Bill Murray and His Gang of Talented Musicians Talk New Worlds Album and Tour
Orpheus (1) with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves, when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
Every thing that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die.
- Shakespeare's Henry VIII
Considering this, The Eternal Issue, it could be said that there is perhaps nothing more eternal than music. Historical accounts date music making origins at some 55,000 years old, suggesting its existence in ancestral populations long before human dispersal around the planet. In short, when it comes to the most universal and enduring art form, the beat goes on.
The same might be said for the career of actor and comedian Bill Murray, who, regardless of the fractal scattering of new media forms, the concerning vacuum of aging in or around Hollywood, or a generalized devolution of culture and a rise in affinities for cookie-cutter or the mass-produced, has kept a kind of autonomous candle aflame.
There’s no one like him. Yet, despite this autonomy, it might be argued that Murray has come to be known as much for his lovable, off-stage/off-screen antics—often all-inclusive gags involving the general public (2)—than he is for his film roles. Autonomous, yes, but unpredictably porous and communal.
Co-star in 2014 flick St. Vincent, Naomi Watts, said of him, “Wherever he goes, he’s leaving a trail of hysteria behind him.” Hysteria—exaggerated, uncontrollable—may be the ripple effect of a random Bill Murray appearance at your low-profile local diner or sporting event, but his recent artistic maneuver has Murray foraying into perhaps the absolute opposite of hysteria: classical music. Think Bach, Gershwin, Brahms. Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends—a four piece ensemble fronted by Murray on vocals, along with superstar cellist Jan Vogler, violinist (and Jan Vogler’s wife) Mira Wang, and pianist Vanessa Perez—will debut an album this fall of the same name and kick off an American tour at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in mid-October.
Infused with verse from famous poetry and popular song (i.e. Van Morrison), and guided by the meticulous mastery of the classics supplied by his musical accompaniment, Murray will recite, sing, and free-style (on this latter element, it’s anyone’s guess) for approximately 90 minutes a concert with his New Worlds pals, all of whom were born in different continents (Vogler: Germany, Wang: China, Perez: Venezuela) yet have found themselves unified under the banner of art—a demonstration of commonality in an age of attempted division.
In the spirit of this unusual and highly anticipated project, which begs questions around immigration, community, and artistic form, we’ll examine some spoken excerpts from the record, consider their historical consequence and relevance in this micro-collision of world cultures, note how the lineage of Mr. Murray’s cultural and performative output has, at least thematically, lead up to this particular project, and chat with respective members of the squad while they’re photographed for the cover of Flaunt. All in a day’s work.
I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair
Borne, like a vapor, on the summer air (3)
I see her tripping where the bright streams play
Happy as the daisies that dance on her way
Many were the wild notes her merry voice would pour
Many were the blithe birds that warbled them o’er
Oh! I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair
Floating, like a vapor, on the soft, summer air
I long for Jeanie with the day dawn smile
Radiant in gladness, warm with winning guile
I hear her melodies, like joys gone by
Sighing round my heart o’er the fond hopes that die
–From Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”(4)
Stephen Foster’s song, while particular to his doomed relationship with his first love, encompasses a feeling we can all relate to. We all have a Jeanie, don’t we? A first crush, light and alive in mind and memory, lost to dependence and darkness in reality. The golden languid hours of childhood summers. But who, or what, might be master cellist Jan Vogler’s Jeanie? The halcyon days spent attending the Marlboro Music festival, a reprieve from the repression he experienced in his homeland in East Germany? His first week and rapid marriage to violinist (and fellow New Worlds member) Mira Wang in the wilds of New York City, happy and free despite lacking a home in which to lay their newly wedded heads? Or, maybe an artist as innovative and ambitious as Vogler keeps his eyes on the here and now.
After all, there might not be much time left for reminiscing when you’re travelling the world as a performer, stacking up honors like three ECHO Klassik Instrumentalist of the Year Awards for cello, and recording (and in doing so, reinterpreting) everyone from Bach to Dvorak, along with contemporary arrangements, and all to great acclaim. Plus, when you’re making music with a team as talented as New Worlds is, the present is a lot of fun.
