Interview: Philip Watson, author of “Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer” (published 17 Mar)

Philip Watson’s biography “Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer: The Guitarist Who Changed the Sound of American Music” will be published by Faber on 17 March 2022.

Philip Watson has been a prolific feature writer on a broad range of subjects for UK and Irish broadsheets’ supplements and magazines, and also for GQ and Esquire, where he held senior editorial positions in the 1990s and early 2000s. He became freelance in 2003, a change that coincided with a permanent move to Ireland. As a music writer his work has appeared in The Wire – for several years he was “custodian” of the magazine’s “Invisible Jukebox” series of interviews – as well as the Sunday Times, Telegraph Magazine, Irish Times and Irish Examiner.

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“Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer” is his first full-length book. Email interview by Sebastian Scotney.

Philip Watson. Photo credit: Bríd O’Donovan

LondonJazz News: When did the idea of writing a biography of Bill Frisell start taking shape?

Philip Watson: Well, as I say in the book, only half-jokingly, the germ of “Beautiful Dreamer” has actually been forming, somewhere in my head at least, for the past 35 years or more – ever since I first met Bill Frisell, and heard him play live, in the 1980s.

The biography really started to take shape though in 2014 after Bill Frisell and I first meaningfully discussed the idea at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in Ireland, where he was playing a series of concerts as one of its “artists-in-residence”.

LJN: What were the early conversations like? Was he easy to persuade to do it?

PW: Our chat was friendly, I’d say, warm even, but he was cautious and reluctant – maybe understandably.

On the one hand, my timing was good: Bill was then in his early sixties and I got the sense that he was vaguely, and maybe for the first time, thinking about ideas of legacy and posterity – and I knew, and was surprised that, even though he’d been approached a few times, no biography of Bill Frisell existed up to that point.

On the other hand, being an intrinsically shy and modest person, he couldn’t imagine what I would write about and that I could possibly have enough material. As I describe in the Acknowledgements, he said, “I mean, there haven’t been any fights, or anything. And all I’ve done is stay married to the same woman for the past 35 years.”

In response, I told him that there was more than enough to write about in his music alone, then sugar-coated it with my desire to be stretched as a writer in the same way I thought he had consistently challenged himself as a musician.

He still said no though [Philip laughs]. And then, eventually, after we’d discussed such further matters as the amount of access I was looking for (many days, in a variety of locations, which was a challenge because time is almost Bill Frisell’s most valuable asset), and established that the book was to be entirely independent of him creatively and financially, he said yes.

LJN: Is there a story in the book which captures the “essence of Bill”?

PW: Well, I open the book with a description of “The Frisell Dream”, a real dream that Bill Frisell had many years ago now, but that has stayed with him, and that becomes something of a symbol or motif in the book – it sort of represents his endless and continuing creative struggle. The dream also partly inspired the title of the book.

Anyway, in this dream Bill Frisell enters a large mansion and climbs a series of winding stairs that finally lead him to a dimly lit attic lined with bookshelves and curious artefacts. There he meets three “miniature monks” who tell him they are going to show him “stuff, the real stuff, how things really are”.

One of the monks passes Frisell a small wooden box containing cubes of different colours, and he invites Bill to open it. “This is the true essence of colour, what colour really looks like,” he tells him. Frisell looks at a red so bright and intense that it actually hurts his eyes. He has the same experience with blue and green. “It was like I’d been blind and was seeing colour for the first time,” he told me.

Another monk then turns to Frisell and says, “We know you’re a musician, so we’d like you to hear what real music sounds like.” The sound that then streams into the room is so pure and physical that it feels like beam or “rocket ship” travelling through his brain. It’s every piece of music he has imagined or heard, coexisting and playing simultaneously. But the sound is not cacophonous; it coalesces into the most harmonious, beautiful and perfect music. Then suddenly, of course, Bill Frisell wakes up.

Frisell told me it was the most amazing thing he’s ever heard – though it would be impossible to describe. It wasn’t a particular melody or piece of music, but “you could hear every little bit. It just included everything. It was all one thing. It was one sound.”

That seems the perfect Frisell story to me. The infinite search for that sound that exists just beyond his reach, for something that synthesises all the music he has heard and loved into one all-encompassing universal sound, is the beautiful dream that keeps him going, every day, every time he picks up a guitar and plays.

LJN: I understand there were almost 100 interviews for the book over a period of six years. And that it runs to around 150,000 words. Was that more than you expected?

PW: I haven’t counted the number of interviews, to be honest, but there must be about that many, often with people who, despite leading busy and demanding lives, were prepared to talk to me for many hours and on more than one occasion.

