Gerry Beckley is one of our country’s musical treasures. As a lead singer, founding member and principal songwriter in America— an iconic group that in its 41st year has outlasted most of its contemporaries—Beckley has created timeless music that has swept across many generations of grateful listeners.
As a solo artist, he continues to record music that that draws not only from his vast experience as a gifted singer/songwriter, but also his production experience in working alongside legendary recording figures like George Martin and Geoff Emerick. Beckley’s latest album, entitled Unfortunate Casino, was recorded entirely at Human Factor, his own “backyard studio.”
Over the years, he has refined and perfected his approach to recording, and with a little help from his son and some choice equipment, has delivered a touching collection of songs that is both engaging and warmly familiar. Pro Sound News caught up with Beckley—who still performs about 100 shows per year with America—between gigs.
On America ’s Legacy:
We have had an immense amount of good fortune. I know many people in this business for countless reasons didn’t carry on and there was a hitch in the journey, then years later, they try to put it back together. In our case, with Dewey [Bunnell] and myself, we never broke up; we are now in our 41st year. It’s a challenge that took an incredible amount of effort, and we still try to keep it fresh. We had a lot of hit songs, and this really helps when you are putting together a 90-minute show.
On Recording at Human Nature:
For quite a few years now, I have recorded at Human Nature, which is my own studio in the backyard. It is a very well fitted-out arrangement, complete with Pro Tools and plenty of equipment. As far as DAWs go, I have recorded in just about every capacity and learned that it isn’t so much what kind of tool you use or which software version; it’s what you do with it. It’s kind of like using a #2 or #3 pencil. Human Nature has everything in there—a wealth of guitars, my original grand piano and many other things.
When you consider that the business has gone through such an immense change over the years, with the labels imploding and all, the actual recording process is kind of similar to what it was before. You write a tune on the piano or a guitar, you put the headphones on and record. All the bits in between have changed, however; the digital world is a fantastic series of options that we didn’t used to have. Having said that, I am a huge fan of analog, and if I had the ability to run 2-inch [tape] all the time, I would. I started on 8-track in the late ’60s when I was in England, so I have kind of followed this all along, but there is a convenience in the digital world which is just unmatched.
On Recording Vocals:
At Human Nature, we have the finest Neumann microphones. It’s really no secret, but if you get one of these, and put it through a Neve or whatever your particular chain is, then you can get the most accurate version of your sound. For backing vocals, it doesn’t matter as much what mic you use, as long as you stick with the same mic. If I am doing a 3- or 4-part background, no matter what the mic recording it is, there is going to be a color that is really exaggerated by the time that you put 16 or 20 of these tracks together.
On a Gift from the Past:
One of the songs on this album is called “Feeling Slow,” which is the third track. It is a very simple kind of shuffle beat/ piano tune that I had written in the ’70s and completely forgot about. I happened to be on a plane with a good friend of mine—Danny Hutton from Three Dog Night—and he was sitting behind me. He had his laptop open, and he said, “Here, take a listen to this.” And he played me this file that was recorded at his house in the ’70s. It was of me sitting down and playing this tune all the way through. He said, “Man, that’s a great song!” and I had completely forgotten about it. Now, I write a lot and things get moved, but it is a rare time when I just cannot remember having written a song. So it was neat; it was kind of a gift from the past. For me, one of the hardest things is making a very simple, concise tune that works on the most basic levels, and that one really worked out well.
On Working with George Martin:
“Daisy Jane” was on the second album we did with George Martin. It’s kind of a verse-and-chorus structure that I just repeat. For the re-intro in the middle of the song when it kind of starts again, I remember a friend asking me, “What is going to happen there?” I said, “Oh, George will write something.” I just had this obviously very well placed confidence in George as an arranger to come up with something. He ended up adding a viola or cello part that was a signature part of the tune.
George was so great at keeping the ball rolling and keeping you focused. At the same time, he would come into the studio and say, “Here, let me try this piano part.” For example, that’s him playing the piano part in “Tin Man.” Our early recordings are filled with a lot of little moments like that. There is an old-fashioned sounding piano in “Lonely People.” I played the part, but I couldn’t do the barrel roll, thumb to finger thing that is in there. So he came in the studio and said, “Move over!” So we did it together; when it came to that part, that’s George playing the barrel roll.
Jeff Touzeau is a regular contributor to Pro Sound News and author of five audio titles published by Schiffer and Cengage.