Ben Smith takes on Beck’s Song Reader
Singer-songwriter Ben Smith who just yesterday contributed this holiday song to the WXPN 12 Days of Local Christmas compilation, finds his musical inspiration from a variety of sources. One of those is old sheet music. Smith is a collector of sheet music, and when he heard about Beck’s recent Song Reader project, he decided to take part in it.
Song Reader is Beck’s new album, sort of. It is an exquisitely packaged collection of twenty new songs “existing only as individual pieces of sheet music, never before released or recorded.” Let’s just say it had Ben Smith’s name written all over it.
As part of the release of the project, Beck has been posting videos of musicians performing songs from Song Reader. You can watch the performances here. Smith couldn’t resist contributing; you can watch him perform “Last Night You Were A Dream” below and on the Song Reader site. We reached out to Ben via e-mail to reflect on Beck’s project, how it relates to his creative process and why he chose the song he chose to perform. Smith says:
I could write for hours regarding what this Beck album represents for me. It’s a (kind of) mainstream validation in something I’ve tried to embrace in my songwriting for the last several years—to varying degrees of success. Song Reader represents everything I like – and miss – about music. For years, I’ve been embracing this idea of “social music” – the kind people sang in barrooms and parlors, as my self-penned, silly bio usually puts it. To be honest, that lifestyle was well before my time; back when people were using cranes to lift pianos into cramped apartment buildings or pushing them up stoops into row homes.
Like Beck, as I understand from his introduction to the collection, I’ve been collecting old sheet music, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s for the past several years. I love the artwork and the titles, the attention to melody and lyrics, the sheer variety of them. As a songwriter, I’m attracted to that Tin Pan Alley time period, when some guy could get a job writing songs all day, break for lunch and get back to work. My favorite aspect of music is the writing of the song — more than the recording, more than the performing. The idea that you could make your living that way, like it was a trade, along with tailors and cobblers — that’s my dream job.
Beck’s project ties into this Song-for-hire project I’ve just started called SongSmith. I’ve written three test songs for three people so far. Beck seems to be celebrating “the song” – separate from the singer. (As Neil Diamond sings in “Dry Your Eyes”—If you can’t recall the singer / You can still recall the tune.) That’s what I love about music: the song—the craft of putting one together, the marriage of words and music. The strange super-sense it makes when it hits just right.
I picked “Last Night You Were A Dream” because it fit my sad-bastard aesthetic, but also knowing that I plan on doing many more of them. I’ve already started the more upbeat “Don’t’ Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard” — that one I think I’ll do a proper recording of. As far as how I think it turned out, I will say that I felt a need to see what other people were posting. Were their versions better? Should I do more arranging and planning? Etc.
And while it’s early in the uploading by the looks of it so far, I realized that that wasn’t really the point. What’s so wonderful about this project is that all the songs are completely open to our interpretation. They can be bold or modest or whatever. I heard a very Erasure-sounding version of “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard” that is very different than the one I’m working — but great. And, I think that’s because the song is great. Again, the attention comes back to the song—not so much the personality or performance. I think it turned out well because it’s just an accurate picture of what I look like at home while I’m working on a song and my dogs are only the audience—before my wife comes home.
Watch Smith’s take on Beck’s “Last Night You Were A Dream” below. On January 8th at World Cafe Live, many Philly musicians will perform in concert songs from Beck’s Song Reader. Go here for more information about the show.