Cliff Beach tried out for “American Idol” in 2003 after spending three days and nights on the street in front of the Rose Bowl with thousands of other hopefuls, and made it all the way to the finals before getting the boot from Simon Cowell and his fellow judges. Undaunted by this experience, Beach, an alumnus of the Berklee College of Music, moved to Los Angeles permanently to pursue his musical career as a singer, songwriter, and keyboardist.
A native of Washington D.C., Beach has developed his own signature style of music, which he has coined as “Nu-funk,” a hybrid of soul, traditional R&B, funk, and neo-soul. In 2013, he independently released his EP, “Who the Funk is Cliff Beach?” which was nominated for three LA Music Awards including “Record of the Year” and one Hollywood Music in Media Award.
Beach has been featured in the international music press including Music Connection Magazine, Jazziz, Unclear Magazine, Relix, Blues Matters (UK), Bello, CNN, Fox, and BET. A prolific writer himself, Beach was penned articles for Beautytap, Rock Star Life, and Pepperdine University’s Graziadio Business School blog.
In 2014, Beach gave a TEDx Talk ( ) as a featured performer in the “Going Against the Grain – Embracing the Unconventional” event in Napa Valley. His 2017 album, “The Gospel According to Cliff Beach” was nominated for an Independent Music Award (Funk/Fusion Jam Album) and has won two Global Music Awards. The video for his single “Delilah,” won Best Music Video at the 2018 Divulge Dancers’ Film Festival in Hollywood. In 2019, he won the Grand Prize in R&B in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest for “Confident.” The track, which Beach recorded with the Los Angeles-based Mestizo Beat (also known as the M.B.s) has achieved more than 500k+ streams on Spotify’s “All Funked Up” and “Funk Drive” playlists. Beach’s most recent EP, “W.A.J.A.K.F.S.” (We’re All Just A Kid From Somewhere), was released earlier this year.
Beach is the founder of California Soul Music, a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and a BMI-licensed songwriter and publisher. His untraditional career trajectory, which includes earning his MBA from Pepperdine University and achieving the title of Distinguished Toastmaster, recently began hosting his own radio hour, “Deeper Grooves with Cliff Beach” on 88.5 FM. He also hosts the podcast, “Deeper Grooves – Musicians on Music.” His first book, “Side Hustle and Flow” will be released by Black Spring Press in 2022. Beach’s newest single, “I Got Soul,” will be released on July 2, 2021.
MLS had a conversation with Beach on his many inspirations in music; the process of producing vinyl records in the digital age; and how what’s old will always become new again.
What set you on your path toward a career in music?
Many [members] of my extended family on my mom’s side are amazing vocalists. I’m probably not nearly the best of my family. They come from a background and a religion where they don’t have any instruments, and so their voices are all the instruments and all the parts – amazing, super-intricate acapella music. That’s the gospel tradition that I come from. I learned a lot of music in church, I learned a lot of music in school and I did take individual piano lessons most of my childhood through high school before going to conservatory at Berklee.
When I was in high school, I wanted to become a doctor because I thought that was the practical road. I was a straight-A student and people thought that might be a good path for me. I wasn’t going to pursue music until there was a minister in a backwoods church when I was a teen, who plucked me out of the crowd and basically told me that music was going to be my path. That became the affirmation that I needed. If you only have one life, depending on what you believe, then I think you need to get out there and do what you are meant to do, whether that makes you successful or makes you money.
I had a friend who wrote his own symphony and he won a really prestigious award, the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO), from the NAACP. He wanted to go to Berklee, so I kind of rode on his coattails and we were roommates the first year. And then he left music and became a high-end sommelier, and I stayed with music.
What inspires your songwriting?
I’m a lifelong student of music. I listen to, gorge, and binge on tons of content a day, especially on Spotify. I also have a modest vinyl collection that I’m always adding to – I have about 300-500 records that I go through.
