Beck Explains 'Song Reader,' An Album Fans Perform Themselves
Few artists have changed the face of music over the past two decades quite like Beck. Wherever his interests took him — through experiments in hip-hop, electronica, Tropicália, blues, funk, folk — Beck Hansen found a ravenous audience awaiting each new departure. For his latest project, however, he hasn't recorded a note.
Song Reader is 20 new songs presented only as sheet music, in the hopes that enterprising musicians will record their own versions. Scores of them have, and Beck has been collecting their contributions at his Song Reader website. He says that after a dozen solo albums, crowdsourcing seemed like a way to make the process of releasing music a little less lonely.
"When you write a song and make a recording and put out a record, it's kind of [like] sending a message in a bottle," Beck says. "You don't really get a lot of feedback. This is a way of sending that song out, and you just get literally thousands of bottles sent back to you."
Here, Beck speaks with NPR's Jacki Lyden about the inspiration behind the project, and gets to hear a few recordings of Song Reader tunes specially commissioned by NPR — including one by an ad-hoc band of public radio producers.
On the birth of the Song Reader idea
"When I put out one of my early records ... they sent me a sheet music version of the album. And that record was not really intended for sheet music. It was, like a lot of modern records, more of an accretion of sonic ideas — you know, a collection of stylistic bits using technology and cutting up sounds and samples. It was songs that were really fragmented, so they weren't really meant to [be played] in the parlor at the piano. So when I got the sheet music book, it ended up feeling like it was an abstraction of these recordings that I'd done; it just seemed sort of backward. I thought it would probably be better to write songs for a songbook than try to make a songbook out of one of my records."
On writing for other people
"There's something different that happens when you're writing a song for your own record that you know you're going to sing. I felt like I had a certain license with these songs. The idea that young people, old people, men, women, all different types of people would be possibly singing and playing these songs ... It made me think of that abstract notion of an American songbook, whether it includes standards, jazz tunes, things from the rock era, singer-songwriter songs — you know, all these songs that people know and love, the kind of songs that you play around a campfire or at a gathering. Those are the kind of songs that I was thinking about."
On looking at old standards for inspiration
"It was interesting how, when the songs were notated, they would get reduced; they would get simplified, in a way. The spirit of the song wasn't really there in the notation, necessarily — it really had to be brought to life by somebody. Those songs really walk that line of cliché and universality, where they could almost be banal or too easy. The really brilliant songwriters are able to walk that line and have something that really holds true through every era and still feels like part of culture. As society changes, as politics change, as people change, certain songs still seem to resonate."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LYDEN: Few artists have changed the face of music over the past two decades quite like Beck.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE IT'S AT")
BECK: (Singing) Where it's at, I got two turntables and a microphone...
LYDEN: Hip-hop, tropicalia...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "TROPICALIA")
BECK: (Singing) You wouldn't know what to say to yourself...
LYDEN: ...blues, funk, folk - wherever his interests have taken him, Beck Hansen found a ravenous audience awaiting each new departure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST CAUSE")
BECK: (Singing) Baby, I'm a lost cause...
LYDEN: For his latest project, Beck hasn't recorded one single note. He's written 20 new songs that he never intends to record - at least not now. He's offering them only as sheet music. Basically, Beck wants you to record his next album. So those fourth-grade piano lessons are finally starting to pay off, aren't they? This is something he's released through McSweeney's Publishing. It's called "Song Reader," and Beck joins us from our Southern California studios to talk about it. Beck, thanks for being with us.
BECK: Oh, it's great to be here.
LYDEN: So what provoked you to release your music this way?
BECK: Well, the first thing was when I put out one of my earlier records, and they sent me a sheet music version of the album. And the record was not really intended for sheet music. It was, like a lot of modern records, kind of using technology and cutting up sounds and samples. And so they weren't really meant to play in a parlor around the piano. So when I got the sheet music book, it ended up feeling kind of abstract - like it was an abstraction of these recordings that I'd done - and it just seemed sort of backwards. So I thought, probably, it'd be better to write songs for a songbook than try to make a songbook out of one of my records.
