McFerrin had a #1 hit early in his career, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” (1988). With that song, he not only inspired a new approach to percussion in acapella and beatbox performance, but he also redefined vocal recording by laying his voice into seven separate, over-dubbed tracks. McFerrin further explored the technique on the choral album VOCAbuLarieS (2010, with Roger Treece), which is comprised of thousands of layers. In 1992, McFerrin recorded the multi-platinum album HUSH with cellist Yo-Yo-Ma, and he’s worked with Chick Corea, the Vienna Philharmonic and his improvising choir, Voicestra.
McFerrin acknowledges spirityouall as a “bluesy, feel-good recording,” but like so many masterpieces, it resonates on multiple levels. In the following interview with Chaka, McFerrin shares how the album is also an acknowledgement to the spirits of his father, Metropolitan Opera baritone Robert McFerrin, Sr., and mother, a soprano soloist and voice teacher. They prayed with him and for him as a child through words, acts of love and music. We get to glimpse a side of the improvisational singer who once considered joining a monastery, a side whose yearly retreat is teaching circlesinging at the Omega Institute in New York, a side that makes his hits shimmer with Zen.
ARTIST-TO-ARTIST: Jonathan ‘Chaka’ Mahone’s Q&A with Bobby McFerrin
You grew up in a family with an incredibly rich musical background and history. What did your parents teach you about spirituality?
My mom took our spiritual education very seriously. She was my guide. We read the scriptures often. We went to church, where she was the soprano soloist and I sang in the choir. We talked about God’s guidance. I wrote my setting of the 23rd Psalm, which is dedicated to my mom, after an incredible moment of revelation. I was watching my wife play with our children, watching how she loved them and remembering how my mom loved me. I realized that as hard as it is for us to understand God’s unconditional love, we get a glimpse of it in the way our mothers love and care for us. My dad never talked about his relationship with God. But when I heard him sing the spirituals, I heard him pray. That’s part of why making this album and acknowledging his influence has been so important to me.
How did the experience of church influence your music?
Often when people ask about Black musicians and the church they are asking about a certain kind of music, a specific cultural and spiritual tradition. I did spend time in the Episcopal church where my family worshipped, and I sang in the choir, lots of Bach and other Anglican hits. Of course it was a big influence on me. I was a very introspective kid; I still am, and I thought maybe a monastic life might be my calling. I didn’t really encounter gospel or praise music until I was an adult and a working musician.
You have a song called “Fix Me Jesus” on this new project. Is music your religion, or do you practice a more traditional faith?
I do think all music is prayer. And I love improvising so much because I think all of life is improvisation, that we are here on earth with the joyful task of living every moment fully. For me, everything I do is rooted in faith. I spend a couple of hours every morning reading the Bible. My favorite is the Book of Psalms. When I’m tired or uninspired I know where to turn. I’m a Christian, but my own spiritual life is very private, very personal. Maybe it’s because I’m on the road so often. Sometimes I go to church; I don’t have a strong affiliation. But I pray everyday.
Do you equate prayer and performance?
You know, I try not to “perform.” I try to get out on stage and be my truest self, the same person who makes tea in the kitchen and walks the dog. But I truly believe that all music is prayer, and the chance to share the moment of making music with the people who are there is a real communion.
In a recent TED talk, bassist Victor Wooten claims, “music is a language.” How would you finish the statement, “Music is….”
Music is prayer. Music is joy. Music is beyond words.
My favorite Bobby McFerrin album is CIRCLESONGS (1997). Has anything changed about your musical approach since this release?
Circlesinging is still an important part of — and reflection of – my musical vocabulary. I started getting audiences to sing with me because sometimes I can’t do everything I hear by myself. And my experiments singing with the audience made me want to work with other singers, so I formed Voicestra. Playing with other musicians is always a community experience, but there’s something especially basic and richly rewarding about singing with other people.
Over many years with Voicestra, I honed the approach to group vocal improvisation that’s documented on the CIRCLESONGS album. People ask me if it’s spontaneously composed choral music or tribal music. I say it’s both, and more. Whenever I have the chance to work with a choir I do circlesongs. Every summer in August we do a weeklong workshop in circlesinging at the Omega Institute in upstate New York; it’s my yearly retreat. And this spring I’m doing some touring in Europe with a small a cappella choir, performing some of the music from my album VOCAbuLarieS . . . and singing circlesongs.
Austin is known as the ‘Live Music Capital.’ What is your favorite city in the world to perform live?
I travel and travel and travel. I’m very reclusive when I’m on the road. Usually I pretty much stay in my hotel room and rest and pray, and then I go to the venue and do sound check and do the show. So I don’t really experience what every city has to offer. But it’s amazing how the personality of the city and its inhabitants is palpable in the room. You can feel it in the air. And it changes how the show goes, what I feel like singing, how the people sing with me. I don’t have a favorite city, but noticing all of that is one of my favorite things about touring. In some Eastern European cities you can tell most of the audience has lots of musical training. In Shanghai one night, the whole audience sang along with Bach’s Air on a G String; I couldn’t believe it!!
Your son Taylor is a musician and producer with an impressive vocal beatbox technique. Did he learn that from you organically, or did you give him lessons?
When I first started making percussion sounds with my voice and my body, that surprised people. I was just trying to make the music I heard in my head! It’s moving to me that the beatbox movement thinks of me as one of the people who paved the way. But I’m a singer who uses vocal and body percussion sounds; I’m not a beatboxer. Sure, Taylor heard me a lot, and we sang and played around the house, but he was also listening to Hip-Hop music (and arguing with his dad about what he should be listening to!) and experimenting with his own sound from the time he was very young.
Your daughter Madison is joining you on this tour. Is this the first time you have performed on tour with your children?
No, it’s not. Taylor and I have done a few duo concerts, and all three of my kids have sat-in with me. They are all incredibly talented. Taylor just released his first album. Madison is graduating from Berklee School of Music next month, and Jevon is performing every night in MOTOWN, THE MUSICAL on Broadway. I’m a proud papa.
What have your children taught YOU about life and music?
Joy is everything.
McFerrin is a 10-time Grammy winner, and his latest tour, spirityouall, will enchant audiences at Bass Concert Hall on Thursday, Apr. 24. Visit bobbymcferrin.com for more information.