When I heard Golden Brown (aka Stefan Beck) was releasing his new album, Gems and Minerals, on the Inner Islands label, it made a lot of sense. As one of my favorite labels around right now, Beck’s rich and soothing sonic worlds feel right at home in the label’s carefully curated world.
Beck’s music has such a thoughtfulness to it that it often feels like a warm blanket. Lush landscapes emerge from the rich, detailed resonance and winding sonic corridors, creating inviting spaces to sit and unwind. Gems and Minerals is the clearest expression of these ideas so far and shows great promise for whatever will come next.
I want to get straight into this new record because it’s been getting a lot of repeat listens over here lately, especially as the weather has cooled. This album has such a feeling of finding respite found through exploration and contemplation. What kind of mindset did you approach writing these songs with?
At the start of the pandemic, my initial response was a creative outpouring. I think for me music was the only way to process the anxiety and fear of the unknown that was suddenly so pervasive. I’ve read some interviews with musicians who experienced the opposite and didn’t want to pick up an instrument at all. Luckily, playing guitar for me felt necessary at the time. So, a handful of the songs from Gems and Minerals started to take shape around last spring/early summer (Turtle Spirit, Gems, The Lyre Tree, Ash Emerald/Emerald Ash, the first part of Spores). As time went by, a few more songs developed later in the process but it was clear that they fit in with the earlier pieces (this was A Far Green Country and Palimpsest). In all, I had written more music than would fit on one album, so I ended up dividing them into two – the kind of dreamier, more cosmic pieces were what ended up as Gems and Minerals. There is another album’s worth of more composed, fingerstyle guitar type music that I am just starting to record.
I know the album description talked about how you’d start your days, often, throughout the pandemic – at least in the early days – with playing music in the morning. How much of Gems and Minerals was written in the early parts of the day? How do you think that influenced certain sounds or moods on the album? When I read that, certain pieces clicked in a new way for me because aspects of the album have a very ‘morning music’ feel to them and it is music that, when I put it on first thing, really does set a positive intention for the day ahead.
I like the idea from Indian classical music that there are certain ragas that correspond with certain times of the day. The music on Gems and Minerals is all fairly gentle, which makes sense given that I am very much not a morning person. Hopefully, it sounds good at night or in the afternoon too! I do really enjoy playing music in the morning though, partially because it sets a good tone and intention for the day. But also because I think I can be creative in a different way in the morning. Somehow, in the kind of state between dream and waking, I play and hear music differently than I do when I’m fully awake. Maybe because the logical side of my brain hasn’t fully activated yet, the creative side gets to work a little more freely.
It also feels very much like a Colorado record in the sense that it evokes such vivid natural imagery. Can you talk a little about how where you live influenced and inspired the work?
I am thrilled to hear that Gems and Minerals feels like a Colorado record. We are really lucky to live where we do and have easy access to nature and trails. It felt especially necessary last year, just to be able to disconnect and get out in the woods and away from people. I have continued to work in person since the start of the pandemic, so being able to go for a quick hike at the end of the day felt really important in resetting my headspace (it helps that I live and work where I can be on a trailhead within 10-15 minutes of wherever I am). Taking a walk at the end of the day in a beautiful and peaceful place kind of helped me get centered again and able to keep going. At the same time, in the late summer and fall of 2020 we had some really bad wildfires here, so the solace and sense of peace I get from the outdoors here felt very tenuous and fragile. I think some of that unease manifests in a couple of the more unsettled songs on the album, “Spores” and “Fruiting Bodies.”
I’ve thought and talked (and written) a lot in the past year about the transportive qualities of music and how sound has such a powerful ability to immediately put listeners into new frames of mind or transport them to new worlds created by sound. That’s been something so important to me for as long as I can remember but has really taken on a new importance in the last 18 months. How are you thinking about these aspects of creating music differently and creating worlds from sound after the last 18 months?
For me, music is the most powerful force in the world that I know of. It’s able to express what words can’t, and can be almost a universal language. Music can evoke an emotional response that cuts through the real and imaginary things that divide us – language, culture, borders, etc. Visual art can do the same, but for me, the effect of music is more immediate and intense. In the isolation that we all felt in the last year and a half, music has again proven to be the closest thing we have to magic. It’s such a gift to be able to bring these kind of dream spaces to life and then share them with the world, and to likewise get to listen to amazing music from all over. It’s still kind of hard to comprehend the sheer volume of really, really good music that has come out in the last 18 months. In all of the isolation and divisiveness in the world right now, music feels especially powerful and necessary.
What is it, for you, about playing music that can be so soothing and even transcendent?
Playing music for me is the closest I come to something like meditation or prayer. When everything lines up and I’m able to get into the flow of it, it’s incredibly powerful. I’ve recently been playing around with improvising in new tunings that I’m less familiar with as a way to get out of patterns and try and access that intuitive zone. It doesn’t always work and sometimes it’s just a mess, but when it does it’s wonderful. It reminds me of a line that Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead once said about Dark Star, something to the effect of ‘Dark Star is always playing somewhere, we just tap into it.’ When I am in a good creative space, it feels the same way – being able to tap into the flow of something beyond myself.
I love that the record is called Gems and Minerals because it conjures a lot of different ideas in my mind and it really fits the music, I think, but I’d love to know if you have any particular story behind the album title?
When I was young, I was mystified by the gems and minerals hall in the Denver Museum of Art and Science. I don’t really know why, but there was something about that exhibit that made a really strong impression on me in childhood and stuck with me. I went back for a visit a few years ago and still found it pretty magical. When I was recording, I found that a couple of the songs worked as pairs – Gems/Minerals, Fruiting Bodies/Spores, and Emerald Ash/Ash Emerald. I liked the idea of the two sides of the cassette being in balance with one of each pair on each side. Once I had that idea and had named the pair of songs Gems and Minerals, it just made sense as a whole and I liked the way it sounded. I found a book with some great images of gems and crystals at a used bookstore that I used to make the collage on the cover and it all seemed to fit. Sean’s layout for the cover and the inside of the j-card worked perfectly for it too.
So I’ve never been to the mineral and gems hall at the Denver Museum of Art and Science, but have similar memories from a museum here in Tulsa and also in St. Louis (where I spent a lot of time as a kid since my dad’s family is from there). I also remember checking out the Audobon Gems and Minerals guide from the school library in 4th or 5th grade. Anyway, random question, but do you have any favorite gems or minerals?
I don’t know much at all about geology, so my appreciation for this stuff is more just out of an aesthetic or emotional response. But here is a picture of one of the most amazing rocks in the Denver Museum of Art and Science’s collection:
I also really love this piece of Morion Quartz I got from Good Intention Crystals earlier this year, pictured here mystifying Lola the dog (I think she was hoping it was a treat):
And what’s going to be next for you and for Golden Brown?
I have a lot of music in the works right now, so it’s helpful to list it here to help feel less disorganized about it all. I have an ambient-ish album called Zonal Light finished that I will be self-releasing digitally this winter. And I’m almost done mixing another full length to follow that one, some songs built around improvisations and field recordings. This one will be pretty much all guitars, no keyboards or additional instrumentation. I just started recording the more composed, acoustic fingerstyle guitar music I mentioned earlier and am working on a collaboration with an artist whose work I really admire. And a few nights ago I wrote a new, kind of kosmische piece that feels like it will pull me in that direction somewhat. So it sounds like a lot, but it’s actually kind of great because whenever I sit down to play or record, I can kind of just follow my mood or whatever inspiration is calling to me at that time.