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Beck on Beck

A conversation about recording the old-fashioned way, the enduring power of the album, the folk music in his DNA, and never taking success for granted
By MICHAEL ATCHISON  |  July 16, 2014

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"I am interested in how an album can elaborate on an idea beyond one song." [Photo by Peter Hapak]

Twenty years after his breakthrough album Mellow Gold, and six years since his last recording, 2008’s Modern Guilt, Beck returned early this year with Morning Phase, a luminous collection of songs that reverberates with echoes of sounds that rose from Laurel Canyon and the singer-songwriter boom of the early 1970s. A stylistic companion to 2002’s Sea Change, but miles from the heavy electronics and elliptical wordplay of 1996’s multi-platinum and Grammy-winning Odelay, Morning Phase is bathed in a warm analog glow that sets it apart from the computerized music that now rules radio.

Even with the long delay between albums, Beck Hansen remained prolific in recent years, producing recordings for other artists, and re-recording notable albums (from The Velvet Underground and Nico to Yanni Live At the Acropolis) with a revolving cast of musicians and then posting the results to his website for a project called Record Club. In 2012, he released Song Reader, a book containing sheet music for twenty original songs that had not previously been recorded. It was recently announced that Song Reader will be released as an album on July 29, with performances by 20 artists, including Beck himself.

Currently on tour, Beck and his band will play at the Providence Performing Arts Center on Saturday July 26 (ppacri.org). The Phoenix talked with him by phone last week.

YOU’VE COVERED A WIDE SWATH OF MUSICAL TERRITORY IN YOUR CAREER, BUT THE ALBUMS ARE ALL STYLISTICALLY COHESIVE. WHICH COMES FIRST, THE FEEL OR THE SONGS? I think sometimes the songs come out of the feel. There’s a certain sound or mood that I’ll be playing with and then the song will emerge out of that. Sometimes I’m able to think of some kind of feeling I want the songs to have and then come towards that. And then other times I write a song and in the studio it just becomes something, not necessarily what I intended. Every song has its own kind of life, its own gestation, its own way of working itself out. The whole process is a little bit mysterious and ultimately can be out of my hands to a large degree. It’s dependent on the sound that we got in the studio, what people are playing that day. There are so many factors.

WHEN YOU’RE SEARCHING FOR SONGS WITH A CERTAIN FEEL, DO SONGS THAT DON’T FIT ALSO COME AND THEN GET SHELVED? Exactly. I shelved a lot of stuff that didn’t quite fit on this record. I was pretty ruthless. Some of the other records, the net gets cast a bit wider and I can throw different things together, but on this record [I felt] that if you broke the momentum and changed the sound too much it would break the spell of the record. I did take about a couple of dozen songs out, at least, if not more than that.

YOU SEEM MORE COMMITTED TO THE IDEA OF THE ALBUM AS A UNIFIED STATEMENT THAN DO MANY CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS. WHY IS THAT STILL IMPORTANT TO YOU? I grew up with albums as a conceived idea, as an aggregate of songs and sounds that become a bigger idea when they’re all put together. That’s not to say that’s a better way of going about it. Trying to make 10 number-one singles for a pop artist, that might be just as valid a way to go. But I am interested in how an album can elaborate on an idea beyond one song, and what kind of impression you can make with all those songs together. There’s a sort of friction that songs have together. A really good friction. And also there’s something to be said for a group of songs that work together, that have a flow, that have a beginning and an end. More like a story where each chapter is pulling you to the next one. Some other albums can have 15 songs thrown together, and people will fast-forward to the songs they like or download the ones they like. In thinking about the value of putting out an album versus a single or EP, you might as well try to make it something that works as a piece.

EVEN THOUGH IT’S CLEARLY A MODERN RECORD,MORNING PHASE SITS NICELY ALONGSIDE THE EARLY 1970S WORK OF NEIL YOUNG, NICK DRAKE, AND BOB DYLAN. DID YOU MAKE A CONSCIOUS EFFORT TO EVOKE THAT ERA? I made a conscious effort not to use a lot of the modern techniques that are used in making records in 2014. All those techniques are valid and relevant, and a lot of great music is made with them. Part of it had to do with my continuing uncertainty with all the exciting different ways of making music, and different sounds, and even things that are groundbreaking. What things are going to be dated and what things are going to be valid in 20 or 30 years? In a way, I just sidestepped most of the possibilities and tried to record it very simply with music played by live musicians, and it being more about voice and musicianship. You can make very impressive records, probably records that would be much more engaging for people to hear than my record, by using techniques of programming and looping and arranging in a computer. But we’re at a point now where almost anybody can do that. Almost anybody can make a pretty decent sounding record, if not a great record. But looking at my life and all these musicians that I’ve been playing with over the years — all the time and effort and pains that we’ve taken to learn how to do what we do — I felt like, let’s just make this in a way that completely relies on our hands and our voices and the things that we’ve learned through our life. And again, the next record I’m making has lots of programming in it, and completely embraces all the things that I’m talking about, everything that’s modern. But for this specific record I just felt like, let’s just try to not use any tricks and any newfangled ways of doing things, and let’s just have it be about a really direct human expression, which I think lent itself to the tone and the feeling of the songs.

WHEN YOU’RE CREATING AN ALBUM WITH SUCH A SPECIFIC FEEL, DO YOU LISTEN TO OTHER SIMILAR MUSIC AS A REFERENCE POINT? Not consciously. I have listened to many records for decades. And like a lot of musicians, they’ve become a part of my DNA as a musician. So I didn’t necessarily have to go and pull out certain things. Because, to be honest, if said, “I’m gonna go do something that sounds like Joni Mitchell” or “I’m gonna pull out the second Leonard Cohen record and we’re going to do something just like the third track,” it wouldn’t come out good. It wouldn’t work at all because, believe me, I’ve done that before. What works, though, is that if I go into the studio, and I’m in there for weeks, and I record 20 kind of mediocre-to-bad songs, and then I just stumble onto something or I start riffing on some chords and the band falls in, and we capture something that was kind of unplanned, then we go “Now we have something. That was special. The last 20 things weren’t at all.” But in retrospect, down the line, it might be like, “Oh, that sounds a little bit like Neil Young or Joni Mitchell or John Martyn.” But at the time, it was the furthest thing from my mind . . . . I think most people probably think “this sounds a little bit like the second Paul McCartney solo record. He must have been listening to that.” And I would say in my case, I probably wasn’t, but I probably have over the years, and in the throes of working in the studio something of Paul McCartney or one of these classic records could possibly happen. And when you’re using acoustic guitar and piano and acoustic drums, that’s well-mined territory. That’s one of the things that has kept me from more singer-songwriter records. I think I spend half of my time feeling like it’s a such a well-trodden, deeply-mined strata of music-making that for me to even assume to add something else to something that’s already been completely explored is almost presumptuous. It takes a certain kind of mind frame for me even to engage in that kind of work. But I do really love it because it is so simple. I feel like somebody who is using all the colors and all the possibilities, and then somebody gives you a pencil and says, “OK, now make something with this.” It’s very cleansing in a way.

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