Rinde Eckert
The Natural World

Rinde Eckert is a singer’s singer, an artist whose voice once made Sting cry and who has collaborated with such performers as ace jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and the pioneering Kronos Quartet. With his resonant middle register that sounds like John Cale on his best day and a falsetto that evokes the lead in a band of angels, he has earned other famous fans from iconic producer Brian Eno to opera star Renée Fleming. Rinde’s voice is a rare instrument—simultaneously schooled and natural, intimate yet brimming with grandeur.

Born in 1951 and raised in Iowa to parents who were opera singers, Rinde grew up loving the sound of soprano Renata Tebaldi singing Puccini before he picked up a guitar during the folk boom of the mid-’60s, having fallen for such sounds as Scottish folk singer Jean Redpath singing “Auld Lang Syne” and “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” After a graduate degree in classical voice from Yale University, Rinde traced an eclectic path through the ‘80s into the 21st century, recording venturesome albums flecked with jazz and electronics before working with the likes of the New York Philharmonic, BBC Philharmonic, top new-music groups and dance companies. He won a Grammy Award in 2012 for his recording with composer-guitarist Steven Mackey and leading-edge ensemble Eighth Blackbird of Lonely Motel—Music from Slide, for which he also wrote the lyrics. Above all, Rinde has excelled as a man of the theater—as a writer, composer, actor and singer, creating a series of award-winning interdisciplinary works, including And God Created Great Whales (an Obie winner in 2000) and Orpheus X (a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2007). Along with appearing recently at The Kennedy Center in Renée Fleming’s “American Voices” series, Rinde has performed Off-Broadway and beyond in his own creation, Aging Magician, as well as toured internationally with his current collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, in Jonathan Berger’s My Lai.

Now, having pursued a restless muse across the decades, this seeker, singer and multi-instrumentalist presents his most personal project to date: The Natural World, an album that ranges far and wide across Rinde’s peripatetic musical life—including a freshly customized version of the Anglo-American folk classic that inspired him early-on, “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” Along with his own visions of Americana—such as “Bar Fight,” which sounds like an age-old folk gem, though it’s new—Rinde re-imagines a Bachian melody as a droning lament (“Cantata”) and pays tribute to the Indian classical vocal tradition (“The Singer Sings”). There are moving lyrics of love and dreams alongside several songs of pure vocalise, where his melodies don’t need words to convey deep emotion. It was after winning the coveted Doris Duke Performing Artist Award that Rinde crafted a set of songs and then brought them to life on a cross-country solo tour in 2016 that saw him accompany himself on a menagerie of instruments: various guitars, piano, electronic keyboards (with samples), accordion, South American wood flute, hand percussion, tenor banjo, dobro ukulele, banjo ukulele, shruti box, penny whistle. Having performed these songs for audiences of every stripe in venues of every sort, Rinde settled into Berkeley, California’s Fantasy Studios with his instruments to record The Natural World with an old friend, producer Lee Townsend (Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Vinicius Cantuária).

With its contemplative yet communicative beauty, The Natural World feels like an offering of empathy in polarized times. The album—a Songtone production in association with National Sawdust Tracks—will be released on August 24, 2018, with Rinde celebrating the album’s release with a performance and party at National Sawdust in Brooklyn on August 26.

You’ve been a creative artist in so many different contexts and sung so many disparate kinds of music over the years. Does The Natural World feel like an especially personal creation?

It’s true that I’ve always been a nomad in music. I have always wanted to create an authentic synthesis of all the music I’ve loved, and The Natural World comes as close to achieving that on record as I’ve ever come. My very first album, released in 1992, was called Finding My Way Home, but I don’t think it has been until now that I’ve truly answered the question I’ve asked myself a lot over the years: “Where do I belong musically?” My voice has been the vehicle that has taken me to many places over the years, and this album is where I’ve ended up—it’s as close to home as I’ve ever gotten. There was joy in making it, from start to finish. One never knows how the world will take these things, now more than ever. But I’m very proud of this album—it feels special.

In studying classical music, it’s always about finding the voice; whereas in vernacular music—folk or country or the blues or whatever—it’s about finding your voice. This type of music is closer to what I’ve done with The Natural World, even if all my various performing and writing experiences brought me to it. Finding my voice has been partly a process of stripping away all that is not my voice and partly a process of creating a context in which that voice can be heard. Lacking a particular genre affiliation—a place where I “fit in”—I’ve often had to create my own places, my own contexts, onstage or on record.

