Jeff Bridges: Abiding His Time
Jeff Bridges is someone who needs no introduction. A generous supporter of numerous causes ranging from Santa Barbara-based music series, Sings Like Hell, to matters of childhood hunger including his own nonprofit organization, End Hunger Network, and the No Kid Hungry campaign’s Santa Barbara offshoot, Food4Kids, the Academy Award-winning actor is is never afraid to dive heart first into any cause he holds dear. The same can be said for his music. Having studied piano from an early age, it was while Bridges was working on the 1980 film Heaven’s Gate, that he forged an affinity for acoustic guitar and country music. In between takes on the movie set you could usually find the star playing guitar with his singer-songwriter co-star, Kris Kristofferson. Also on set of the sprawling western epic were Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett who not only contributed to the movie’s soundtrack, but also comprised the bar-room band in the film. After moving to Santa Barbara following the 1994 Northridge earthquake, Bridges teamed up with Michael McDonald and Chris Pelonis to establish the locally-based boutique record label Ramp Records. In 2000 he released his debut album on the label, Be Here Soon, featuring harmony contributuons from some of his local friends, including McDonald and David Crosby. It was in 2009 however that Bridges’s musical star truly ascended after Scott Cooper cast him in a film about a down-and-out country music singer-songwriter trying to turn his life around. Not only did Crazy Heart earn Bridges an Academy Award, but it reunited him with Bruton and Burnett to yield one of the finest films about music to date. The union led to an impeccably-produced soundtrack which was followed by Bridges recording a self-titled album with Burnett, pulling together a live band that he christened The Abiders which featured some of Santa Barbara’s finest players. Not only did the collective take to the road, they have recently released a live album titled Live: Jeff Bridges and the Abiders and, as Bridges recently told Brett Leigh Dicks, the chance to make a record with his current collective was an opportunity too good to pass up.
Brett Leigh Dicks: Your musical roots here in Santa Barbara stretch back to when you first moved to town. Tell me a little about how you first came to connect with some of the city’s resident contemporary maestros …
Jeff Bridges: We were shook out of Los Angeles after that earthquake back in 1994 and decided to head up to Santa Barbara. I had been up there a lot over the years and decided it was a great place to be based. When we got settled I wanted to find someone who might be able to help me turn my garage into a recording studio and I came across the name Chris Pelonis and even though I didn’t know it at the time, he turned out to be a world-class studio designer and he built me a wonderful studio. This was about 20 years ago and I played him some of my songs and he turned his buddy Michael McDonald onto my tunes and Michael liked them and we started a record company called Ramp Records.
That of course led to the recording of Be Here Soon with Chris and Michael which I guess can be considered as the first chapter of your professional music career. Crazy Heart obviously gave you the opportunity to write another chapter and has really put your music into the spotlight …
Yeah, you’re right. All that was before Crazy Heart. After Crazy Heart happened I thought, ‘Gee if ever there was a time to really get my music going it would be now’. So I called up my buddy Chris Pelonis and said we need to get a band together and he turned me on to all these great musicians. I kind of dragged my feet a little because of the whole audition thing. I didn’t want to be saying, ‘Thanks very much, but you’re not what we had in mind.’ I wasn’t looking forward to that, so he brought in the cream of the crop of Santa Barbara musicians. They were wonderful musicians and we all got along great so there was The Abiders right there.
Apart from being great musicians, your band is also very diverse. Chris Pelonis produces music and designs studios. Tom Lackner has his own recording studio where he records and produces. Bill Flores is a master of numerous instruments. That’s a very strong armory to have backing you …
It’s incredible to be working with these guys. You mentioned Bill Flores, he’s our one-man orchestra. He plays everything from clarinet to, accordion, pedal steel guitar and 12 string guitar so we have a whole orchestra in Bill. All of those guys are wonderful musicians and songwriters in their own right. I really lucked out with that team and just being around them and playing with them is really inspiring for me.
So much so that you have captured your collaboration in a recently released recording. Tell me a little about Live: Jeff Bridges and the Abiders …
It’s recordings come from this past summer’s tour. I started this whole playing and recording music thing kind of late in my life so I have a whole pile of truths I want to realize and I thought this was a great way to get some of that done. Live albums really capture the atmosphere and musicianship and feeling and the band was in really great form so the time was right to doing something like this. There are tunes from John Goodwin, T-Bone Burnett, Stephen Bruton, and Gary Nicholson. There’s a song I wrote with T-Bone on there and there’s covers of songs by other writers I really dig – Tom Waits, The Byrds, Townes Van Zandt and Greg Brown.
Your music career has really taken a very different trajectory since Crazy Heart. Was the musical aspect of the film part of the motivation for taking on the role?
I originally turned the role down because there was no music attached to it. If that movie didn’t have great music it wouldn’t have been good no matter how great the script was and then I happened to run into my buddy T-Bone Burnett and he asked me if I was interested in Crazy Heart and I said, ‘Why do you ask, are you interested?’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll do it if you do it’. So that brought me on board and I had such a wonderful time working on that with a great director, Scott Cooper, that it really lit a fire for me to get my music together. I put out an album with T-Bone shortly after Crazy Heart and now we have just release the live album with The Abiders.
I suspect the self-titled album you did with T-Bone Burnett on the back of Crazy Heart a couple of years ago was very different to the way you made your first album …
Working with T-Bone was an incredible experience. He’s such a great musician himself and an incredible producer and a real musicologist, but he also had a great team of guys and the band he put together for that album was so wonderful. That was practically a live album too in that all of the musicians were recorded live playing together. It was really a great experience. Be Here Soon was my first album and working with Michael and Chris was very special too.
Within both your studio and live pursuits, along with your own songs, you have embraced the work of some incredible songwriters. What qualities do you look for in a song?
Hmmm. That’s a very good question. I don’t really know because it’s not just one thing. It has to emotionally grab you or deal with a theme I’m interested in. One of my favorite writers is my old buddy John Goodwin. We go back to the fourth grade making music together and he has several songs on the album that are some of my favorites, so in that case it’s knowing the songwriter and being close to him.
Was music ever a serious career option for you?
When I was around 15 or 16 and really into my music I remember talking to my dad, who was pretty serious about us kids following him into showbiz, and telling him I wasn’t sure if I want to do the acting thing. I was into music and liked to paint and do other creative things. And he said to me “You know Jeff, the wonderful thing about acting is that you get to explore all of your different creative impulses.” And it’s been true. I’ve played a musician quite a few times – in movies like The Fabulous Baker Boys and Crazy Heart – and I’ve got to use all my talents.
How much of a balance is it to now sustain an acting career as well as a career as a touring musician?
Yeah. Just like making movies, it takes preparation to do shows. It’s a bit of a challenge to divide up my time and to also spend time with my family and have some free time too. The next tab on my musical agenda is another studio album and I also want to make some time for a bit more touring and would love to get over to Europe and play some shows.
In addition to acting and writing and performing music, you also photograph and paint. Do you find Santa Barbara culturally inspiring?
On yeah. I find that I get out and do the culture thing a lot more here in Santa Barbara than I ever did when I lived in LA. When you want to go to the Hollywood Bowl in LA to see someone you better plan on allowing two hours to get there. Here in Santa Barbara we’re just five minutes away from all this great art that comes through town so I get out and see things a lot more because of that.