James Yorkston on Beck’s Song Reader

beck song reader

This article originally ran in The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on July 2, 2013.

Last year, US pop pioneer Beck issued a radical new album via the au courant manuscript format. Entitled Song Reader, and almost a decade in the making, the LP was published as a 1920s-inspired sheet music anthology. It comprised 20 Beck songs that have never been released or recorded, thus upturning our expectations of the album as an art form, and placing the onus on the audience to interpret and perform the music. 

Next week, a gilded cast will animate its pages live at London’s Barbican – Beck, Franz Ferdinand, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Beth Orton, James Yorkston and The Pictish Trail (aka Johnny Lynch) among them. “I think it’s an amazing idea,” says East Neuk alt-folk raconteur Yorkston. “Faber sent me a copy of the book, and I thought it looked beautiful, although I’m incredibly slow at reading music, so I was more interested in the lyrics – there are some pretty good lyrics in there, some pretty clever stuff he’s done.

“I’m really looking forward to the Barbican show,” he adds. “There are loads of interesting bands playing; people I haven’t seen for a long time. I toured America with Beth Orton in 2005 and haven’t really seen her since, and the fact that Johnny’s there is amazing – he’s a huge Beck fan, and he can hold my hand backstage before we go on. This is the sort of thing that you have to grab when it comes along.” This sense of rarity defines the Song Reader project. Beck himself has said that “the songs are meant to be pulled apart and re-shaped … there are no rules”, and it’s unlikely that any two renditions will be the same. 

Beck’s ground-breaking attempt to (re)assert an intrinsic value on music, in the face of free downloads and intangible MP3s, chimes with two ingenious ventures closer to home: FOUND and Aidan Moffat’s interactive #UNRAVEL mechano-band (which plays different versions of the same seven-inch depending on time, opinion, crowd and weather), and King Creosote’s live-only Nth Bit of Strange album (audiences are encouraged to tape each performance and freely circulate copies). These Scottish pop revolutions echo Song Reader’s intentions: they encourage social engagement and exclusivity (but not elitism); re-cast the audience as artists; and make us question the predominant notion of recorded music as definitive, and permanent. “Anything that does that is really interesting,” nods Yorkston.

As with #UNRAVEL’s vinyl-fuelled poetic robot, and the elevated ceremony of King Creosote’s Nth Bit Of Strange shows (with come with bespoke artwork and whisky), Song Reader’s inventiveness is not at the expense of quality, substance or physical art. The book-bound LP’s visual representations include cover art, illustrations, ersatz adverts and an associated image for each song. Did such depictions set the tone for Yorkston’s readings? “They did. I grew up with sheet music in the house, and the Beck book’s a kind of pastiche of covers from the 1920s onwards, although they’re not all traditional,” he notes. “Some are pretty out-there.”

Does Yorkston have a different kinship with a song if he learns it straight from the page? “Yeah, learning from sheet music really makes you think about the lyric, and the bits of the song are more like Lego blocks,” he says. “Sometimes you think, ‘actually, maybe if I move that block, and put in another word’ – and that’s what I’ve done with the Beck piece.”

Beck’s longstanding experimental ethos was liberating for Yorkston. “I found a Beck quote which said something like, ‘I hope people experiment with the words and music and come up with something different,” he recalls. “That gave me freedom to do what I want. So I’m using the verse and chorus of a song called Ye Midnight Stars, and there are columns of other song titles around it, in a sort of jokey 1920s / 1930s format, so I’ve used them as lyrics, changed things about a bit to make it scan, and put it in an order so there’s a slight narrative. I’m doing it solo with [Swedish keyed fiddle] nyckelharpa, and that’s not an instrument I can play particularly well, and I can’t sing [oh, but he can].

“A combination of these disasters means that it’s not going to sound much like a Beck song,” he laughs. “It’s not going to sound like a hit single, you know?”

Beck Song Reader is out now via Faber.  www.songreader.net

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