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Extended transcript: Bill Murray on music, poetry and Huck Finn's conscience

Comic actor Bill Murray is no stranger to music, though his "Saturday Night Live" character of a boisterous lounge singer isn't quite what one discovers when they hear his latest professional gig -- as part of a mixed chamber music and spoken word performance, titled "New Worlds," in which he shares the stage with cellist Jan Vogler, violinist Mira Wang, and pianist Vanessa Perez.

A mix of Bach, Piazzolla, Gershwin and Sondheim, with readings of Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, the show is being performed on a limited tour, and has just been released as an album by Decca Gold.

In this extended interview transcript, "Sunday Morning" anchor Jane Pauley talked to Murray about how his collaboration with Vogler began -- after a chance meeting on a transatlantic flight, when Vogler's Stradivari cello was occupying the window seat.

JANE PAULEY:  When you got on that plane from Berlin to New York with Jan Vogler, it was one of those cases of the hand meeting the glove. How did you initiate it?

BILL MURRAY:  Yeah. I was the wiseacre. And you always feel like, you know, you could get the drop on someone that's carrying something. You've got the advantage on 'em. 'Cause you can always trip 'em or threaten (LAUGHS) to break their eggs or whatever their groceries are. When someone's carrying a cello that's so valuable --

PAULEY:  Stradivarius.

Cellist Jan Vogler and Bill Murray. "New Worlds"

MURRAY:  Yeah, it's almost like he's not making eye contact. He's watching your hands (LAUGHS) in your pockets to see if anything happens. But it's one of those things where you just like to say, "Hey." I've always had a thing for people carrying violin cases or any kinda case. It's like, "Hey! What do you got?" There's, like, a little bit of magic in that box, you know? And I've talked people into playing in airports. And I tried to get him to play on the plane. I said, "Hey, if we have to circle, will you play a little it?" And he's like, "No," not kiddin' at all. "No. I will not play."

PAULEY:  Now, you mess with people. It is an art form. Everybody know that -- Bill Murray messin' with people is one of the art forms of the 20th and 21st centuries. And yet, when you get on a plane, don't you really wanna be by yourself? "Don't bother me."

MURRAY:  Well, it's a funny thing, airplanes. You're in a can for any number of hours, if you're on a transcontinental flight. It's a long time. And I've gotten on a plane and seen a particular person and realized, "I cannot encounter that person. I can't make eye contact with that one over there." And I've almost crawled on my stomach back and forth to the restroom and the front, wherever I had to go --

PAULEY:  Because they will --

MURRAY:  Just 'cause I knew that's a person that was gonna go --

PAULEY:  "Murray!" (LAUGHS)

MURRAY:  Yeah. Well, not even a bad one, just someone I don't want -- so when you're trapped like that. But it's always different. Life is exciting. And sometimes, you end up in the middle seat of three people, which happens, you know? I've managed to make it to the last seat of an airplane more than once a year, you know? And I end up in the middle seat. And you're like, "Well, here we go. (LAUGHS) What do we got goin' on here?" And everyone thinks, "If only this jerk hadn't shown up at the last minute, we coulda put our stuff here." So already, you're behind the eight ball.

PAULEY:  No, they're thinking, "This is Bill Murray. No one will believe me."

MURRAY:  Not everyone. There's a fair number of people who don't know who I am. They just kinda sense there's something odd. You know, there are a lotta people traveling all the time from everywhere in the world. So you meet a lotta different people.

PAULEY:  Jan Vogler didn't exactly know who you were.

MURRAY:  For example.

PAULEY:  And you probably didn't exactly know who he was.

MURRAY:  Not one bit. I knew he was the guy with the case. That's all I knew.

PAULEY:  When, in that flight, did the molecules start getting agitated, and you start thinking -- and he probably was thinking the same thing -- "This is somethin' happening here"?

