Jon Hassell, music's great globetrotter: 'Be more aware of the rest of the world!'

Crackling down a phone line from Los Angeles, Jon Hassell apologises in advance. Now 83, the multi-instrumentalist and composer – a hero of Brian Eno, Björk, Bono, Jean-Michel Basquiat and others – fell in his recording studio earlier this year, breaking his leg. The subsequent recuperation in a convalescent hospital went on for four months. He had no visitors, due to the coronavirus pandemic, “so I only had my cell phone to maintain contact with the outside world”.

It is an experience that has had after-effects. “I’m feeling a little bird-out-of-cage-like,” he says. “I’ve just got a new apartment and I’m sitting here looking at all the things I’ve brought out of storage yesterday. The place is full of stuff and I have to dig through a lot of things now. And that kind of includes my memory,” he adds, referring to our conversation. “You might hear me searching for really polished answers. But let’s give it a try.”

He really does not need to apologise. He occasionally pauses after I ask a question – “Now, let me see …” – and occasionally returns to a subject some time after I assume we are done with it, but Hassell is a fascinating interviewee, with an astonishingly rich history and umpteen intriguing theories about music.

His most recent is what he calls “pentimento”, a term he borrowed from painting that refers to images and forms that have been painted over in a finished work. He has applied the idea to music on his latest album, Seeing Through Sound, and its 2018 predecessor, Listening to Pictures: they are dense, shifting sound collages, in which, as he puts it, “layers of corrections are used to effloresce out to something”.

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