We’re in a narrow townhouse on Gay Street in the West Village, one of those narrow Wes Anderson kind of brownstones that looks like it dates back to the 1800s. Vogler returns from a clothing change in a nook off the ground floor living room, and shares on the origins of this unique union.
“I was on a plane from Berlin to New York and Bill was on the same plane,” Vogler recounts. “When I went through security with my cello he was wondering what I would do with the cello on the airplane. I didn’t know who he was, and he didn’t know who I was. He had an aura, so I thought… you know how it is when you travel, you get this feeling: I kind of know this person but I don’t know where he’s from, and at first nothing really rings a bell.” The pair ended up sitting across the aisle from each other in first class. Vogler laughs and carries on, “And he said, ‘What?!’ Not only does the cello travel in the same service class as me, it gets a window seat! So then we started talking, and by then I had figured out who he was.
“At the end of the flight, we had such a good time together that we exchanged phone numbers and I invited him to a concert I gave in Dresden with the New York Philharmonic, and he came and had a good time. I went to a couple of his movie premieres and we were just…friends. That was maybe three years ago. He would invite me to a thing called poetry walk over the Brooklyn Bridge for the Poets’ House. He sent me a text message that said: ‘Meet me at 5 pm at Brooklyn Bridge.’ So I came there and had no idea what was waiting for me, and there was Whitman being recited on both sides of the bridge and it was beautiful. I was so taken by him reciting Walt Whitman at the gala at the end.
“A few days later I sent him a text that said, ‘I think that we can do something together.’ He had kind of magically planted that idea in my head, I think, that we could do something together. I knew he sung well, and he’s an actor, so I thought we can make a show that’s visionary, and includes the great American authors and music, and make it really universal, and kind of visionary in terms of values of American society which have been lost, or are in danger to be lost.”
Vogler prepared a music list and shared it with Murray. Next came an introduction to his wife, Wang, and they got along well. They’d printed a few programs announcing themselves as ‘Bill Murray, Jan Vogler & Friends.’ “We had no idea what we were really doing, or who the friends were!” Vogler laughs. “Mira had great rapport with him and I thought, ‘I know a girl who could fit that team really well,’ and that was Vanessa, because I had worked with her on a tango album years before. She was the right person and I was very happy that she also had very good communication with Bill. So we were a team, and that’s half the work.”
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean (5),
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
–From Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (6)
In ruminating on Whitman’s verse, it’s clear that we all, at some point, and sometimes many points, must come to terms with our mortality. This is handled in numerous ways by people—some with ire, some with pleas to a higher power, some with the dissolving or reparations of worldly relationships—but profound in their own right all the same. Chinese violinist Mira Wang channels a similar weightlessness with her playing as that alluded to in “Song of Myself,” almost as if departing planet earth: eternally beautiful.
A critically acclaimed musician and experienced performer—and a sometimes orchestra member in the United States, Europe and Asia—Wang is a winner of First Prize of the International Violin Competition in Geneva and the First Prize of the International Violin Competition in New Zealand. Currently a highly sought-after soloist, Wang is the Artistic Director of the Model Room Musicales concert series in New York City and the Director of the Moritzburg Festival Academy in Germany—a training program for young musicians that functions as part of the annual Moritzburg Chamber Music Festival. This act of pausing her own endeavors for a bit to reach back to children and teach means Wang also recognizes how important it is to share the skills she’s acquired. Rightfully so. What’s the point of hoarding your gifts when they too will pass with you if not shared with the next generation?
“It wasn’t planned this way. I wasn’t going to be involved,” Wang shares on the New Worlds project, “but when Jan finally got together with Bill, talking about this particular project, it happened to be at our home. So we had dinner together and Jan noticed I had a very good connection with Bill. So that’s how it came about. I think it was fun and also we had a lot of the music in mind. We played some of the music for him, and certain things he had a reaction to and certain things he wasn’t so... you know,” she laughs, “different reactions. The literature came later. We had authors in mind. So it was a process of three days to choose what stories would offer the best connections to the music. We kind of knew he could sing. We didn’t have expectations—we just thought he is extremely musical, and he’s an unbelievable actor, so things should work out.”
