Artist Profile: Beck

For many years experimental music has existed but never reached the spotlight, mainly due to the fact that it is complex and often convoluted sound is an acquired taste for many avid music listeners. However, there was one particular artist that brought popularity to experimental music in the 90s, and that is Beck David Hansen, who is more widely known by his first name, “Beck.” To learn more about his career and music style, here is an artist profile for Beck.

Early Performances

Bek David Campbell (Beck’s original name) was born on July 9, 1970, in Los Angeles, California. Beck’s father, David Campbell, is a music arranger, conductor, and composer, while her mother, Bibbe Hansen, was a visual artist who once worked at the Andy Warhol Factory in New York. Campbell and Hansen would later separate when Beck was only ten years old, leaving Beck to stay with his mother along with his brother Channing. 

Beck started to perform different kinds of music on city buses when he was a teenager. Some of the genres he liked to play were folk, country, blues, and many others that involve singing and playing an acoustic guitar. During this time, he was also in a band called Youthless that performed and hosted freeform events inspired by Dadaism, an avant-garde movement that became popular in the 20th century.

In 1989, Beck was able to travel to New York by riding a bus with only $8 in his pocket and an acoustic guitar. In New York, he was able to become friends with some of the indie artists that tried to erase the norms of folk music and try to create their own genre. His friends in New York would later influence his experimental style of music.

Beck would later return to Los Angeles in 1991, where he would work at a video store in Silver Lake, a residential neighborhood in the city. After securing a stable job, he would work part-time as a musician for various arthouse clubs and coffeehouses around Lose Angeles. During one of his performances, he met Margaret Mittleman, a director of talent acquisitions for BMG Music Publishing. From there, he met many more producers who would later be the important people who would help him record his debut album, Golden Feelings, and release it in 1993.

Going Mainstream

Even though he was able to release one studio album, Beck was still relatively unknown in 1993. In the same year, he was also living in a shack that was infested with rats in an alleyway because he couldn’t make money through music. In March of 1993, Beck and his record label, Bong Load Custom Records, released his first single, “Loser,” on 12” vinyl. Despite only selling 500 copies, Loser gained attention when it was played in different radio stations around Lose Angeles. The first radio station that played the song was KXLU, a station owned by Santa Monica College.

From Los Angeles, Loser would make waves in Seattle’s radio stations, and as the song became more and more popular, the record label Bong load struggle to make more copies of the single to meet the demands. Because of this, Beck would go on to find a bigger record label, thus creating a bidding war between many recording companies, including Geffen Records, Warner Bros., and Capitol. Beck would eventually decide to sign with Geffen in December 1993. Beck’s first album under Geffen was Mellow Gold, which was released on March 1, 1994. Mellow Gold would include the popular track “Loser,” and the song would continue to be more known around the United States, as it peaked at number ten on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Besides the United States, the song would also become popular in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK.

Caught Up with the Success

In 1994, Beck faced backlash as he presumably tried to sabotage his career right after the success of Loser. Believing that he was just another “one-hit wonder,” Beck tried to perform eccentrically in various shows and concerts as a way to just enjoy his career while it lasted. During one particular performance, Beck changed the words to Loser so that no one in the audience can sing to it. As a result, he was met with confused looks and constant boos from the crowd. Despite the backlash, many musicians applaud his style of music, which brought something fresh to the industry. In addition, his Mellow Gold album also inspired other musicians and bands to create experimental music.

With his goals set straight right around 1995, Beck planned to release another album that is supposed to be more polished compared to Mellow Gold that he believes to just be a collection of demo songs. His fifth album, Odelay, was released on June 18, 1996, and was received as a wide critical and commercial success.  At the 1997 Grammy Awards, he won the Best Alternative Music Album award for Odelay and the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance award for the single “Where It’s At.” Because of the success of Odelay, Beck was not considered as a “one-hit wonder” anymore by critics.