MURRAY:  There was a lady that was having high anxiety -- she was having a panic attack on the plane. And the stewards and stewardesses couldn't really help her. So we kinda look at each other going, "Hey, what the hell? It's a long flight." So we engaged with this girl, including insisting that they bring her ice cream. I was doing that. [Jay] loves to say, "And Bill kept saying, 'Bring the ice cream.' And they kept saying, 'We don't have ice cream.' And Bill just looked at them and said, 'Bring the ice cream.' And they brought the ice cream." (LAUGHS)

And so ice cream helped her out. And we kidded around about everything. Already, there was like a project, we've got a little project. We've got this girl. She was sort of a young woman, she wasn't a girl. And it was something to do to just take her mind off of it. And it was fun to see how he worked. And I thought, "Hey, this guy's all right," you know? I could see that he really cared about her, you know? And he was a good man. And we enjoyed getting her off of that scary place, you know?

PAULEY:  So when you leave the plane, did you know at that time that, you know, this guy, who you by then know is an internationally renowned cellist, is somehow gonna be in your life?

MURRAY:  Well, I don't generally give my phone number to anyone. I rarely sort of tell people how to find me, you know? 'Cause it's -- I don't know. I have enough people that find me. So I was gonna be coming back to Germany and working there. And I said, "Well, if you need to find me, you can get me through these people here."

And a couple weeks later, he calls and says, "We're doing a concert in Dresden. Can you come to Dresden?" I'm like, "Dresden?" You know, I've heard of Dresden. But I'd never been. So I didn't really know how far it was from where we were in the mountains somewhere.

And so it was the end of a workday, like, a Wednesday. And I got done kinda early. We always got done early on the job. And I said to my driver, my local German Teamster, I said, "Hey, you feel like goin' to Dresden?" "Yah!" And I'm like, I have no idea how far Dresden is. Well, it's, like, 250 miles or something. But in Germany, that's two hours. 'Cause they have no speed limit on the Autobahn. And they like the chance to drive 135 miles an hour for a while.

So I'm just sittin' in the car. And because I'm such a Communist or whatever, I sit in the front seat just to be sociable. But he's driving that fast. And I'm thinking, "What am I doin' in the front seat? (LAUGHS) I should be laying on the floor in the back," you know? I'm tryin' to read something, acting like, "Oh, there's a crossword puzzle." Meanwhile, I'm just glancing at the speedometer.

Anyway, we get to Dresden. And Jan has got this great show. It's a symphony for orchestra and factory parts. And they're doing it in the Volkswagen plant, which is absolutely clean as a whistle. The floors are oak. There's not a drop of dirt on the floor. We got the tour. It's, like, half robots, half people. And he's playing with the New York Philharmonic and the great violin player Josh Bell. And they do this crazy show -- they're literally banging fenders and things like this and squeaking springs and all this. It's all being done in front of a giant glass tower of automobiles. And as the symphony progresses, a car rolls into the glass tower, turns on its lights, and then turns 'em off. It's a completed automobile that's been made while we've been listening to this show!

He's a German. Because he was raised with a father who made him read all sorts of American writers as a child, he had crazy ideas about American literature and music and the connections. And he really has done all the work. I'm just ridin' with these people.

To watch a trailer for "New Worlds" click on the video player below. 

Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends ‘New Worlds’ by Decca Gold on YouTube

PAULEY:  No, you're just trying to preserve your reputation from the fact of the matter is, that you know a great deal about American literature and music as well, and poetry. You're the poetry man. Who knew?

MURRAY:  Well, I've been dragged into poetry by my friend Frank Platt. And I've had a great success, although I'm embarrassed by it. [It's] great fun to read poems with this group, Poets House. They do a wonderful bridge walk every year across the Brooklyn Bridge. And a really extraordinary thing to do. It's a very soul-building kind of thing, where you walk across that bridge. And you read these poems with a bunch of other people that are listening, really listening, to poems.

PAULEY:  And you know how to really listen to poems?

MURRAY:  Turns out, I know how to read poems, which is really amazing to me, that you don't read 'em the way that they write 'em, is what I found. I found that they're much more like I hear poets read their poems. And it doesn't sound right, even though they wrote it! But you can read it. And then I've found the poet say, "I really like that someone figured out the way to say the words."

PAULEY:  Like, who has said that to you?

MURRAY:  Galway Kinnell was a guy who was a poet laureate and a famous American poet. And I always thought he hated my guts. I always thought he couldn't bear me, you know? And I would read at these things. And he would read, like, the big poems. And he actually read this Whitman poem that we do in the show. And he would close the whole evening with this poem. And he really killed it. It was really strong. He also did "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" by Whitman, as well. So he'd have these big Whitman ones. It was cymbal-crashing kinda stuff.

And then in the last year of his life, I read one of his poems. And he looked at me with a look that was almost like, "I'm sorry," you know? (LAUGHS) 'Cause I did it well. I was happy that I got him, finally. It took, like, 20 years.

Bill Murray, violinist Mira Wang and cellist Jan Vogler in rehearsal.  CBS News

PAULEY:  Okay, well, he's not in the show. But Whitman is, James Fenimore Cooper, Billy Collins, just in the poetry category.

MURRAY:  And Truman Capote and Hemingway.

PAULEY:  Okay, so I get at least an A-minus in this quiz for knowing that.

MURRAY:  You're doing great. You had your caffeine. This is my first cup of coffee. That's no fair.

PAULEY:  Yeah. But you were talking about reading poetry and finding things there. When you perform what is among the particular highlights of this production, when you sing from "West Side Story" -- this is my personal testimonial to you -- when you sing, "There's a Place for Us," or "Somewhere," and I hear it differently than I've ever heard it before. Because what I hear is parenthetically, a place for us somewhere, not here, someday, not now, that is so moving. And I have never heard that before the way that you have performed it. It was very moving, which I think is the point of theater.

MURRAY:  Well, it's great writing.

PAULEY:  But then you had to find that.

MURRAY:  Well, and I did. And I did it with those people. We put the cart in front of the horse. We sorta made this show. And then all of a sudden, we had a tour -- we didn't really have a show, but we had a tour.

Then all of a sudden, we decided we have a record. This is Jan. He gets things done. I'm just kinda along for the ride. So we had to go record -- He's got an arts center over here that's got a nice recording place. And we have to do that song. And it's kind of a hard, dynamic song to sing. And people have sung it very, very well.

Decca Gold

So I was still warmin' up my voice and kinda probably a little late for work or something and just started doing it with them and speaking it as much as anything – half-spoken and half-sung. And it really was different than I'd ever heard the song. And I thought, "That's it. Okay. I really like this. I bet the guy would like it," you know?

PAULEY:  The guy?

MURRAY:  Yeah, Stephen Sondheim. I bet he'd like it. 'Cause the words really jump out differently, you know? I can't sing like the Broadway people. And I don't want to, you know?

PAULEY:  But you can sing.

MURRAY:  I can sing okay, yeah.

PAULEY:  Soon, you'll be in Carnegie Hall. But that crowd … Bill Murray can sing. And I'm thinking, "Well, they've never heard him sing 'Brandy.'" (LAUGHS)

MURRAY:  They've never heard me sing "Star Wars. They've never heard me ruin a lotta songs.

PAULEY:  Yeah. Brandy's a favorite of mine.

MURRAY:  I like to butcher that one.

Bill Murray as "Nick The Lounge Singer" sings "Star Wars" by El Justiciero Enmascarado on Vimeo

PAULEY:  Okay, it didn't surprise me that you could sing. And you can use your instrument in the ways that a singer can use an instrument differently. But people are surprised.

MURRAY:  Well, I guess so. I guess I just haven't used it much. I probably have gotten enough rest and sleep that there's enough voice left. (LAUGHS) A real professional said, "Hey, he's got a lotta voice." And he didn't say, "…left." It was sorta, like, unspoken. But yeah. (LAUGHS)

PAULEY:  What's your favorite in this show? The part that you're the most, "Okay, here I am"?

MURRAY:  We do some really good stuff. Any schoolkid could make you cry with these songs, you know? You sing from "Porgy and Bess," and people forget that song, "It Ain't Necessarily So," about what it's really about, you know? They're used to just hearing the melody. And if you speak it a little differently, it comes home a little differently. And the Bernstein, the Sondheim stuff is very great.

