Feature: Chris Thile and his Eternal Journey of Innovation

By Jonah Krueger, Contributor
[Photo courtesy of Devin Peddle]

Chris Thile may very well be the most renowned, most popular living mandolin player. His fingerprints can be found on just about anything that gets tagged with the term “bluegrass,” and the tale of 5-year-old Thile first picking up the mandolin is now the stuff of legend. Yet, with everything under his belt from countless festival performances to numerous NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts to capturing the attention of 2.6 million people every week as the host to Live From Here, how does Thile avoid turning into the cliché of a bored mega-talent? Innovation—but in his own definition.

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Chris Thile is a household name in the worlds of blues, folk, bluegrass, classical, and jazz, but how in the world does he intend to innovate any further? As he would be the first to admit, his idea of breaking new ground is less about exploring the far corners of experimental music and more about improving the quality, structure, and meaning of his creations. “I want [my creative pursuits] to feel both unpredictable and inevitable,” Thile said about his current mindset.

Hilariously, he elucidated his idea of innovation using ketchup as a metaphor. In short, ketchup is a mass-produced, easy to consume product—a condiment that exists simply to satisfy an existing urge. He sees a majority of music the same way as some products that exist just to give people what they already like. Now, Thile does not intend to demean any artists or their work, as he exclaimed “I love ketchup!” in defense, but he just wants to hold himself to higher, more challenging standards. He wants to find an unknown urge, tap into it and give his listeners something they would have never thought to ask for. 

He brings this innovative spirit into each aspect of his creative endeavors. His live shows blend canonical pieces from Bach, original compositions and popular music covers. As he plays, he seems to grow closer and closer to his instrument, almost as if his body could spontaneously fuse with the wood and strings of his mandolin at any moment. His other live act, Live From Here, is a weekly broadcast formally known as Prairie Home Companion, showcasing a combination of spoken word, comedy and performances from music idols like Paul Simon and independent up-and-comers such as Big Thief

What’s clear is that this isn’t necessarily an attainable goal but rather an ongoing process. He is making every effort to continually challenge himself in areas both within and outside of his comfort zone. Live From Here—an opportunity to curate his interests stemming from a childhood practice of forcing his family to listen to what he dubbed “required listening time”—only increases in eccentricity with every episode, and his currently unreleased work notably includes a musical based on the invention of the telegraph.

Ohio University recently hosted a group conversation with Thile before his show on campus. During the discussion, he outlined his ketchup-music metaphor, mentioned the many challenges of writing fulfilling music and shared unfinished snippets from the aforementioned musical. 

His manner of speech was unfailingly genuine, often getting so passionate about the topic at hand that it seemed like his chair would tip over at any moment from his excitement. However, no point was more emblematic of the themes of the conversation than when he was asked to specifically describe his creative process. Outside of backyard-BBQ analogies, what is a tangible example of what Thile would like to get across? How can an artist or listener identify the difference between a piece that scratches an existing itch and a yet-to-be found one?

While he clearly had an idea of how he wanted to answer, Thile admitted he was struggling to articulate how his philosophy becomes a finished product. After taking a beat to think, he decided to focus on just one simple but crucial aspect—a term he called “the musical gesture,” or a piece’s meaning and how the structure reveals and embodies the meaning. This isn’t suggesting every song on the radio to consist of modulation in every four bars and absurd jazz chords. Instead, it’s merely the relationship between the emotional and the technical aspects of writing. 

“The purpose behind a piece of music should not be, for example, ‘I have a guitar, it goes loud, so I made loud guitar music.’ I mean, that’s not Nirvana,” he explained.

To further explore his point, he asked for a song that everyone participating in the conversation may know, of which he would give his “armchair analysis.” The song he analyzed from the comfort of his well-cushioned chair? Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” 

Thile once again picked up his mandolin and started to play the song. (Thile is no stranger to covering Radiohead, as he previously covered “True Love Waits” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” among others). As he sang the melody, he closed his eyes and leaned back. His passion and excitement couldn’t be more apparent, and as he finished, he quipped, “That just wants to make you cry.”

He elaborated on what he perceives to be the power of the piece—its build, restraint, and gratification. He even speculated that the tear-inducing, final melody was the first thing Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke had in mind when writing the tune and that he knew to withhold it for the climax rather than milk it for three or four choruses. This is what Thile is trying to do: practice grace, patience, and confidence in his abilities.

Thile, with all of his accomplishments and awards, continues to strive toward innovation at every available opportunity. His innovative flourishes in music, onstage antics, curation, and his aspirations are, in a sense, the same as what Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” reveals and embodies—an essence that feels unpredictable yet inevitable. 

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