Berkeley's Brilliance: A Wandering Singer/Songwriter Explains How He Brought it All Back Home
David Berkeley epitomizes what was once commonly referred to as a traveling troubadour. Having made his home in a variety of places both here in the States and overseas -- we’re talking Corsica specifically -- he’s not only experienced a vast expanse of terrain with his family in tow, but also gathered enough inspiration to fill five studio album -- a sixth, a live recording, completes his canon to date -- and a book, 140 Goats and a Guitar, which accompanies his earlier album, Some Kind of Cure, and details his year living abroad.
An Ivy League graduate who now calls Santa Fe New Mexico home with his wife and young son, Berkeley continually demonstrates a unique gift in his ability to explore the human condition -- complete with its peaks and valleys, hopes and disappointments, and its most fervent emotions in ways most people are unable to express. It’s little surprise then that he’s often commissioned to write songs that help others share their feelings in the intimate ways they themselves are unable to convey.
Still, when all is said and done, Berkeley’s songs are supremely melodic, in ways only the most skilled singer/songwriters are able to convey. Hearing a Berkeley song from any of his five studio sets, offers a sense that you’ve heard this music before, and in turn, can allow you to fully embrace it. It’s moving, insightful, poetic and flush with the skill and craft that can turn small observations into a grander view that can affect us all on a common scale.
In an email interview, I recently gave Mr. Berkeley opportunity to share his thoughts about songwriting, his latest album Fire In My Head and the intriguing way his career has evolved. Hopefully these thoughts will open the door for the unawares and lead them to explore his music. Suffice it to say, this particular journey comes highly recommended.
LEE ZIMMERMAN: Hi David. For starters, please give us an idea of what motivated you to pursue a career in music? And then inspired your transition to the literary world?
DAVID BERKELEY: I’ve been singing since I learned how to speak, and great songs have always hit me hard. But I didn’t write songs until well into college, and I didn’t dream of being a musician (I still don’t). For a long time, I wanted to be a travel writer. My mother was a journalist, and I respect that craft greatly. My father was a professor, and I also thought I might one day be a teacher. I did both for a bit, working for Outside Magazine and then teaching in a public middle school in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I have great respect for teachers, particularly after my brief stint among them nearly did me in. But the expressive arts—particularly poetry and songwriting -- have always existed on a different plane for me, somehow above or below everything else. I’m dazzled by poets and songwriters who see the world more acutely and manage to express their vision more clearly and profoundly and succinctly than the rest of us. So for at least the past decade or so, that has seemed for me the most holy, if elusive, pursuit—(that is) to strive to look more deeply and describe more gracefully. While I can imagine other paths, I think I am my best self when I am writing songs. And though there is, no doubt, ego in singing your songs for audiences (even small ones), I see songwriting as a very humbling endeavor, for I am never able to perfectly articulate the scope of what I think and feel. Songwriting is not something one masters, or at least I will never come close to mastering. So it remains for me something worth working at.
Who were your influences as you were honing your craft? Who did you listen to growing up? Which authors influenced you? Did your parents encourage or influence you?
There was a lot of ‘60s and ‘70s music playing while I was little -- Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Crosby Stills and Nash, the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Dylan. The usual suspects…and they no doubt influenced me greatly. The lyrical phrasing of Paul Simon continues to influence me. I also long respected how plaintive and natural his singing voice was, and is. I always saw Neil as a sort of force of nature. There was nothing beautiful about his voice. There still isn’t. And yet his songs bowled me over, in the way a great rainstorm or sunrise might. Jerry Garcia had something similar, made everyman feel like he might be able to sing lead in a rock-n-roll band, that is, if his heart was big enough.
In college, though, I discovered Nick Drake. And that changed the way I saw music. In some ways, I think I was afraid to write my own songs because I had been raised listening to the aforementioned kings. How could anything I write compare? In Nick Drake I saw something different, something more abstract, something softer, more subtle, and yet no less golden. I think that freed me up, made me believe that what I was feeling or trying to say could be worth saying, and could be beautiful.
My parents certainly always encouraged and supported me. They still do. My mom’s writing and eye for beauty influenced me greatly as well. She taught me to see, and gave me an appreciation for words. I try to lead my boys through the world like she led me, with big open eyes.
How is it that you choose to tap so thoroughly into the human condition? You seem so attuned to emotions and everyday tragedies and triumphs. What makes you so interested in those sentiments?
Thanks Lee. Not sure it’s a choice, but nor am I sure anything else is worth working so hard on. I think if songwriting came easier for me, I’d probably write funnier songs, I’d write songs about the news, I’d write more children’s songs. But if getting to or finding the well is as tough a journey as it is for me, I definitely am going to dip my bucket as deep as I can once I get there.
Ever thought of writing a play or screenplay?
I haven’t really, but now that you mention it…
What led you to move to Corsica? And why have you moved so frequently in recent years? Are their economic consequences in being so transitory?
Good question. I’m starting to feel like a fugitive…
We went to Corsica because my wife (Sarah) was doing fieldwork there for her PhD in Anthropology. (She has since received it). We lived for a year in a tiny village with our then one-year-old son Jackson. Most of my moves, in fact, have been for Sarah. Well, that’s not totally true. We were in NewYork because we love New York. We were in Atlanta for her graduate school. We were in California because we wanted to be, and my parents and siblings are out there. I was in Idaho before all that to work on the Salmon River. Now we’re in Santa Fe because Sarah is now a professor at St John’s College.
