Beck's Long Balancing Act

Feb 25, 2014
Originally published on February 25, 2014 8:17 am

Beck was recording his latest album when he encountered an unexpected hazard in the studio.

"I got bit by a black widow in the middle of this recording session," he says laughing. "I was in the hospital, and my arm was all swollen up."

That was only one of the indignities Beck suffered on the way to Morning Phase.

After years spent producing albums for other people, releasing a collection of sheet music and struggling with a back injury that kept him away from live performance, Beck is back. His new album, Morning Phase, isn't exactly sunny — but it has a breezy quality, like clouds parting after a heavy storm.

Speaking with host Steve Inskeep, Beck says that at this point in his career, more than ever before, he feels the pressing need to innovate — even if that means taking an established form and turning it on its side.

"I'm aware of the time that I'm in, and I don't want to reject it; you know, I want to be part of it," Beck says. "I'm aware that a lot of music that was made in the past was done really well. It was perfected, in certain genres. I probably spent a lot of my formative years feeling like there's probably not really any point in going back to a certain style of music that's been done well. I think a lot of people my age felt that way.

"But I think, at the same time, you don't want to throw away or ignore things that were good in the past. I think there's a way to engage or carry on some of these things and then try to bring new things to it. You know, you can go from extremes: You can try to recreate the past and do sort of a pastiche, or you can reject anything that sounds remotely from another era, and just embrace electronic music. But even electronic music, at this point, goes back to the '70s and some of the early electronic pioneers. Maybe we're at a point where we're just engaging with all of it."

Hear more of the conversation, including what happens when a hired orchestra punches out in the middle of a recording session, at the audio link.

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The singer Beck was recording his latest album when he encountered an unexpected hazard in the studio.

BECK: I got bit by a black widow...


BECK: the middle of this recording session. So, in the midst of all this record...


BECK: ...I was in the hospital. My arm was all swollen up.

MONTAGNE: Keep that image of the rock star with a swollen arm, because that was only one of the indignities Beck suffered on the way to this album called "Morning Phase."


MONTAGNE: He told Steve Inskeep what he's been doing in the six years since his last release.


Years ago, as a rock musician sometimes must, Beck Hansen was called upon to fly. He was lifted up in a harness and suffered an injury even worse than the spider bite: disastrous back problems.

BECK: I didn't talk about it a lot because if felt like I don't know that interesting. And who wants to hear musician complaining about...


BECK: ...getting hurt or - you know, it's...

INSKEEP: Well, let's stipulate that you're not complaining. But now I'm interested 'cause you said a harness for a shoot. You mean like you were doing a special effect and...

BECK: Filming, yeah, over a few days. And I wasn't trained or prepared.

INSKEEP: Were you actually unable to play or was painful to play for a while?

BECK: Yeah, and I was unable to walk for a while. It was bad.

INSKEEP: Even as Beck recovered, there was the question of what to do. The music business was changing and Beck wasn't sure whether he should too.

BECK: I definitely had a period of time where I was thinking about, is there a point where you've done what you're supposed to do. And, you know, other bands are coming in and this kind of thing.

INSKEEP: Over the past six years, he produced albums for others. He recorded a rock album and didn't release it, and started a country album in Nashville - shelved that too. He finally found something he wanted to release when he started playing music at a very different pace - half the speed of most popular hits.

BECK: The more I slowed down the songs, they started to go from something that would be more of a traditional singer/songwriter kind of song, into something else. You know? There's something about playing with time in that way, when you slow or stretch time out. It changes the perspective.

INSKEEP: Maybe this is a good moment to listen to "Wave."


INSKEEP: Is this one of those songs that would feel completely different if it was 50 percent faster?

BECK: Yeah, I think so. I mean this one, since there's no drums, you're not quite as aware of the tempo. It's just sort of elastic.


INSKEEP: Meaning nobody really knows what that's going to sound like, until you actually get all the instruments together.

BECK: Yeah, working with orchestra - I mean that's complete gamble. And I think you hire them in a three-hour block. So literally, if the clock runs out they just get up and walk out the door.


BECK: And so, I think what's on the album is the one not what I intended it to be. It's the one we had.



INSKEEP: The harmonies in this particular song, there's some harmony but is it both your voice that both the part...

BECK: Yeah, I started out with two and I wanted a kind of close harmony, Simon and Garfunkel, Louvin Brothers. You know, I love harmony singing but I was singing with myself. So I was tracking myself on it, kept trying to get a certain sound - a kind of richness and I kept adding and adding. So there's four or five or six voices, and myself, stacked.


INSKEEP: We also thought of Simon and Garfunkel when we were listening to that.

BECK: Yeah, like Art Garfunkel's voice just kills me. It's that kind of singing, that very soft, unforced kind of singing in a higher register that's really difficult. It's much easier to sing out and use a bit more force.


BECK: It took days, I remember.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to one more song, "Blackbird Chain."




INSKEEP: And now, after the back injury, the existential questions, the false starts, the slowing down and the black widow spider bite, Beck called the album "Morning Phase" and packed it with lyrics about a new dawn.

Does that theme have anything to do with your own life at the moment?

BECK: I guess so. I mean it wasn't conscious. I just noticed, as I was working on the songs, that there were certain recurring things: the morning, waking, the sort of sense of light coming that just seemed to fit with the mood of the music; that sense of waking from maybe a tumultuous kind of time.


INSKEEP: Well, Beck, thanks very much for taking the time.

BECK: Yeah, it was good talking to you.


MONTAGNE: That was Beck talking to Steve Inskeep about his new album, "Morning Phase."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.