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Brute Heart’s Jackie Beckey helps preserve local music’s legacy at the Minnesota History Center

by Cecilia Johnson

July 08, 2015

Jackie Beckey, a Minnesota Historical Society reference librarian and Brute Heart violist/vocalist, is the kind of person you’d want at your next dinner party. Relaxed and approachable, she can talk about anything from rock music to classic films; she laughs often and shares stories. Recently, I sat down with Beckey and learned about her interests and career path, which has spanned from food service to libraries to music of all kinds.

Raised in Edina, Beckey started playing viola in fifth grade. A “huge” Led Zeppelin phase got her into guitar two years later, but she kept up with viola, too—even though she found it difficult to pursue as a career. According to Beckey, “There’s so many good string players out there. It’s hard to be a violist and have a career with it and be in an orchestra.” So she decided, “‘I’m just going to play in bands,’ and I never stopped.”

Along the way, she spent about ten years in food service. Her Caribou Coffee job helped pay for a guitar: “I worked there for a year, and then I actually dyed my hair pink and I couldn’t work there anymore, because they had a rule against it…so I was 16 and like, yeahhh!”

For many years, restaurant work helped her make ends meet while studying. First, she earned a degree in cultural studies at the University of Minnesota. Then, she went back to school for St. Catherine University’s library sciences program. “I love being a librarian,” she said, but added, “I will say it’s really competitive to get a job." Especially here, since “Minnesota’s a place that nobody wants to move away from." She spent brief stints working at the U, McNally-Smith, and Hamline University libraries; after working part-time at the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) for three years, she ended up earning a stable job there.

“Being a librarian, it’s really cool if you have an interest in music,” she said. “It’s interesting to think, ‘Oh, I could get a job as a librarian and do music in a roundabout way.’ And it’s easier to turn it into a career.”

Of all the libraries in the state, MNHS’s is a cool one for music fans. As noted by Steve Seel, a trove of music treasure lies two floors underneath the Minnesota History Center, featuring the Purple Rain costume, a Soul Asylum shirt, and a First Avenue ticket for Babes in Toyland. (Lori Barbero and crew just played a stellar set at Rock the Garden 2015, nearly 25 years after the First Ave ticket was printed.) Other notable items in the collection include handbills, guitar picks, and hotel keys from assorted other artists.

Last April, several Local Current college contributors—including me—joined staff from MNHS and the Current for a look at Minnesota music memorabilia, and Beckey showed us some of her favorite objects. “What’s interesting about [MNHS],” she said when we spoke, “is that you have 3D objects, so it’s not just about the sheet music or recordings. You can have the instruments, too. And you also have the stuff that contextualizes what was going on, like newspapers, or those cool music directories I pulled out for you guys.”

Beckey brings her passion for string music to all parts of her life—not many people know about the Hardanger fiddle on level B, but she made sure to mention it. In addition to the Minnesota Historical Society, one of her favorite sites to explore is the Minneapolis Central Library on Nicollet Avenue. She said, “The downtown Minneapolis library has a really awesome collection of sheet music and recordings. In my mid-twenties, I would go there a lot and check out sheet music. I got this book of klezmer sheet music,” she remembered, “and it had a little flexi in the back, where you could listen to recordings…it was really cool!”

As part of Brute Heart, an experimental trio with Crystal Myslajek and Crystal Brinkman, Beckey is proud of the “cool, weird, unique sound” that she “didn’t really expect to come out of the project.” Together, the band has released albums, collaborated with art galleries, and scored silent films. Last spring they teamed up with SuperGroup, a local dance troupe, for a show at Public Functionary. “It was a collaborative project,” Beckey commented. “Projects like that—you’re not just doing regular shows and playing a set. You’re composing music that is temporary, in a way." Therefore, "It gives you more freedom to experiment.”

Even so, the transience isn’t always a comfort. “We didn’t record the Public Functionary [show], which we should have. It’s really hard sometimes to get yourself organized or to have enough money to go into the studio for everything. That’s one of the issues of being a musician—everything is so fleeting.”

However, the band did record one of their special projects. “We were lucky with the Caligari score,” Beckey said about the spooky, ambling composition that Brute Heart wrote (with Jonathan Kaiser and John Marks) in 2012. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a German silent film from 1920, and when the Walker Art Center looked to screen it alongside live music a few years ago, the band jumped on the project.

[bandcamp width=350 height=470 album=1423627630 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false]

Looking at Beckey’s track record, it’s not surprising that she enjoys scoring movies. “I’ve always been interested in film,” she said. After organizing and scoring puppet shows for years, silent films felt like “a perfect extension of that.”

In fact, Beckey says that writing more music is “where [she’s] going next.” She leaned forward, her elbows on the wooden table. “You know, when you’ve been in a band for eight years and it’s just bar show after bar show, you get to this point where it’s not fulfilling anymore and you need to step it up a notch. And as a violist, too, I can be in multiple camps, where I’m doing more compositional stuff but also playing in a band. I want to push more toward not playing accessible, louder, ‘band’ music and more detailed compositional stuff. Because I feel like I’m as much of a composer as I am a performer.”

Then, she paused. “I’ve got to figure out how to make it more...” She knocked on the table a few times, trying to get the right words out. “Maybe if I collaborated with a filmmaker, we could get some momentum and perform it a couple of times and approach festivals and venues. So it’s not just a fleeting thing. But it’s hard…I’m still trying to figure out: how would you do that?”

Beckey’s job as a librarian has her working with historical texts and objects all day. Meanwhile, she’s trying to make her once-fleeting art more permanent. In a roundabout way, she has become the string player who can spend a lot of her time performing. Even better: she can write the music, too.

Cecilia Johnson is studying English and Spanish at Hamline University. Her favorite things include road trips, Irish literature, and Tetley tea.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.