10/20/2014 12:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Possibilities and Nostalgia: Conversations with Herbie Hancock and Annie Lennox


A Conversation with Herbie Hancock

Mike Ragogna: Okay, first there was the album, Possibilities. Then, there was the video. Now, of course, comes the book, which begs the question, when is the Broadway musical coming?

Herbie Hancock: [laughs]

MR: Herbie, how did you and Lisa Dickey collaborate on the book Possibilities?

HH: Well, she lives actually near my house. She would come over with her computer and it would be a combination of conversations and interview in a way, she'd ask me questions but sometimes they would stimulate memories of events or circumstances or people from my past and I would talk to her about it and that would stimulate more questions from her about certain details. That was primarily how we worked.

MR: After reading your book and because of your approach to music, I take your title to really mean, "You know what? Anything's possible."

HH: Absolutely. I'm saying that everybody has infinite opportunities for exploration in a forward motion of their life and hopefully this is an encouragement for people to not be afraid to get out of their comfort zone and examine new territory, new ideas, new perspectives as part of the growth process.

MR: You have whole sections of the book dedicated to people you've collaborated with. When you get together with someone creatively, how do you reconcile your structureless structure and your approach to music with someone else's, other than, you know, just being a patient, benevolent guy?

HH: [laughs] Well, I always take on the challenge of, "How can I unite with this person so that they are free to express their ideas and find a common ground or a point where we can kind of intermesh maybe like a fabric, with some threads that are going horizontal and some that are going vertical but make a beautiful tapestry. I look for some way to do that so that each feels satisfied with their contribution. I also like the idea of hopefully providing an atmosphere more open than the artist is used to. In a lot of cases the artists have surprised me at how much more there is to them than what many people have heard from their recordings. There are more extensions to their ability to create. They love the opportunity to be able to show that creativity in a form that perhaps their fans aren't used to.

MR: Does that discovery process come from trying to make music with you? Do you do some mentoring during the process?

HH: The first thing that happens is they say yes when they're asked to be on my record. If they say no, there might be a problem. It means they won't be on the record and your question wouldn't be answered.

MR: What you're saying is it starts with a yes, and maybe that's the key.

HH: In a sense, it really is. If they say yes, it means that they must feel some conneciton with me or my muisc or my approach.

MR: Or the possibilities?

HH: Or the possibilities! That's perfect...that fits into exactly what I'm about.

MR: Herbie, you have the improv muse and the structure muse. It seems like there would be a little battle between those. How do you personally reconcile them?

HH: Within myself, I'm a jazz musician. We improvise. But at the same time, traditionally, we improvise off of a structure. There's a chord structure. We just create new melodies on top of the chord structure from whatever the song is. That's the improvisation. Create the new melodies in the moment. And also, harmonically, we can make adjustments. There's a lot of different ways, without being too technical, of making improvisation happen rhythmically, harmonically and melodically, and still have a sense of structure but also a sense of the complete freedom of improv. There isn't one single fifty/fifty balance in jazz. The amount of structure and the amount of complete freedom can vary. It depends on the decisionmaking process beforehand for how you might approach a project.

For instance, I just did a duet tour with Wayne Shorter. He played soprano saxophone and I was on acoustic piano and synthesizer. We actually decided that we wanted to really have as little predetermined structure as possible. Our rehearsal and our development time was spent mostly talking. We didn't really play but we talked about the melodies that mothers would sing to their babies. We also talked about fairytales. Wayne is very much into fairytales. He has all kinds of figurines and stuff. He goes to comic book fairs and all those things. We also talked about science fiction, which I'm into and he's into. We also talked about cosmological things like the big bang and dark energy and dark matter. That was kind of our rehearsal, in a way. It was only about eight concerts that we did, but I would say ninety-five percent of the concerts were improvised.

MR: It seems exploring that mutual headspace was the actual rehearsal.

