A lot has happened since Beck released his last full-length studio album. He suffered (and has since recovered from) a back injury that made it difficult to even hold a guitar. He recorded a new album, shelved the whole thing, and launched several other projects online, including an art gallery, mixtapes of his favorite songs, and "Record Club," a series of cover albums performed by Beck and his friends. There was also 2012's Song Reader, an album's worth of new songs released as sheet music for others to perform and record.
Beck's last studio release, 2008's Modern Guilt, was a sometimes driving, sometimes trippy rock record, with droning slow-burners and psychedelic guitar anthems. His new album, Morning Phase (out Feb. 25), occupies a different sonic space, one more closely aligned with 2002's Sea Change. That record was among the most distinctive in Beck's catalog: A downtempo, introspective and personal journey. While Morning Phase isn't a direct sequel to Sea Change, it shares many of the same themes and sounds: less space-funk and more lush ballads, with soaring orchestral parts. It was also recorded by the same group of musicians, including drummer Joey Waronker (Atoms For Peace, R.E.M.), keyboardist Robert Joseph Manning, Jr and guitarist Jason Falkner. Beck's father, composer David Richard Campbell, is back as well, providing string arrangements — which you can hear some of in the song "Waking Light," premiered here.
Beck recently joined All Songs Considered hosts Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton to talk about the feeling of reunion behind Morning Phase, the value of creative playtime and why great music careers often start with a stumble. Hear the full conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.
BOB BOILEN: Did the writing of this album happen before, and the recording after? I think often the writing process is done before you walk in the door, but how is it in this record?
BECK: I tried to make this record a few times. I went to Nashville a few years ago and I was gonna make a Nashville record. I did a lot of recording there, and it was one of those things where it didn't quite come together. That's really the beginning of the record, is going to Nashville. But there was something about bringing it back here [to Los Angeles]. I got the band that I did most of Sea Change with, I got all of them together, and it just felt right. The songs started to work and it started to feel like a record.
BOILEN: What happens to you when something feels right? I know that's maybe a bit of an intangible.
BECK: I think what happens is you stop sleeping: "Okay, it's happening now, just hold on." I spent about five months in the studio, pretty much around the clock. The record was supposed to come out last year, so we were on this deadline — trying to get it done, trying to get it done. And then it ended up getting pushed back: We got to the end, and it was done, and then we didn't have a record label.
ROBIN HILTON: Did you ever entertain the idea of just putting it out yourself?
BECK: I did. I've been talking about that for years. I think it comes down to the people that I work with, management: That's a lot of extra work for everybody. So it's easier to go somewhere where that's what they're doing night and day. I had some friends, people that I'd worked with for a long time at Capitol, so I ended up there. But I think it was having that deadline, it being an intensive thing, that helped ultimately kind of make the whole thing feel cohesive.
BOILEN: And thematic. The string piece that opens Morning Phase really feels like dawn, and the tone for the next 45 minutes is completely set by this. It's very programmatic. Do you feel that way about that piece? Does it feel like morning to you?
BECK: Yeah, [but] I didn't intend it. We actually did the strings at Capitol, so that was fortuitous; they have these studios down in the basement of that famous Capitol building, where Frank Sinatra and all these classic records were made. We were just creating some fragments, because I always want to have extra pieces. I think when you hear a final record, a record like this, you hear about 20 percent of the actual music that was made. There's so many little pieces, and at the last minute I had about four or five of these fragments, and I just tried sticking them in different places. So it wasn't really thought out. It was kind of a piece that just fell into place — "Oh, that works." A lot of times it doesn't. You throw pieces away a lot.
BOILEN: There's a fellow named David Richard Campbell — your dad — who worked on the strings. How do you two work together?
BECK: I usually get some kind of keyboard and I'll play the basic voicings and we'll map it out. With strings, a lot of times I'll play or sing parts over the song, which we'll transcribe. There's a song on Sea Change called "Paper Tiger" and there's a whole solo that the orchestra does; that was actually something I sang, and then we just transcribed it.
HILTON: Did you find, approaching this music, that you really didn't have any agenda? That you more sort of discovered the songs?
BECK: The song "Wave" is something I recorded about five years ago and tried to give to a few other people; I was producing and trying to write for other people for a while. I just had it sitting around for a long time, and when I played it for people it always got a reaction, do I started to put together songs that felt like they could go with that song and build around that. That was always the center of the record. And then I had some of these Nashville songs to add a little bit of lightness. The record's pretty slow. I think at one point we realized there was nothing faster than 60 BPMs — which, that's beats per minute. That's really slow.
BOILEN: Right. Your average dance song is 120.
BECK: Yeah, I think a hit song has to be 120-something. When I'm recording with my band, we're always egging each other on to play slower and slower. For one thing, it's really difficult to play that slow and stay in time — for it to still feel musical — but it also really kind of warps the perspective of the song.
