Exploring the Natural World

A conversation with Grammy-winning composer and playwright Rinde Eckert

Photo by Eva Meuller

Rinde Eckert has been a vital part of New York City’s performance art community since the mid-‘80s. He’s a Grammy-winning composer, musician, songwriter, performer, writer and director. He has written operas, plays, librettos for composer Paul Dresher, dance scores for Margaret Jenkins and performed several one-man shows. He’s been recording his original music, with the help of various collaborators since the late ‘80s, but he’s never made a solo album until earlier this year, when he cut The Natural World with producer Lee Townsend. Eckert spoke about his musical path from his New York City apartment.


Do you remember the first music that inspired you and made you want to become a performer?

My parents were both opera singers, so I was listening to music really early. I was going to operas when I was five and performed in my first opera when I was seven. I had a good voice, so I was a ringer, when they needed a kid to stand up and sing something. I learned music to understand the world my parents were in. I did study music, but I’ve been playing and singing since I was five, in one-way or another. I did have a rough patch, when I wasn’t singing very well, but after three months went by, my voice came back. I’ve continued on ever since.


You’ve recorded with the Kronos Quartet (My Lai), The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the new music ensemble 8th Blackbird, but you’ve never made a solo album until now. Why didn’t you do it sooner?

I’ve been wondering that myself. I’ve always had a lot of irons in the fire. Last year, I didn’t have any new projects that required a lot of writing, so I got myself a van, loaded it up with instruments and did a lot of free concerts. I had a grant from the Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards: I could do anything I wanted, as long as they approved. I went on social media and email and told people I was coming and I’d play a house party or do a benefit concert for your theater or dance group. I had two months to drive across the country. It was a tremendous experience to have time in the vast open spaces and meditate on it. I went into the studio a month later.


You took on a lot of instruments – guitars, accordion, wood flutes, banjo, Dobro, ukulele, percussion. How did you decide what to play on each song?

Some of them established dominance as I went along; some of them I played, just to play and get to know them. I have a Dobro/ukulele that I used on “Amelia Steals.” I’ve never seen one, except in this little shop in New York. It was broken. I fixed it and it gave me a beautiful moment. I only play one song on it, but it was just right. I have a guitar that was made by a guy who didn’t know how to make guitars. The instruments are all one of a kind, so I use them to get the sounds I want to hear.

In the studio, we mic’ed ‘em live and worked on the EQ, but there’s no processing. I played a banjo ukulele in a harmonic and rhythmic way that suggests a koto. I love the feeling you get playing with stringed instruments, because they’re all in the same family. We look at them in a cultural context, but instruments aren’t obligated to play in a style that’s familiar to them. Banjo isn’t just for bluegrass. I love finding out how broad and rich the sounds of an instrument can be, if you step outside of the usual context.


The Natural World includes older songs, new compositions and a folk song, “Black Is the Color.” Arrangements draw on elements of folk, jazz, classical and spoken word. How did you put the set list and arrangements together?

I wanted an overview of things from the past that I’ve never recorded or performed live, except for small gatherings, and things from the immediate present. I recorded most of the album in five days at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley with Lee Townsend. I came in with two melodies that had been going around in my head, and a few lyrics sheets I’d written, to see if I could do anything with them. “Time Is Our Own” took three and a half hours, from start to finished recording. You feel like you’re on the right track when those wonderful things happen.

“Black is the Color” has some ironies that are key to this project, especially the word ‘black.’ We’re in a dark time, so the image of black hair and the notion of loving black hair creates an almost ethereal notion of love. I changed the lyrics to put an emphasis on the natural world. In the last verse, I sing, “I see all seasons in her eye.” She is transformed from a human figure into nature itself, as she becomes all seasons.

I used some musical dissonances to suggest the tension in the environment and within the lyric. We’re not gonna sit in the tradition, so harmonically it moves in a completely different direction. The whole record goes from something familiar, with its cultural assumptions, to something that can be heard in a new way, if you open yourself to it. “Black Is the Color” was the perfect vehicle for that.


How do you find the time to complete all the projects you get involved in?

I don’t have a day job. (Laughs.) I wake up every morning being able to put in several hours of work. The words come quickly between six in the morning and nine. Very late at night, I’ll get some musical ideas. When I’m a little tired, I’m a little less fussy and, all of a sudden, it allows ideas to enter.


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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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