Bill Murray And Jan Vogler Take Us To 'New Worlds' On Their New Theatrical Album

Oct 2, 2017
Originally published on October 2, 2017 12:44 pm

Bill Murray has come a long way since his early days as Nick the Lounge Singer on Saturday Night Live. He made screwball comedies like Caddy Shack and Stripes. Then he made serious films, like Lost in Translation.

His latest project is New Worlds, an album where he sings and reads American classics accompanied by a classical trio. It was created with the help of Jan Vogler, a German cellist and Murray's creative partner.

According to Vogler, the two met at an airport — specifically, at security. "Bill started making comments on my cello," Vogler says. "I think he was a little surprised that I was trying to carry that huge baggage into the airplane."

Murray says he asked "the real question: 'Are you going to be able to fit that thing in the overhead compartment?'"

So the two struck up a friendship — and then, they decided to put out an album.

One selection on New Worlds finds Murray reading a passage from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. The text feels relevant to this moment, when many Americans are reflecting on what it means to be American and revisiting the legacy of the civil war. Murray says these themes from Huckleberry Finn resonate with his musical group.

"We're a group: a lady that was born in Venezuela, a lady that was born in communist China and a man that was born in communist East Berlin," Murray says of his ensemble. "And a fella from around Chicago. And we're talking about America as equals."

Elsewhere on the album, Murray gives an earnest rendition of Van Morrison's "When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God?" He says he was inspired by an experience listening to the song as he drove across the California desert, completely abloom with flowers because of this year's heavy rain.

"I've made this drive a number of times in my life and I've never seen all this beauty," Murray says. "And as I got to the top of the divide, there were people that had come up from the desert to see the flowers ... It had that look of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where they're all looking and they're transfixed. And this music just got me, and I felt like we were all listening to the same song."

Hear Murry and Vogler discuss their collaboration, and additional selections from New Worlds, at the audio link.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The actor Bill Murray recently stopped by our New York studios, and with him, it gets lively pretty fast. Here he is on the line with our colleague Rachel Martin just sort of warming up for the interview, cracking jokes about our staff.

BILL MURRAY: There's a lot of people just, like, not making eye contact...

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: (Laughter).

MURRAY: ...And taking what I guess is taxpayer money and not working at all in this building.

MARTIN: The rest is listener-supported donations.

JAN VOGLER: Wow.

MURRAY: Oh, golly.

MARTIN: We have to get that message out.

MURRAY: Wait a second. She's just about to go into a pitch here.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MURRAY: Come on, Rachel. This isn't a pledge drive, dammit.

MARTIN: Bill Murray has come a long way since his early days as that lounge singer on "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

MURRAY: (As Nick Winters) Let's go out with something really hot for these folks, a big hit out of '77. (Singing) A "Star Wars"....

MARTIN: He made screwball comedies like "Caddyshack" and "Stripes." Then he made serious films like "Lost In Translation," and now his latest project.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT AIN'T NECESSARILY SO")

MURRAY: (Singing) It ain't necessarily so...

MARTIN: He has recorded a CD of him singing and reading American classics, accompanied by three classical musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT AIN'T NECESSARILY SO")

MURRAY: (Singing) ...The things that you're liable to read in the Bible, it ain't necessarily so.

MARTIN: Murray's creative partner is a German cellist named Jan Vogler. They met on a flight.

VOGLER: We were at security, and Bill started making comments on my cello. I think he was a little surprised that I was trying to carry that huge baggage into the airplane.

MURRAY: I asked the real question - are you going to be able to fit that thing in the overhead compartment?

MARTIN: So Murray and Vogler struck up a friendship and decided to put out an album.

MURRAY: Jan did all the work. As an American, I can confidently say that we need a German guy to run things. So he said, you know, we could do a show and proceeded to produce all kinds of music and literature and more players to play with us. And we all chipped in the way you would make a dinner together where you'd make a feast. It's been a crazy delight, and I have to explain it to my friends. Like, believe me, I'm just hanging on. These musicians are all killers.

VOGLER: That's all not true. But I think the great moment was really to sit down together and to work on it. Bill is so great at really to select what would go with what together.

MARTIN: I want to play a track. This is Bill reading from a 19th-century American novel called "The Deerslayer."

