Matt Beckley,
The TVD Interview

Living through a time in which live performance on a grand scale is more or less impossible, Matt Beckley is hanging in there. He’s a gifted guitarist and songwriter, but his creative interests truly lie in music production, so it’s no wonder his talents are faring well during the current pandemic, rather than being inhibited by an inability to tour.

The son of rock legend Gerry Beckley of America, Matt was a part of the professional world of popular music since birth. He grew up on the floors of recording studios in Los Angeles in awe of his father’s artistic prowess and the magic of making music, while at the same time understanding the realities of the recording artist’s vocation and its tangibility. While some young people exposed to such a situation might take it for granted or rebel against it, Matt possessed the intelligence and inherent artistic impulse to desire knowledge and experience, knowing he held an innate ability and interest to add something new to the ongoing legacy of recorded music.

Which is exactly what he’s done thus far in his career. Matt Beckley’s been involved in an astounding amount of number-ones and chart toppers from our era’s most successful pop singers. This is no coincidence; he understands what a listener seeks from “a voice” and the indefinable something that goes into the making of a recording star. Katy Perry, Kesha, Avril Lavigne, Leona Lewis, Britney Spears, and Camila Cabello (including her single “Havana” which reached one billion streams on Spotify in 2018) are just a few of the vocalists who Matt has produced.

In a fun, lively, and appropriately audiophilic conversation with Matt Beckley, we learn more about the earliest moments of his journey into music production, his familial influences and personal inspirations, and his knack for being behind some of the most successful pop singles of recent times.

Were there projects that you were involved in leading up to 2020’s pandemic? Did you have creative plans that were affected by all of this?

Clearly everything live was shut down. And there’s work that I’ve had to turn down because we just can’t do anything in a studio right now. But I got really lucky—right around the beginning of this, a friend of mine started doing this kind of film project that needed original music and he asked if I would score it, which is something I’d like to do more of. It’s kept me really busy.

We’re all just looking for shit to do while we’re holed up. The industry is shut down, but in a lot of ways, a lot of what we do is pretty isolated anyway. Everyone’s doing the best they can to stay busy. But anybody that does what is predominantly live is hosed. And the other irony is, that if you’re going to release a record, you can’t promote it. Nobody can tour. So in a way, for somebody like me who is mostly behind the glass these days—I’m sad that I can’t do my bar gig that I would do every month with friends to stay sharp—but I’m doing OK, you know. I consider myself very lucky, but I try to remain cognizant of the people who are suffering greatly.

Do you recall a particular moment in your artistic upbringing when you knew production was one of your primary musical interests—when you realized you had a knack for it?

I’m not a particularly good singer and I’m an OK player. It became one of those things of “we don’t really want to go see your band… but can you work on a record?” My dad is constantly working. So I grew up on the floor of studios; even when it was the converted garage, it was still a studio and I would watch him. He’s a very, very underrated producer. In fact, my mom was told by George Martin “Gerry needs to get off the road and really be a producer because he’s got a knack for it.”

So there’s a lot of things that I take for granted, because I just grew up around it, grew up around some really great producers. The intent that they had behind things kind of got ingrained in me at a very early age without really thinking about it. So I think I naturally gravitated towards that. Even in high school, I was the guy who had the cassette tape 4-track and would record my band demos. I enjoyed making the demos as much as I enjoyed writing them or playing them.

I’m a total nerd. I like stuff; I love having gear and microphones that you can plug in, and how that affects everybody in the way that people take it in. I realize there were a lot of people who could sit in their dorm rooms and sing and strum on an acoustic guitar, but there weren’t a lot of people who could actually turn that into something that they could then put out. And because I love music so much, I just want to “be in the room.” Someone’s gotta do it, and I enjoy it—and for some reason everybody else doesn’t… I just kind of fell into it that way.

Me touring and playing guitar with Katy (Perry) a dozen years ago, by now it feels like it was somebody else, you know—and I’m glad that I got that out of my system. That was—that used to be my life. It’s a weird trip. But I think everybody should get the opportunity to have that thing where you have to do what you do in front of a bunch of people because there’s something that happens to you because of that. Which I think is healthy.

The symbiotic relationship between the artist and the audience…

One hundred percent. Which is what I loved about Tom Petty’s performing, and which I miss a lot in modern music. When it’s all prerecorded, you’re essentially just in karaoke. And I feel like you miss that relationship with the audience where they respond in a certain way, which makes you respond in a certain way. And that kind of feedback loop is really intimate and awesome and such a fundamental part of the human experience.

That’s really what the bummer of the situation we’re in right now is, because you don’t get that part of music. I think it’s all important. I love producing, but I do love getting to play with the guys (in the band DALES) at Sayer’s Club in L.A. once a month and just hanging out with my friends and playing music. There’s something beautiful and magic about playing with other musicians loudly in a room for a bunch of people—what makes music what it is—that just doesn’t exist outside of that.

