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INTERVIEW: Chris Thile on MacArthur Genius Award

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Wednesday October 10, 2012

from Huffington Post

Chris Thile, Youngest MacArthur Genius Of 2012, On His ‘Dauntingly Lofty’ New Status (INTERVIEW)
By Mallika Rao

At 31, Chris Thile is special in an already special circle: the mandolinist who first won awards as part of the Grammy-winning trio Nickel Creek is this year’s youngest MacArthur genius. The annual fellowship grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation gifts $500,000 to each genius to spend as his or her genius dictates — pretty good pocket change for someone who hasn’t even been out of college a decade.

In the face of such a high-stakes tradition, it might be tempting to try to adopt sang froid. But Thile isn’t shy about grinning through the confetti. Sitting next to Junot Diaz and across from Charlie Rose this week, Thile beamed and ran overtime with every one of his exuberantly gestured thoughts, while Diaz, the 43-year-old writer of the moment who also made this year’s cut, spoke in flawless metaphors and kept still. More than equals, they resembled the Karate Kid and Mr. Miyagi.

Thile might extend the student-sensei analogy to his relationship with all 22 of his new cohorts. When the composer spoke with The Huffington Post this Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the normally top secret list leaked, he talked of a “dauntingly lofty” new personal bar, swearing to us multiple times up and down that he’s going to “try so hard to live up” to the standards of a group that includes a neurosurgeon and a telescope designer in its varied ranks. Did you hear that, doubters? Read on for the rest of what Thile said, including what it physically felt like to get the life-changing news, why he kept dodging the call, and his plans for all that cash.

HP: How does it feel to be a genius?

CT: I’m feeling pretty spectacular.

HP: How did you find out the news?

CT: The call started while my mother was driving me from my folks’ place in Vernon, Kentucky to Nashville, where Punch Brothers [Thile’s new band] had a gig. It was a strange number. I felt like it was a ‘make sure to vote’ robot. In my mind, I was like, ‘Don’t worry. I’m going to vote. Everything’s cool!’ Eventually Daniel Socolow — the director of the Fellowship — he left a message just saying his name, which I didn’t recognize from anything, and saying he had something of interest to discuss with me.

I’m a musician, so a lot of times when people leave messages like that, they’ve gotten my number through a friend and want me to play on their record or something. So I wasn’t even going to call back, but then he called me again — at this point, my mom had already dropped me off in Nashville — and he left a message saying, ‘Don’t tell anyone about this call.’ Anyone who’s seen any television knows you get that call right before getting shot. So the first thing I did was show it to someone. I played it for my tour manager. He googled the number and said, ‘It appears to be from the MacArthur Foundation.’

Right then, I felt like an eighth of a person. I was in a state. A total state. I imagine it could be called hyperventilating. I thought, ‘Wait, this can’t be about me. They want me to confirm or recommend a buddy, or maybe the Foundation does other stuff that I’m not thinking about, NPR or PBS stuff — This program has been made possible by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, you know.

I called back, and the secretary said, ‘He’ll call you within five to 15 minutes.’ And I’m freaking out. The boys actually took [and Tweeted] a picture of me laying down in the dressing room.

He called me back and slowly unveiled that I’d been given a fellowship. At that point there’s just this feeling of levitating. I literally felt like I was floating. Then it would just be this alternating between levitating and an intense heaviness that was kind of all wrapped up in, ‘I don’t deserve this but I want to deserve this. I want to do good enough work to not stand out on this list. I just want to blend in and not be the dud on that list of people’ — a list I only just saw yesterday, you know, when the AP leaked the thing. I was just looking down that list and, god, I’m still just flabbergasted. The company is dauntingly lofty. I swear to god, I’m going to try so hard to live up to them.

Read the full article here