While Bruce Hornsby may be best known for his series of radio hits from his days leading Bruce Hornsby and the Range, when songs like “The Way it Is” and “Mandolin Rain” were staples on pop radio, the eclectic vocalist-pianist has spent the past few decades moving in and out of different genres.
Over the years, Hornsby has dabbled in jazz, bluegrass, country, pop and classical. A 13-time Grammy nominee, the singer has solidified his status as a top musician and collaborator. His own 20 albums have sold more than 11 million copies worldwide, and he’s also appeared on more than 100 records for various artists.
His new song, “Cast-Off,” co-written by multi-instrumentalist Justin Vernon, who also appears on the track, is something that shows the range of Hornsby and his music.
“It’s a song about acceptance and even gratitude in the face of rejection, egolessness, patience and humility,” he says. “I write and perform what moves me. I’m constantly pushing my music into new areas and sometimes I’ve left certain audience members behind, but I can’t be bothered worrying about that. I’m a different person than I was when I was 26.”
The single is part of Hornsby’s upcoming record, “Absolute Zero,” which will be out on April 12. The genesis of the album began when Hornsby worked as a film composer for notorious writer-director Spike Lee, who he started collaborating with in 1992.
Hornsby was born in Williamsburg, Va., and learned the piano at an early age. He studied music at the Berklee College of Music and The University of Miami, and was heavily influenced by jazz.
“When I was at UM, I wanted to do exactly what I am doing now,” he says. “I wanted to find my own voice and my own unique way to make music. Like it or not, you know it’s me when you hear my music; I have added my own voice and style and assigned my signature on the music.”
Of course, as anyone who has seen Hornsby play in concert before knows, the audience can help guide the direction that some of the concert will go.
“I take requests, and anyone who has been a regular supporter for my concerts know it’s a wide-ranging affair that will include everything from modern classical to traditional folk to old songs that people still care about,” he says. “There’s a little utilization of the jazz language here and there—a little color that I paint with.”
Hornsby tries to placate everyone by playing bits from all parts of his career. And no two concerts are ever the same.
“I haven’t played with a set-list for years and by taking requests, it leads me into interesting places,” Hornsby says. “It really gives me a sense of what the audience is interested in. You can talk to five people in the audience and they will give you five different reasons why they are there. Some want the jazz, some like the bluegrass, some like the stuff I did with the Dead.”
He’s talking about the seven years he spent playing alongside Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, which Hornsby credits with helping to evolve his own songwriting.
Collaborations are nothing new for Hornsby. He has performed with a who’s who of musicians including Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley, Ricky Scaggs, Pat Metheny and Phil Collins.
“People ask me why I do so many collaborations, and mostly, it’s them calling me,” he says. “I think it’s because a lot of people whose music I like have liked mine and wanted me to be a part of their trip.”
The secret to lasting almost four decades in the business, Hornsby says, is by continuing to test himself and explore new things.
“I think it’s very simple. If you move people, then they will come to you, whether it be an audience or fellow musicians,” he says. “I try to move myself musically and have been a student of a lot of different styles of music. You need to create music that moves people. If you don’t do that, the rest of it doesn’t matter.”