HH: Exactly. That's the foundational work that we did to prepare for the concert. The actual performance was based primarily off of trust of each other and of ourselves and everything that we had to draw upon from our life experience and from our musical experience and let those things be the guide in the moment. I'm saying that to add to what I was talking about before. That balance can be quite wide...and also quite challenging! I always say, "If it's not a challenge, I'm not working hard enough."

MR: A lot of musicians space out a bit when they go into their zone, but it seems you've got to be more in the moment than ever when syncing with other musicians because you've got to be understanding of what the other guy's doing. After all, you're having a relationship.

HH: Yeah, exactly. We have to be really united, but actually, really trusting of ourselves combined with being non-judgemental. You can't think, "Oh, I didn't like what he did," or "I don't like what I did," or anything that has to do with judgement. I shouldn't say, "You have to," but I would recommend not being judgemental if you want to go to that place.

MR: Hey, if you have Wayne Shorter and you have Herbie Hancock playing together for eight improvised concerts, there must be a moment when someone hits a clam, no? The audience may never know, but you must have had some moments. I guess "clam" is probably an old term.

HH: I get it, where it doesn't feel as connected as you'd like.

MR: Perfect.

HH: That did happen. But it's like life! That happens in life. Walking down the street stuff can happen. In other words, it's part of the imperfection of being a living being. That imperfection is part of our perfection.

MR: Yeah. The imperfection works into the perfection of the music.

HH: It's perfect in the fact that we're human beings.

MR: Ooh, nice. That's...perfect!

HH: [laughs]

MR: One more reflection from the book. You have this spiritual kinship with Joni Mitchell. You got a Grammy for doing the album River: The Joni Letters in honor of her. Can you describe what your connection to Joni and her music is?

HH: First of all, I have such great admiration for Joni for her genius, the fact that she's a rennaissance woman. She's an incredible visual artist and musical artist and poet and filmaker. She has an incredible range of expression. She's so bright, so intelligent. She loves to talk, by the way. And she talks with that same kind of imagery that are in her lyrics. I love listening to Joni talk, it's so great.

MR: It's almost music, isn't it? It's improv within the structure.

HH: The greatest thrill for me is to hear a conversation between Joni and Wayne Shorter. They are so much on the same wavelength. Instead of passing from one idea to the next in a conversation they can skip over things and both know exactly where they are and land in the same place. I feel like I'm a fly on the wall and I'm watching this incredible match that's going on and it's fascinating.

MR: She once told me that Wayne was so great, she could request, "I want something that sounds yellow" and he would say, "Okay!" and just play it.

HH: Absolutely. I watched that happen so many times. He would do a take and there would be some flurry of notes. We would play it back and I would say, "Oh, there's a moment there," and she would say, "Herbie! That's exactly right, because my words are 'such and such' in this moment and he's playing 'this,'" and I'd go, "Wow, you're right. It's incredible." He's just got this sixth sense, he's somehow able to intuitively know what's appropriate.

MR: Sounds like he accesses all possibilities.

HH: [laughs] Exactly.

MR: You have a box set out on Legacy that's such a large statement about Herbie Hancock. It represents so much progression and so much experimentation and funk and soul and jazz. That's how I feel about it but what do you think about that box?

HH: My first thought was, "Damn, I sure did a lot of s**t, didn't I?" [laughs] Especially if I put one song from one of those records on and then I'd switch and do another different one, they're all so different! It covers a lot of territory. I was like, "Wow."

MR: Maybe that body of work was your laboratory?

HH: In a way. That body of work is consistent with the idea of possibilities. It expresses itself musically and in my decisions in life which led to certain opportunities. I've been able to spread my wings spiritually as a buddhist, as a professor at UCLA, getting an honorary professorship at Harvard, being a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. All those things are a part of this idea of possibilities.

MR: Herbie, what advice do you have for new artists?