You’ve lived in Nyack, just outside New York City, for more than two decades, but went back to your old stomping grounds in the Bay Area to record The Natural World.

From 1984 to 1994, I lived in San Francisco, where I got in touch with the avant-garde scene and explored different ways of singing by collaborating with dance companies and theater troupes. I also made friends with some really good jazz musicians, and I met Lee Townsend in the late ‘80s. We made a series of albums together there in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with him as producer, and he got jazz guys to play on them like Bill Frisell and drummer Jerry Granelli, with whom I’ve worked a lot over the years. Lee and I had always talked about making another album together, and so after touring solo cross-country with these songs—28 shows in a month and a half—I eventually wound up in Fantasy Studios in Berkeley with him. I spread out all my instruments on the floor, and I sang and played every note—and had a ball.

What’s great about working with Lee—and guys like Frisell and John Scofield will also tell you this—is that his ears never get saturated. He hears things in the music that other people don’t—not even you in your own music. At the same time, Lee knows when magic has happened and you’ve nailed a take, even if there’s a little blemish there. He and I share the conviction that it’s not necessarily about the precision of a performance; it’s about capturing the essential feel of the music.

 

The song “Bar Fight” feels like an old Anglo-American folk song, even though it’s an original.

A lot of my songs start in an instrument I’m playing. I’ve been using a lot of alternate tunings, which can have a sound that can inspire the imagination. “Bar Fight” came out of a riff I found playing the banjo uke in an alternate tuning. I started singing the line “Bar fight, up all night…” and a sort of ironic ballad arose from it. I was also thinking about the hyper-partisan political climate we’re living through now. The song “Hearts Are Hearts”—which came out of playing a 10-string slide guitar on the night before we went into the studio—is especially about our political moment. It seems like we don’t have the courage to open our hearts to each other anymore, at least to people beyond our own particular tribes. As someone who has worked across various musical worlds over the years, that openness to other cultures has been written into my DNA, so to speak. Also, I came of age in the 1960s, when that ideal was in the air.

“The Singer Sings” was inspired by the Indian classical tradition— were you thinking of a particular singer?

I participated in a tour of the U.S. and Europe a few years ago with a bill of vocalists from all over the world—Mali, Madagascar, Switzerland, Hungary, India. I was the representative “from the New World,” as a kind of classic American eclectic. The Indian vocalist on the tour was Sudha Ragunathan, a pure classical singer in the Carnatic tradition of South India. I had taken some informal lessons in Indian singing, but she was an especially regal, inspiring figure. The whole tour was inspiring, one of the most beautiful, uplifting things I’ve ever been part of. It felt so positive in terms of what international, intercultural relations could be. The song came out of an Indian-like drone on the Shruti box, a harmonium-like instrument with a kind of continuous breath.

Several of the album’s songs—”Dry Land,” “Lost Shepherd,” “Amelia Steals”— don’t have lyrics at all, just wordless singing that seems to say everything.

Yes, some melodies don’t want to be shoved in some semantic box, tied to any specific feeling. The title of “Amelia Steals” was originally part of a provisional lyric, but the words began to feel like an invasion, an imposition. The melody, which flowed out of me playing a dobro ukulele, seemed to be all that was needed.

With “Dry Land,” which is the oldest composition of mine on the album, I used to recite a text before performing the song, starting as the accordion drew its first breath on an 11th chord. The text was about a man who killed his brother. It felt like you couldn’t do anything after that story but cry, so the falsetto vocal melody followed from there. I once sang that song years ago at Sting’s apartment in New York City. I was part of the entertainment for a fundraiser he was hosting. I like to open performances with “Dry Land,” as it takes me to a deeper place. Everyone at the party was still talking and mingling after dinner, but it felt like it was time for me to start performing. So, I just closed my eyes and started singing that song, and it gradually got very quiet. By the time I finished the song, Sting was right in front of me, just a few steps away, with tears rolling down his cheeks. He came up and hugged me. It was a special moment. Afterward, driving home, my wife and I talked about what a remarkable thing that was—to touch someone like that, especially someone you admire, a fellow performer of that stature. But being yourself moved by the music and then touching anyone with it you can—that’s very much the point of it all for me.

For more information, please contact Chris Schimpf, Alisa Price, Krista Williams or Carla Sacks at Sacks & Co., 212.741.1000.


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