HILTON: I think it'd be especially hard live, to pace yourself like that.
BECK: Yeah, we've played some of these songs and some of the Sea Change songs live, and I've played with musicians who can't actually do it. It's really weird.
BOILEN: How did the orchestration in "Wave" come to be? The interaction between you and your dad is really stunning.
HILTON: It's so fat. It's just such a huge, massive sound.
BECK: It's funny, listening to it, the vocal got so loud after mixing and mastering.
BOILEN: You actually sound like God. It has a lot of power.
BECK: That was a tricky one, because you don't want to get in the way of the orchestra. With a lot of the songs on this record it was like, how do you keep this mood and not disrupt it, or break the spell of whatever's happening with the music? On some of them it's singing soft, singing higher, trying different voices. I had songs where I'd try singing it 20 different ways, just beating it into the ground, and then you finally find something: "Okay, this feels like it's part of the song." I've heard other singers — proper, trained singers — they have a certain voice they'll use. They just know that works. Whereas I kind of have to feel my way through it a bit.
BOILEN: But you're not untrained. You have this in you.
BECK: Believe me, I'm really untrained. I need some training. I'm making it up as I go, really.
HILTON: It must be a constant voice in your head. I was just scrolling through my library and thinking, "Has this guy written a bad song? I've got like 200 songs here!"
BECK: Yeah, there's some bad ones for sure. You have to write the bad ones to get to a decent one; I really believe in that. I kind of wish there was more room for people to make bad records — just make a couple bad ones, you know, to get to the good stuff. I think it's part of the process.
HILTON: Do you still do that now? Do you still find that you'll write and then you'll throw it away and start over?
BECK: Oh, yeah. Yeah, a lot.
HILTON: So how do you get past that voice that tells you, "Wow, this one's crap"?
BECK: It's hard. I had a lot of years where it was really hard. I was talking to a friend about this a while ago: The rise of internet and all the blogs and the sort of internet criticism, I think it's affected a lot of musicians. There's sort of this critical voice in their head, like somebody's pointed a camera or a mirror at you, and you're a little more self-conscious. I feel like I've felt it in music over the last, you know, 10 or 12 years. When I started out, you were just throwing stuff out there; you had no idea what people thought. There would be a couple of record reviews, but you really were completely ignorant and unaware of what people actually thought. Unless you were at a show — you know, you could play a song and people didn't like it. That happened plenty of times.
BOILEN: Has anything you've ever done made you just want to give up making music?
BECK: I had a really early experience. I lived in New York in the '80s and there was kind of a small folk scene — probably the last gasp of the East Village folk scene left over from the '60s and '70s. And I got to go play music for one of the members of The Weavers.
BOILEN: And we're talking just after the death of Pete Seeger at 94 years old, a main figure in folk music, who was in The Weavers, too. They were one of the few folk groups that sold records in the '50s — I mean, they put folk on the map in pop music.
BECK: And at a time that was not friendly to what they were singing about. They popularized a lot of folk music and really, along with Woody Guthrie, probably planted the seeds for the folk revival, which leads to the singer-songwriter.
BOILEN: And Woody and Pete used to travel around the country together.
BECK: Exactly, and I was pretty steeped in all that. As a kid, I read all those books and learned a lot of the songs; that's what I started out really drawn to. And I got to play for one of the members of The Weavers, and I remember getting, "You ever thought of going back to school? It's nice that you're doing this, but I really don't think it's a good idea to play music."
BOILEN: You were how old then?
BECK: Probably 18, I think. At the time, I really didn't have ambitions or hopes. I was just doing it because I liked to play music. I was drawn to folk music because it was something you could just kind of do: You didn't have to be trained or groomed. Coming of age in the '80s with these superstar acts, the artists who were popular were kind of superhuman — it was like, "How do you do that?"
BOILEN: So after that person said to you, "You've gotta go back to school," what made you say to yourself, "No, I've got something"?
BECK: Well, I wasn't there for that. I was just there to meet him and to say hello; I wasn't there to get his permission to play music. And for so many years, I played music with no encouragement. I just did it because like-minded people were down at whatever bar or coffee house, whether it was The Chameleon or ABC No Rio in New York, or Al's Bar or Raji's in L.A. You know, that's where people were hanging out. It was also a way to get into the shows free.
BOILEN: Who do you remember seeing back then that really touched your soul?
BECK: I got to New York right when Daniel Johnston had been there. I didn't know who he was yet; he's one of these self-made songwriters who was recording on a little cassette deck at his parents' house and making his own albums, but I wasn't aware of those. So I'd be just trading songs with different people and I learned a couple of his songs. I thought they were old folk songs, and I had been performing them for a while when finally somebody told me, "No, no, no —that's a Daniel Johnston song." These great songs were sort of almost like lost classics. So things like that were happening when I was there, whether it was Jon Spencer or The Melvins or Nirvana or whatever was happening at that time. I was kind of more drawn to the folk stuff, though: I used to go see Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin' Jack Elliott.