Still, it isn’t only vibes and friendship that has made New Worlds such a formidable performance piece. Vogler describes the research that informed the track selection and arrangements, as well as the richness of the literature chosen, which speaks to some pretty massive global conversations at the moment. “I bought a lot of books at Barnes and Noble,” Vogler says, “that I knew from my childhood, and German translations of American authors, and brought them to Bill’s house. We got some major arrangements like West Side Story for three classical musicians and voice. Really looking for cornerstones, and looking for things to communicate… Everyone gave their very best energy and then we did it once at the New York Yacht Club. Mira has a little concert series there, by invitation only—a really high profile little series—and the audience went totally berserk, absolutely nuts. So we thought ‘Oh, this seems to be working.’ Then we did it in Berlin and that’s when I thought, ‘OK, this can be something.’”
By then the word was out. The phone was ringing off the hook. Everyone wanted the show. “We did it at a festival in Dresden, Germany, and not everyone speaks perfect English, especially in that part of Germany, but everybody got everything. It was really beautiful. I really thought about American art communicating with Europe—immigration, values that if you think about it, America became so rich culturally because of immigration. George Gershwin, a Jew who composed an opera about a black couple? Unbelievable in the prewar era. Incredible. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in the river scene where he’s helping Jim to escape. Unbelievably visionary things about empathy, humanity. It seemed right to do that last year, way ahead of the mess we are in now. It was not a response to the mess now; it was more of an anticipation of worry about our values. As artists we live in this borderless world of complete tolerance. It’s a joke if you tell me that I don’t tolerate a colleague who is either of a different race, religion or sexual orientation. It’s a joke because it’s way past us; we solved those problems 30-40 years ago. I’m a very big optimist. We are not frightened. We are hopeful; we are optimistic.”
The sun was setting over Avalon
The last time we stood in the west
Suffering long time angels enraptured by Blake
Burn out the dross innocence captured again
Standing on the beach at sunset all the boats
All the boats keep moving slow
In the glory of the flashing light in the evenings glow (7)
When will I ever learn to live in God?
When will I ever learn?
He gives me everything I need and more
When will I ever learn?
–from Van Morrison’s “Will I Ever Learn to Live in God” (8)
Here, Morrison sings of the miracle moment when he surrenders to the wisdom of learning that the second he “learns to live in god” his life will forever change. Pianist Vanessa Perez might not exclaim her love of god (or a lack thereof) publicly, but nevertheless, after listening to this Venezuelan-American pianist perform, one can’t help but feel they’ve experienced the metaphysical.
Perez has become renowned the world over for her vigorously passionate performances, imbuing classic and contemporary compositions alike with a deep emotional resonance. Her story is unique—while prodigies in most musically ambitious families are put under a great amount of pressure by their parents and teachers to practice, Perez’s mother, who herself suffered a great amount of stress and pain in her own attempt to forge a career as a classical pianist, wanted to save her daughter from the same fate, and so she restricted the young Perez from learning the instrument. It took two years of protestation and pleading from Perez to finally persuade her mother to share the magic of the piano.
Once she did, it was clear a new talent had been unleashed. Stephen Brookes, in a breathless review of one of her performances for The Washington Post, gave a sense of what it is like to see Perez infuse the classics with new life: “In a stunning performance at the Embassy of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Hall on Thursday night, Perez dove into the Preludes as if discovering them for the first time, flinging them out into the hall with a kind of wild intensity that was often breathtaking, as if she were forcing these delicate hothouse flowers into the fresh air for the first time.” Since then, Perez has gone on to play prestigious venues across the United States, Latin America, and Europe; she’s played under esteemed conductors including Dudamel and Montero; and she has collaborated with some of the greatest names in music.
New Worlds is the latest project for the pianist, and it seems to be a good fit for her stylistic adventurousness and ranging ambition. Playing alongside an actor was a first, but Perez found Murray to be more than capable. “I think what I’ve learned is how focused he is when he’s on,” Perez remarks of Murray’s contribution. “He doesn’t miss a beat. The energy he puts out, we receive, and then we put out more energy. It’s a lot of teamwork. So much of it is in the interpretation of things. I think it’s a sensitivity: when we’re on stage we ‘feel’ each other, and now we know each other much more than before, so we really feel what might happen and what’s about to happen. We are always pleasantly surprised, and we also do things differently. Sensitivity is most of it.”
