Rundgren catches the bossa nova beat
February 2, 1998
Web posted at: 12:10 p.m. EDT (1210 GMT)
By Paul Freeman
SAN FRANCISCO -- Todd Rundgren has never hesitated to bend
his music in unexpected directions. So it should come as no
surprise that his latest album, "With a Twist" (Guardian
Records), takes his most recognizable songs, sets them to
bossa nova beats and allows them to shimmer over lounge-music
"Guardian approached me about doing an album of personal
standards," Rundgren says. "They were offering a real budget.
I figured, 'It's around tax time. Must be time to do a
The record company hadn't specified any particular approach.
"They didn't want it to be a literal retelling," he says.
"They also didn't want it to be nothing more than unplugged
versions. I warned them that I was considering doing this
(bossa nova). They didn't take me completely seriously at
first," Rundgren says with a laugh.
"Nobody at the label said, 'Oh wow! That's exactly what we
were thinking of, your bossa nova record!' So it was a little
bit of a surprise for them, but also gave them an interesting
lever to promote it with."
Rundgren had been contemplating opportunities to gain greater
exposure in the South American music market. "I was thinking,
I'm not credible with or even crazy about a lot of Latin
music. But I've always really been into the bossa nova thing,
because of the jazz-oriented aspects of it. So when I got the
offer from Guardian, everything came together."
When Rundgren places such tunes as "Hello, It's Me" and "I
Saw the Light" into the lounge realm, the results aren't
cheesy or camp. He tries to make the exotic excursions
magical. His fascination with lounge artists of the '50s and
'60s, like Esquivel, Arthur Lyman, Martin Denny and Les
Baxter, began about 15 years ago, during his frequent tours
of Japan, where Rundgren has a huge following.
"The Japanese are such audiophiles," he explains. "They seem
to have re-pressed everything onto CD. They discovered the
lounge artists long ago. It's only recently that it's become
a phenomenon in America.
"There's an element of musical daring in the original lounge
albums that contemporary music could be considered, in many
ways, lacking. In the '90s, with the heavily sampled records
being made, the ear has been returned to these sorts of sonic
non sequiturs, sounds taken out of context and placed in new
contexts. Like many of those albums of the past, my album
offers emotionally concise music that essentially sets and
sustains a mood."
Rundgren isn't expecting "With a Twist" to set sales records.
"The biggest problem artists have is that their audience
flattens out. They get older. Instead of spending their money
on records, all of that disposable income is now their kids'
allowance. So the record industry is skewed toward the kids.
"As time goes on," he continues, "an artist loses the
attention of the industry in general. Most of them go limping
along, picking up a day job to supplement whatever they can
still manage to squeeze out of the recording industry, or
they just quit and wind up being a (a company rep) with some
label. I don't see myself doing any of those things. I see
myself continuing to make music. So I have to maximize my
audience by connecting directly with them."
Rundgren, a pioneer among multimedia artists, is working on
ways to allow consumers to subscribe online to a musician's
compositions. People can then download the material at their
convenience. You can check out his Web site at
"The actual physical distribution of records is one reason
why many artists can't afford to remain in the business.
There's all of these middle men who want to get a piece out
of it, and if they don't see a big enough piece in it, they
don't get enthusiastic about the process."
Though the music can be transferred perfectly via computer,
Rundgren acknowledges that people still crave tangible
merchandise. So you'll be able to order these items through
the Web site too.
"People's habits are fairly ingrained, in terms of how they
relate to the product of music. There's always been that
question regarding electronic delivery, as to whether it's as
sexy and satisfying as holding a package in your hand. That's
why the hard-copy follow-through is, in some sense,
Rundgren is perpetually found at the forefront of
technological advances. "I'm always wary of technology, but
I'm not afraid to deal head-on with the problems that it
embodies," he says.
Right now, he's embarking on the second leg of touring in
support of the new album. "If there's an adequate response,
then I'll consider extending the performances. But I don't
plan to wind up in the bossa nova bin for the rest of my
"My feeling is that the success of it has got to be limited
to a certain degree. It's not the kind of record that is
easily put into a contemporary radio format. The hook is
really the familiarity of the material. The problem is that a
lot of this material hasn't been on the radio for 20 years
and there's a whole new generation of deejays and listeners."
Rundgren takes pride in the fact that he doesn't easily melt
into the mainstream. "I've always incorporated diverse and
bizarre musical influences. That's not unusual for me. It's
peculiar when the things I'm interested in are also something
that the public at large may have some interest in.
"Now that would be the oddball element -- if the audience and
I would be in sync for once," he says with a chuckle.
Copyright © 1998, Paul Freeman
Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate