In 2009, W.C. Beck's life got complicated. All three of his bands imploded within a month of each other. Then he broke up with his girlfriend. Then his grandparents died. Then a close childhood friend committed suicide. So, he did what anyone in his position would do: He went to Mississippi and sold fireworks.
"We were in a hot tent with fire ants and mosquitoes and chiggers," says Beck, 28. "It was over 103 degrees every day for a month, and we were living in a tent with enough TNT to blow us to the moon.â
Uncomfortable as it sounds, it turned out to be an oddly cathartic experience. It allowed Beck to take a time out and talk through everything with his best friend, who joined him down South. Most important, it gave him a chance to write songs. Although much of Sapling, Beck's delicate, country-flecked new album, draws directly from that tumultuous period—the wordless elegy "Blood Harmony," for instance, was literally written between funerals—it's not just about that one difficult year. In fact, it's made up of songs written over the course of three years. Beck thinks of the record as a chronicle of his own self-discovery, from coming to terms with the need to leave his hometown of Newton, Kan. (the lightly galloping "Rolling Hills"), to learning how to cope with loss (the wounded "Ticking Clocks").
As personal as it is, though, Beck says Sapling, in a way, is actually about the long, strange trip everyone takes in their 20s.
"You're in this weird no man's land of getting to be a kid and do whatever you want and not have to have all the responsibility," he says, "while at the same time not really knowing exactly where you're headed."
Beyond the lyrical content, Sapling also represents Beck's journey as a songwriter. Influenced by his composer grandfather, Beck as a kid studied classical music and jazz. He absorbed his country influences mostly "by osmosis," he says. "It was always there, being in Kansas." The turning point came at age 14, when he witnessed a performance by Portland-based string band Pig Iron. After that, Beck abandoned his formal training in favor of working less from the head and more from the heart. "It was really good to have the tools in the toolbox," he says. "But it was nice to divorce myself from thinking about it and just do it, and sing what's natural." Beck self-released three albums—his first recorded when he was 18—before graduating from the University of Kansas and moving to Portland in 2006. Sapling is a culmination of his growth as a musician since, to the point where writing songs is now not just a means of processing pain but a compulsion.
"When I get an idea, it's like a train hurtling at me," he says. "It becomes a priority above everything else. I'll be sitting here eating a sandwich, and I can't finish it because I've got a song bearing down on me."