Like so many starry-eyed musicians who move to Los Angeles from cities back east, Beck Black was drawn by the glamour and history of Hollywood. Unlike other celebrity aspirants, though, the singer-bassist-keyboardist and leader of her eponymous band has managed to retain a sense of wonder and hope even after dealing with disillusionment and the various dispiriting aspects of living in this place.
“My dream makes me sane. … Hollywood is a glittery gutter,” Black says in a phone interview from her Tinseltown apartment, which is located “on a hill right above all the madness on Hollywood Boulevard. … It’s a tourist’s paradox — they flock from all over the world to see glitz and glam [only] to find trash and homelessness.
“Being out here in L.A. isn’t a piece of cake,” she continues. “You’re a girl walking in the dark on the street. It’s not easy — being a woman in the industry too. You’ve got to be tough.”
During Black’s decade in this city, the North Carolina native has chased fame in a variety of ways, from writing screenplays and working as an actor in theater and film to appearing as a contestant on ElimiDate and other reality-television series. She has led two bands — The Tie Me Downs and The Moonbeams — before refining her style with the ongoing glam-rock group Beck Black, who perform at Bar Sinister at Boardner’s on Saturday, Oct. 13.
Over the past few years, she sidestepped from her role fronting Beck Black to collaborate with The Standells’ Tony Valentino on two original garage-rock singles — “Talk to Me” and “You’re Never Gonna Stop Me” — as well as a remake of The Standells’ “Riot on the Sunset Strip.” The duo’s efforts were given a considerable boost when the songs received crucial airplay from local tastemaker Rodney Binghenheimer.
Black recently debuted Jynx — a new electro-pop project with artist Kii Arens on songwriter Linda Perry and Kerry Brown’s We Are Hear label — at the Roxy, whose exterior was repainted for the occasion, by Shepard Fairey’s crew of painters, with the duo’s logo bursting out of an explosion of bright colors. How did it feel to see an image of her face looking over the Sunset Strip? “It was one of the most wonderful moments of my life,” Black says. “This is what I’ve been working so hard for years to do.”
So far, the singer has had her greatest impact with her “moody, broody and wild” band Beck Black, which will release a new seven-song record, Hollywood Blvd., in early 2019. Black produced the record, which was engineered and mixed by Glen Campbell’s son Cal Campbell at the late country-pop singer’s old house in Agoura Hills. The group self-released their debut single, “Life’s a Circus” backed with “Rock On,” in 2014. That was followed two years later by the hard-rocking Clandestine EP, which featured “American Mister,” a track co-produced by the band with Germs drummer Don Bolles. “Everything is independent,” Black explains. “We don’t have a label.”
Themes of fame and fortune course through the upcoming record’s title track as Black takes listeners on a seedy travelogue through the city. Driving past “the palace of the czars,” she sings about trying “to stay alive on the 405” as leering metallic guitars and Adam Alt’s thundering drums tower above her. “Songs are maps,” she says. “They help us navigate.”
The group take on heavier subject matter on the new album with “Lackluster,” a furious rant in which Black howls in a fuzz-shrouded voice. “I wrote it when Trump came into office two years ago,” she says. “I feel it’s still relevant with [Bret] Kavanaugh [being selected to the Supreme Court]. No one is listening to us right now. Come on, guys. We need to be heard. Everybody needs to be heard.”
While much of Hollywood Blvd., including a faithful remake of Joy Division’s “Transmission,” bursts with Beck Black’s trademark blend of hard-rock power and shadowy alt-rock mystery, the upcoming record also reveals newfound aspects of the group. “Puppet Show” is an unexpectedly dreamy pop/new-wave idyll in which Black’s ethereal vocals swirl in a sea of shimmering keyboards and flickering guitars. The enchanting tune evokes Blondie and is the closest the band has ever come to recording a pure-pop anthem.
“Telegram the words to me, a puppet sings/People pulling at your strings and other things,” Black coos engagingly against the song’s celestial backdrop. “Reality is what you make it wearing strings/Swimming in a deep blue ocean/Ebb and flow.”
“‘Puppet Show’ was the first song we wrote together as a band,” says Beck, who typically writes most of the group’s material. The song was co-written by Alt, who has played with Black since their days together in The Moonbeams, and guitarist Mo Mattaquin. “Adam came up with the song title, and I went home and wrote a bunch of lyrics,” Beck explains. Mattaquin, who works as an editor at MTV, is the group’s main guitarist, although occasional guitarist Joe Perez will sit in for him at the Boardner’s show on Saturday.
“Adam’s been a brother all these years,” Black says of her longtime drummer. “We’ve had our tough times, working through our different personalities. … He’s been my rock in the project. He hits hard, which gives Beck Black a lot of their momentum. He wants you to feel something.”
