Beck Talks the "Lightness" of 'Colors,' Hails Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell Williams

Plus, Adele collaborator Greg Kurstin's role on the new album
Beck Talks the 'Lightness' of 'Colors,' Hails Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell Williams
Photo: Peter Hapak
On October 13, Beck will finally release his long-awaited followup to 2014's Grammy-winning Morning Phase. Colors, as we referred to it in our October issue's cover story, is a "boisterous, chart-friendly pop record," a far cry from the folksy yearning of his last record and his "most accessible work to date."
We detailed the challenges Beck faced in making the album, but over the course of our interview, the L.A. native touched on myriad other subjects. Below are six nuggets from that interview to take in before digesting Beck's forthcoming pop gem, Colors.
1. Greg Kurstin, who co-wrote and produced Colors, was also a major presence on Adele's Grammy-winning album 25 — but before he was one of the most sought-after songwriters and producers in the U.S., he was a member of Beck's touring band.
Kurstin first met Beck when he successfully auditioned to be in the touring band for 2002's Sea Change and then, Kurstin says via email, "played on The Information and Modern Guilt." It was around 2006 that he began writing for others in earnest; by the time he left Beck's stable, he had already written for artists like Britney Spears, Sia, Kelly Clarkson and Kylie Minogue.
According to Beck, working with Kurstin again for the first time in years was "great, very natural — just an extension of what we've always done. It was great for me because most of my records I've written on my own; I never had somebody to bounce things off of. It was my best ideas and his best ideas. It made it interesting for me."
2. Beck was focused on writing songs that, according to Kurstin, "would translate into a fun live experience." He loves the direct connection of playing live, and wanted to feel that more strongly with fans via Colors' songs.
Beck: "I work for the audience and with them. I can never relate to this idea of getting up there, and 'Everyone's lucky to be here and you're graced by my presence, whatever I do. And maybe if you're lucky I'll play one or two songs that you wanted to hear.' You know? I've been the person in that audience. Maybe it's sort of coming from a working class family, or it's just sort of what I like about music — that it can bring all these people together, some singing, or dancing or crying. It's an odd gathering, for the sake of songs that somebody made. I could never take seriously the idea of being some sort of figurehead."
3. That feeling of connectedness is something Beck attributes to any and all great musicians — including, it turns out, Kendrick Lamar.
"You just have to be either lucky and have good timing, or you have to be adept at intuiting something that's just in the culture, the temperature of the culture. I saw Kendrick [Lamar] play last night, and he was in a giant arena, huge place. I didn't see any band, it was just him alone, onstage, with his songs, and everybody was singing with their arms up the whole show. That's just one of those examples of somebody speaking the language of the moment, of how people are feeling in the moment — and everybody already understands it. They were just waiting for somebody to articulate it."
4. Beck argues that happy songs, like many of those on Colors, are the hardest to write.
"It's that sort of cliché that comedy's harder than drama. I think, for me, it's hard for a number of reasons. For something to have buoyancy and lightness, it can't be weighed down by certain things. But at the same time, sometimes that weight is what gives something substance, so you're fighting this dynamic of trying to put something very heartfelt and true into something that needs to have a lightness to it. It's a really difficult balance."
5. Sometimes, different artists tune into the same frequencies without meaning to, as Pharrell Williams and Beck did five years ago.
"It's funny, I was working with Pharrell about four or five years ago. I'd known him for years, but we never worked together. I went in on the first day, with my manager, and as I was walking in [my manager] was like, 'Do you have songs? What are you going to do? What's your plan?'
"I was like, 'I don't have a plan, I just want to walk in and do something completely new and fresh. I just want to make something that, when you hear it, it just makes you happy.' So I walked into the studio and Pharrell's like, 'We just finished this song, you have to hear this. Before we start anything, I just want to play you this. This is what I'm doing.' And he played the song 'Happy.' I don't really know how to explain that; that's the part of music that's just… like, I was writing something like that!"
6. Even at this point in his career, Beck is listening and learning, trying to improve his craft.
"I think after you've worked for a number of years, it's harder to fool yourself. You kind of go, 'Hmm, this isn't really working.' When you're younger, you're impressed by everything — like, 'Ooh, harpsichord! I'll put that one on the record because it's got harpsichord!' So for me, it becomes more and more about the songs; is the song any good? Not necessarily is the song doing something new or pushing the envelope or doing something really impressive harmonically — that stuff becomes less and less interesting. It's just, is it a good song?
"Music is changing, and I'm watching it happen; I'm aware of that, and I embrace it. In some cases, I've been waiting for it, like, 'Oh, good, that's happening now. This is okay.' It's great; it makes space for everybody else. That's how I see it: some people are up front for a while, pushing and opening things up."
Colors is out October 13 courtesy of Capitol Records. Read our October cover story here. Pre-order Colors on standard vinyl and limited edition deluxe vinyl via Umusic.