You went to Berklee College of Music. Do have any fond memories of Boston?
That was just a gigantic life-changing time for me. I grew up in Denver. Boston was a huge step coming from there. I just remember that first day at Berklee — and this wasn’t so much even about the school — it was the amount and intensity of the things that were going on. You know, meeting so many new people right away. There were people I met that first day that I’m still playing with now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.