HAROLD BUDD: SHOW ME WHERE I BELONG
photo courtesy harold budd
Harold Budd may be known to the world as an ambient “soft-pedal” piano playing collaborator of Brian Eno and the Cocteau Twins, but in plumbing the depths of his multi-faceted four-decade career, I discovered first hand perspective on everything from East L.A. in the 1940s to the pretentiousness of the minimalist avant garde movement of the 1960s to the celebration of artistry in 1980s Europe. His warmth and candor regarding loss, artistic honesty, and surprising phone calls he’s received through the years made for an incredibly moving conversation that I’ll treasure as an education in staying true to oneself. Harold is playing his first show in his native Southern California in twelve years tonight with Bradford Ellis, Veda Hille and visual artist Jane Maru at Whittier College. This interview by Christina Gubala.
I’m just going to jump in with two feet and just start picking your brain about what makes the man that is Harold Budd, if you don’t mind.
Harold Budd: Oh, I don’t mind at all, but you will be surprised or shocked when I tell you that I haven’t a clue.
I appreciate an honest answer right off the bat!
Harold Budd: [laughs] I think everybody is equally complicated, just not in the same way. That’s human nature. That’s us. That’s the way it is.
Do you feel like we have a chance of understanding one another? Or to each their own journey?
Harold Budd: I don’t know if I can answer that. Sometimes I’m ambivalent about that. Sometimes I feel that it’s part and parcel of understanding people generally, and other times it’s an abysmal failure. I think it’s just because nothing is cut and dry or so simple, especially human behavior.
I was listening to Aurora Teardrops specifically today, and I heard your poetry being recited through the voice of a female narrator—I was wondering a) who she is? And b) what it feels like to hear your own poetry through someone else’s voice?
Harold Budd: First of all I have to clear up a little bit of a misunderstanding: I’ve had two females reading the poetry, and I’m not sure which version you got. One of them is—the first one, initially—is Jane Maru, who’s an old friend of mine from Joshua Tree, and the second—and current one—is Veda Hille, who’s a composer and songwriter from Vancouver, Canada, who is kind of new on board, so to speak, but she’s absolutely brilliant. I’m very, very lucky to have her as part of the ensemble. Anyway, listening to the poetry—I have to admit to you that for the most part I don’t remember a thing. I remember some things, of course, naturally—it’s mine. But it’s like I’m hearing it for the first time. Especially with somebody like Veda, who’s extremely articulate and flamboyantly excellent with words. She has a gift. I don’t. And she’s wonderful to listen to, but … and it could be anybody. You know what I mean? No, of course you don’t. [laughs]
I mean—maybe I do? Maybe I don’t. But it is interesting to revisit one’s own creation and hear it through a different prism. Or a different voice, to be specific.
Harold Budd: It’s wonderful, and it’s quite exhilarating. And I can’t take responsibility for it, but it works. It’s great. Wonderful. But I can’t say, ‘Oh, that’s mine.’ You know? With my chest puffed out like a stuffed pigeon. You know—it’s absolute nonsense. I’m not that way, you know?
It seems like poetry has been involved in your life—intertwined in some way—for a while now. I was reading about a tribute that you did to the beat poets. It looks like it was done in 1988—what about the beat poetry struck you in the 80s?
Harold Budd: The beat poetry album just kind of occurred. And why did it even occur? I was squirreled away for a month in Chipping Norton with Andy Partridge, and we were working every day—except weekends—on an album we were doing together, so I was emailing poetry that I had collected before I left for England by Diane Wakoski, and, you know, like, well, you know, ‘them’ [laughs] Philip Lamantia, and Denise Levertov—oh, just wonderful. So I was discovering all this for myself for the first time when I was emailing it all off to Jessica Karraker, who was writing the poetry conventionally. It was my way of getting acquainted with it in a very intimate way. There’s no mystery at all about any of it: it’s just poetry that I discovered that I loved—still do, still do, very, very much. I have to confess to you, I’m not a poet. I mean … I write things that resemble poetry, but I’m not in the class of James Merrill or Christina Rossetti. I’m a decent poet/. I work at it, and I love doing it. I love using language and I love memory and atmosphere very much. It’s very important to me. But I’m not sure by any stretch of the imagination that that’s poetry. Capital ‘Poetry’. And insofar as it isn’t, I admit that completely. I’m just having a hell of a good time. Honestly, that’s it—I can’t be more frank or honest with you.
