Beck has certainly come a long way since his "Loser" days. Although he hasn't released an album since 2008's Modern Guilt, the singer has recently been making headlines for his ambitious and unique projects, such as Sound and Vision, Beck's reimagined version of David Bowie's classic track that he and an orchestra performed in the round, and his Song Reader project, which has taken on a life of its own. Originally released as a book of sheet music with 20 original songs written by Beck, Song Reader has metamorphosed into an ambitious art, music and performance project that has spawned hundreds of interpretations of these songs by amateur and professional musicians alike, many of which are featured as YouTube videos and audio clips on the Song Reader website.
Beck recently led two Song Reader shows in London and Santa Cruz, and he's now gearing up for the most ambitious performance yet at L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall on November 24 featuring such diverse artists as Jarvis Cocker, Jack Black, Jenny Lewis, and Juanes, as well as Beck's longtime band member Roger Joseph Manning Jr. It will also feature the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, which will be conducted by Beck's father – renowned composer and arranger David Campbell.
Campbell, who has worked with the likes of Metallica, Muse, Bob Dylan, and Miley Cyrus, has collaborated with Beck many times before, working with him on performances and providing instrumental arrangements on his albums. But he says that the Song Reader project is a unique animal in that it requires copious amounts of finesse and diplomacy when working with such diverse artists.
"It's a ton of work to get something like this ready," Campbell explains. "Normally you do a show with one artist and one band and there's sort of a throughline that goes with that. In this case it's a different world in each song. And it's such a diverse collection of people – we have to set up aspects of what's best for each person and what they like. Every one of them needs to be really great. It adds another factor compared to other shows."
Campbell admits to feeling a certain amount of pressure to make sure his son – the creative mastermind behind the project – is happy with the results. "Beck is the major factor. It's all his songs," Campbell says. "This concert – except for the songs he's doing – it's versions by other people. We want him to be happy about it. We don't want him to say, 'Oh God, what are they doing now?'"
Interestingly, several of the musicians performing at the Disney Hall concert can't read music, which posed a unique challenge when putting together a show based on sheet music. Instead, many of them turned to the Internet to find versions of these songs that other people had performed and posted online, using these recorded performances as guides for learning them.
"I think most of the artists on this concert don't read music, so their way of learning the song was to find one or two versions on YouTube they liked and learn the song from somebody else playing it, and then work with me to figure out how they're gonna [perform] it," Campbell explains. "It's different than anything I've ever worked on because of all these are people creating their own versions of the songs. Some of the people in the audience may have even done their own versions!"
When checking out the recordings and videos on the Song Reader website, one is struck by all the different styles and techniques people employ. For example, the tune "I'm Sorry" is performed by an emotive female singer songwriter, an electronic new wave band, a family band led by piano and clarinet, and a soulful R&B singer.
This is precisely one of the elements of this project that Beck found most appealing, his father points out. "The nature of his sensibilities – it's the prefect thing for him to create because he like to see what other people do with this. He's so curious about other people's music in general, so of course he'd be a fan of how other people will do his stuff."
Beck realized there was a distinct difference when writing music for other people as opposed to writing it for himself. "Writing for the page puts everything you come up with under a giant microscope," Beck told McSweeney's, the book's publisher. "It was a very different sort of discipline than writing for a recorded project…songs used to be written not only to catch people’s ears, but to make them want to play them themselves. That’s a radically different mindset for a songwriter. The entertainment factor has to be in the songwriting itself."
Campbell points out that another unique and exciting element of the Disney Hall performance is the fact that the L.A. Philharmonic will be the primary backing band for the performers. "The L.A. Phil is one of the greatest orchestras in the world," he says. "In this case we don't have a [rock] band – the L.A. Phil is the band. There's no drummer; no guitar player. For instance, when Juanes does a show he'd normally play guitar and sing. But in this case I did the arrangement and I sent it to him. He said he thought it'd be much better if he just sang and had the [L.A. Phil backing him up]."
Campbell, who has had an incredibly busy and productive year working with Willie Nelson, Tim McGraw, and Jennifer Nettles among others, says there's only one thing he would change about the Song Reader performance experience. "The only thing I wish is that we were doing more than one night," he says with a sigh. "A lot is going into preparing this but it's not likely to happen again. But maybe that's part of this – it's very special and unique. We'll do it and it'll be over and then onto the next concert."
Although this epic performance will be over in one night, the beauty of the Song Reader project is that these songs will exist as sheet music in perpetuity, and will likely be performed for years – and maybe even generations – to come.