I really love singing "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair." Because it's so painful. "Born like a vapor on the summer's air." It's an interesting lyric. He just keeps coming back and trying to put into words what he's feeling. And he reuses some of the same words. And he just keeps trying and trying to get across the intensity of his grief, his pain for not having her.

And these notes are so perfect that, the emotions just hang on them and just glisten. They just glisten. They have a viscosity, where they just stay on your heart.

PAULEY:  I'd like to read something, from a Rolling Stone piece about you. They covered a panel. You must've done some kind of a Q&A in Canada. And you're asked a question: "What's it like to be Bill Murray?" And your answer is really, really interesting. And it's something that I hear you talk about lately:

"So what's it like to be me? Ask yourself, 'What's it like to be me?' The only way we'll ever know what it's like to be you is if you work your best at being you as often as you can, and keep reminding yourself that's where home is."

And I had to think about it. And because you've come back to that point from time to time, you fleshed the idea out a little more, that from that home place you describe, you can sort of relax and feel safe and let go. What happens, if you can do that thing you described?

MURRAY:  Well, it's great. What happens in that situation is that the person sitting in the chair reappears, and there's a different sorta density or vibration they've got. All of a sudden, there's a nice change. And they're more [receptive]. They're both a communicator, a transmitter, and a receptor at the same time, whereas if I could be just sort of broadcasting all the time, broadcasting what I wanna get across or how I wanna be perceived or something…

But if I'm more collective, I'm closer to home, then I can perceive something that I get from you, or I get from the guys, you know? I can perceive something that's maybe being sorta sent out to all of us that I wasn't aware of a minute ago.

PAULEY:  Jan Vogler described you as an intellectual. And he wasn't kidding. And I didn't find that too difficult to understand. You also speak about availability a lot. Availability is a word Bill Murray uses to describe how to kind of be in the world.

And no example is better describing what you mean than your meeting Jan Vogler on that plane, striking up a conversation, and from that meeting, this piece of art that you perform happens from the availability to meet someone and then the availability to say, "Well, let's do a show." I want that.

MURRAY:  Well, I think not to play with the word too much, but your job that you have right now, you know, you were available. And in what way were you available? Well you didn't have another job that you were working on or something more important. You had time to devote to it. And you had the combination of the gifts and the education and the experience to be the person to be asked to do it and to be able to do it. So you've got this job that's one of the great jobs ever. There's a heroic group of people that have traveled that highway ahead of you -- Charlie Osgood and Charles Kuralt, you know?

It's America's church, your show, you know? And when I can't make it to church, we watch the show. It's like, "Okay, we're gonna watch it." And sometimes, we've got two of 'em stacked up. So it's like we go to church for a couple of hours!

PAULEY:  It holds up, yeah.

MURRAY:  It holds up. And it's not necessarily a hard date on it. And that availability that you or anyone in that situation has is you see that there's something that needs to be done. And it's not just, like, a job. It's as big a job as helping someone carry their stuff out of an elevator, or as available as looking at someone that looks like they're having a hard time and speaking something that says, "You're not alone."

PAULEY:  Yeah. Saying "Yes" to the world's best job was a no-brainer. Anybody could see that, you know? I'm available for winning the lottery. But honestly, preparing for this interview -- I've interviewed you over the years, over the decades, to be honest -- and yet, Bill Murray's a big deal. Better not blow it! And yet, reading that availability thing and about finding yourself, I found great creative comfort in that. And I hope that I remember that and don't forget it.

The comic actor, who's just released a classical music recording, tells Jane Pauley: "By myself, in the shower, I'm just as good as anyone else in the shower." CBS News

MURRAY: As a performer, because you can become not confident, you can become uncertain. You can feel like you're unworthy, like, "What am I doing? Why are these people watching me?" You can feel a lot of things. And they're all wrong. All of them are wrong thoughts. 'Cause they're not appropriate. They're not there. They're an imaginary thing. It's just an emotion. It's not a feeling. So you can let it just go by.