May the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear (9)
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will love your back
may you open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
—from Lucille Clifton’s “blessing the boats (at St. Mary’s)” (10)
Of course, before a voyage to the New World, rituals are a must. So, the New Worlds record commences with a blessing of the boats. Exploration, after all, comes at great risk, as that “lip of understanding” can, beyond a psychological drop-off, come with danger or unnavigable terrain, and you need all the watching over you can get. As Vogler mentions above, the New Worlds project is about uniting contemporary thought with history, with a borderless sensibility for our place in the modern world. Everyone’s boat needs a blessing. It’s not easy out there. But if your boat is blessed by Bill Murray, it may be that you can proceed with absolute confidence.
Midway through the shoot, Murray picks up a bass guitar that belongs to the young girl who lives there and starts to serenade the young lady. She leans against a wall with her hands tucked behind her back. Her eyes are as huge as a Keane painting. She waits expectantly. Almost everyone on the shoot is crowded into the small living room, breathless, as they listen to Murray play a tiny concert, just for her.
He starts off with a bit of Hendrix:
Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?
I’m going out to find my woman she’s going around with some other man
Hey Joe, tell me what are you gonna do?
Well I guess I’ll shoot my woman, that’s what I’m gonna do,
And I guess I’m gonna shoot her man, is what I’m gonna do…and his voice trails off.
“Makes sense,” says the girl, and the room laughs.
As he starts playing “Louie, Louie,” the photographer says, “Bill we gotta go outside.” Murray sings “We gotta go, yeah yeah yeah…” But he won’t go. Not yet, anyway. A few more lines of “Louie Louie,” into “Hang On Sloopy,” into “Cherry.”
“She’s got the way to move me, Cherry baby….” he sings, then pauses. “That’s called 1/4/5, and if you can learn that one, that’s good…and then the G major chord, and maybe the blues octave. I don’t know much but I know those and if you can play those, you can play a lot of songs real fast… And I’m really sorry about taking over your bass for a little while,” he says to the rock star in training, “but I’ve been taking lessons and I really need the practice.”
“We began ‘colliding,’” Murray says, remarking on the formation process. “We began recording before we played live very many times, so fortunately we recorded live as a group in a room, so we didn’t lose a whole lot when we began playing live as a group together.”
And how about the chosen name? New Worlds? “We’re all from different continents. But these kinds of questions are really better for Jan because he takes all the credit, he takes all the fucking credit, but only because he deserves all the credit, so…”
“I’m not taking the credit!” Vogler chimes in.
“I’m giving you the credit,” Murray shrugs.
“Well I’m not taking it,” Vogler decides.
“The idea of doing an American-themed show,” Murray continues, “is it’s turned out the way it’s turned out whether anyone wants to acknowledge it or not, so we won’t bother about credit. This is what we’ve got, and it feels good. We played five shows in Germany and we were pleased to find that the people there appreciated the point of view. I guess we all felt like we were trying to represent the best ideals of the American idea, the American dream. We’re going to try to do something unique to each town, like an encore that is unique to each city.”
“Posture everyone, posture!” Murray chastises the other three as they pose for the photographer through a mirror. “It’s the same people every time,” he teases.
1) Orpheus, the “father of song,” is one of the most beloved, venerated, and creatively interpreted figures in Greek Myth. With his famous lyre, he was said to be able to charm people, animals, and even stones with his unrivaled poetic and musical abilities, coaxing any who listened to dance. He famously used his gift for song to thaw the heart of Hades, convincing him to allow Orpheus’s slain lover, Eurydice, to return with Orpheus from the underworld on one condition: Orpheus must walk ahead of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following, and, in his anxiety, as soon as he reached safety, he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be across the threshold. She vanished for a second time, forever.
2) Bill Murray, prankster extraordinaire, is known for all manner of endearing hijinks: crashing bachelor parties to give impromptu speeches, crashing house parties and helping out with the dishes, surprising revelers by cutting in on the karaoke, hopping behind the bar to serve drinks (a shot of tequila, no matter what was ordered), and reading poetry to construction workers, to name a few.
