"There's no original version," Beck says of the 20 songs he included in his Song Reader collection of sheet music, published by McSweeney's in late 2012. So when people perform them, "it's an interesting game of Telephone." Now, with the recent release of an all-star Song Reader album, Beck's set up a massive musical conference call.
"We've been working on it since before the book came out," Beck says. "I started casting people, getting in touch with people like Tom Waits. Lots of people agreed to do it, but wrangling them was very difficult." Waits never came through, but the album includes big-name talent such as Jack White, Jack Black, Jarvis Cocker, Norah Jones, David Johansen and fun.
"The Song Reader project is one of the most ingenious and exciting things to come around in music in quite some time," says British folkie Laura Marling, who contributes a lilting version of "Sorry." She says she did the album "mostly as a means to show my support to such meaningful innovation."
The publication of the sheet music was followed in 2013 by multi-artist concerts in London, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Many of the recorded Song Reader tracks were first done live, with some changes (Jarvis Cocker shifted from "Why Did You Make Me Care?" to "Eyes That Say 'I Love You'). "We'd like to do one in New York, and do Sydney as well," Beck says of the live shows. "Really, they're just excuses to get people together, to get out of the normal routine of performing. The concerts are a lot different from a festival situation — it's a much more collaborative situation. They feel like an old package tour, like the T.A.M.I. Show."
The recorded version of "The Wolf Is on the Hill" by Tweedy (Wilco's Jeff Tweedy with his son Spencer Tweedy on drums) is a country lullaby with veiled menace; the older Tweedy tells Rolling Stone that he worked from the sheet music with no direction from the album's producers, Beck and Randall Poster (best known as music supervisor for various films, including Wes Anderson's). "It was about these people interpreting these songs," Beck says, who relished hearing other musicians make songs their own. He points out, "Even standards like 'Blue Moon' and 'My Old Kentucky Home,' they're not really faithful — the bastardized versions are the ones we remember."
Beck says that the Song Reader project has given him an opportunity to consider "the transformation of songs." When he plays live, he finds that the studio versions of his songs often don't work for a live audience: "Often you need to make songs simple, or to add something on."
Beck sings one song on the album, "Heaven's Ladder" — he says that he didn't reserve it for himself, but ended up with it when it was the final unclaimed song. He let his band work out the arrangement and recorded it quickly: "That seemed to be more in the spirit of the record."
Despite his best efforts, Beck couldn't get the likes of Katy Perry and Britney Spears to appear on the album. "I liked the idea of really mainstream artists doing the songs," he says. "We ended up working with the ones who really understand the idea of a song, and interpretation, and ownership of a song. We're in an era now where it's not uncommon for eight, nine, 10 people to be writing a song, as opposed to an era of lone songwriters." Not that he's bothered by that trend: "It's just evolved. Back then, the songwriter had arrangers and producers: all these people who sculpted the song. All the people who used to be interpreters are called songwriters now."
So does the existence of this album mean that all these musicians actually read sheet music? "I think most don’t," Beck admits with a laugh. In many cases, he says, the artists learned the songs from the fan versions on YouTube. Marling says, "I, personally, am limited in my ability to read sheet music, so the result of being given the notation to recreate 'Sorry' was an accidentally-on-purpose sort of outcome, which is actually a rather good metaphor for life."
Additional reporting by David Marchese