And if you can pull yourself together, you can say feel all the power that you have, all the strength which is just the strength of being together, composed. And that's all we need to get to the next moment. And there's no fear in that moment. It's like jumping out of an airplane. Did you ever jump out of an airplane -- skydive or anything like that?

PAULEY:  Oh, we have to do that?

MURRAY:  No. Well, it's a terrifying thing --

PAULEY:  I'm not available for that.

MURRAY:  Yeah, well, okay. But it's terrifying before you go. And I said I'd do it once. And I did it once. And I jumped. And before I went, I was like, "I am not -- this is the stupidest thing I ever thought." And then I realized, "They're pushing me out the door." (LAUGHS)

And once you're out the door, there is no fear whatsoever. It's a very unusual thing that happens. Because the sensation of your body blowing in the wind at 65 miles an hour, as you descend, overwhelms any emotion of fear, anything you can have.

You are absolutely fearless as you fall. It's funny. But the conditions put you back in your body. And being completely back in your body, your mind isn't over there or over there. Your emotions aren't all around the world. It's all contained inside of your skin. And if you're all inside your skin, then you got nothin' to worry about.

PAULEY:  You've not wasted your life. I think you haven't prioritized sleep the way I probably have.

MURRAY:  You had morning jobs, yeah.

PAULEY:  And you remember to stay conscious in it.

MURRAY:  Well, you remember when you were conscious, when you were alert. That's what you remember. But I've wasted an enormous amount of time. And we all have wasted enormous amounts of time trying to do too much or things that aren't about building yourself, not making yourself special.

I've been reading this Seneca -- not that I'm a dropper -- but my friend gave me this Seneca, "On the Shortness of Life." And every sentence is, like, a stomach blow to what a timewaster, what a fool you are.

PAULEY:  And yet, you claim to have the attention span of, what, like, 90 seconds. And you're reading Seneca.

MURRAY:  Well, in bursts of 90 seconds, (LAUGHS) yeah.

Jan is funny. He says -- and I never heard anyone else really say that -- he can work hard for minutes, just minutes. And then he's gotta take a break and really go hard. "I can go really hard." I think he may have said 20 minutes. And you've seen the guy play. I mean, he's welding with that thing. He is building a monument with every note. And to think that he goes really hard, when he practices, for just short bursts and then (SIGHS).

But the ability to really go hard, to really connect, someone who said once, "It's a life of moments." So it's that ability to go hard, really connect, and stand down, not exactly stop, but relax, [be] quiet, you know? Start again. That's fun. I wish I were a whole lot better at doing it. And talkin' to him lately about this kinda thing, reading this thing, maybe I'll try again now, you know?

Bill Murray, Mira Wang, Vanessa Perez and Jan Vogler perform "New Worlds."  CBS News

PAULEY:  Personal favorite passage, but the timeliness of that story: When you put the Huck Finn passage in the show, you can't have known how timely it might be – it resonates now differently, don't you think?

MURRAY:  It certainly does. It's always been the greatest book to read. And for many years, people wanna take the book out of libraries, because of the language of it, because of the word, especially.

And so when we've done a couple shows in Germany, they don't have the same associations that we have. So you speak these words. And they like it. Most people in that venue have heard some of the words, so the accents, the slang, the diction of it, they're kind of really working at trying to get.

And when we we read the Huck Finn in Napa Valley, you could feel the audience, the discomfort of the audience.

PAULEY:  Nervousness.

MURRAY:  It ran up the aisles at us. And I thought, "Oh, God. Now I gotta have some gumption here. 'Cause they're not ready for this. They're not available for this, so to speak. People are anxious. And they're not trusting what they're gonna feel.

'Cause even though everyone's read it, you forget what's happening. You forget kinda how it rolls. You forget what's gonna happen. And so in this passage, Huck is talking about betraying Jim and turning him in. And then a moment comes when he has the opportunity to betray Jim, and he shields him and tells an incredible story to shield him, protect him, and save his life.

