In hindsight, it's almost shocking that T Bone Burnett has never been a keynote speaker at South by Southwest before this year. A Grammy-winning producer and Oscar-winning songwriter who's also done considerable work with sound production technology, Burnett is right at the center of where SXSW's primary avenues of music, film and interactive intersect.
His lone previous appearance at SXSW was in 1992, performing on an Auditorium Shores bill headlined by Willie Nelson. At that time, Burnett was still primarily known as a performing artist, having made about a dozen records under his own name or with 1970s trio the Alpha Band. The '90s became his breakout decade as a producer (Counting Crows, Wallflowers, Gillian Welch, etc.) before the 2000s brought a wave of film-soundtrack success starting with the Coen Brothers' "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?"
Burnett helped to develop a hi-fi audio standard called Code, seeking to improve on MP3 sound, but more recently he's brought his career full circle with a return to songwriting. His SXSW appearance ties in with "The Invisible Light," a three-volume collaborative project with drummer Jay Bellerose and producer/composer Keefus Ciancia. The first installment, "Acoustic Space," is due out April 12 on Verve Forecast.
The subject matter addresses the unfolding of a 21st-century dystopia, Burnett explained by phone last month.
"I’ve always written about self-delusion and self-deception," he says. "But I’ve gone ahead and widened the circle to a mass deception that’s taking place. As a species, it's something we need to look at carefully.”
Musically, Burnett describes the project as "trip visualist music" on his website. The combination of trance, electronica, folk, tribal and other sounds is an outgrowth of recent music Burnett has made with Bellerose and Ciancia for the HBO show "True Detective."
“It’s very much a collaborative process," Burnett says. "I think of it as a band, really."
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Coming to SXSW was a priority for Burnett because "it was important to me to speak about the things that the record’s speaking about. Perhaps I can put the record in context for people," he says.
"The dystopia we live in now is so much worse than the worst dystopias of my youth. Orwell feared that the truth would be hidden from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. And they were both right. We’ve mechanized this sea of irrelevance, and automated it," Burnett says.
Burnett will speak at 11 a.m. March 13 at Hilton Downtown Salon H. Other high-profile musical acts speaking at SXSW include:
Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond. The two surviving members of the Beastie Boys, aka Ad-Rock and and Mike D, will speak with Amazon Music's Nathan Brackett about their recent New York Times best-seller "Beastie Boys Book," which covers the groundbreaking rock/rap trio's legacy and the loss of their bandmate Adam "MCA" Yauch, who died in 2012. (11 a.m. March 15, Convention Center Ballroom D)
Brandi Carlile. The outspoken Seattle singer-songwriter, fresh from winning three Grammys last month, will speak with Emmy-winning actress Elisabeth Moss about Moss' role as a punk rocker in "Her Smell," which is showing as part of the SXSW Film Festival. Moss is featured in the recent video for Carlile's song "Party of One." (12:30 p.m. March 10, Convention Center Ballroom D)
David Byrne. The legendary Talking Heads frontman, who turned heads with a groundbreaking live show last year that included two performances at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, brings his "Reasons to Be Cheerful" multimedia project to SXSW. From climate change to civic engagement to education to technology to transportation, Byrne addresses ways to create positive change. (12:30 p.m. March 13, Hilton Salon H)
Shirley Manson and Lauren Mayberry. The frontwomen for rock bands Garbage and Chvrches, respectively, will speak about "creativity, the music industry and the female identifying narrative" in a tandem conversation with Pitchfork's Puja Patel. (11 a.m. March 14, Hilton Salon H)
Nile Rodgers. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame producer and co-founder of funk/disco greats Chi will speak about songwriting with Canadian music industry exec Merck Mercuriadis. (12:30 p.m. March 15, Convention Center Room 18ABC)
Wyclef Jean. The Haitian rapper and singer, who was a co-founder of Grammy winners the Fugees, will speak about the master classes he's given in recent years at universities around the country and what he learned from students in the process, resulting in a new album titled "Wyclef Goes Back to School." (2 p.m. March 15, Convention Center Room 18ABC; also performing 1 a.m. March 14 at the Parish)
Lance Bass. The former member of 1990s teen sensations 'N Sync has gone on to become an accomplished film and television producer. He'll be back in town in May to host a nostalgia fest at the HEB Center. (12:30 p.m. March 13, Convention Center Room 18ABC)