Seeking fresh horizons for the banjo is a hallmark of Béla Fleck’s storied career. From his 1980s tenure with bluegrass innovators New Grass Revival, to inventive solo output that’s seen him integrate the banjo into classical, pop, country, and countless global musics, to the everything-and-the-kitchen sink experimentation of Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, he has helped to reestablish the banjo as a cool, contemporary and cutting edge instrument. In 2005, he traveled to Africa to trace the roots of the banjo, resulting in the multiple Grammy award-winning 2009 album Throw Down Your Heart. In this excerpt from my book Innerviews: Music Without Borders, Fleck provides insight into his demanding creative process, what he learned while traveling in Africa, and his take on spirituality.
I understand you tend to be very self-critical when it comes to writing.
When I compose, I write a lot of stuff I’m unsatisfied with. I might think it’s kind of nice, but not good enough, so I have to keep pushing and pushing until I come up with something that is really special as a composition. And in the studio, I’ll do take after take after take until I think I really have something good happening. I tend to hone in on sections and keep playing them and troubleshoot until everything falls in place perfectly and it feels like a great weave. I might record 100 solos to get into an area I haven’t been in before or to complete a thought in a way I haven’t done before. The solo might be just a minute-and-a-half long, but I’ll go back and listen to those 100 takes to figure out what was good, what wasn’t good, what I like and what I don’t like about my playing. Sometimes it won’t be until takes 91 through 94 before I find something I think is decent. There’s a critical element in putting it all together too. I like to edit takes together to ensure all the best live moments that happened in the studio are captured in a song.
In other words, you have a serious perfectionist streak.
It’s a working style that developed along the way. Maybe it’s a justification for being a picky little creep over the years. [laughs] People used to say to me “Hey, that’s fine. That’s good enough. Stop.” And I’d go “I don’t want to stop because I’m not done.” That approach made me very resentful in the early days because I felt a lot of pressure to accept whatever happened on the live track or to accept one of the first overdubs I did just to not bore the other people in the room or put them through the hell I was going through because I wasn’t satisfied. I think musicians who do a lot of recording have gone through periods where they just weren’t happy with what they do and everybody tells them what they did is fine. Then the record comes out and you listen to it and go “I should never have let them make me keep that solo. It’s just not good enough.” Other times, you think “That was fine. What was my problem?” There is a lot of psychological stuff that goes into this. You have to manage yourself in order to accurately assess if you’re doing something positive or negative.
Tell me about some of the musical perspectives you brought back with you from Africa.
The most important thing I witnessed is how music fits into the lives of Africans. Everyone plays music. It’s part of what happens in a day in a village. They have songs for different things that happen-songs for the morning, for birth, and to teach kids what to watch out for when they grow up. We have some similar ideas in our folk songs, but they come from that African root. The trip also helped me move into a place of letting go of control. As you can tell from our conversation, I’m very much for fighting for control to make things as good as I can make them. I am usually very well rehearsed when I approach a musical situation, but this was a case where I couldn’t always do that. I had to trust in the moment, which I really enjoyed doing. The truth is I sometimes get too prepared and rehearsed, and it doesn’t actually help the music. So, part of this was about letting things go and allowing music to happen.
How have you evolved as a musician since the beginning of The Flecktones?
I’m not sure I’m a better one, but I make different choices today. Edgar Meyer and I were talking about how most of the brilliant work done by brilliant people is done in their twenties. That’s frustrating for people in their forties to consider. Certain things I came up with earlier had a simplicity or directness that’s harder for me to get to now. I’ve been looking for things on the banjo for 30 years now, so it’s sometimes harder to find something I haven’t done before, so the choices are more subtly different than they used to be. I am rejecting more things that seem overly complicated or sappy for no reason. I’m always trying to get into a direct, focused, pure kind of writing. That’s what I’m always hoping for.
You’ve said you consider music something that “helps you create a path to yourself.” Tell me about that philosophy.
When I said that, I was trying to get to the point of what music was about for me and it’s a heavy question to ponder. For some of us, music has a spiritual element to it. It’s definitely that way for me. If I treat it that way, then the goal of music is to express who I am on the Earth in one way or another. It’s a lofty goal and it doesn’t always work out that way. When you listen to someone’s music, you hear a whole lot of who they are in it. You can also hear if someone is insecure when they play too much or if they’re too busy on their instrument. You can also hear where they’ve evolved to in a lot of ways. Some people are naturally deep souls and it comes out in the music.
The complete interview is published in Innerviews: Music Without Borders book available from the Abstract Logix web site.