3) Speaking of floating, there’s a fantastic scene in Wes Anderson’s generally perfect second film Rushmore, where Murray’s character is sitting in a pool chair, drunk at a children’s birthday party. He aimlessly tosses golf balls into the water, smokes a cigarette, and watches his two-timing wife feed cake to another man. Everyone at the party regards him with disgust, but he’s beyond caring. He fills a glass of whiskey, and as The Kinks “Nothing in this World Can Stop Me Worryin’ ‘Bout That Girl” plays, he strips to his Budweiser bathing suit, climbs the diving board, knocks back the entire glass in one go, puffs his cigarette, looks around at all the people he despises, and who despise him, and jumps in the water. He falls awkwardly (portrayed with signature brilliant Murray physical comedy) and then floats in the green gloom in meditative retreat from the world around him.
4) In 1850, Stephen Foster married Jane Denny McDowell, whose nickname was “Jeanie.” The marriage was short-lived, however, as the pair suffered numerous conflicts, and ultimately separated in 1853. In an attempt to win back his wife, Foster composed “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” in 1854. Although the song remains one of Foster’s most beloved parlor ballads, it was not commercially successful. Foster, who experienced financial difficulty through most of his career, had to sell the rights to “Jeanie” (as well as other songs, including “Old Folks at Home”) to make ends meet.
“Jeanie” was a notorious beneficiary of the ASCAP boycott of 1941. During this period, most modern music could not be played by the major radio broadcasters due to a dispute over licensing fees. The broadcasters used public-domain songs during this period, and according to a 1941 article in Time magazine, “So often had BMI’s ‘Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair’ been played that she was widely reported to have turned grey.
5) There’s a famous, possibly apocryphal, anecdote that has become intertwined the Murray mythos, spreading in numerous varieties and jokey rephrasings across the internet as a popular meme. It goes like this: Bill Murray walks into a Wendy’s, grabs a French fry off of a man’s plate, and eats it. “No one will ever believe you,” he whispers to the man, and leaves.
6) In this passage, the final stanza of Whitman’s epic free verse poem, the poet performs his final disappearing act, dissolving on the page before our eyes, sublimating into an immaterial force of nature. “A Song of Myself” was one of the first attempts at establishing free verse as a poetic style, a radical departure from the poetry of the era, and a major work within the Transcendentalist literary movement. He reworked his poem over the course of his life, deleting ellipses, rephrasing lines, adding numbers, etc., up until his death.
7) While in Washington, D.C. to accept the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Murray made an unscheduled appearance in the White House briefing room. He hopped behind the lectern to extemporize on his favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, predicting that they would beat the LA Dodgers in the upcoming championship. The Cubs went on to win the World Series that year, ending a 108-year-old “curse.” The footage of Bill Murray bursting into ecstatic gladness at the moment of the victory swept the internet.
8) Avalon Sunset is often referred to as being the Irish singer-songwriter’s most “spiritual” album. Morrison is a perfect example of new/old world mixing—Avalon Sunset includes a take on the American Gospel hymn “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and Morrison was deeply inspired by American jazz and R&B throughout his musical career, finding musical common ground in the struggles of the Irish and of African Americans.
9) In 1993’s “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray’s character Phil echoes Morrison’s sentiments about “living in God,” or maybe living as God. “I’m a god. I’m a god—I’m not the God, I don’t think,” Phil says. “Because you survived a car wreck?” asks his counterpart. “I didn’t just survive a wreck; I wasn’t just blown up yesterday. I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted and burned. Every morning I wake up without a scratch on me, not a dent in the fender: I am an immortal.”
10) From 1979 to 1985 Clifton was Poet Laureate of the state of Maryland. The title of this poem refers to the “Blessing of the Fleet” that occurs every October on St. Clement’s Island. The event commemorates the founding of Maryland by reenacting the blessing of the boats that carried the first English before they set out on their journey in 1633. They landed at St. Clement’s five months later.
Written by Nicole Blackman
Photographed by Andreas Laszlo Konrath at M.A.P.
Styled by Andrew Mukamal at Streeters
Hair by Corey Tuttle at Honey Artists
Makeup by Josee Deluc at Honey Artists
Groomed by Eloise Cheung at Kate Ryan Inc
Produced by Matthew Youmans
Production Assistant: Katiria Powell