I really appreciate you saying that. I’ve read a few older interviews, and it seems like you do tend to evade definition—I really appreciate that about your music.
Harold Budd: Well, thank you!
There’s a period in your studying and in your practice where you said that you minimalized yourself out of a job, and then you came back with a piece called ‘Madrigals of the Rose Angel,’ which was rooted in a fascination with Renaissance music. What took place in those two years between working with drone tonality and then jumping to the Renaissance-inspired ‘Madrigals of the Rose Angel’?
Harold Budd: One of the things was I got profoundly upset and bored to death with the avant-garde music that was being practiced around the world—the Western world—at that time. It seemed self-congratulatory, and for a small cadre of snobs, and I refused to go on with it. I thought naively for a time that I was going to join the party and compete along with everyone else at a level that I thought was professional, but I had to get out. I couldn’t be honest in saying that I was doing anything valuable or worthwhile at all—nothing that I could be proud of, I’ll put it that way. I have an ego, and I was not satisfying myself. In fact, I was embarrassing myself, frankly. And I just walked out. I got the hell out of there. I didn’t want any of it. And I discovered my own intimate language when I just threw in the towel and said, ‘I am disgusted and please somebody show me where I belong.’ Suddenly it opened up just right there in front of me. And I was more than a little influenced by the intense language of the recorded music I heard by Pharoah Sanders.
I wanted to ask you about him—I’m glad you brought him up.
Harold Budd: Oh yeah! I mean—I don’t know him personally, I’ve never met him, there’s no way in the world I ever will. I’m not a devotee of that world. I don’t really know anything about it … but that I admired beyond telling. He pinpointed so grandly exactly what he meant, and I was just so thrilled to hear it—something that was so extreme. It wasn’t fancy, it was just there. It was 100% there. Loud. There. And then … so that’s where I’m meant to be. I wanted to be there without innuendos. I wanted to go right for the jugular.
Without the conceit of hyper-intellectualism that was affiliated with the movement.
Harold Budd: Exactly correct. I wanted to be responsible for music that would change your life. That’s what I wanted. Nothing less than that. Because it changed my life, and it’s all I could do. I’m hopeless at everything else. I can’t drive a nail—I scarcely can drive a car, you know? I’m hopeless. But that I could do, and I love doing it, luckily for me. So that’s that.
It seems like a very honest action and a very honest decision that lead to a very honest presence in your music going forward from there.
Harold Budd: That’s a lovely thing to say, and of course you can say that all you want!
And it led to your collaboration with Brian Eno, which followed shortly thereafter.
Harold Budd: I just want to say one thing again clearly right now: I owe Eno everything. OK, that’s the end of that. He called me on the telephone, and he had heard a live tape of the recording I did of a concert with Marion Brown at Wesleyan University. And this tape I innocently sent off to a lot of people, mostly former students, actually, like Peter Garland and probably several others, but people had copies of this tape, and it was, you know, a really nice performance. And I was still, a teacher—I was teaching at CalArts, I believe. And somehow or other … I have no idea, but Eno, somebody passed the tape on to him, thinking that he might be possibly interested in this. And he called me on the phone. I mean, honestly …
I would’ve fainted, I think!
Harold Budd: Oh, no. No. I’m not an Eno worshipper. Nothing like that. No, no. We had a lovely conversation, and he invited me to come to London—I had scarcely ever left the US at that time—to record there. And I … the answer was yes, OK? Yes. You tell me what to do and I will be there. And voila, I was there. And that’s it. It opened up another world for me that I didn’t know existed. Well—I knew it existed, but I didn’t know much about it. I knew about it from the fringes, you know? Like looking through the window at something but not being a part of it. And suddenly I was a part of it. God, it was just marvelous. I’m not kidding, I owe him everything. He changed my life in a way that was extraordinary. And I must say the same about the late Marion Brown, whose memory I cherish. He was a marvelous, marvelous man. He told me … he assured me that I had to do two things—quit my job as a teacher and get out in the world and start taking responsibility for what I wanted to do. He said, ‘You are going to places you’ve never dreamed of.’ And no one ever talks to me like that. Ever. And it was so thrilling to kind of receive the gospel, as it were, honestly. It was a magic time. And it changed everything for me.