HH: To develop your life. If you have the seeking mind to develop your life and to grow and learn and move forward, it's going to have a decided positive effect on your music because first you're a human being. One of your aspects is being a musician. It's not the other way around. You manifest yourself not only as say a musician but you may also be a father or a mother or a son or a daughter, a neighbor, a citizen... There are all these aspects. Developing your life affects all of those assets, really. That's part of the process of developing the priceless aspects of life, which are compassion, wisdom, courage, integrity, sincerity, respect for others. All of those things. And quite naturally, they're going to resonate in every aspect of your life including your music. They give you more to draw from when you are creating music.

MR: Beautiful. Okay, we've just discussed your beyond impressive musical and personal achievements. What are some other possibilities you haven't tried yet? What's left?

HH: Well, first of all, those are not end points. [laughs] Those are avenues. There is continual growth in those areas, but again, how do I know? Even though I'm seventy-four, how do I known what possibilities may arise tomorrow? To me, all the doors are open. I encourage others to examine that way of looking at life.

MR: Herbie, it's always wonderful when we talk, thanks very much for the time.

HH: Thank you very much, too, Mike.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne



A Conversation with Annie Lennox

Mike Ragogna: Annie, hi and thanks for the interview about your new album. It seems you take your time before releasing new projects.

Annie Lennox: Well, the thing is, when I was younger back in the eighties with Dave Stewart and the Eurythmics, we used to write and record an album every year, more or less. That was our outfit and that went on for a decade and then after that my life changed and I had a family and I tried to integrate being a singer-songwriter and performer, I tried to do those things because that's very much part of me, so I stepped away from performance and I backed off on writing and recording. I think it just reflects my life for the last decade or so. I've been an activist and campaigner focusing on HIV and AIDS and girls, really. That's been very much part of my activity, so it's reflective of my entire life, in a sense.

MR: So you've integrated life into your life.

AL: That's very good that you said it that way. I tried not to make the creative world drive me in a way that I didn't have time for my life.

MR: Yeah, and I imagine with maturity, your creativity expresses itself in ways beyond just music and recording.

AL: I don't know if it's about maturity. I think everyone dances to their own tune, you know? But it's possibly true that maturity and life experience, let's say, has informed me and I have been--as we all do--evolved. It's an evolving process, you have these different phases in your life and your activities reflect them. In your early days, you don't have a life ahead of you and you're trying to create something, and later on, you're looking back at what's happened and all the events that took place.

MR: Which brings us to Nostalgia. Annie, on your album Medusa, you covered a lot of great songs by songwriters who were popular at the time of its recording. With this new album, you're doing something similar, except it's material from the great American songbook of the twentieth century, and it's clear that these songs resonated with you.

AL: Thank you, and I appreciate that kind of feedback from you. I really was interested to get ot the core of the songs, just strip away any of the extraneous productions that have gone on before. Usually synonymous with a lot of these songs are very grand productions, and they're beautiful, they're absolutely exquisite but I felt I wanted to go deeper with them and in doing so get to the nub and simplify and strip away this thing. I also didn't know many of the songs, so I got down to the root. I feel with jazz that deeper down you have the blues core and that resonates very powerfully with me. There's something raw about it and I felt like I wanted to draw that emotional content out.

MR: One of my favorite interpretations was of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You." To me, it sounds pretty darn vengeful.

AL: Could be. Could be vengeful. But not vindictive. Maybe taking control. When you think about the original version with Screamin' Jay Hawkins, he wants to take control. He's a man and I was thinking, "I'm not a man, I'm a woman. What is that perspective about?" The approach to it was a universal message--well, I'm just talking in my own head--to all straying men. You know, they inherently have the capacity to stray, and so do women as well. I thought that was an interesting "I take my power" kind of take.

MR: Beautiful. And, I believe you looked at "Summertime" from the perspective of a black nanny.