Record Label Problems

In 1998, Beck successfully released Mutations, an album that was recorded in only 14 days. Although Mutations was originally intended to be released under Bong Load Records, Geffen released the album without Beck’s permission. Because of the problems he was having with the two record labels, Beck decided to void his contracts for both of them. In turn, the record labels sued Beck for breach of contract. The conclusion for the feud between Beck and the record labels is currently unknown, so nobody knows if the problem was resolved. 

One year later, Beck would release another album titled “Midnite Vultures.” However, unlike his past albums, Midnite Venture was received with mixed reactions from both critics and his avid listeners. Nonetheless, Beck held a successful world tour to promote the album, and it was also nominated for Best Album at the 43rd Grammy Awards.

Going Back to Acoustic

When Beck and his fiancé, Leigh Limon, broke up in 2000 after their nine-year relationship, Beck became inspired to write melancholic songs with acoustic-based tracks. For one year, Beck thought that his personal life should not be shown through his music, but after contemplating about it, he eventually decided to record the songs rather than let them go to waste.

Geffen then released the acoustic-focused album Sea Change in September 2002. Even though Beck and his record label didn’t believe that it would be a hit because it strays far away from the artist’s style of music, Sea Change still became a massive success, with some even calling it the best album that Beck has ever made. After the release of Sea Change, Beck embarked on a world tour, where he was accompanied by a theatrical acoustic band to emphasize the melancholic and calming sounds of his new album.

Return to Experimenting

Beck came back to making more experimental music with the release of his eighth studio album, Guero, which is said to have been recorded for about nine months. The struggle to record the said album was speculated to have been brought by Beck’s personal life, as he became a father (to his first son Cosimo) and a husband (to his then-girlfriend Marissa Ribisi) in just one year. Because of the numerous delays, Guero only came out in March 2005, but it was still received with massive praise from critics. A reworked version of Guero, titled Guerolito, was released in December 2003. The new version features remixes from various musical groups and artists.

Beck’s next album, The Information, was recorded and produced around the same time Guero was produced and released. For this album, Beck was able to have creative freedom for the release of the record and for the cover art. The singer made low-budget music videos for each song and then provided stickers to every buyer of the album so that they can customize the look of the album cover on their own. In addition, Beck also leaked some songs from the album on his website to build up hype.

His tenth studio album was Modern Guilt, released in 2008 and was praised for its 60s vibe and lo-fi sounds. According to Beck, recording Modern Guilt was the most grueling task he had participated in, as there were no days off while recording the album with Danger Mouse as a producer.

Song Reader and More Albums

In December 2012, Beck launched a project called “Song Reader,” which is supposed to be a book that contains sheet music for 20 songs. For the purpose of the project, Beck stated that he hoped that many musicians would try to create their own renditions for the songs he wrote on Song Reader. The next year, Beck began performing some songs from Song Reader and hosted a variety of concerts that feature other musicians playing the songs from the sheet music.

Beck’s twelfth studio album, Morning Phase, was then released on February 21, 2014. For the album, Beck employed and invited some of the previous musicians that he has worked with in Sea Change to replicate the sound that he created on the said album. Morning Phase became another successful album for Beck, as he won three Grammys at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards, which are Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical), Best Rock Album, and Album of the Year. Unfortunately, his Album of the Year award was criticized, as many people believed that the other nominees, like Ed Sheeran (for “X”), Beyoncé (self-titled album), and Sam Smith (In the Lonely Hour), were more deserving of winning the award.

The next album that Beck released was Colors, which was recorded at the studio of Greg Kurstin in Los Angeles. Upon its release on October 13, 2017, Colors was well-received by critics, who applauded Beck’s continuous experimentation on popular music genres and blending his own musical style into the mix. Two years later, Beck released another album titled Hyperspace on November 22, 2019. Beck was supposed to go on a world tour to support the album, but the tour was eventually canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though many believed that his career peaked at the release of his most popular song, Loser, Beck continued to release hit after hit from the 1990s up to the 2010s. Beck will remain as one of the best experimental musicians for many more years since he consistently releases hip and trendy albums that are surely chart-topping in different countries around the world.