I love the medium and I love vinyl because it’s heavy and it’s kinetic, [how] the needle moves when you’re listening to the music. It’s inspiring that these things were built to last, and the creativity of them. And having my own record label, pressing my own vinyl, and creating my own masterclass on making vinyl [records] in the digital age was super exciting.
There are great things about the past that I think we should carry forward, especially when it comes to music. I believe firmly in the old-school approach of craft, so when I teach people vocals, singing and writing, we study the classics because it’s hard to study something that’s happening right now. I feel like right now, people are making [things] up based on the limited information that they know. But music goes back thousands of years. Even me – even though I may not play a certain instrument, I could still learn something by listening to a horn player like Miles Davis, and his phrasing that I could interpret into my piano and my vocals.
I try not to get pigeonholed when it comes to music. I get super inspired by all kinds of stuff, but I live and breathe funk music. Obviously, the 1960s and 70s – James Brown, Sly Stone. Stevie Wonder, who I think is one of the most prolific musicians of all time, and Quincy Jones, who I think is one of the most prolific producers in multiple decades and genres of all time. But I listen to the Beatles and Bob Dylan and people like that for their songwriting too.
I love jazz, I love tons and tons of jazz. People like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Billie Holiday – I love listening to them emote. Ella, with her scat singing, and her improvisation is amazing. I did a song called, “Sock It to Me,” that’s an homage to Aretha Franklin that got played on KCRW and I was super-excited about that too, an artist who also started in jazz before moving into soul and funk.
It is funny because I am not a jazz artist, but people often mistake me for one. I do have a lot of jazz elements in my music and I do love and listen to lots of jazz on KKJZ and Spotify. I took a MasterClass online by Herbie Hancock, as I really admire his music and proficiency on piano. My song “Delilah” was nominated for “Best Jazz Performance” in the Hollywood Media and Music Awards and I also was profiled in Jazziz Magazine when I released my remake of the holiday classic, “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch.”
I think you can be inspired everywhere. I love finding it in random places. I love listening to old country music. I feel there’s soul everywhere. At the end of the day, all those musical styles – blues, Americana, folk, gospel, R&B, soul, funk, jazz – they all stem from the American roots. There’s one tree that has many branches.
I skew older with music – a lot of music I like was before my lifetime. But I like to hear what the kids are doing as well, just to keep relevant. And nothing is new under the sun, so people are taking [older forms of music] and putting them somewhere else. I’m always trying to never do the same thing twice. I want to have a new experience every time, whether it’s playing with new players or having a string section or working with a gospel choir. I’m always looking for newness so that when I look at something, I can say, “That was definitive to that time stamp in my life.”
Speaking of the more nostalgic aspects of creating and collecting vinyl, is the packaging – including artwork and liner notes – a big part of your creative process in making a record?
We spend a ton of time on the concept. We’ve done liner notes – we haven’t done lyrics for sake of space.
For the last Mestizo Beat album, “Canoga Madness,” we did transparent yellow vinyl. They commissioned artwork from a really cool Valley artist because they wanted to have the elements of their Latin American heritage and their “concrete jungle” L.A. heritage. They had their instruments, congas and cactuses and a really cool shot of them performing at a festival since they’re a super big live act. For my gospel album, if you look at it you’ll see the front is a stained-glass window [image] of me and on the back are the Ten Commandments. And then, the CD version of it opens up and it looks like a Gutenberg Bible. So, yes, the look and the feel are super important.
When I moved to L.A. after the “American Idol” debacle, I was in a group called Homestyle. Their leader is a producer who goes by the name of Mister Rocks, and we’ve been friends for 15 years. I worked with him for a lot of my albums and some other stuff. He took me to China and we got to write for some girl groups there. It’s great to have those cross-cultural pollinations of different ideas, and he’s a really great guy. He helped me create “Sunday Morning” and this latest EP, the title of which is an acronym, “W.A.J.A.K.F.S.” It basically means, ‘We’re all just a kid from somewhere.’ It’s from a LeBron James quote. [Mister Rocks is] a huge Lakers fan, being an Angeleno.