AL: I haven't really read a great deal about "Summertime." It could be true, it may be a myth. But in my head, I was thinking that this song was sung by a nanny who was holding a baby from a wealthy, white family and in this particular circumstance at that time, this woman has no access to liberty or power or any resources. However, the baby that she cradles has the potential to fly and to go into life and have that heritage of power and success and what have you, but at the same time, the twist is that life has its own adventure and no matter whether you have money or success, it's still a kind of risky journey. There were so many subtexts in the lyrics to me that I kind of place myself there and I think that's what I'm trying to pull out. There's the subliminal story in the whole thing.

MR: Did you have any similar revelations as you were embracing and recording these songs?

AL: When you're trying to learn a song, it's like a stranger that you have to make friends with, and it reveals itself to you slowly, slowly and you get deeper into it, into the subtleties of the phrasing and the nuance of all the aspects of it and the atmosphere so you're capturing the magic of what you're trying to convey. I'm putting these words into it because I can only talk in words during this interview but it's actually more of an intuitive process than anything else.

MR: One thing we haven't talked about it your activism. You have been associated with LGBT causes as well as many humanitarian efforts. Your work has empowered and helped a lot of people. That's pretty admirable, how you've used your celebrity and energy.

AL: I don't know that I can help everyone, but I feel as a human being with a particular sensibility that I'm born with, looking around at this dilemma, as it were, of being human and having this life, whatever this life is going to be for each one of us, this human condition, there are challenges in it and cruelty in it. It seems to be a theme that's replayed over and over again for millennia. The cruelty of it, the injustice of it, the things that cannot be resolved, the issues that I cannot be blind to but I can't resolve them personally. I don't know, they would maybe call that empathy. But I think we all have empathy potential. Some people have it more than others and sometimes we get really shut down and become really hardened and protective and defensive and egoic. At the end of the day, I'm just being myself. I've just always been very curious about life and what it is to be alive, and for other people, too, that collective consciousness and collective experience.

MR: Musically, you've presented many different projects. You've written, you've covered, you've collaborated, you're on duets. Where does your creativity come from? What is the spark that makes Annie Lennox go into motion?

AL: That's a really good question and I don't know if I have the immediate answer for you. Let me say it like this: We're all wired in a certain way, every one of us. Some of us are right-brained, some of us are left-brained. At the moment, this is how we understand it. Some of us are creative, some of us are athletic, some of us are academic, mathematical, scientific. From my early memories, I was always drawn to music first. Music. Then the visual things around me always drew me, even as a child. Things like the colors of crayons that I might be handling in school, they really fascinated me. I'm not very good at counting and I'm really bad at retentive, academic, informative long wedges of information. I'm not very good at remembering those things. The way I seem to resonate is from a creative place. It's really like the resonance that you're coming from and it's inherent in you.

MR: Nice. Annie, it's seems the perfect time to ask you this question. What advice do you have for new artists?

AL: It's funny, isn't it? I would be coming from an experience that is now in a landscape that is completely and radically changed. So what I would have to add to the new landscape that new artists are facing, I'm not really sure if it would be in tune with what's happening right here and now for someone at the starting blocks of becoming a creative artist. It concerns me because the industry of music--and let me make that very clear, I'm talking about the "industry" of music, not music--the industry of music is oversubscribed, in a way, because people have access to it at their fingertips. The industry, in a sense, is imploding. It doesn't know what to do with music. At the moment, we've had this issue with U2 giving away an album and all the controversy that created. All of these are attempts to handle the changes in the industry of music, in a way, because we're all looking for sustainability, we're looking for the methodology, how you become a lasting artist in an environment where everything is so rapid and so changing. It's all about next, next, next. I really don't have the golden answer.

MR: So then how do you create and work within this environment?

AL: I'm selective about what my activities are. I'm very paticular about what I choose to represent and what I think is not appropriate for me. I have identified the things that I feel deeply passionate about and I try to put my life force and my energy and my creative processes into things that are very resonant for me. Of course, I fail. Sometimes I achieve something and then I fail again. That's part of the deal. Nothing is all about success or sales. It's a human experience at the end of the day. I think it's very important to be grounded, whatever that means to anyone. Stay with good values in a sense and don't let your drive and ambition and egoic aspect take you off on a flight of fancy. The funny thing as I say this is that's my perspective. People all come form different places and different experiences and different perspectives.