It keeps that piece of art going and makes it more of a living thing. It’s encouraging to think that any piece of art, whether it be a record album or a painting, is never really done because even though the artist may have finished his version of it or finished working on it—if there’s someone viewing or listening to it, that’s kind of keeping the piece going. The onlooker, the art-experiencer, is adding to the creation in a way.

It’s really profound. And people’s abilities to still enjoy something even when they get it wrong. I can remember—there is a known America band story where people came backstage and were like, “We’re such huge fans and we love your work. We love ‘Bench on a Highway.’” Even though they got it wrong, misheard “Ventura Highway,” it meant something to them.

How did your role as touring guitarist and musical director for Katy Perry evolve and what did the role entail? Was it mainly for when you were on tour?

There’s a space called the Hotel Café, which is a place where singer-songwriters in L.A. ply their wares. And at the time I had also been working with Dr. Luke, who did One of the Boys (2008) for her, and the two big singles off that including “I Kissed a Girl.” And so as Katy’s releases were starting to come out, she needed a guitarist, a touring band. And she asked, “Hey, can you help put this together for me?” So I asked my friend Adam Marcello, a Berklee drummer who I’d done a record with, and he actually knew a bunch of people.

We held auditions at this place called Swing House, which was where everybody would hold their live tour auditions in L.A. It was my responsibility to put together Katy’s live band and teach everybody, make sure everybody knew the songs and how we were going to perform them as a live band and arrange rehearsals. We had done things like South by Southwest before “I Kissed a Girl” came out. She had a song called “Ur So Gay” which started to get a little traction. Then she was going to do Warped Tour, which was really unheard of for a pop act like her to do.

And before that I’d actually left. I was doing better as a producer than I was at the live thing. I love playing guitar and playing live, but I don’t have that “I want to be a road dog” mentality. I grew up around it; I got it out of my system and had basically left the project. I was really lucky in getting to work on these huge songs back home. Then about two or three weeks before Warped tour, I’d run into Katy again. And she was like, “It’d be really cool if you’d just come back and do this.” When we were on Warped Tour, “I Kissed a Girl,” blew up, and then “Hot n Cold” blew up. And then there was no getting off the train.

It went really big, really fast. And there’s a weird transitional thing where, nobody was prepared for it to move that fast. So we had the two biggest songs in the world and no budgets, no staff, no tour. It was this ultra-lean thing. Really bizarre, being expected to be this soccer stadium band, but having essentially a garage rock aesthetic because the infrastructure hadn’t been in place yet. It takes a little while to ramp that stuff up. So we all just were hanging on while that stuff was going on and doing our best to not blow it. For the whole first year it was almost like there were no tracks. It was just five guys playing live music with Katy, and somehow it all worked. And it was really fun.

That is reminiscent of the America story beginning in 1972, where they didn’t yet have the touring band infrastructure set up, and the surge of success was so quick that there was some scrambling.

Exactly. It was like, “Wait, do we need a drummer?” There’s just three dudes on stools. Yeah—we put together a band with Katy, for the most minor small thing, and then it just blew up beyond anybody’s comprehension. I look back on those things and it feels like somebody else. It was bizarre. And ironically the vast majority of the time I was trying to find my replacement because I knew that my future was in production. And I’ve seen how easy it is to get caught up in that touring thing and all of a sudden you look up and you’re forty five and you’ve been on the road for the last fifteen years without a break. And there are a lot of people that are built that way, that are really great players that live for playing live. It’s just not me. I realized how quickly, how easy it would be for me to get wrapped up in that.

You have such a great track record of working with female vocalists, very talented, big names. Can you speak to why you may have a strength in that particular area, what you understand about the female voice?

I am incredibly lucky. A lot of times work begets work. I don’t think I’m any more qualified to work with a female or male or any of the spectrums in between. I just think that a lot of times you get wrapped up. Like I said, I’m not a great singer. So when I had to do my own records, I had to figure out how to make my dumpy little voice passable. And so if you give me somebody who can actually sing, I can do wonders.

The real benefit of my gig is… connecting with “the model” and getting that look in their eye. And helping them get to the place where they’re confident. Because virtually all of the people that I work with are just unbelievably good vocalists and singers. Camila (Cabello) can sing the phone book and sound incredible, and Katy (Perry) is probably one of the most underrated singers on the planet. I’ve literally watched her sing “Amazing Grace” with an acoustic guitar and I cry like actual tears.

Britney Spears won Star Search when she was twelve. She’s a great singer, she has a great tone in her voice. So it’s less about having to Photoshop and put these people in tune or autotune, which is what everybody thinks it is. It’s far more trying to understand the artist, trying to understand the song—and then bridge that gap and try to help the artists sing in a way that will connect with people.