LYDEN: So, so many people, Beck, have taken you up on the challenge to play this. There's videos of amateur musicians playing this all over YouTube and on your songreader.net website. Let's just take a listen to a few of those.
LYDEN: This is "Old Shanghai."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD SHANGHAI")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) When you're walking in old Shanghai...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) ...lanterns under the night sky...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing) ...see the moon begin to rise, just like...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) ...like it did back home.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Singing) ...old men smoking in cafes...
LYDEN: I really love what Jody Rosen of Slate wrote in the liner notes here. He said: "Song Reader" may be a relic whose time has come. And in a strange way, you're using this really old-fashioned style - almost Victorian - to do something very modern. You're crowdsourcing your new music, new original music.
BECK: Right. You know, when you write a song and you put out a record, it's kind of, you know, sending a message in a bottle. It's kind of a lonely activity. You don't really get a lot of feedback. This is a way of sending that song out. You just get literally thousands of bottles sent back to you. So it's interesting that way to me. It's a completely different way of, you know, relating to one of your songs.
LYDEN: Well, when we received this lovely sheet music, we sent a few songs out to musicians around the country to get their interpretations for an NPR debut here. So let's take a listen to a folk guitarist from Wisconsin named Peter Mulvey. He's been working with our producer Phil Harrell, and he's doing your song "Last Night You Were a Dream."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST NIGHT YOU WERE A DREAM")
PETER MULVEY: (Singing) Last night you were a dream, now you're just you. And I am just a fool, someone you once knew. Before the night was over, after love was through, last night you were a dream, and now you're just you. In the midst of innocence, experience arrives. Like a guest you can't impress, the future in disguise. Questioning the things you know, then asking for too much. Dressing all your hopes in woe, then kicking out the crutch. Last night you were a dream, now you're just you. And I'm such a fool, someone you once knew. Before the night was over, after love was through. Last night you were a dream, now you're just you. Last night you were a dream, now you're just you. And I am just a fool, someone you once knew.
LYDEN: So that's Peter Mulvey with his arrangement of the new Beck song "Last Night You Were a Dream," and it's included in Beck's new collection of sheet music called "Song Reader." So, Beck, what do you think?
BECK: Such a rich voice. I love what he did with it.
LYDEN: He has that kind of torch song, jazzy quality.
LYDEN: Is that how you imagined it when you were writing?
BECK: Yeah. But, you know, I think when I was putting the arrangements together, I mean, I was really trying to make the songs stylistically as transparent as possible so somebody could do a kind of Beatles version of that or, you know, they could do something more folky or blues, like that. You know, hopefully, the songs can be taken in different directions and, you know, people will take liberties with them.
LYDEN: So over the years, you've delivered these really delicious, fantastic lyrics that always make me lean in closer, and they're really part of your signature. But these lyrics are a lot more universal and classic, and I was wondering if you were intentionally staying away from lines like "getting crazy with the Cheez Whiz."
LYDEN: Which, of course, is from "Loser."
BECK: Yeah. Yeah. There's something different that happens when you're writing a song for your own record that you know that you're going to sing. And I felt like I had a certain license with these songs. Like, the idea that young people, old people, men, women - all different types of people - would be possibly singing, playing these songs, you know?
It made me think of that abstract notion of an American songbook, whether it includes standards and jazz tunes and things from the rock era, singer-songwriter songs. You know, all these songs that people know and love, you know, the kind of songs that you play around a campfire or at a gathering. Those are the kind of songs that I was thinking about.
LYDEN: Well, let's check out another song. This one's called "The Wolf is on the Hill." Now, the sheet music calls for a male/female duet on this one. So we got in touch with the band Winterpills from western Massachusetts. Let's hear what they did.
WINTERPILLS: (Singing) The wolf is on the hill, the bird is in the briar. The thorn is on the rose, and your time is on the wire. Those days of grave concern, have turned themselves to silence. While the winter fires burn, what was left of kindness. So hide what you have learned, show off what you've squandered. Then give yourself a turn, see how far from home you've wandered. The wolf is on the hill, the bird is in the briar. The thorn is on the rose, and your time is on the wire. Take apart circumstance and set it on a fault line. An avalanche of the past locked inside a goldmine. And when you cannot stand on the legs God gave you, the road has turned to sand, that your luck has sunken into.