MR: You're so right on. Annie, you seem so in tune with yourself, able to express your ideas clearly and with integrity.

AL: Thank you, it's been a process to get here because I started quite young. I started without any experience or any knowledge. I don't have a handle on editing but as the time as evolved, I started to get an aspect of, "Who am I? What am I doing in all of this? Where do I stand in everything?" The process of giving interviews as well has taught me I have to really understand where I'm coming from and what it is I represent and what I want to express.

MR: I'd like to throw out an interesting connection here: I would put a question mark at the end of Nostalgia because in certain respects, this is a very "new" record and approach for you.

AL: Yes, thank you for that. Someone else had given me that feedback as well and I thought, "You know what? They're right." It's funny, it is nostalgic, but we are all seasoned nostalgists if we've lived a little bit because we carry memory within us. It's the dichotomy of being in the present moment and also bearing the past with us at the same time. We all have access to memory, and that's where our nostalgia lies.

MR: For those who were fans of the Eurythmics, do you and Dave ever chat about getting together and perhaps doing another project or a performance in the future?

AL: Well, the last time we did that it was an usual thing, it was a beautiful thing because we were asked if we would perform at the special Beatles tribute that was held back in February and we both wanted to do that. That was really touching, it was a great experience, but people have been asking us if we're going to get back together again and I don't plan to do that at this point in time. Both of us are very individual, very separate and we have been for a very long time. I can't imagine that we will get back together again, but thanks for asking! [laughs]

MR: [laughs] What about your own music? Is there anything in particular you want to tackle?

AL: I try to live very much in the moment so that if I'm tackling something I'm quite myopic about it. I don't look too far into the future. When I had the notion of recording an album of these songs, the idea took a fire in me. I was very consumed with it and it was all I was thinking about and in terms of creativity. I've been very focused on Nostalgia the album for the last year, and I'm really immersed in it now because I'm talking about it and the album's about to come out. It'll have a life that I will accompany for some time and then once that's settled down, my mind will be clear again to think about where I'm going next.

MR: All the best with whatever that might be. One last thing. How fulfilling was it to listen to Nostalgia top to bottom after it was mastered and finally finished?

AL: You see, it's such a process because every day. You're going into the studio and crafting and redefining and putting some finesse into what you're doing and there comes a point where you go, "Okay, this is done now," but you've been working on it and working on it like water on a stone, you know? Then there's a certain point when you actually listen to it through from beginning to end, each song, and you're comfortable with it and you say, "Okay, it's done, it's really, really done and I'm pleased with it." That is when you say, "That's it," and that's it. "We've done that bit now, it's behind me." You're listening and listening and listening every day like that.

MR: Yeah. Hey, you are quite awesome, thanks so much for the interview. I just have to quickly share that I was on a flight in 1987 and saw you in the first class section. I thought it would be great to say hi to you, but then I considered you had a private life, so I left you alone.

AL: That's right, it's a phenomenon. Everybody puts a projection on you. There's the Annie Lennox that you know and that's that. But there's the Annie Lennox that gets up in the morning and cooks breakfast and does ordinary things and that's a part that I know and you don't. [laughs] The Annie Lennox that flies on planes, for example. First class. [laughs] I'm just being really facetious! This is the funny situation that I find myself in. Obviously, because I've been making music for such a long time, people have grown up with it and they have the experience of the music and then they have the whole concept of who you are, understandably. They don't really know you and they don't know the human person. I'm just a regular person. I want to be that person, too. There are different aspects in my life and the one that you know musically is one aspect of it. Does that make sense?

MR: Absolutely, and Annie, I'm very happy to have waited until 2014 to finally meet you.

AL: [laughs] How lovely. Thank you!

MR: All the best, and of course, I'll be waiting for Nostalgia 2.

AL: Thank you, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Bye-bye, dear.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne