Saturday Conversation: Jon Batiste On His Brilliant New Album, ‘World Music Radio’

How do you follow up a Grammy-winning Album of the Year? That was the question Jon Batiste faced with the new World Music Radio, the successor to 2021’s We Are. The answer, for Batiste, turned out to be going deeper into his creative process and into his unconsciousness .

The result is a masterpiece, that rare record that takes you on a journey through the whole range of human emotions. I will not single out individual tracks because this is a record that Batiste made and needs to be listened to from start to finish. Sit down and give yourself the hour needed to be moved in a multitude of ways, from crying to dancing.

Talk to Batiste and you understand why he is a generational artist who is only getting better. He has a connection to the gift of music only the truly great artists ever tap into. That is why it is absolutely fascinating and a joy to talk to Batiste.

On his way to Newport, Rhode Island, to play the Newport Jazz Festival one weekend after a triumphant appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, Batiste spoke with Sage Bava and I at length about the making of the new album, his memories of radio and how that impacted the concept of World Music Radio, and Pink Floyd.

Steve Baltin: Are you in Newport today?

Jon Batiste: We’re on the way. We ain’t there yet but we’re almost there. It’s gonna be a historic occasion. I’m so excited.

Baltin: You played last weekend at folk as well, correct?

Batiste: Yes, indeed .It was last weekend at folk, this weekend at jazz. And we’re the only artists in the history to do both fests twice in the year. And we’re the only artists to have barbecue on stage at the live performance [laughter]. It’s exciting stuff. I’m glad to be here. I remember when I first heard of Newport Jazz, I got a Duke Ellington record in the library when I was in high school. Ellington at Newport. It’s so cool to be a part of the history like that.

Baltin: We only have 30 minutes and this album is mind-blowing.

Batiste: Oh, my goodness. Thank you so much.

Baltin: The song “Butterfly” made me cry. That line where you’re like, “Dang, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” I was floored.

Batiste: Yeah, you heard it. Man, I love that you connected to that because it really is so much bigger. And when you get one like that that just kind of is bestowed upon you, you don’t write it, it happens. You are at the piano and it comes across. But just being in a situation where you’re thinking about life and you’re thinking about the afterlife and I really have a hard time staying in that space without crying. So I understand why it hit you in a certain way but how do you put that emotion to music, that’s a hard proposition. So I really feel like I’m very proud of that one probably as much as anything that I’ve ever done. Just because iIt spoke to that emotion.

Baltin: One of my favorite albums of all time is Moby’s 1995 album, Everything Is Wrong. There are very few records, to me, that can take you on that whole journey. World Music Radio is very similar in the way that it takes you up and down through every emotion.

Batiste: It’s so funny that you say that ’cause Moby is such a traveler. He’s a journeyman when it comes to the way he makes music and albums that were really not direct influences but they were kind of guiding lights as to, “Oh, this is possible. I’m not crazy. We can actually pull off this interstellar concept record with this traveling DJ that’s taking you through all of these different genres of music that we’re connecting the dots in these really unorthodox ways.” I just wanted to do it. I didn’t know if it was possible to do it but that’s why I love to do things. If I don’t know if I can quite pull it off at the beginning of the process, that’s the best feeling. And it’s also the hardest feeling ’cause you get eight months and nine months into the project and you’re like, “Wait a minute, are we gonna land this plane? I don’t quite know what we’re doing. I have an idea but it’s still not quite coming.” And it’s like, “Oh, epiphany” [laughter]. So I was thinking of another record, [Pink Floyd] The Dark Side of the Moon. I want to reference that. Just thinking about how that came together. And there are certain records, it’s a journey. This is one of those top to bottom albums. It’s meant to be experienced in that way.

Baltin: How do you set up that journey?