When someone invests that kind of faith, I imagine it really ignites your motivation.
Harold Budd: It certainly did in me. I was ripe, you know? What can I say? I was plucked from the tree, and suddenly I had flowered. I was just waiting. I couldn’t do it on my own. I didn’t know anything.
And the comforts that a steady job offers allows things to go stagnant, too.
Harold Budd: Listen—I knew secretly that if I didn’t quit my job at a pretty prestigious art school—if I didn’t get my ass out of there—I would be there the rest of my life. And I would still be resenting the fact that I’m there and not out doing what I want to do and blah blah blah and all that kind of romantic, you know, bullshit. So this was it. I did it. And they were all right. I never dreamed where it would take me.
After you visited Brian Eno in England, you came back to the States, but then you ultimately ended up moving to Europe for a spell. A couple of years.
Harold Budd: It was ‘86-’91. 1986, anyway, I got a phone call from—here we go with phone calls out of the clear blue sky—Ivo, who was the Cocteau Twins’ manager, and he said that they wanted to cover a piece of mine, and was it okay? And I said, ‘Of course it is!’ How cool is that, really?
Harold Budd: The Cocteau Twins and ME?! I mean, do they realize that it’s ME?! [laughs] What do they want with ME?!
But I imagine they had a similar feeling on the other side of this collaboration.
Harold Budd: I know that. Of course I did. But I was not privy to that kind of inside information. I didn’t realize to what extent they were into that. I was a naive dumbbell and I found out about it and I was just thrilled. I just couldn’t believe it! There’s a whole world out there making music. What I call music—which I was proud to be able to say was mine—and by other people who have this complete, ultimate life of their own. I discovered it all. I didn’t know. I wasn’t privy. I was a dumbbell. So they said, ‘Well, let’s collaborate on a whole album. You know, to hell with one song. Can you come to London?’ ‘Well, yes! Yes, I can.’ So they brought me to London, and I spent a month squirreled away in Shepherd’s Bush going to the Cocteau Twins’ studio every day. I was discovering everything then. When I was there, I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get out of America. This my own country—I’m an American, I’ll never be British, I’ll never be anything other than what I am, a Westerner.’
Not to mention a Californian!
Harold Budd: Yeah—along with my upbringing which is Western. But: ‘I’ve got to get out of America because I’ve got to start again. And so is my family.’ I began looking around while I was spending that month in London, like, ‘How much would this cost? I need to rent a room. Or I need to rent a whole flat.’ What do you do? How do you do it? So I learned ropes. I found out how you did that, and within six months, I mailed my ass out of America. Smartest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Also the scariest thing I ever did in my life.
Had you spent your whole life in California? Or did you move around America? I know you were in the Army for a brief spell.
Harold Budd: As a composer, as an avant-garde composer, I had a job. As an avant-garde composer, one travels occasionally, and some of it comes as a surprise, but I saw many parts of the country that I’d never been to in my life, and other people … blah blah blah. There’s nothing extraordinary about that—that’s just part of a professional existence. And especially at that time. Whether or not that’s still the case, I haven’t the slightest. In any case, I got a couple of minor cramps to continue my gig writing music that no one had heard of. In fact, I was getting so much … what do you call it … scorn? Pushback on me. ‘The music that this guy Harold is writing is … you know, trash. It’s just pretty. It’s pretty music and it’s a heartthrob and it’s not serious, it’s not initiating any issues and problems.’ And I’m going to temper my language here … but yeah, right! I cannot stand the whole life that you guys are doing, and I want to get out, and I want to make a living. So I got out and I was making a living within the first month. I was actually making money! The first time in my life—not as a teacher, but as an artist. I was making money as an artist. Can you imagine what that’s like?
Harold Budd: Absolutely amazing. And it happened to me at about age fifty, you know? That’s the way it goes.
Patience, endurance and honesty with oneself I suppose. And getting to collaborate with people like the Cocteau Twins—did you spend time with Elizabeth Fraser? I know that you’ve collaborated with Robin Guthrie on multiple occasions, but the elusive and reclusive Elizabeth Fraser—did you get to know her at all?