There are definite economic, career and social challenges to uprooting all the time. You have to start over socially. I have to try to fit into any scene that might exist and swallow a lot of pride. But there are also a lot of benefits, too. We’ve seen some amazing places and made some great friends. I get to draw from entirely new palettes with each move.
That being said, we just bought a place in Santa Fe. So I don’t think we’ll be moving again soon.
Can you give us a preview of your next book... and how it will manifest in new music?
Yes. I’m super excited about this project. My last book, 140 Goats and a Guitar, told the stories behind the songs on my album Some Kind of Cure. A lot of the book (and music) was written while in Corsica. I’ve had a great time reading some of those stories at concerts and book readings while on tours. But I’ve also felt a bit overexposed, like maybe my songs are confessional enough and I don’t need to bring a listener or reader in even closer by sharing the experiences and emotions that inspired the songs.
So I decided to work on a set of fictional stories for which I’d ultimately write songs to accompany. The result is going to be called The Free Brontosaurus. It’s a novella told through interweaving short stories. The stories are all set in the same place and time, and all the characters show up in several different stories. The book is told in third person, though each story’s tone tilts toward the main character’s voice. But then I’m writing a first-person song from the perspective of each story’s main character. Ultimately, you’ll get a book of ten stories and a set of ten songs. Not sure if the songs will just be a digital download, or if I’ll be able to afford some fancy packaging and include a disc or even a 10”.
This has been my first crack at fiction, and my respect for fiction writers, though always high, couldn’t get any higher now.
What sort of reaction do you get in concert? Do you think audiences connect with the emotions and sentiments in your songs?
I hope audiences connect with the emotions and sentiments. I think most do. You can feel it when people feel it, and you definitely know when they don’t. I recently did a surprise private performance where it was clear that no one but the couple who hired me wanted to hear anything that came out of my mouth. That wasn’t fun. But those moments are luckily rare. Still, I recognize that my music often requires a lot out of a listener, that the audience needs to be open and willing to go there with me. And not all audiences are.
Because of that, perhaps, I talk a lot onstage. I tell stories that are self-mocking and light, way lighter than the music. My shows, for better or for worse, have become part stand-up, part concert. Humor can get your guard down, and showing that I don’t have any guard can help as well.
It's interesting that you do so much commissioned work... How did you get started doing that? What kind of reaction do you get when you present your songs to the people that commission you? Are they pleased? Surprised? Any interesting anecdotes?
It’s super interesting for me as well. This has been a strange and amazing new arm of my career. I suppose it started with the This American Life story I told about a fan who hired me to surprise-serenade his ex-girlfriend to help him win her back. Despite the romance of it, the gist of the story was about how awkward it had been for me. (The episode was called “Going Big,” I’m sure it can be found in their archives.) Surprisingly, though, I got more requests for personal appearances and private performances after the piece aired. Lately, I’ve been doing a fair number of wedding proposals, where the guy hires me to sing while he gets down on the knee, as well as surprise appearances where I’m a gift from, say groom to bride or husband to wife. There’s a lot of Sereno de Bergerac in it, for sure.
But after the TAL story aired and I realized there was some demand for this sort of thing, I found myself trying to raise money to finish my last book and album, and so I set up an NPR-style fundraiser on my website where, for various levels of donations, people got different gifts. I needed some big-ticket items, so I included private appearances and serenades, and I also offered to write personalized songs. I didn’t expect anyone to take me up on it because the price tag was pretty high, but it turned out a number of people were interested in commissioning songs, and so I’ve kept that offer up on my website.
Most of the folks who hire me just get a recording and a handwritten lyric sheet, but some also hire me to perform them in person. When that happens, it’s always very emotional for them, (and I’m always surprisingly nervous). But even when I just write the songs, I end up feeling very close to the people I write for. We often exchange a lengthy back and forth (one guy even made a book out of our email exchange and gave it to his wife with the song), where I ask all sorts of questions and he (it’s usually a guy hiring me, but not always) tries to tell me what he wants expressed. In the best cases, I’m able to use some of his words verbatim, but sometimes I’m being hired because the guy really is unable to express himself, even if he feels strongly. These may be the most moving for me and, I think, these clients (if you can call them that) are the most grateful when they hear the song.
What's the long time goal?
For better or for worse, I don’t think too far ahead, so I’m not sure I have a good answer for this. I continue to be interested in the relationship between stories and songs, and so we’ll see how I feel after I finish my book. But I could see diving into another similar project. Or maybe, I’ll write a screenplay. Someone gave me that idea recently.
What's next for you?
Well, the book, I hope will be the next release. But I also have been working with a producer in Miami named Pete Finley on a side project we’re calling Orchard Thieves (www.orchardthieves.com). It’s a topic for another interview, but I’ve written a batch of songs, and he’s remixed some of my existing songs to create an album that is way more pop accessible than what I normally do.
Anything you'd like to add?
I think I probably wrote more than you want to read. So I’m not sure I have more to blab about.
For more about David Berkeley, go to his website www.davidberkeley.com