Beck sxsw

Beck on writing, production and albums in the streaming age at SXSW

Today, Audio Media International was lucky enough to sit down with Beck at a SXSW Keynote session as he returns to Austin to kick off acoustic shows. Here’s the Q/A in full.

Beck on being back in Austin to play an acoustic set at ACL Live this week

I remember Johnny Cash playing Emos ahead of me in 1994 in Austin, my first tour – I didn’t really know what I was doing. I think my mic stand fell and hit someone. They had a huge welt on their head, I gave them a hug and they cried. I remember at one point looking up and the whole audience had left.

Beck on creativity and freedom in the pandemic

I didn’t do anything in Covid, for me it was so abrupt. I remember sitting in my living room, nothing going on – it felt like being at the airport when the flight is cancelled. It was a windfall of time I had dreamed of but I didn’t do anything, just loafed. I couldn’t sink into anything creative. I went to the beach and floated in the pool.

The absence of touring and playing made me realise how much live music is a part of my life. I went to more shows than ever before last summer.

I did a record with Pharell and I had been wanting to work with the Neptunes over 20 years ago. The first day I worked with him, he said sit down, I’ve got something. And I said I want to make something happy. And he plays Happy! I showed up about three days to late – it could have been my song.

We got together in 2018 and finished the project which was Hyperspace.

When you talk to U2 or Paul Macartey, they always want to write their next big record. I saw the Strokes recently and the whole crowd knows every word. The lyrics in my songs are too weird to people to sing along to. I see things that I want to fix and that what drives me to the next album.

Beck on his childhood and education around poetry and songwriting

I grew up in a forgotten part of LA, I felt like it was an invisible culture, not the LA you see in the movies. Kind of a mix of culture really. It was kind of a notorious area with gangs. It was pretty hardcore. It was one of the most violent places in the US when I was a teenager. I remember playing with people who had bandages on because they were shot the night before. A pretty impoverished place. There was a used furniture place that would also do your taxes and rent video tapes.

I spent the time mostly ditching high school and spent time at the Central Library in LA. There were so many books, many of them hadn’t be pulled off the shelf. I could get lost in there, kind of like an analogue internet. My family were on hard times, I didn’t have a room – I was sleeping under a dining table. The library burned down in 1986 and I cried – 400,000 books gone. It demonstrated to me how ephemeral all of this is. All these things we’re making are ephemeral.

It gave me this idea if you write a good song, in time, people aren’t going to know you wrote it. Most people might not the difference between composers even if they were born hundreds of years apart. I think it will be the same with rock music.

Beck on leaving LA

I saw a TV commercial for Greyhound – anywhere in the US for $30! It was a great deal. They pulled out a map and asked me where I wanted to go. I took a 3 day bus ride with no sleep. I arrived in New York, east village and started playing at folk events. Daniel Johnston was there around the same time. New York was still a little bit rough.

I was completely unprepared, I had been doing music for years but nobody would give me a gig. Everyone was shocked when Loser came out, myself included. The song got on the radio, it was number 1, I had no manager, no label. Then limos started turning up but I didn’t expect it to last. The record label people who passed on Loser and wanted to shape things, I realised they don’t know what they’re talking about so it gave me an idea to experiment.

I played a bowling alley and created a system where the instruments could kind of play themselves and left while the music was still playing to the record execs. I called the alley and my voice came over the speakers and then the gig stopped. I still got signed!

Over the grunge or alternative period, I used to write deep songs that sounded like Leonard Cohen, people at that time called me farm boy. The humour of my work is important – I look at the Beatles documentary and they’re all clowning around.

Beck on Odelay reception

A producer came to me and had heard Odelay before it was released. He told me it was going to be a failure and needed to be reworked and I spent a lot of money on it. Loser was a big hit, but there was one hit wonder talk around me and I kind of believed it too. I was shocked that Odelay found an audience. It got great reviews. I think when you’re young you have a strong instinct with these things. I remember there were a lot of things that were being re invented – you’d turn on the TV and Bjork was pop star!

Beck on lyrics and poetry

As a teenager I read a poetry magazine and befriended a poetry teacher and they kind of took me under their wing and said who’s this weird kid. Around rap at the time, a lot of stuff was happening with poetic lyrics. I thought a lot of lyric writing was cliched but I also thought it was great that you can put art into lyrics. It was a revelation that you could put art in songs. I thought if I snuck stuff in, most people wouldn’t notice it but some would. By the way if you go on Google, all my lyrics are wrong – no wonder people think my lyrics are weird.

There’s a beauty in mishearing lyrics “excuse me while I kiss this guy”.

I’m doing a Joni Mitchell tribute in a couple of weeks – her writing is so advanced, there’s a compression of language and Imagery in it. You’re not directly saying I miss you, but the lyrics are creating that feeling and giving you that atmosphere.

The weird lyrics of Loser gives you a feeling that puts you in a mental space, I learned that from poets really. It gives you a sense of wild energy, being alienated in this world that adults have constructed.

You can get esoteric with songwriting but you can be like Hank Williams or a hymn –  some of the best songs can be simple and I’ve tried that – songs like ‘I can’t help falling in love with you’, that’s the highest level, almost impossible to write. Like being incredibly heartfelt but not, really and not making it a cliche – it’s a delicate line to find.

I struggled starting out in that I loved Guthrie and the Beatles, Chip Trick – how do you reconcile these things. Music was very divided when I was growing up and post streaming, everything is mixed together, almost beyond genre. Just iterations – they’re all different ways of saying the same things. It’s a wild world of possibility.

Beck on making albums, singles and streaming

Because I was doing folk and rap type stuff, it made people distrustful. I was probably more influenced by film makers rather than musicians. I look at albums like a filmmaker – this one is going to take place in the 70s or in England, every album is like a different world. I like the concept of an album because of the way songs speak to each other, context is everything. An album is always greater than the individual parts and it is going away – I know that – but the album is a great place to play and explore.

I was isolated when I was younger, so the folk singer profile was ideal. I didn’t have money for machines or synths so I couldn’t be like Moby or Aphex Twin. I feel like acoustic performances are like going to the bones of the song. It’s a reduction, a purity – I like the possibilities. I toured Sea Change and it’s wild what you can break and go with it when it’s just you and the audience. Playing solo is a bit indulgent I think.

I think there’s certain artists that put something out and fix or tweak it once it’s on streaming services, I think it’s a good idea. I’ve been re-recording some of my songs, Loser by itself – it’s an interest concept to go back. Taylor Swift did it and Sinatra too, Elvis also I think. All the songs you play over the years evolve and change while live of course. Like Bob Dylan.