Being the leader of a rock & roll band wasn’t part of Black’s original plan when she relocated to Los Angeles a dozen years ago. “When I moved to L.A., I moved here to act,” she says. “When I was 6, I told my mom and my dad that I was going to be an actress. I just knew.”
Black was born in Lumberton, North Carolina, and grew up along the Cape Fear River in that state. “The river has been a big part of my life,” she says. “My family is very nautical. My mom and dad were fishermen.” Movies were her first love, and Black took a film class from Frank Capra Jr. while attending University of North Carolina at Wilmington. “I was the teacher favorite,” she says.
When she was about 21, she sang with a guitarist twice at the Soapbox in Wilmington. The duo did covers of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version of “Sixteen Tons,” and she did a solo rendition of The Doors’ “My Wild Love” on congas.
“I used to be really into Jim Morrison,” she confides. “A lot of my coming to Hollywood was part of my Doors fantasy, this wild, romantic idea that the Wild West was where I was going to go.”
She had another early taste of being a singer when she watched a Bob Marley cover band while she was on vacation at a resort in Ochos Rios, Jamaica. “I asked if I could please come up and do a song,” she recalls, and the group liked her so much that she ended up singing with them for a week before returning home.
Black worked for two years as a sound mixer on news broadcasts at WECT, a television station in Wilmington, before moving to Los Angeles. “I was living in Silver Lake and got kicked out of my place for playing keyboards too loud,” she says. She returned to North Carolina and spent time in a theatrical group in New York before becoming disenchanted with the acting scene and found herself back again in L.A.
“I took classical piano for many years. It was the only thing that helped me get through my parents’ divorce,” she says. After returning to Los Angeles, she says, “Music helped me deal with my dad’s death. He inspired me to play keyboards; he got me my first Korg.” She sang backup vocals and played keyboards with the psychedelic blues band Heavy Water Experiment. “Being in that band saved my life,” Black says. “My dad had just died, and I felt so lost.”
Black realized she could write her own songs when she composed and performed “Mi Rosa,” an operatic Spanish song, during her stint on ElimiDate. She also competed on two other dating-game series, 12 Corazones on Telemundo and The Millionaire Matchmaker, where she was runner-up. Black says she was happy she didn’t win on the latter series because “the guy was gross! … At one point in time, I was on more dating-game shows than I was on dates.”
Her embryonic songwriting efforts included “I’m Just a Sailor,” a waltz she penned for writer-director David Dunn Jr.’s 2007 film Priscilla’s Reign. Black drew from her Native American heritage when she wrote “The Canyon Song” for Art Shulman’s Not One More Foot of Land!, a play about the tragic forced migration of the Cherokee people along the Trail of Tears. She also had roles in the play Eavesdropper, in which she portrayed “a conspiracy-theorist nerd,” and Smoke and Mirrors, in which she played Bessie, the wife of Harry Houdini.
“Being a magician’s assistant proved a little bit difficult,” Black says about the latter play. “I was working with birds, and, believe me, the birds have a mind of their own.
“I was Teri Hatcher’s butt double on Desperate Housewives,” she continues. “I was actresses’ body doubles for years and had little bit parts on TV shows. That’s how I made my living.
“I didn’t know I was a musician,” she says about her early days in New York and Los Angeles. “I mainly did it for fun.” After leaving Heavy Water Experiment, she says, “I started doing my own thing.” She first got serious with her own music in the short-lived L.A. group The Tie Me Downs. “It was my Joy Division coming out,” Black says. “I’m punk rock, and I’m revolting because you couldn’t tie me down. Punk rock started helping me. I’m not going to be a victim.”
When Black moved back to Los Angeles after her stay in New York, she formed The Moonbeams with guitarist Nick Maybury and Street Drum Corps percussionist Alt. The group were rechristened as Beck Black after Maybury left the project and played their first show under that name at South by Southwest in 2014.
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Although Black has received most of her attention due to her work in The Moonbeams and Beck Black, she’s also excited about her latest project, Jynx, in which she goes under the nom de plume Harlow Black. “I feel like we’re going to be doing something monumental,” she says. “Beck Black is my darker side of the moon, in a punk-rock, ethereal way. Harlow is the extraterrestrial part of me, the outer-space side of me, the lighter side of me. It’s two people and a magic suitcase,” she adds about her performances with Arens. “With Jynx, I get to express a different side of myself. It’s like the era of the 1920s meets 2020.”
No matter which group she’s fronting, Black possesses an inherent rock-star charisma that’s heightened further by her dramatic and flashy stage wear. Calling herself “a retro, androgynous flower,” Black adds that she’s “recently come out as bisexual. My fashion style reflects my [dual] sensibility. I like to balance my femininity with fashion.”
Beck Black perform at Boardner’s, 1652 N. Cherokee Ave., Hollywood; Sat., Oct. 13, 10 p.m.; $10. (323) 462-9621, barsinister.net.