HILTON: I love to think of the connections to folk in your music. It's certainly there on an early record like One Foot in the Grave, but I think it's a spine that is always present, connecting all of the records together, even up through Morning Phase.
BOILEN: Do you think of it as folk music, though? Can you imagine somebody seeing you in a small café singing these songs?
BECK: That's such a strange term now, "folk music" — because the folk music now is just people making things on laptops at home, you know, with some software they downloaded for free. It's the same impulse. But music made on acoustic instruments, I mean, that'll never go away.
HILTON: "Blue Moon" was the first song you put out from Morning Phase.
BECK: Yeah, it's weird because it's such an afterthought. It was a demo that I just did by myself. I'd been reading this Elvis book by Peter Guralnick [the two-volume biography Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love]. I'd had it on my shelf for like 15 years and I finally read it about a couple years ago. I feel like every musician when they're starting out should just read that book.
BOILEN: "The lies you tried to hide behind your eyes" is a line in your song. Is that Elvis-influenced?
BECK: Well, no, I was thinking about [the original] "Blue Moon" because that song, I think, just encapsulates him at the beginning — this sort of purity. When you read the book, you really get a sense of who he was at the beginning and then at the end. You see him go through the entire cycle of, for lack of a better term, show business, until he's at the end in Vegas, ensconced in this hotel room, kind of remote and separated from the world and life. But when he's younger, he's just so accessible. He lived with his parents and after dinner would go and sit with his fans who'd all be waiting outside — they were allowed to wait. I don't know, that's what I was thinking about with it.
HILTON: Your lyrics are often a little cryptic, especially on a record like Odelay. This new record feels much more inward-looking, perhaps more intimate. Do you have a preference? Is one style of writing easier than the other?
BECK: There's certain genres, certain kinds of songs, that are well-trodden areas. They're pretty well mapped out, so when you're going there, there's an aspect of, "Okay, I've heard this before." I think at that point I just try to find something really simple, at the center of what the song is trying to say. When we played that song, it was actually the first time me and the musicians had been in the room together since we did Sea Change — which, that was 12 years ago or something. And I had these injuries for years and years, and had this certain guitar that was really hard for me to play, so this was the first time I could play the guitar again in probably seven, eight years. So to me, that song was just was the sound of, "We're all here again, and we're able to do this again."
HILTON: It must have been such a release.
BECK: Yeah, it was a release. You know, at that point we've all had kids and married and divorced and lost parents and all these things.
It was funny, Michel Gondry, I was gonna do a video with him at some point. He'd seen a documentary on the musicians who worked at Stax [Records], and there was a shot of them there at the site of the building, which I think had been torn down or burned down. And he thought of doing a video where we're all older, recording at the studio that we recorded at when we were younger, and then he was going to do some process where suddenly we were young again and the building came back together. I wish we'd had the money to do it. But I kind of thought of that after we were recording. I was like, "Oh, this is kind of revisiting something."
BOILEN: You've spent an awful lot of time in the last few years remaking the records of people you love. I just wonder how that informs making your own songs, once you start to dig in and learn about how people do what they do.
BECK: Actually, the original intention [of those projects] was just to get musicians together. I just needed an idea to hang it on, because I knew there wouldn't enough time to really write music — but if there was a record we could cover, that's kind of playtime for musicians. Most bands, they go out and they play a similar set every night. There's a routine, and there's a job aspect to it, and then they create kind of an autonomous space to just kind of go and make a bunch of noise. It's something that I would do with my friends when I was younger, but you get to a point where you're like, "I have to call 10 people, and then we have to get a budget" — just to play a gig, you know? So after a lot of years, I finally realized we have to create something where we can just go and mess around.
BOILEN: But those ideas have a way of turning into something else, don't they? What did it end up meaning for you to do a Velvet Underground record, or any of the others?
BECK: Well, that aspect of it is important. You read about any musician who's done something important, and there's a period where they've ingested some vast amount of music. They've learned just hundreds and hundreds of songs. I think that's important to do, even after you've been putting out records for years. That's something I was thinking about with that songbook I put out last year: There's something about learning or playing a song yourself that is different than listening.
HILTON: And I would think getting all the friends together like that and trying these different projects would be very renewing for you — sort of invigorate you, in a way.
BECK: Yeah, I'm always looking for that. It's good to mix it up with other musicians; things rub off. If you think to the periods of music where there were a lot of breakthroughs or things were really evolving — those were periods where people were hanging out. They were coming down to the studio or down to the club, playing together — whether its Stones, Beatles, Donovan, Clapton, Jimi Hendrix; you know, Crosby, Stills and Nash. They're all kind of there, rubbing shoulders. And I think that makes music better.