(SOUNDBITE OF READING, "SCHUBERT: PIANO TRIO NO. 1 IN B FLAT, OP. 99 D.898 - 2. ADANTE UN POCO MOSSO / THE DEERSLAYER")

MURRAY: (Reading) So rich and fleecy were the outlines of the forest, that scarce an opening could be seen, the whole visible Earth from the rounded mountain top to the water's edge presenting one unvaried hue of unbroken verdure.

MARTIN: Bill, whether you like it or not, as part of the allure of you as a performer is that people sometimes can't really tell if you're being serious, if you're pulling one over on everyone. And this reading kind of reads that way.

MURRAY: I don't - I can't tell you the answer to that one because that would be, like, just showing you where Waldo is.

MARTIN: It's too obvious.

MURRAY: He's right there. There's Waldo right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BERNSTEIN: WEST SIDE STORY - I FEEL PRETTY")

MURRAY: (Singing) I feel pretty, oh, so pretty. I feel pretty and witty and bright. And I pity any girl who isn't me tonight.

MARTIN: (Laughter) I mean, why that, Jan?

VOGLER: Well, it was "West Side Story," some of the greatest postwar American music.

MARTIN: But, you know, there's a lot of other songs in that.

VOGLER: Yeah, but I think you start somewhere. I presented it to Bill and I think it's unbelievable. I mean, it's a whole 'nother level if he sings it, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BERNSTEIN: WEST SIDE STORY - I FEEL PRETTY")

MURRAY: (Singing) Such a pretty face, such a pretty dress, such a pretty smile, such a pretty me.

VOGLER: This music and this literature, it speaks in a choir, I feel. All these values of American society, I think, are in this music or in these words.

MARTIN: It's not all comedy, though. One of the set's most discomforting moments comes when Bill Murray reads from Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," and we should warn listeners that the following passage begins with the N-word.

(SOUNDBITE OF READING, "MANCINI: MOON RIVER / ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN")

MURRAY: (Reading) Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children, children that belonged to a man I didn't even know, a man that hadn't ever done me no harm. My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever until at last I says to it, let up on me. It ain't too late yet. I'll paddle ashore at the first light and tell.

MARTIN: You are just reading from "Huck Finn," but it does feel like it connects to the current moment. We are reflecting as a culture on what it means to be an American. We're revisiting the legacy of the Civil War. What did you want to convey, Bill?

MURRAY: We're a group - a lady that was born in Venezuela, a lady that was born in communist China and a man that was born in communist East Berlin and a fellow from around Chicago. And we're talking about America as equals. There are people that try to ban Mark Twain from libraries that don't understand that that racial slur, what he's doing is he's showing you a real person that speaks in the jargon of the day and uses these words which we no longer find acceptable. But when faced with the choice of decency or indecency, makes the courageous choice of risking his life to save his fellow man, that's what this guy Twain was talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF READING, "MANCINI: MOON RIVER / ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN")

MURRAY: (Reading) I told him they was out of sight so he'd come aboard. He says, lawsy, hell, you did fool them, Huck. That was the smartest dodge. Ole Jim ain't going to forget you for that, honey.

VOGLER: Each time Bill reads this in the concert, we really have to focus hard to pick our instruments up afterwards - to see that someone trained so wrong has the instinct to do the right thing. And I think this evening is about American culture, but it's also about the story of humanity, I think.

MARTIN: I asked Bill Murray which piece in this literary feast he found most satisfying, and he pointed to his cover of a Van Morrison song. He was playing the original song in his car as he drove across the California desert. Because of all the rain this year, it was covered in flowers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN WILL I EVER LEARN TO LIVE IN GOD")

MURRAY: (Singing) The sun was setting over Avalon the last time we stood in the West.

I've made this drive a number of times in my life, and I'd never seen all this beauty. And as I got to the top of the divide, there were people that had come up from the desert to see the flowers, all these kinds of people. It had that look of "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" where they're all looking and they're all transfixed. And this music just got me, and I felt like we were all listening to the same song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN WILL I EVER LEARN TO LIVE IN GOD")

MURRAY: (Singing) When will I ever learn to live in God? When will I ever learn?

GREENE: That was our co-host, Rachel Martin, talking to Bill Murray and Jan Vogler. Their album is called "New Worlds." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.