David Barratt is a London-born producer who has worked with artists as prominent as Robert Plant and David Bowie and has composed music for commercials for Coke, Verizon, Hasbro and many others. Recently, Barratt has turned his attention to a much more unusual project: a reinterpretation of The Beatles’ entire discography, all produced over the course of three-and-a-half years, and with one minor stipulation—every song must include the ukulele. What at first might seem like an extremely limiting instrument has proven to be a worthy muse, as musicians across the globe have involved themselves in acquainting The Beatles’ catalog with styles as diverse as hip-hop, house and metal.
The Aquarian recently caught up with David Barratt to pick his brain about the project.
A new song is released every Tuesday. What is the process for creating arrangements for songs? Does it ever get difficult or hectic to have a new one ready every week?
A couple of questions in there—does it ever get difficult or hectic? Yes. What is the process? Well, it’s several different processes. The simplest one is someone says they want to do a song, I cut a backing track, they come around and sing it and go away. That’s easy. Some people have their own ideas and they start a project, then they bring it around to my studio and we finish it off. In some instances, I’ve gone to an artist with something already on my laptop and I cut a vocal where they are.
We’ve had a couple of more interesting ones, like the ones that I’ve done with the people abroad. There’s been a band in Venezuela that did one—they cut a track, then they sent me the individual audio stripes. I then took it in New York and reworked it, and we sent it back and forth. These people were literally thousands of miles away. I’ve done the same thing with a German act and an Israeli act as well, and several in England. In fact, one of the guys who has been playing ukulele on this is Jack Hues. He used to be in Wang Chung.
When you’re working on an arrangement, how do you decide what style or genre will work best with a particular song? You have covered a lot of different ground with this material.
Sometimes I’ll ask myself what will suit the singer. But sometimes you just want to do something completely different. Have you heard the one that came out this week—“Ticket To Ride?”
Yes, I did.
Okay, great. The idea for that was—well, you know, it’s Black History Month, and I wrote an essay about Motown comparing and contrasting Holland-Dozier-Holland with Lennon and McCartney. At that point, I decided to do an arrangement in the style of Motown. In that instance, the essay came before the arrangement.
Generally, I pick up a ukulele or a guitar or I sit at the piano and ask myself, “How can I rework this?” For instance, for “Help!” I sat down at the piano and I started playing the chords to [John Lennon’s] “Imagine,” and starting singing the melody of “Help!” on top of it. And I started wondering what “Help!” would have sounded like if Lennon had written it in 1971 as opposed to 1965. And so I did the whole arrangement in the style of “Imagine.” So, whatever comes through the door—whatever is not boring. I don’t think we’ve once copped The Beatles’ original arrangement. It’s always something different.
What’s your favorite song that has been recorded for the project so far?
Always the next one. There are so many—it changes from week to week. You always love the one you just finished, but the others change. I wouldn’t really love to name one above the other.
Do you have a favorite Beatles song?
No, I don’t. The genres they played are so varied that it really depends on what mood I’m in at any given time. It also depends on the people I’m with. My son is now 17. When he was five or six, of course, “Yellow Submarine” was a big favorite. But if you’re feeling ethereal and beautiful, it’s “Because,” or if you’re feeling angry and rock and roll it’s “Helter Skelter.” I think the strength of The Beatles, and also of this project, is the breadth of music that is there. What we’ve done with this project is try to enhance the width of styles that are evident in The Beatles’ material. A lot of styles I’m working with didn’t even exist when The Beatles were writing songs. We’ve done house versions of songs, for instance, that just could not have been done 40 years ago. We try to keep the same spirit that The Beatles had back in the day, but using whatever happens to be at hand.
Tell me about your plans to give away 10 ukuleles on March 4th.
Right! It doesn’t have anything to do directly with the music website, but on March 4th we’re having an event at The Bowery Hotel in honor of Global Ukulele Day [March 11, 2011], and we’re giving away 10 ukuleles to the 10 most powerful and interesting people on the planet. We’re going to choose at the last minute, but those being considered include Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Vladimir Putin, those sort of people. And we’re going to give ukuleles away to those people because it’s such a relaxing and chilled-out instrument to play that we think their lives would be improved by it. If their lives are more improved by it—if they’re more chilled-out—the world is a nicer place.
Ten more ukuleles will be auctioned off to benefit Hi Art! What can you tell me about that charity?
Hi Art! sends art teachers to give private lessons and work with classes all over the country—mainly in New York City, but they do go all over the place. They help with arts education where art funding isn’t as great as it could be, or where there are kids with special talent. They provide things that one wouldn’t get in an ordinary art class.
Will there be anything special planned for the end of the project on July 31st, 2012, besides the fact that it coincides with the beginning of the Olympics?
Well, the last song is logically going to be “The End,” and everyone who has been on the project is going to be singing on that last version. It will be an epic recording, probably including over 200 singers. It will be quite spectacular. I’ve already started putting it together, adding voices and adding voices. It’s going to be a really beautiful thing. And hopefully, the penultimate one will be “Something” performed by Paul McCartney. I’m hoping that Paul will hear about the project and contact us, and if he wants to do the second-to-last song, which is a George Harrison song, that would be great.
The Global Ukelele Day showcase will take place at the Bowery Hotel on March 4. For more information about The Beatles Complete On Ukelele go to thebeatlescompleteonukelele.com.