Batiste: It’s a little bit of a sleight of hand. It’s how do you set up the emotional palette for what’s to come in the arrangement of the previous song, a previous movement without it seeming so? There are all types of things that I learned in the process of making this record. And one of them is sonically how do you craft a story, not just a song, even if the song goes 14 different places in the same song that are sonically different? If you were to look at this one influence, if I was traditionally doing this, it would sonically sound like this. And if I was doing this one influence, it would sonically sound like that. And figuring out how to blend those is one thing. And then, “Oh, how do I make the whole thing feel like it’s inevitable?” And that was really more of the sleight of hand of, “Okay, we’ve got to put some sort of string-like orchestral pad from a synthesizer underneath the third chorus because that’s gonna set the emotional frequency of this next piece that’s coming in.” We don’t wanna hear the synth but we want the synth to feel like it’s come in. It’s just things like that. It’s like all kinds of things I learned that I just figured out with making this record.

Sage Bava: I love how you used the word epiphany, ’cause, to me, peering into genius and peering into source to me is the same. And your music is so prevalent in that more so than so many artists. Can you tell us the story of that time or one of these songs off of this incredible album that the experience was so visceral in just being a conduit for something else?

Batiste: Conduit is the best description. That’s the best way to really describe my process when I’m operating at my highest frequency. It’s as if I am not in control of my body. And it’s absolutely insane to say that but it really feels that way. It’s hard to describe if you haven’t been there but it feels like there’s a force that’s in the room or it’s even in the instrument sometime or in the vocal mic, and you’re riding the wave of that force. And there’s things that lead to that for sure that I’ve learned in terms of how I tick. When I’m in a space where there’s real silence, it allows for that to happen. When I’m with a collaborator. I had a long conversation with Dan Wilson about just the things we mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, what’s it like on the other side of the veil and people in our lives who are struggling with living close to the veil and what that means for us and what that means for them and how to be in that space. And just the openness of the conversations like that or living through those kinds of moments and reflecting on them, making music in those kind of moments. I wrote lullabies in a lot of these moments to comfort myself and to comfort others. And the lullaby is part of the anatomy of “Butterfly.” It’s a form of a lullaby. And then connecting with all of this in the moment to just sit at the piano and playing and singing for about two or three hours and then reaching the point where I’m saying something subconsciously. I didn’t know while I was playing these words were coming out but this is what I’m meant to be saying. This is what I’m supposed to say right now. So that’s really how that song came into being. And once we listened back to this sort of stream of consciousness, prayer lullaby that was inspired by so many things, it was born in a matter of hours. the recording was done.

Bava: Was that feeling something that you’ve always been aligned with or do you recall finding that connection?

Batiste: I didn’t always understand the process or how to access that as a process but I believe that’s always in all of us. As kids, we have this purity and this free expression. And if we’re really tapping into that, we’re not thinking about how we look or how we sound, It’s funny, I was at a school yesterday and incredible young people were there and we were doing this exchange. It was built as a master class and turned into a concert for their family and friends in the community. And it was a beautiful thing for me because me being this “master,” I’m learning so much just observing these seven, eight year old’s playing drums and singing this music. And it’s like, “Okay, that’s still the thing. That’s always gonna be the thing. If we can still do that, then everything else falls into place.” And it’s so hard to do that. So I think figuring out how to make process be that has really been my goal. And I think we’ve all always had it. It’s just a matter of figuring out how you tick so that you can get to it.

Baltin: Are there people that you’ve been around or that you’ve learned from that really inspire you in the way that they are able to tap into that childlike process like you talk about?

