Meet Beck’s dad, David Campbell, who has helped sell nearly 1 billion records
After five decades assisting on top-selling albums, including his famous son’s, the Toronto-born arranger decided to produce an album of his own.
Published on Sat Jun 14 2014
You may think an artist, such as Beck, who has sold more than 10 million records, is a big deal, but meet the man who has helped sell nearly 1 billion.
Toronto-born David Campbell may not be as publically renowned as his son, but as an arranger, orchestrator, conductor and sometimes session player, he’s appeared on some of the biggest albums of the past five decades.
Carole King’s Tapestry, Adele’s 21, Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, Taylor Swift’s Red, Nelly Furtado’s Loose, Goo Goo Dolls’ Iris, Aerosmith’s Get A Grip, Bill Withers’ Lean On Me, Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball, Rush’s Clockwork Angels and The Rolling Stones’ updated version of Exile On Main Street are just a sampling of the 400-plus monster sellers and 185 hits that have been graced with Campbell’s stringed instruments or his arrangements.
And of course there’s the majority of the albums released by his son, including Odelay, Sea Change, Mutations and his recently released Morning Phase, the heavily orchestrated album Beck will be promoting when he lands at the Sony Centre For the Arts on June 27.
“I always have a lot of projects going to keep everything rolling,” the in-demand Campbell admits from his L.A. studio. “It seems to work most efficiently.”
His gift is “just knowing what’s the right thing” to enhance an arrangement.
“Usually, it’s two things,” he explains. “People say, ‘this song sounds a little too happy, could you make it a bit dark,’ or ‘This is dark, could you lift it up a bit?’ You’re sort of weaving a colour wheel — putting depth of perception in there, adding heft or texture, counter-melodies and extra excitement.
“You’re just beefing up what’s there already.”
Since scoring software was introduced in 1994, technology has only increased Campbell’s productivity.
“For a lot of those years, I’d write everything out by hand, and after awhile my hand would tend to fall off,” he jokes. “If you work 12 or 14 hour days filling out a score in pencil, it gets to be too much. Computers speed things up, you play the notes and they appear on the score. It’s a tremendous time saver, and much more readable than my scrawl.”
The David Campbell story begins where Campbell’s parents hail from, in Winnipeg. His father, D. Warren Campbell, was a Presbyterian minister, which was how the future orchestrator ended up being born at the Toronto General Hospital.
“He attended seminary in Toronto, then later went to McGill, and then was assigned to Pittsburgh,” recalls Campbell, “So we moved from Toronto to Pittsburgh.”
The Campbells eventually settled in Seattle, where, at age 10, David picked up the violin, viola and piano and became obsessed with music.
And he means obsessed.
“I was the kid in the 6th grade who would spend recess under a tree reading orchestral scores,” Campbell recalls. “I went to the library every Saturday and checked out a bunch of stuff. The time I didn’t spend practising violin I was doing math because I was fascinated with it.
“So I spent a lot of time on scores 10 or 12 years before I actually did it, listening and messing with scores and figuring out stuff. It was the best education.”
In high school, he started a string quartet with future Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington, doing “mostly avant-garde, not so much the classics.”
Campbell attended the University of Washington and later the Manhattan School of Music, spending a couple of seasons in New York City playing viola for Carnegie Hall’s American Symphony under Leopold Stokowski.
But the experimental liberalism of the late ‘60s caught up with Campbell, and he transitioned into the pop world.
“It seemed like a natural bridge at the time to get into rock and pop music,” he reminisces. “Because it seemed kind of fresh, I gravitated to it, and then eventually, L.A.”
Campbell’s initial focus was as a player, but his break as an arranger came suddenly through songwriter Carole King, on her 1972 album Rhymes & Reasons.
“It was a lucky break,” Campbell recalls. “I ended up playing on the Tapestry tour and telling her how I was really into arranging and orchestration. She called me up one night — usually she did her own arrangements — but on her fourth album, she was eight months pregnant at the time and too tired to do the string arrangements, so she said, ‘You want to try this? You want to do this?’
“It was huge — I had to get my sh– together,” he laughs.
The era was also memorable for Campbell and his wife at the time, performance artist and Andy Warhol actress Bibbe Hansen, with the birth of their first son, Beck.
Campbell recalls his son was very creative.
“The first area he really got passionate about was with words, writing poems, little books and stories — I thought he’d be a novelist,” says Campbell. “The music came a little later. He started guitar, and the first recording we did together when he was 12 or 13 was a friend of ours making a student film. His voice hadn’t changed yet, and he and the friend wrote the lyrics and the melody, and I helped them with the accompaniment.
“It was a great piece of work, and he was very observant, very insightful really early on. Later, he’d come into my studio and I’d start out as a dad, showing my son how something works, and he’d sit back and say, ‘But what if you did this?’
“I’d look at him and think, ‘Wow, that’s a really good idea. I’ll just shut up,’” he laughs. “He’s been a real observer and that’s served him well.”
Campbell recalls the first time he heard “Loser,” the slacker anthem that introduced Beck to the mainstream and secured him a unique deal with Geffen Records that simultaneously allowed him to release independent albums.
“I stopped in my tracks because I’d never heard anything like that,” says Campbell.
Further musing on his son’s genius, Campbell says, “He’s so hands-on, that pretty much everything is a co-creation. In the studio, there’s a lot of sculpting and experimenting — he goes the full distance on stuff more than most people do, to get it exactly how he envisions the overall work.”
It’s Beck that inspired Campbell to finally get around to recording his own album, based on his son’s Song Reader sheet music project.
“We did a concert of Beck’s music back in November called Song Reader with the L.A. Philharmonic,” says Campbell. “We had Childish Gambino and Jarvis Cocker and a bunch of actors — Jack Black, Anne Hathaway and John C. Reilly — who sang songs from the book.
“The orchestra was the band, which was a new thing for all the performers. It was really beautiful, so I’ve recorded these arrangements and we’re in the process of making an album of it. There was way too much work to confine it to 2,000 people in a concert hall.”
He also hopes to eventually tour with Beck in a series of orchestrated concerts.
“We’ve talked about doing a tour that would be with orchestra, going city to city and using the orchestra in that city, and I think we’ll eventually get to it,” says Campbell, who married composer Raven Kane in 1987 and is currently producing her album.
Campbell, 66, says he relishes working with his son.
‘There’s nothing better than that,” he admits. “I learn a lot from him. He’s so brilliant and has a unique view of things — it’s continually surprising what he comes up with.”
And despite being based in the U.S., he’s proud of his heritage. “You never stop being Canadian.”