LYDEN: Winterpills with their take on the Beck song "The Wolf is on the Hill." I'm speaking with Beck Hansen about his new collection of sheet music called "Song Reader." You know, when you hear something like this or any of the recordings that people have sent you, do you wonder - we were talking a moment ago about the endurance of some American songs through the generations. And I'm wondering - think Irving Berlin, how might he have felt upon hearing one of his songs played back to him. Is it a strange experience for you?
BECK: Well, I think that era songwriters, I mean, that's - they constructed their songs. They were architects of a certain kind of song that was meant for many people to play, you know? And that was something that I think I learned in this project. You know, like that last song you played me, there was a - there were a few things melodically that aren't in the original song that I thought were better than what was in the song, you know?
And I think that as I hear these versions back to me, and I think I'll probably learn a lot about my songwriting or kind of open me up to possibilities that I hadn't really thought of.
LYDEN: Well, let's listen to another song - maybe you'll get another possibility here that you hadn't already thought of - and this is by the D.C.-based band Beauty Pill. Beauty Pill hasn't recorded a new album in eight years, but they're working on one right now. And they accepted our invitation to arrange one of your songs. And the song is "Please Leave a Light On When You Go."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE LEAVE A LIGHT ON WHEN YOU GO")
BEAUTY PILL: (Singing) How fast can a heart shatter before you're walking on splinters? Your head aches just to feel what it knows. Please leave a light on when you go. How can you fix something that you can't touch without hurting? The lessons you've learned is leaving you dumb. Please leave a light on when it's done. Standing high above the flood line, watching all your belongings go by. How can you see the ending when you're lost at the beginning? The day hides all that the night left behind. Please turn a light on when it dies.
LYDEN: That really delicate and lovely song, "Please Leave the Light On When You Go" written by Beck was done by the band Beauty Pill, and it's included in Beck's new collection of sheet music called "Song Reader." You know, when I held this in my hand...
LYDEN: ...I - and the art from them is so beautiful on each of them, it really did take me back to the days when I would put my sheet music up on the piano. I mean, there's something...
LYDEN: ...utterly classic about it. Did you go back and look at old sheet music and consider the ways that songwriters work and adapt your style in some form or fashion that you hadn't done before?
BECK: Yeah, it did. And whether it was an old Hank Williams song or a Cole Porter song, it was interesting how when the songs were notated, they would get reduced. They would get simplified in a way that the real spirit of the song wasn't really there necessarily in the notation. It really had to be brought to life by somebody.
Those songs, you know, they really walk that line of cliche, almost that universality where they could almost be banal or kind of, you know, too easy. But the really brilliant songwriters are able to walk that line and have something that just rings true through every era and, you know, feels still a part of a culture. As the society changes, as politics change, as people change, you know, certain songs just still seem to resonate.
LYDEN: Well, we have one last one. The NPR house band, you know, public radio producers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SORRY")
NPR HOUSE BAND: (Singing) I've been hanging around again, hang my head on the ground again. Turn my face to the wall, turn my head to the wall. Nobody knows you when you're feeling sorry. Nobody needs you when you're feeling sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry...
LYDEN: Tanya Ballard Brown, Felix Contreras, David Schulman, Van Williamson...
BECK: Bravo. Nice work.
LYDEN: Thanks so much for your stories and for your music.
BECK: Oh, yeah. Thanks. And I loved hearing those versions.
LYDEN: Beck, happy new year.
BECK: Yeah. You too.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SORRY")
NPR HOUSE BAND: (Singing) Oh...
LYDEN: Special thanks once more to the musicians who donated their time for this story. That's Beauty Pill, NPR's house band, Peter Mulvey and Winterpills. You can listen to their arrangements once more at our website, nprmusic.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SORRY")
NPR HOUSE BAND: (Singing) Oh, sorry...
LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're back tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.