“Sunday Morning” is super-personal to me because I worked with an amazing artist in L.A., Noah Gottlieb, who created the artwork for it. It is an actual painting which I commissioned and own from this artist, giving me this very kind of early Sunday morning, L.A. feel with the palm trees and everything.
There’s always this element of incorporating all of these concepts and ideas. But it’s a never-ending story. You’re constantly retooling and rethinking as you go. It’s nice to be able to have all these artists coming together. Even though it’s under my “brand,” I cannot take 100 percent of the credit because of the other writers, artists, background vocalists, and people that make that work, that it really takes a village and creating a synergy and an ecosystem underneath you.
By getting to the top, you’re standing on the shoulders of giants who came before you. When you really look at people, they are usually successful because someone took them under their wing and showed them something. That’s why I don’t use the term, “self-made.” We are all born from someone – we all have moms, we all come from somewhere. And that’s what this [latest] album is about – we’re all just a kid from somewhere.
No matter where you are from, that doesn’t mean that’s going to be your final destination. At the same time, you have to respect where you’re from and honor that, and respect the people that helped to make you.
One of the many hats you wear is as a motivational speaker, as you’ve moved through the ranks of Toastmasters and given a TEDx Talk. How do your musicianship and performance skills enhance your public speaking skills – and vice versa?
I think for me, because I’m used to being onstage, I didn’t have a fear of public speaking. You may have natural ability and talent, but at the same time, it can be a detriment to rest on your laurels. Toastmasters is a program and I think you have to follow it as a program to learn the protocols and then you figure out what rules you can break and how to make it your own thing.
As far as Toastmasters enhancing my music, I think it helps me communicate better with my audience. There is a rule – never get in the way of what your audience needs to hear, which is very humbling. I think music is different, where, “This is what I have to say and you can like it or not” – or, we’ll find the audience for the music.
It’s definitely helped me with my impromptu [speaking], and with interviews. I think it helps you to be able to take pauses and organize your thoughts quickly. It’s a skill where the repetition of it helps you in the same way that drilling your scales in music will help you.
I have a podcast, “Deeper Grooves,” which is in Season Three right now. We’re currently recording Season Four, which we’ll release later this year. It’s been exciting being able to interview Grammy winners, Grammy nominees, engineers, producers, singers, songwriters, and instrumentalists about their career treks and journeys.
It’s a totally different skill, learning how to interview, learning how to edit and present information. Again, another learning process, another COVID project that was done remotely. But it was nice to be able to learn something new and also still have content to push out to YouTube and all the streaming platforms – you can hear the podcast normally each Tuesday.
I’m so very excited to be able to network and meet other like-minded musicians in all ranges – maybe not all household names, but they work with household names. When I do get the opportunity to interview people, I learn from them. That mentors you in a way too. I think inspiration is all around you.
Being a motivational speaker has led to your self-help book, “Side Hustle and Flow.” What was your inspiration for this project?
I’ve been working on a book over the last year that I’ve been shopping around, called “Side Hustle and Flow,” which talks about my life story and that, specifically saying that there are things that happen in your body that if they don’t get out they can cause you harm, in the same way that deferring your dreams and locking them inside of you can also be a cancer in a psychological [way].
I had never written a book before, but it was my COVID bucket list project. I really learned a lot through the process of working with editors. I love learning about processes and taking classes and figuring out methods and the tried-and-true things that you can do. There are formulas and there are templates. You don’t have to necessarily use them exactly but it is good to know them and to have them in your arsenal.
I just got my first book endorsement from Brian Tracy, who I’ve admired for many years. He’s written about 80 books, he’s super-influential and motivational speaker, a New York Times bestselling author of “Eat That Frog.” It was cool to hear him say, “This wonderful, inspiring book will help you unlock the secrets to happiness and success. Read it, apply it and let these ideas change your life.”
