"Oh my god -- are you kidding?" exclaims Jason Falkner. You can almost hear the singer-songwriter's jaw drop over his cell phone as he tries to absorb what millions of others have already learned.
The news of George Harrison's death is just breaking, and though normal morning programming has been pre-empted by news reports and video retrospectives, Falkner clearly hasn't been near a television set: "When I got in my car today they were playing 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps.' It's just such a staple on the radio, I had no idea!"
It's a bitter irony that Falkner is on the phone to discuss his latest project, Bedtime With the Beatles, a collection of eleven Beatles tunes done as instrumental lullabies that he arranged, performed and produced for Sony Wonder, Sony Music's children's division. More poignant still is the absence of any material by Harrison on the album, which was released in October, but Falkner is quick to dismiss any question of favoritism. "It's only Lennon and McCartney songs because that's the only catalog that Sony has anything to do with," he says. "I wanted to do 'Here Comes the Sun' so bad. I definitely wanted to include Harrison, but I wasn't allowed."
Even if Falkner never uttered a word about it, his life-long Beatles fandom would be evident in the melodic treasures that makeup his two Elektra albums, 1996's Jason Falkner Presents Author Unknown and 1999's Can You Still Feel?, not mention in the heavy-handed homages of his early Nineties outfit Jellyfish. It was this resume, coupled with his talent for thoughtful arrangements, that put him at the top of Sony's list of artists to helm the project. But Falkner didn't share the label's enthusiasm at first.
"My initial reaction was really mixed because, generally speaking, I don't like when people go and revisit the Beatles," he says. "Usually, I would never even listen to it. Then we talked more about it and I found out [Sony] wanted it to be instrumental, which was a lot easier for me to grasp than to try and sing the Beatles -- I didn't want the Peter Frampton kiss of death. I just started thinking about it more and I knew it was something I could sink my teeth into and have a great time doing."
When it came time to select the songs, Falkner steered clear of obvious choices like "Yellow Submarine," "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," or Lennon's own lullaby for his son Julian, "Good Night." Rather, he dug deep in to the canon, giving less-covered album tracks like "I'm Only Sleeping" and "Mother Nature's Son" equal time alongside now-standards such as "Michelle" and "In My Life."
Of course, an artist doesn't normally set out to put people to sleep, particularly when given such prized material. But Falkner quickly adapted to his objective, dismantling his drum kit after a run-through of McCartney's "White Album" ballad "I Will" proved that even the most delicate rhythms could be disruptive. Instead he took a space-age approach inspired by the Moog-heavy educational-film soundtracks of his elementary school days. Acoustic guitars, woodwinds, strings and a multitude of keyboards transform such songs as "Across the Universe," "Blackbird" and "The Fool on the Hill" into blissful, slumbering soundscapes without ever obscuring the impeccable craftsmanship of the compositions.
"I didn't really consult the original arrangements too much," he says. "I would get chords down and make sure I wasn't doing anything wrong fundamentally. But there's really no reason to try and emulate what they did. I think that's where people make a mistake when they do covers."
The album's not just an unconventional take on the Beatles; it's also a world away from Falkner's own music, which has always comfortably worn the "power pop" tag. A cursory listen, in fact, will have many wondering if Falkner's association with French retro-futurists Air -- with whom he just completed an eleven-week European tour as a hired bassist and vocalist -- inspired him to tone down his normally high-energy attack.
"How Air influenced me in general is that I don't have to bash out every instrument that I'm playing," he says. "The school that I grew up in was Beatles, Kinks, Who, Stones and then later a lot of English punk. Basically, a lot of stuff that I've been into is people playing full-on at all times. There are dynamics in the arrangements but the performances all have this urgency, which I love with my own music, but I realized playing with Air and in making this record [that you can] have that kind of urgency juxtaposed with some of these more gentle, thoughtful performances."
Despite Bedtime With the Beatles's intended toddler audience and the album's gender-friendly blue or pink packaging, there's little doubt it will appeal to Fabs fans of all ages, something Falkner credits to the strength of the original tunes.
"I think because the songs are so good, you can't really argue with what they did melodically," he says. "So you could treat those songs any way you wanted to and they'd still be musically engaging."