I think I got lucky that I’m just smart enough in music to know how to get there. But I’m still a “dumb music listener” that just likes radio songs. A lot of times, guys get really good and then they only like crazy avant-garde jazz. I mean, they basically get too good for their own good, and they lose the connection with the everyman. I’m not good enough at music where I don’t like one-four-five, chord progressions—I love silly radio pop songs. I’m not trying to impress anybody. I’m—with my musical knowledge, trying to make somebody believe what somebody is singing. I’m lucky that I just have enough musical knowledge to allow me to do that, but not so much musical knowledge that I’ve lost touch with my audience. That’s that weird middle ground that I got to fall into.

What is it like trying to be an ideal listener while you’re creating, without letting that take away from what you’re trying to do personally as an artist?

I’m always convinced that whatever gig I’ve got is my last gig, which I think is honestly a good thing. I remember a guy who worked with my dad who’s been with his wife for forever, for years and years. He said “The secret to a good marriage is every morning I wake up terrified that she’s gonna figure it out that she’s way better than me.” I think that’s the secret of being a good producer, is that every morning you wake up terrified you’re going to be exposed for being a fraud and that you have to work to hang onto it.

Satisfaction breeds mediocrity. And so I think the bummer is that if you ever stop learning or kind of think that you’ve made it—that’s when it starts to go. When you feel like you’ve reached the top of the mountain is when it starts to go downhill. I think at the end of the day the people who I know that are the most successful are the ones that are still working and still trying to get better and feel like they’re new at this.

Do you have an all-time favorite producer? Or some favorites?

It’s very rare that one person is better than everybody, but you have to say George Martin. Mutt Lange, and Joe Barresi, who did a lot of the Tool records too. I’m not a huge heavy metal, hard rock guy, but he does that particular thing particularly well. I would say Ken Andrews, who was in a band called Failure, and then he went on to be a mixer and a producer for a lot of other bands, he worked with Paramore, he did that Pete Yorn record. John Fields, who had done the Switchfoot records, he’s just a very brilliant dude. Rick Rubin, even though he’s not a traditional producer. Dr. Luke and Max Martin, as a duo those guys are unmistakable. Cirkut who is Luke’s protégé, is probably the best of the best in the new era. Cirkut is absurdly brilliant. My friend Ammo is very, very, very, very good. All of those guys will get you a good song.

If you could produce any artist from any period living or dead—what would be your dream project?

I’d love to work with Ludacris and Bryan Adams at some time. I would love to work with Daniel Johns of Silverchair. And I would love to work with Peter Gabriel. One of my earliest memories is my dad humming along to the Invisible Touch record in the car. Driving back from school, I would always put that one on. I love Genesis, but I love Phil Collins-era Genesis. And to me, probably one of the very few perfect records is So by Peter Gabriel.

Do you have a favorite vocalist, a favorite singer?

Neil Finn, of Crowded House. I love Neil, he’s an unbelievable singer. And Jessie J is probably my favorite modern vocalist. And Carl Wilson, his voice is just crazy. I always tend to lean more towards people that can move me, rather than impress me. Now, some people can do both. Chris Cornell on his good days was pretty spectacular, too.

You’ve produced so many successful records, number one type stuff. Is there a feeling you get when you’re working on the kind of song that turns out to be a chart topper?

Absolutely. It’s different. You’re excited about it. But most of the number ones that I’ve had the fortune of being associated with—you can tell. The first one I ever got to do was “Girlfriend” from Avril Lavigne. And I’d actually called a friend into the studio very early on when the song was very bare bones. (Dr.) Luke had written, put down some of the background, and my friend just came by to have lunch at the studio. “What are you working on?” I played it and we sit in the back of the room as I’m playing it for him. And the temperature in the room just changed a couple of degrees, and I just had this very matter of fact “I’m playing my first number one.”

It’s not all the time that it happens. It’s more that you realize you’re working with somebody really brilliant. I didn’t quite know that “Havana” (by Camila Cabello) was going to go as big as it did, but I knew we were working on something special. I don’t think anybody can anticipate a billion stream special, but I think that I knew that something we were working on was really good.

Can you speak to how your upbringing, your musical influences from your dad, influenced you? Do you think if you’d had a different set of parents for example, you still would have wound up in music or in another field?

I think that question is a bit trickier and deeper than we think it is. I’ve always had a passion for music. Having a dad do it for a living showed me that it could be done; it wasn’t just a pipe dream. I think a lot of people look at a musician and think, “Oh, there’s no way that that can happen.” I mean, it’s like watching actors on TV or something like that. It’s a completely different thing. But seeing him in the business, it was this achievable goal, like you can be an architect or you can be a musician. In terms of a career, I think I probably would have been a musician regardless.

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