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Chris Thile "Britney and Bartók rubbing shoulders in the same set doesn't seem unnatural"

The US mandolinist has an impressive collection of records and collaborations under his belt – but he tells Now Then why playing solo to an audience is like nothing else.

Chris Thile Image 2
Josh Goleman.

Picking up a mandolin aged two, landing his first record deal at 13 and earning his first Grammy nomination a week shy of turning 16, Chris Thile’s first two decades saw him achieve more than most in the ever-competitive music industry.

Fast-forward to the present day and Chris is still just 41 years of age but with 21 further Grammy nominations (including four wins), a primetime radio slot and collaborations with the likes of Dolly Parton, Paul Simon and Jacob Collier under his belt.

I spoke with Chris ahead of his Manchester show on 12 November to get a glimpse into his latest solo effort Laysongs – and I got the impression his musical flame is far from burning out anytime soon.

Laysongs has a very interpersonal sound. Was that something you intended, or do you think it was the circumstances everybody was in at the time that brought that out?

It was recorded during the beginning stages of the pandemic, so to a certain extent the intimacy was obligatory but also appropriate. And I think having made it, my impetus was to conjure up a sense of communion in the act of making that record and then curate this group of songs that would hopefully help in that.

None of the music was written specifically for that record – or I didn't know that I was writing it for that record. It's just the things I was writing. All of it was written pre-pandemic but just floated around and hadn't really found its recorded home yet. As we were all experiencing the struggle of 'where do we fit into this new life?', it started becoming very clear and became a really cathartic enterprise for me.

I do think the intimate aspect of it is, while not intentional, sort of a necessary element.

When you sit down to write, do you go into it thinking 'I'm looking to write a solo song' or 'I'm looking to write something for Punch Brothers', or do you let the songs dictate who they're for?

It's all kinds of ways. I've noticed that the minute I try to establish a writing template I experience writer's block. Every idea that you have is different and requires a unique approach in terms of how to develop it, how to spin it out into a piece of digestible music. But there's one thing on Laysongs that was intended right from the start: the thing in the middle, the three-movement piece, 'Salt in the Wounds of the Earth'.

Other than that, the songs kind of accidentally became solo. I think they were asking for that from the start and it just took me longer to realise that's what they were.

It's strange how songs take on a life of their own and ultimately tell you the way they want to be treated.

And you really have to check your ego at the door – you have to be controlled by your own material. I heard Steven Sondheim, the great musical theatre composer, talk about the importance of content dictating form.

You're coming to the UK as someone who plays the mandolin, an instrument that has deep associations with bluegrass and American music. Do you find the audience reaction in the UK any different to when you're playing the US?

There's an increased electricity I think, in the same way that we feel fireworks when we meet someone new that we connect with. I think that might be owing to an audience having less context for what it is that I'm about to share with them. I find it thrilling.

I've been over a bunch, and I enjoy feeling like we're picking up a conversation that we left off in the middle the last time I came over. So I have this dual sensation: one of relative freshness, where we're reacting to each other in a room, compared with an analogous situation for me in the States. But I also do have this sense of getting to pick up a conversation with an old friend as well.

Your sets are quite eclectic, and it's not uncommon you might hear Britney Spears sitting alongside Béla Bartók. When you were piecing those sets together, was there any sort of apprehension in combining styles or did you just let it figure itself out?

I think that in terms of the musical omnivorousness, that's sort of involuntary. It's just my experience with the world, and I think increasingly a lot of music fans' experience with the world, what with the width and breadth of what's available at our fingertips at all moments. We're all fairly omnivorous in our musical journeys and our appetites.

Chris Thile Image 3
Josh Goleman.

And so increasingly I think it's just a sincere reflection of the world I see around me.

We always talk about art imitating life, and life is a pretty multi-faceted thing at this point, so our art is going to reflect that. So the idea that Britney and Bartók might be rubbing shoulders in the same set doesn't seem unnatural. I think there's less aural whiplash inherent in such a gesture at this point in the world than ever before.

You've toured with huge ensembles and just by yourself. How is it different?

I love all of it. Playing with people, of course, is amazing. Just getting to use our shared musical vocabulary to explore music and each other is so fun. But when you're playing solo, it's an opportunity to turn outward to your audience.

I think there's a temptation sometimes to look only to your musical comrades on stage for communion or fellowship during an evening of music. The audience is there and you're appreciative, but perhaps there's not as much momentum towards the crowd, or there's not this need to collaborate with the audience because you have collaborators on-stage.

So I think when I'm performing solo I feel this burning desire to collaborate with the audience, as opposed to when you're with a band. During a solo performance you're out there looking for it or else you get very lonely on stage.

Maybe that's part of the intimacy you're hearing on Laysongs – the need to establish a connection with an audience that I couldn't necessarily see. You hear and feel each other even across time in that way, and so there's a real sense of finally getting to complete the music when you show up in a theatre. It's like, 'Ah, we finally get to do the thing that we're all here for'. It's an honour.

During lockdown I was watching a lot of your Instagram livestreams. You tried out a lot of stuff for ensemble. Have you developed those pieces since then?

The craziest part of that was getting to experience feedback mid-performance – people reacting to the thing they're watching. I can't take my eyes off the screen, so I'm seeing people comment while I'm still in the middle of a song.

It was so interesting. One thing that has happened is that now when I look out into a real audience it's easier for me to see that collection of human beings, as opposed to a faceless mass.

Has that become an intrusive thought since returning to live performance?

No, I love it because that's why I play live – it's for that interaction. I love playing in my little studio: that's where I am right now, and when we're done with this I'll go back to practicing and playing for myself. I do that so much that I always look forward to being hurled into collaboration with an audience. The thought of an individual perspective on what's happening is a welcome force, and something that can generate a new bit of music that night.

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Chris Thile plays Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music on 12 November with support from Sam Amidon.

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