What was your favorite TV theme song while growing up, and why?
I don’t think I had a favorite TV theme song growing up, but one of my favorite songs as a kid from a TV show is from Sesame Street, the Pointer Sisters’ “Pinball Number Count.” I think is one of the most ingenious songs written for children.
What I love about it most is that in the 1970s, children’s television with programs like “Sesame Street,” introduced children to really good music, including, jazz, rock, funk, and R&B. They did not water it down to the “Barney” sing-a-long or Raffi style, but used actual Grammy award- winning artists with very solid writers to make songs that both children and adults could enjoy.
How does music in film and television evoke the many facets of a story: the characters’ inner thoughts, the location of the action, any conflict or resolution taking place onscreen?
I am not a film composer, though I did recently have my music used in a BMW Motorad USA video series that won the 2021 Allyship to Advocacy Mosaic Award from the American Advertising Federation. It was interesting how each song helped to fit the mood and inner thoughts of this African American Motorcycle Group whose roots were in the Buffalo Soldiers, with my songs “Confident,” “Movin’ On,” and my remake of the spiritual “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” aka “Keep Your Hand on the Plough,” done exclusively for this project, which was produced by the advertising agency of Hill Holliday.
I am used in Episodes 1 and 5, the bookends of the series. If you listen closely, you can hear my ADR “adlib speaking too.” Boomer and S.O.B., the main characters, are an interesting pair and I am told this was the highest watched content for BMW Motorrad USA of all-time, so I was honored to be chosen to be part of the soundtrack.
What else is next?
I’m recording so many projects right now. I’m working on a Christmas album. I did a Christmas concert with the City of LA’s Recreation and Parks Department at the end of last year, so for posterity, we’re recording that in the studio. I have a band on the West Coast doing that. On the East Coast, I also have a band. They’re working on some tracks that were following up on my 2017 [record], “The Gospel According to Cliff Beach,” which I recorded with some of them. I have another track with Mestizo Beat called, “The Truth,” which we’ll be bringing out this year as well.
You’ve updated much of the perspective of this blog by about 50 years or more – by that, I mean that the music business has changed so much since a lot of the artists interviewed here began their journeys in music. The business has always been highly competitive, but what keeps you going with all these new ways of getting your music out to the world, so quickly, and to so many?
I moved to L.A. in 2003, with my dream of winning “American Idol.” I went through the entire AI process, sat outside for three days in the elements, sweating and freezing at night – in Pasadena, I was at the Rose Bowl for three days to get my chance at stardom, which after multiple rounds, eventually I was cut. It did not happen the way that I thought.
But I believe that every rejection helps you to become stronger because most people that are successful have just failed more than you have. I think that sometimes people believe that life is like the game of chutes and ladders you play as a kid – that there’s going to be this magical ladder from Point 2 that will take you to Point 99. It’s not like that. I think if anything, life has more chutes, putting you back at the bottom, to start over again – but in a good way.
I think life is full of learning opportunities if you have the self-awareness to see them. I think oftentimes when we’re going through the same thing over and over, it’s because we didn’t learn the lessons, the nugget that was in there for us. Or, we haven’t pivoted and shifted our paradigms and mindsets and made changes, because obviously, you can’t do the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.
Music – you’ve got to love it. It’s a hard road. There are a lot of ups and downs and you’re affected by all kinds of market shifts and other things, from digital music, and so many changes with streaming and other stuff. So, you just have to have the stomach for that. And you really have to have the passion behind it.
At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily about the accolades or the fans. As an artist, you just want to get your ideas out there, and I think that’s a beautiful and powerful thing. I think as an artist, we get to express ourselves in ways that non-artists do not, which is very cathartic.
Ella Fitzgerald is one of my all-time favorite singers, and I recall a quote from her: “Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.” That is my motto for music and for life.
Photo by Sheldon Botler