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Interview with Beck Norman and James Keith Norman
What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
JAMES: My mother was a music booking agent and wrote a best-selling book about the business side of music. My stepfather was an in-demand jazz pianist in Toronto. There were always musicians in the house and the talk was always about music. So it was being exposed to actual performers that really got me into music. Had I not gotten into music, I’d probably still have gone to work in radio, which I did for many years. Or law. Once upon a time, I also wanted to be a lawyer.
BECK: I loved theatre musicals and movie montages that would have music interwoven with them. I was a pretty weird kid and honestly saw my childhood as continuous scenes from different movies I would create in my mind. So if I hadn’t gotten into music, I would definitely have been producing movies.
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
JAMES: I race go-karts. I started a couple of years back in a league in Hamilton, Ontario. This isn’t amusement-park karting. This is intense! (LAUGHS). I now own my own kart that can go up to about 85 KPH! And both Beck and I do the mechanical work on them. I think what the racing does for my creativity is change what my mind is focused on. It gives my thoughts a break from music, so that I can come back to composing with a fresher perspective.
BECK: I agree with James. The racing is such a huge departure from music it allows for a brilliant reset. But photography is my passion when I’m not playing music.
How long have you been making music?
JAMES: I started writing songs early. When I picked up an acoustic guitar at 12, it wasn’t long before I was trying to write songs. When I was about 15, I met some guys in high school who wanted to start a band and you never say no to that.
BECK: I studied piano and voice at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto beginning at the age of eight and I studied musical theatre training in New York in my late teens. But creating original music started with James saying he wanted to record his own stuff, and I stepped in to co-produce, then we teamed up as writers and performers.
Where are you based out of and how did that influence your music?
We were both born and raised in Toronto. Still live here. Being a major city, it’s always had a vibrant musical culture. And I think that being exposed to everything from rock and folk to experimental and classical music was inspirational. Of course, now you can be exposed to all sorts of influences no matter where you live, but when we were growing up, that wasn’t the case, so being in a big city helped.
Tell me about your most memorable shows, if you haven’t played live what is your vision for a live show?
What we’re doing now – composing instrumentals with spoken word – hasn’t been performed live yet. But what we’d love to have happen is to present our latest EP – “Us, Upon Sleep” – with our previous album – “Love in Times of War” – as a two-part concert featuring all sorts of classical and electronic and other musicians performing the pieces from those albums, and have Beck perform her spoken-word parts. What we’d really love to see is these two albums played in various cities, with each city’s symphony orchestra at the core of the show. And we’d also love to see a ballet or other type of dance company interpret the music while the music is performed live.
What is your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
Our vision of a live show would be our music being played by the world’s best orchestras at the finest venues, like the London Symphony performing our instrumentals and spoken works at Royal Albert Hall, The New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thompson Hall… Ideally, Deutsche Grammophon would record all the performances and release them as a giant boxed set. (LAUGHS.)
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
Kendrick Lamar, Abel Tesfaye, Ed Sheeran, Olafur Arnalds, Jason Mraz, Kae Tempest, Joshua Luke Smith, Keith Urban, Slaves, Peter Gabriel, Space Afrika, Max Richter, Marc Broussard and Daniel Lanois.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into making music and some advice that you would give to your younger self?
It’s important for composers and musicians to learn a lot about the music business: things like copyright law, publishing, etc. It’s vital that if you’re going to create music, you take charge of it. Do everything yourself, at least at first. Don’t be too anxious to have others do the work for you. We believe you have to know every aspect of what it takes to create, protect and promote your music before you can know if you’re hiring the right people later on.
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
JAMES: I primarily compose instrumentals now, but when I was writing songs, I came up with one called “God Make Me Strong Enough.” It’s from the point of view of a father at his daughter’s wedding. Of everything I’ve written, that means the most to me because so many people have played it at their weddings for the father-daughter dance. In fact, one father in Ohio wrote to me and asked if it’d be all right if he sang it to his daughter. I was so touched that I sent him an instrumental of my version so he could sing it live at the reception.
BECK: “Ethos and Circumstance.” It tells a complete story within the larger story and conveys the sadness and uncertainty of those left behind during war.
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
JAMES: When I was performing as a singer-songwriter, I’d say my favorites to play were “God Make Me Strong Enough”, “Where Will I Fit in?”, “This is My Dad”, and “Chore-free.” I wish the music I’m composing now was that easy to perform live!
What is your creative process, and what inspires you to write your music?
JAMES: Now, I focus primarily on neo-classical/new age instrumentals. I usually start by finding a great sounding instrument; maybe a great piano or a synth of some sort. And I play around with it till I hit upon a chord progression that I like, something that moves me. Then I find a complementary instrument – a violin maybe, or a cello, or some kind of flute – and start searching for a melody that takes the chord progression to another emotional level. After that, it’s just a lot of hours to develop it. What inspires me to write is hoping people will feel a strong emotional connection to the music I compose. That’s why I sit down to work on music every day.
BECK: I start to see the entire story in my mind when listening to James’ compositions and the story just needs to be told. For “Love In Times of War”, I rearranged the order of the songs he played me because the story was so clear in my mind. I love the idea of listeners getting to experience this too.
Do you have messages that you like to get across in your music, if so please tell me about them?
I don’t know that we have messages we’re trying to pass along. But I do hope that when people listen to our music and spoken word recordings, they’re moved in some way by what they hear. We want people to travel along to places and moments that are being unraveled. If at the end of an album the listener “saw” the story, that’s all that matters. The message is up to them.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
Just to keep writing music and the accompanying stories that evolve. We feel we have to – and want to – write every day. That’s why we’re here. Right now, our focus is our “Us, Upon Sleep” EP, but we have lots of new compositions in the works.
How can your fans best keep up to date with you, any socials you want people to check out?
Probably the best way is to follow us on one of the streaming services. That way, you’ll see when our new music is available. For an earlier heads-up, people can also sign-up at James’s web site: https://jameskeithnorman.com/new-release-sign-up. You can check out Beck’s website becknorman.com to see her photography and check out her music. As for socials, they can follow us on Instagram (@beck.and.james). That’s the one we use mostly.