I interviewed people in cities in the US and Europe, including London, New York, Seattle, Denver, Dublin and Antwerp. And yes, I conducted my first interview in 2014 and last in 2020, though, while I might have liked to, I wasn’t working on the book exclusively during that time; I was still writing articles and features as a freelance.

Once I’d finished the first few chapters and conducted some of the listening sessions – interviews in which I play tracks from various Bill Frisell albums to people such as Paul Simon, Gus Van Sant, The Bad Plus, Gavin Bryars, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver – I realised that to really do justice to the extraordinary breadth and complexity of Bill Frisell’s music, and to try and work out what it all might mean, the book was going to be a good length.

Yes, 150,000 words might have been a bit longer than I planned for, but it’s about average for, say, a literary biography – though Faber recently published a life of Tom Stoppard that runs to almost 1,000 pages and has twice as many words as “Beautiful Dreamer”.

LJN: Talking of Paul Simon – he is not known as the easiest person to agree to interviews. Did the fact that it was about Bill Frisell make a difference?

PW: It did. I knew Paul Simon was coming to Dublin to play a concert with Sting, as part of a 14-month global arena tour, but I was told by his record company press people in Ireland that there was absolutely no way he was going to talk to me: he didn’t have an album to promote, the absolute worst time to approach him was during a long and demanding tour – and Paul Simon had never, ever given an interview via the Sony Music office in Dublin in all the times he had previously been in Ireland.

I tried to explain that my request was a little different, however, and that I wanted to play Paul Simon some of Bill Frisell’s music, and the PR person did at least promise to pass on my email to Paul Simon’s management. A few days later he called me back and said, “Well, I cannot quite believe it, because he’s actually said yes. Now tell me again – just who is this guy Bill Frisell?”

LJN: Bill is also greatly respected in the jazz world – are there interviewees in that community who gave you more than you had expected or hoped?

PW: There were many standout interviews with musicians associated with jazz: Joe Lovano, Jan Garbarek, Joey Baron, Mary Halvorson, Rudy Royston, John Surman, Eberhard Weber and Ron Miles, to name just eight!

Pat Metheny sent me a long and extremely helpful email in response to some questions I had sent to his manager, which was not only beautifully written but also full of characteristic insight, originality and intelligence.

Jason Moran brought his keen interest and involvement in the visual arts to bear on our conversation about Bill. At one stage he compared Frisell’s compositions and soundworld to that of a “Zen architect – he makes these structures that, as a player, you have multiple doors into.” At another point he described the sometimes deceptive simplicity of Frisell’s approach as “making exactly the right etch into the plate – his music is about economy, texture and making each mark work.”

And Dave Douglas told me some great stories about and concerning Bill, one involving Douglas driving home from a Frisell gig with his then nineteen-year-old stepson, a guitarist who is mostly into virtuosic instrumental metal players such as Yngwie Malmsteen. His stepson said, “Well, what… Wow. What… What the hell is Frisell doing up there?” Dave Douglas asked him what he meant. And the stepson replied, “Well, it’s so incredible, all the time, but he’s hardly doing anything.”’ Douglas laughed, because for him that put it perfectly, that’s the whole point of Bill Frisell. Dave said to him, “You nailed it! Yes. Correct. The secret’s out.”

LJN: Faber publishing director Alexa von Hirschberg is a good friend and supporter of LJN. As a writer, you presumably need a sympathetic editor for a project as involved as this...

PW: Yes, and it’s hard to think of better editor than Alexa for such a book, and how I approached it – “Beautiful Dreamer” has a tripartite structure, which alternates between chapters that are narrative, thematic and listening sessions. And Alexa instantly got that, as did several other key people at Faber.

She not only has extensive experience commissioning and editing all kinds of fiction and non-fiction, and is sympathetic, rigorous and has great instincts, but she is also passionate and knowledgeable about music, jazz in particular – and a great lover of the music of Bill Frisell (she knows the albums and has seen him play live many times). Alexa is the perfect combination: she has the head of an editor and bookseller and the heart of a reader and fan.

LJN: Writing a biography can be a long, arduous and challenging process. What kept you going?

PW: Other than my deadline, you mean…[laughs] Well, to be honest, it was Bill Frisell’s music itself. Every time I got a little discouraged or overwhelmed, I went back to listening to the albums and marvelling at their extraordinary depth and diversity. The American music writer Stanley Booth said it best in his revelatory insider’s account “The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones”: “you write about things,” he explained, “that move your heart.”

LINKS: More information about “Bill Frisell, Beautiful Dreamer” is on the Faber website

Philip Watson‘s website

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