PAULEY:  He just can't bear his conscience. 'Cause he's doin' the wrong thing.

MURRAY:  And he hates himself. 'Cause he did the wrong thing by not turning him in. And he doesn't understand what it is that happened, that it's just such a mystery. He says, "Well, I guess I won't worry about it anymore. And I'll do whatever comes easiest next time, instead of, like, torturing myself about the right thing and the wrong thing."

Bill Murray performs a reading as part of "New Worlds." CBS News

PAULEY:  And the audience in Napa responded…

MURRAY:  Like no other. What happens when he says that thing, I mean, I could weep. People wept. Because I think they'd forgotten what the message was, what really was happening and what he was talking about and what the possibility is, you know?

You can feel it. It's real. People are very uncomfortable hearing the word. When I was a kid, that's how people talked way back when. Then a whole lifetime passes.

And Richard Pryor says, "I'll never use that word again," which really affected me. He said, "I went to Africa. And I will never use that word again." That really was a moment for me.

And people fight about the word. And it's a word. It exists, you know? It's sorta like we're talkin' about Robert E. Lee statues, you know? Robert E. Lee was a man. He did a lot of great things. He fought a war over slavery. Was it over slavery, or was it over lots of things? I don't know. I wasn't alive then. But that's how it gets told now. And whether that's right or not, he was a man that did do some wonderful things. But specifically, Twain using that word, n****r, is making the point that this word, which even then was not a nice word to use about a person, the fact that he's using it is just like, that's just a common thing.

That's a way that people will talk. But it doesn't reflect the real character of a person, necessarily, and Huck, who was using this word over and over again, faced with whether or not to do the right thing, his soul was strong. And he could not do the wrong thing. He didn't understand why he couldn't do the wrong thing. He thought it was just a practical thing that he wasn't getting right, that there was some sort of --

PAULEY:  To steer a man to his freedom.

MURRAY:  -- easy thing.

PAULEY:  He brought a man to his freedom at some peril to --

MURRAY:  To his own life. He saves Jim and doesn't understand why he did it. Well, you know, at our very best, we often don't understand what we're doing, you know? But Twain was great. He made this point that just 'cause things are the way they are doesn't mean that beauty and decency can't rise and shine through that.

PAULEY:  You and Twain might'a had a little in common, I think.

MURRAY:  Well, I think so. He's from Hannibal. I've been to Hannibal. I had to go see what Hannibal was like, just on the water, the Mississippi. And I'm from Illinois. And you're, tragically, from Indiana. (LAUGHS) But I'm sure you've probably went to Hannibal. But he was a funny guy. I don't know. My friend, Roy Blount, knows more about him. And he said he got a little cantankerous as he got older. He got a little cranky.

PAULEY:  And you --

MURRAY:  He would make a fortune, lose a fortune, make a fortune, lose a fortune. And he probably didn't understand that. But I don't know why you think I have something in common with him.

PAULEY:  But you agreed?

MURRAY:  Well, I feel, and maybe you feel it, I think anyone that reads that stuff, if you feel like, "That's it. I feel like that, too," that you feel like you have something in common with him, that he's learned something or knows something that you feel like you knew all along, though you never put it in his words like that, or something. There's a righteousness. Like the way this audience responded to this piece, it was something they knew all along. But it just doesn't always come to the fore.

PAULEY:  And that was the release that --

MURRAY:  It was like, "That's right. That's right. It was right." And it was a rare moment. And as a performer, it was kind of a taut moment to think, "Where are we gonna end up with this thing?" Because you could feel that there was a conflict. People had a conflict listening.

PAULEY:  It's what the theater is for.

MURRAY:  It's kind of a love fest. It really is. We all knock each other out when we do the show. And it's a specific audience. It's a certain kind of audience that's coming to see mostly classical pieces.

So they don't necessarily know what to expect. And we go out there. And we wanna play. And it's really an entertainment. Because we're doing things that have great entertainment. But it's greater than the sum of the parts. 

You can stream the album "New Worlds" by clicking on the embed below (Free Spotify registration required to hear full tracks):

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