Batiste: Oh, my goodness. I literally have a lesson from everybody that I’ve worked with. And that’s one of the things that is exciting for me. I always reference this when sometimes people will ask me, “How do you go into these different spaces or different styles of music and authentically come out on the other side?” And it is really just an obsession with process that’s kind of led me to that place where I’m like, “Okay, I’m gonna submit to the frequency of whatever this process yields.” And it’s almost like it becomes its own culture. Certain collaborations become a culture. It’s like a ritual. And then from there, I’ll take what I feel is most resonant with me from that experience and it becomes a part of my process. And then from there, you constantly expand on your creative process. And it becomes this philosophy for me at this point where now it’s just about a value system and the chief value is quality and authenticity. So if I have quality and authenticity, then I can work with anybody and I can go in the space. I think about people who I’ve worked with, like Jahaan Sweet is a producer I worked with on this record and he can just make music anywhere. I remember when he was a kid and he came to Julliard, I was in my last year and he was coming in from Florida and he’s just now producing music for all of these incredible artists. And I asked him where his ideal place to work from is. And he’s like, “I love working in the hotel room on a midi keyboard and a small laptop.” Or Rita Payés, who’s an artist who we discovered and she’s on the song “My Heart.” She’s a singer and trombonist and she’s from Catalonia, Spain and it’s absolutely epic. And she recorded her song. We did it [from] her bedroom on the laptop microphone. And there’s an intimacy to that that is really deep. It’s not about the equipment, it’s not about anything but the spirit behind it.

Bava: I absolutely love the line “purifying the airwaves” and it goes so much into the flow of what we’re speaking on now. What does that mean to you?

Batiste: Billy Bob is this character who, in many ways, is aspirational for me and is also my attempt at creating a mythology that speaks to the era that we’re in. And you speak about mythology with people and think about the times that some of these things that we read about were born out of. And there’s always this aspirational quality to it as an archetype of quality. But it’s also an aspirational quality to many myths and Billy Bob purifying the airwaves in this time of so much strife and levels of division and all of the different layers of misinformation or misrepresentation, so many things that need to be purified in the airwaves is this symbol. The album has many symbols. Water is a symbol. The butterfly is a symbol. I don’t want to spoil so much of it. There’s a lot left to be interpreted in the album and there’s a lot of symbolism and layers that build the mythology of Billy Bob and thus his goal of purifying the airwaves. So in short, it comes from really assessing all of these things that are happening and it really being metabolized in this artistic process. And that manifesting this character, this interstellar character, Billy Bob. He really is representative of so much and that’s what he would do.. So I never come to things like that first, it had to come through all of that to reach, “Oh, okay. And now that we are here, this is what would inevitably happen.”

Baltin: Was there a specific radio moment that really stands out for you in your childhood?

Batiste: My mother was and still is one of the biggest musical influences on me. She’s not a musician. In fact, in the last two years in these times of my career expanding we first connected on music lessons, me teaching her the piano. It’s one of the things I love to do. And she’s studying the piano for her first instrument after having a husband and son who are musically inclined. And her radio choice and creative instinct was huge in the times we would drive together. [Those] are some of the most influential times for me because the things that she would listen to and the eclecticism of what she would listen to and the things she would hear in the music and the way that she would sing along and the parts she would key into. Like, sometimes it would be a counter melody, not the main melody, for instance, just things that she would hear. It is really special that all those memories for me, being with my mother and thinking about the radio, listening to the radio and also radio being where in all these cultures in the world, there are these memories connected to it. And it’s how we get a lot of important messages, monumental messages have been delivered throughout history via the radio and it’s still a big part of how we are delivered and established in terms of our collective mythologies.

Bava: It’s a very basic question but what is music to you?

Batiste: Wow! It’s really the universal force of oneness that is constantly moving, constantly creating, constantly generating and we dip in and out of the stream of it. We dip in and out of that constant stream and we bring it into this realm. And it exists as the force of oneness that is a part of the great force of oneness, which many people have different beliefs about. But music connects to that. And that’s why when we hear it, we want to come together or people feel deeper into their emotional state. They feel deeper into their humanity. They feel deeper into all of the things that make us similar and make us the same and also feel deeper into the things that make us one of ones. So it’s a really deep universal current and it’s something that I think when we dip into the stream of it and bring it out in its purest form, it’s powerful and has that impact.

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