"I've waited forever to do this", Bill Payne says of his long-overdue first solo album. Payne, who co-founded Little Feat with the late, great Lowell George 35 years ago, has been Little Feat's keyboardist and its pilot throughout the band's existence, writing and singing such beloved classics as "Oh Atlanta," "Day or Night," "Time Loves a Hero" and "Gringo," while "steering a ship that was rudderless," as he puts it. He's also contributed to hundreds of records as a sideman. The list of the artists Payne has recorded with is as lengthy as a small-town telephone book, ranging from Jackson Browne to Beck to Jimmy Buffett – and that's just some of the "B"s. But there's another side to this veteran musician that is quite distinct from the gritty, soulful rock & roll for which he's best known – and it is this side that he reveals on the all-instrumental collection of solo pieces, Cielo Norte (or North Sky in English).
A marriage of improvisation and composition, the album is by turns vividly panoramic, warmly lyrical and stylistically adventurous, as Payne moves between his bank of synthesizers and acoustic piano. Among its touchstones are the solo work of Bill Evans, John Fahey and Yo Yo Ma, three free-spirited virtuosos who ignored stylistic boundaries and made use of a direct path between their spirits and their hands.
"The reason I went in this particular direction," he explains, "was that it's a much more intimate view of who I am as an artist. People are familiar with the Little Feat albums, and odds are, anybody who listens to music has heard me play on a handful of things, at least. This is the closest people are gonna get to me in the setting of what I do outside of the band."
Bookended by the aural excursions "Sunday's First Light" and "Sharing the Dream," the album intermingles loping groove pieces, languorous soundscapes and three rapturous solo piano pieces, "Through the Eyes of a Child" (dedicated to his son, Evan), "Your Beautiful Smile" (inspired by Bill Evans' solo piano work) and "A Song for Cheryl" (a wordless love song to his wife). Cielo Norte is a work of intricacy and depth, subtly interlaced with what Payne calls "connective thread" – that will reward close and repeated listening.
"In the process of choosing material for this collection," Payne writes in the liner notes, "I searched for a thread that would make the music cohesive, despite the different genres I was exploring. The intent was to bring the listener along with me, not unlike on a drive in a car, as one watches the scenery change from cities to small towns, from ocean to desert to mountains to prairies to lakes, through the prisms of day or night, shade or sun, moonlight or pitch black. My love of music, whether performing or listening--though the two are inseparable during the former – lies in the sense of being transported. It is a form of time travel."
Cielo Norte had its genesis in 1992, when Payne – during his rare breaks from touring with Little Feat – began spontaneously laying down and documenting the musical ideas that were swirling in his head, with the aid of a Macintosh SE 30 equipped with Vision sequencing software. To computer geeks, the only remaining use for this now-ancient Mac is as a doorstop, but the combination worked well for Payne – so well, in fact, that he continued using the rig through the completion of the album in 2004, despite the fact that he had to turn on the increasingly balky computer twice in order to get it running. "I think I can safely retire it now," he says with a laugh.
Most of the music was conceived in the music room of Payne's former residence on the Mulholland Highway north of L. A. (he recently relocated to in Michigan's Upper Peninsula), with the rest of the ideas coming to him while chilling with Cheryl at the Montana getaway place he's owned since 1981. Nonetheless, Cielo Norte feels like it was wholly conjured up in the cozy interior of a cabin in the mountains – you can almost hear the crackling of the fire, smell the aroma of stew slowly cooking on the stove and see the snowflakes drifting outside the window.
For this longtime bandmember and in-demand hired gun, making music in solitude is a totally different experience; "collaborating with myself" is how he describes it. Unlike the interactive playing that is Payne's mainstay, the process of tapping into his inner voice involved letting go rather than bearing down. And the array of electronic and acoustic instruments in his music room gave him a virtually unlimited palate with which to paint his interior pictures. As he accumulated these private recordings, he began to realize that they were sturdy enough to go out into the world.
"The toughest thing was just sorting out what my first statement would be, because I play so many styles," he admits. "I'd had stuff that I'd been doing in my house for years, just playing and composing, coming up with different riffs, so I began to dig through the material. I had a hernia surgery toward the end of 2003, and at that point I said to myself, 'Y'know what? You're indoors, you're not goin' anywhere – finish this record.'"When he had the music organized into a form he considered eclectic yet coherent, Payne invited engineer Gil Morales to join him in Montana, and together they shaped the recordings into an album.
When asked why he chose not to use other musicians, Payne replies, "This is not the kind of thing I necessarily feel I could teach anybody; I don't even know it myself. But technology has provided people like myself, who are not adequate at writing music as complicated as they can play, with an alternative. Those sounds I'm capable of making are what convinced me to write this stuff. It was like writing it in tinsel as opposed to typing it out. And now I'm sharing my notes."
Cielo Norte could've been titled Being Bill Payne, to borrow Charlie Kaufman's premise – it's a stunningly transparent look at an artist's creative process from the inside out. But that's just one of the levels on which it functions. Payne may have been collaborating with himself, but the album also initiates a collaboration with the willing listener, as Payne's music triggers subjective images and reference points on the receiving end, "painting images in our mind, supplemented from experiences drawn from our lives…attaching meaning where we can," as he once wrote about the experience of reading poetry – an experience that parallels the act of listening to this sort of open-ended music. Getting into Cielo Norte is akin to riding shotgun as Bill Payne takes you on a trip through his private dreamscapes, which will readily cohere with your own. So settle in for the ride – Bill's a good driver, and he knows the scenic route.