Harold Budd: Definitely. Definitely. One of the loveliest people you could possibly know. She’s very gentle, and she’s exactly the person you imagine she is. She’s just lovely and unpretentious, and a very lovely person. Now, mind you—I’m not a close buddy of hers and haven’t been for years and years and years—but she left that with me. She’s a genuine lovely, lovely person, and certainly one of the sweetest sounds in the world.
So you’re in Europe, you’re collaborating with the Cocteau Twins, you’re making money as an artist, you’re traveling around—what ultimately led to your return to the States?
Harold Budd: Oh, well … there was a little bit of a trauma. I was living with a girl, and I had every intention of spending the rest of my life in England because I had bought a flat—I was a property owner, believe it or not, and I loved the society. I loved living in England. I felt very much at home there. After three or four years of constant living in England, anyway, my accent started to change. But I used to take a train up and visit my friend Bill Nelson in Yorkshire, and Yorkshire is a different world altogether. The accent is so pronounced, so strong—it’s unbelievable. Anyway, there I was with my slight British London inflection of American English—standard American lingo—and his Bill’s wife would always say, ‘Harold, you have the strangest accent I’ve ever heard in my life!’ [laughs] Well—I can’t help it! Look, there’s nothing I can do about it—I don’t live in L.A. any longer, I don’t live in the desert. Here I am in Central London and my lingo is changing. So anyway—this girl that I was living with, which I thought was forever and forever, turned out not to be forever. So … I didn’t sell my flat, exactly, but I gave it to her, and I could afford to do that. And sad farewell, and I left for Los Angeles where Eno’s record company and stuff like that had just opened an office.
Harold Budd: That was great, yes. I just found a place right away in LA, and I leased a place for a while knowing full well that I’m not going to live in America anymore, but I had to …
Had to distance yourself from the situation.
Harold Budd: Yeah, and of course I got involved with a different girl altogether, and one thing led to another, and one of those things was we had a child. And so I didn’t go back. I didn’t return.
I noticed in some of the nomenclature on the records that you released while you were in England, there were allusions to distinctly Californian things—on The White Arcades there’s a track called ‘Coyote’, for example. Was there a part of you that missed it out here? And was there any soul soothing that you felt when you returned?
Harold Budd: I completely agree with you. I reacquainted myself with my old roots, and found them to be extremely attractive, and I was kind of glad to be home for a while, you know? I think secretly I thought, ‘Well, to hell with it. I’m going back.’ Not true—it wasn’t true at all. I was happy. I was very happy to be back. ‘Coyote’, for example, it wasn’t conscious. I didn’t write that because I thought, ‘Well, I’m returning to America, so I’m going to write a piece called ‘Coyote’.’ No, no. None of that. It was just—I don’t know—a coincidence.
Something you can notice after the fact, I suppose. A subconscious act.
Harold Budd: Fair enough. After the fact, absolutely. You may be absolutely correct. But I wasn’t conscious of anything like that. I was conscious of the fact that I was back in America, and I felt like I belonged. I was making a very decent living and enjoying life. I loved what I was doing, and I still do.
You can’t beat that!
Harold Budd: No angst—no nothing.
I’ve read you were very particular about nomenclature and the names of your songs, and it makes me wonder: do you come with an idea in mind and then try to sculpt it musically? Or do you create something and then name it after realizing what it says to you?
Harold Budd: I went through a long period when I had tons of titles; I’d finish a piece, and I’d think to myself, ‘This piece is this name. It’s already named.’ It fits or it doesn’t fit. I didn’t change the music to fit it or alter the title at all. They came together, and that was it. I don’t search for titles at all anymore. I haven’t for over twenty years, I guess. [laughs] I can’t believe it. Twenty years. Oh, gosh. Was I out of diapers then? Yes, I think so. [Laughs]
I’ve also read on your website that the keyboard wasn’t necessarily your first passion. You felt that composers were forced to use keyboards, so you defied that and didn’t learn to play the piano until you were in your thirties.
Harold Budd: That’s correct. At first I wanted to be the world’s greatest jazz drummer, and I just worshipped Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and those guys. I thought they were so cool, and I wanted to end my life in a bar playing behind Stan Getz. [laughs]
Was this born from your time in the Army when you played alongside Albert Ayler?