Photo Credit: Nehemiah Sliwoski
Starting over in a new city. Something that scares me to no end. Which is probably why after living in my hometown for 18 years, I relocated once for college and never really left. This, and musical talent is what separates me from W.C. Beck. A man who made a name for himself in Portland then did the same in Paris and now New York City. Never afraid to take a chance, this singer-songwriter was nice enough to sit down and chat with us about his upcoming release, First Flight, The Voice and more.
Kendra: I know you just got home from the road but are you already itching to get back out there or are you taking full advantage of sleeping in your own bed?
W.C. Beck: It’s been a whirlwind last couple months with work and playing a couple of tours with Monteagle and Swimming Bell, but it’s been really great. I’m excited to keep the momentum going as I release my album in a few weeks. It’s been almost six years since my last release and I’ve been working on several projects since moving to New York. Things always go in phases and stages and it’s nice to be turning the heavy writing and recording phase into a time that’s busy with releasing albums and playing lots of live shows. I’ve got a lot more music in the hopper and I’m looking forward to getting more of it out in the world in the next 6-12 months. But yeah, it’s been really nice to sleep in my own bed when I do happen to be in town.
Kendra: Was it hard to step away from Portland and the scene that you had grown accustomed to and built a name for yourself in, and did you feel like you were starting over in any way when you planted down in NYC?
W.C. Beck: It was incredibly difficult to leave the Portland music scene and all my family and friends there. I had been there for over seven years and it was the place where I really grew up and spent my formative years after college. Since leaving in 2013, I go back at least once or twice per year to play a show or two and see my family and friends. I still have a book club there and keep close tabs on so many friends who are doing great things there. In short, Portland will always be a part of me.
I had to start over in a lot of ways when I moved to France and again when I moved to NYC. It’s a bit overwhelming to move far from any place you’ve called home and then uproot and have to figure things out again with limited information and contacts in a new place. But you get the chance to start over as a relative unknown and it also allows you to define the narrative based upon what came before and all that’s yet to come.
And while it can be extremely difficult and isolating to start over again, you never really start from square one as you can carry all your previous experiences, accomplishments and screw-ups with you. Since I’ve moved to new places and had to start over multiple times, I’ve gained confidence and knowledge that things find a way to work themselves out. It’s kept the fire burning to continue exploring the unknown.
Kendra: Should probably mention that in between Portland and NYC you went over to Paris for grad school. What were you studying and did the idea of staying over there permanently ever cross your mind?
W.C. Beck: Starting in Portland and then moving to Paris, I did a couple of masters programs in French, following up on my undergraduate studies. I studied teaching French as a foreign language and French language and civilization. When I finished my studies in Paris, I absolutely wanted to stay in France, but I got stuck in a Catch-22 with my visa: I couldn’t get a job without a visa and I couldn’t get a visa without a signed contract.
So, I made the most of my time there and rather reluctantly headed back to the US to figure out the next step. Funny side story: I actually tried out for The Voice in France and made it into the final filming round but had to turn it down because my visa expired and I risked being deported if I stayed longer. The television station was furious with me and ended up replacing me with another contestant, but they also wouldn’t furnish a visa, so I was stuck.
I was uncertain what was next after I finished my studies in Paris, but took advantage of some relative free time and did a culinary-music tour with my best friend Antoine in the Midwest and South of the US, putting on French-inspired meals and house shows for 6 weeks after I returned. I had some time to travel back to Portland and see parts of the US before ultimately getting hired as a professor of French at NYU, which is how I ended up in NYC.
Kendra: You did a lot of the writing for your latest album, First Flight, while in Paris. Did any Parisian themes slip into the record?
W.C. Beck: Oh yes, the album is heavily influenced by my time in Paris. I wrote or began nearly every song on the album during my year and a half in Paris and then finished most of the remaining songs in NY. I wrote “Steel Bird” on the plane from NYC to Paris when I made the move as I was feeling all of the mixed emotions about leaving a whole life behind in Portland and starting a new chapter in Paris.
“Unknown Bust” was inspired by a visit to the Musée Carnavalet, where I saw a whole room full of statues and busts whose names have been lost to history. I was fascinated and humbled by the fact that this whole room of people who were important (or rich) enough to have images set in stone, were complete unknowns. It made me think about the ways we all try to leave some mark on our world in the brief moment we’re here. “Colosseum” was inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Man in the Arena” speech he gave at the Sorbonne.
I used to walk by the place where he gave the speech and wrote a little tribute to it. “A Place to Land” is all about my experiences starting anew in Paris and New York.
Kendra: What was your experience working with Myles Turney and Joel Arnow like? What’d they bring out in you that perhaps others hadn’t on past records?
W.C. Beck: It was so great working with Myles and Joel. I was introduced to them by my good friend and fellow songwriter Jason Goss, whose great album This Town Is Only Going to Break Your Heart was recorded by Myles and Joel. I loved the sound of the album and was new to NYC, so I got in touch with them and started to tell them my idea for the record. So I really wanted the album to have a Heartbreakers/ELO sound, so we used a few Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne records to mimic tones and recreate a late ’70s cosmic country rock vibe. It was cool to demo the songs with them, take notes and work through different ideas to get the sound and vibe right for each song.
Myles has a laser focus and will go so deep to find the right sound. There are many moments on the album that came directly from Myles and Joel as we dissected my tunes and they helped me rethink my songs from a new perspective. Myles and Joel also helped me put together a studio band for the album, bringing on board a couple of ringers in Michael Bellar and Craig Akin. We only had one rehearsal before going into the studio.
I’ve learned to manage my expectations with creative projects over the years, but I knew something special was afoot before we set foot in the studio. It was an absolute pleasure to work with Joel and Myles and the many musicians who shared their time and talents on this record. I am so proud of where we ended up with the final version of the album.
Kendra: As someone who relies on public transit, I really appreciated the video for “The Long Way Home.” With that, what’s the one song that calms you down when the trains aren’t running as great as you’d like on your way home?
W.C. Beck: Thank you! It was a lot of fun to shoot in Grand Central Station, one of my very favorite places in New York. It was also fun to try to show the everyman experience that you get when riding public transit: it’s such great a window into a million stories that are in the process of being written. As much as riding the subway can be a pain on a daily commute, it’s never boring…, especially in New York!
I go back and forth through phases of listening to something on my commute and keeping my ears open to catch the little turns of phrases that only happen in the overheard world, which are usually the start of songs. When I do listen to something on the train, I like to listen to podcasts or a full album on repeat to really dive in deep. I like the podcasts Song Exploder and 99% Invisible and tend to mix things up quite a bit with the music I listen to.
Kendra: Can you let the people know what you have going on in the foreseeable future
W.C. Beck: I am excited to release First Flight in June and play some shows this summer to support the album. I’m in France right now visiting friends and playing a few shows and the songs have been really well received. I can’t wait to get the album out in a few weeks and then see where things go from there. I have another collection of tunes on the way that I’ll hopefully put out early next year, a collection of solo songs with really minimal instrumentation. Should be a fun next year!