Why Bruce Hornsby Continues To Get Hate Letters

With a new album out, the singer reflects on taking cues from Spike Lee, and the relevancy of "The Way It Is" and Tupac Shakur's "Changes."
Bruce Hornsby is out with a new album called “Non-Secure Connection."
Bruce Hornsby is out with a new album called “Non-Secure Connection."
Sarah Walor

Bruce Hornsby is probably not the first person who comes to mind when you think of the term “hate mail.” But the longtime singer and musician has actually received plenty of angry letters from fans.

“I really don’t receive much venom when I’m out and about at all,” Hornsby told HuffPost. “Now, mind you, because of my ever-searching career path for 34 years, nasty letters ― that’s different.”

Many fans first got to know Hornsby in the mid-’80s, when he landed hits with his piano-driven pop songs “The Way It Is,” “Every Little Kiss” and “Mandolin Rain.” But ever since the release of his second album, Hornsby said he’s received an “abundance” of not-so-nice messages from people demanding more songs like “Mandolin Rain.”

“Most people, when they get interested in an artist, most listeners in the pop music world, they would really prefer that their favorite artists stay the same stylistically and don’t move forward,” he said. “They prefer them to not be adventurous and ever searching for the new.”

But that’s not the case with Hornsby. He’s experimented with different sounds and collaborators throughout his career.

His new album, “Non-Secure Connection,” is no exception. The 10-track set ― out this week ― features musical contributions from Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, James Mercer of The Shins, the late Leon Russell, Hornsby’s longtime band The Noisemakers, and more.

Much of the musical inspiration behind “Non-Secure Connection” stems from Hornsby’s work with movie director Spike Lee. The pair met back in 1992 and have been working together since ― with Hornsby scoring many of Lee’s films, including “Clockers,” “Kobe Doin’ Work,” “BlacKkKlansman” and even the Netflix show “She’s Gotta Have It.”

Lee “is so prolific,” he said. “He seems to make a movie every year, at least, so in that time, I wrote almost 240 different pieces of music for him. He probably used about half of those in those films, and I had all this material that I had written for the films and there’s a certain cinematic quality that I felt the music had, the instrumental pieces, for obvious reasons scoring for film.”

One of the new Hornsby songs taken from a “Spike cue” is “Bright Star Cast’ ― a civil rights anthem featuring singer-songwriter Jamila Woods and guitarist Vernon Reid. It’s a track that’s lyrically inspired by books on race relations and the civil rights era.

“This one was obviously a bit before the terrible George Floyd tragedy and all the worldwide effect that has had, a preferably positive effect, seemingly intractable problem,” Hornsby said. “So that song came from a Spike cue that was used in the Spike movie from 2016.”

This isn’t the first time Hornsby has tackled race and civil rights. He’s done it multiple times, most notably with his hit “The Way It Is” ― a song about race and inequality. The track, the most-played song on American radio in 1987, has been sampled and redone several times through the years.

“Unfortunately, it’s still relevant, and equally, or probably more so, more relevant than my ‘The Way It Is’ ― is Tupac Shakur’s version of ‘The Way It Is,’ which is called ‘Changes.’ That’s a hugely important protest song for many years, and it still resonates now. And then, there’s a young rapper named Polo G who just put out his homage to Tupac’s ‘Changes’ called ‘Wishing For a Hero,’ and that’s a great record, too. So, ‘The Way It Is’ continues to be reinvented. That’s obviously really fulfilling when anyone thinks enough of your record to want to make it a part of their record. That’s meaningful, and it’s really flattering.”

Hornby’s work has not only lived on in reimaginings by other artists, but Hornsby himself has partnered with singers ― everyone from Elton John and Jerry Garcia to Dave Matthews and Bob Dylan.

He memorably played piano on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and co-wrote and played on Don Henley’s “The End of The Innocence.”

“Certainly Bonnie Raitt’s record, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ is an iconic record,” he said. “To me, I think it’s her iconic song. Not that she wrote it, but it’s totally associated with Bonnie. And so, yeah, to have played piano on that, it’s very special, and having co-written with Don on ‘The End of the Innocence.’ Those are completely right up there in Top 10 career highlights, I guess I could say, a record-breaking level.”

But it’s his own music that really stays with him. Among his personal favorites are “Cyclone,” Soon Enough,” “The Road Not Taken,” his musical score “Sick Bastard” and “My Resolve,” a song from his new album. Another favorite is “Fortunate Son,” which he wrote after doing a duet with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame at the 1991 Guitar Legends festival in Spain.

“Roger Waters asked me to sing ‘Comfortably Numb’ with him, and I had such a transcendent experience singing that with him in Seville, Spain. I came back and said to myself, ‘I want to write a song that gives me the same feeling.’ So I was reading a book, again, a song written out of a book, not unlike ‘Bright Star Cast’ or many others ... and I wrote the song basically out of a book.”

C Brandon via Getty Images

Although this new album is just out, Hornsby is already eyeing his next release. He’s used the time off from touring and travel due to COVID-19 to compose more music.

“I’m a hermit on the road. I’m a hermit when I’m home, but at least I’m a semi-productive hermit when I’m at home because I get up most every morning, this is for many years now, and go back to my studio, and just start working,” Hornsby said.

When asked what’s left to pursue in his career, Hornsby answered: “Just get better. Just try to improve. People always asked me, even before I started working with Spike, ‘Oh man, you could be a film composer. Your music feels film-like, and a lot of what you do.’ But I don’t have a great desire to do that. I feel like I’ve crossed off that entry on the bucket list for all the stuff I did with Spike. I’m a little bit like Tom Hagen in ‘The Godfather.’ He’s a lawyer, and he has one client: Don Corleone. I’m a film composer, and I have one boss ― Spike Lee, that’s it.”

Always with an eye to the future, Hornsby said he just wants to push limits and continue to explore different sounds. Critics be damned.

“I’d love to make an entire record at some point with music, with more adventurous, dissonant, chromatic language that I’ve used on this record … And at some point, I’d love to just piss everybody off and make a whole record of that music.”

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