Photo: Marcus Ingram/WireImage.com
Beck Talks Woody Guthrie, 'Colors,' Songwriting & More
It's been nearly 30 years since Beck began his career journey, which has taken him from the anti-folk scene of New York City to winning GRAMMYs and performing on the biggest stages in the world.
At Up Close & Personal With Beck, a program presented by the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter with the Producers & Engineers Wing on May 1 at the W Atlanta-Midtown Hotel, the "Blue Moon" singer/songwriter participated in a fascinating career-spanning conversation.
Moderated by Tony Paris — who revealed that he saw Beck perform in the late '80s at the Sidewalk Cafe in New York City — the discussion delved into the L.A. native's idiosyncratic approach to the creative process.
"I think everybody finds their own way in music," said Beck. "I produce other artists as well [and] that's one of the things [I enjoy] — going into somebody else's world and their process and [learning] how they got into music and the rules they wrote for themselves. There's a million ways to make a song."
Of course, Beck's catalog features an abundance of musical elements and textures, from alt-rock and acoustic-based folk to pop, Americana and hip-hop. It turns out Beck's varied output is a direct result of is anti-formulaic approach to music.
"I think it would be more practical and pragmatic to have a formula," said Beck. "When I make records, I pretty much throw that out the window. I think what's interesting is that world that you construct and how the record is made becomes a part of the identity of the record. That's why [my] records are so different.
"There are certain records that I've recorded in a house with a producer — it's very kind of amateur in a beautiful way. The next record, I'll get some of the best musicians and one of the classic rooms in Los Angeles, record it to tape live, and bring in a live orchestra."
During the 60-minute-plus conversation, Paris peppered Beck on other topics such as his breakout hit "Loser," why music education programs are important and his creative mindset for popular albums in his catalog, including his stripped-down Sea Change album, 2006's The Information and his latest opus, 2017's Colors.
"['Loser'] went through all the record companies and I had a few meetings and nobody wanted to put [it] out," Beck recalled about his 1993 debut single. "So, a friend of mine put out 500 copies. And it was one of those freak things … it [went to] No. 1. I thought it would go away and that it [would be] just a novelty. It just had a life of its own."
"I heard Woody Guthrie and it was just so simple. It was just a human voice and a guitar. That was a real revelation for me."
Though "Loser" is a brilliant alt-rock pastiche featuring drum loops, rap rhymes and unforgettable phrases ("Get crazy with the Cheese Whiz"), Beck revealed that the initial inspiration for his career came in the form of an iconic folk singer/songwriter's pure approach.
"I heard Woody Guthrie and it was just so simple," he said. "It was just a human voice and a guitar. That was a real revelation for me. I kind of went down that thread of blues and folk music."
Digging further back, Paris touched upon the fact that each of Beck's parents come from artistic backgrounds. His father, David Campbell, is a master arranger/composer who has worked with artists such as Adele, Justin Timberlake and Dream Theater. His mother, Bibbe Hansen, is an artist, musician and actress who worked closely with Andy Warhol and was among those who frequented The Factory, a distinguished gathering place for Warhol and his artistic associates. While his parents' talents no doubt had an impact on Beck, his love for music was instilled through picking up a guitar on his own accord.
"It was the default thing that was accessible to me, which is the beautiful thing about music," said Beck, who added that he is a big believer in music education programs. "Having music programs for kids [is important]. That's like a lifeline. For a child, that's opening a whole world."
With 13 studio albums to his credit, Beck has initiated a left turn or two. His 2002 GRAMMY-nominated album, Sea Change, though lauded today as a modern folk masterpiece, hit a bumpy road right out of the gate.
"The record company rejected [Sea Change] when I turned it in," said Beck. "That was a record [where] I thought, 'This is just one I'm doing for myself. People who like my records aren't necessarily going to like this. Maybe it will be an interesting curiosity later on.'"
Curiosity is a through line in Beck's creative process. His musicologist leanings and a constant thirst for knowledge continue to inform his work as evidenced by his latest album, Colors.
"[For] a record like Colors, the ethos was those great records that are groundbreaking, sonically, but the compositions are experimental and also wildly popular," said Beck. "Thriller, Sgt. Pepper's and Pet Sounds — there's a particular thing about those records. They are very experimental but they are also so meticulous.
"[I thought], 'How do you do something very experimental that has sophistication but is accessible [with meticulous] production?' It was a very different approach than how I usually approach making records."