STEELE INTERVIEWS: Singer/Songwriter David Berkeley

Atlanta-based singer/songwriter David Berkeley graduated from Harvard University where he studied literature and philosophy. He then traveled around with writing jobs for Outside Magazine in Santa Fe and another for Let’s Go Alaska. For five summers he worked as a whitewater rafting guide in Idaho. And he lived in Corsica, France. Now he and his wife and 2-year-old son have settled in Atlanta.

In October, NPR’s This American Life with Ira Glass featured a piece on Berkeley where he performed an awkward private performance to two of his biggest fans in an attempt to get them back together. Paste Magazine named him “Emergent Artist” in February 2009. The television show Without a Trace featured an original song prominently during a recent episode. Berkeley also participated in the Jeep Compass Music Tour where he performed over 50 shows in 30 days, and received a new Jeep.

Berkeley’s last studio album, After the Wrecking Ships has sold over 10, 000 copies. He showcased at South by Southwest two years in a row. Berkeley has toured with Dido, Billy Bragg, Ben Folds, Rufus Wainwright, and Ben Lee.

Berkeley’s third album Strange Light will be released on May 26th

I conducted an interview [Q&A] via email with David Berkeley in early May.

Amy Steele [AS]: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. My cousin graduated from Harvard (less than five yrs ago) with a degree in psychology and is now traveling the country as a jazz musician (she has a masters in jazz vocals or something like that). Harvard must do that to some people! It is definitely a breeding ground for creativity and also Fortune 500 leaders.

[writer’s note: coincidently, I found out via David’s publicist that my cousin, Elizabeth Westphalen, played trombone on several tracks of Strange Light. We do not stay in touch very much.]

Amy Steele [AS]: You graduated from an Ivy League school with a degree in philosophy and literature. Can you name some of your favorite authors and/or books?

David Berkeley [DB]: In college, I read a lot of Stegner, Faulkner, Joyce…Yeats. Now I go through stages where I’ll just read non-fiction or just read poetry. I recently read Independent People by Halldor Laxness and loved it. I also read Rory Stewart’s book about a walk he did across Afghanistan. That blew me away. And the short story collection by Miranda July, Nobody Belongs Here More than You, is pretty terrific.

AS: How often do you still read books? What types of books do you favor? What impact does literature have on your music?

DB: I read all the time. I read more than I listen to music, in fact. Music is a mysterious business for me. Melodies appear out of nowhere. But I think long and hard about lyrics. I live with them for a long time. Reading helps me open my mind to new images, worlds, symbols. I like reading history to draw from different more public stories as opposed to just my personal dramas.

AS: What wisdom did you gain from your study of philosophy?

DB: I fell in love with my wife in a philosophy class. That’s all I really remember.

AS: Where is your dream city, country or venue to perform?

DB: I’ve always wanted to play Red Rocks.

AS: I really got a kick out of the This American Life piece. How did you think that worked out?

DB: Talking to Ira was a real treat. I have huge respect for him as an interviewer, and I love that show. I have a couple more story ideas I’m hoping to throw his way.

AS: Who do you look up to as singer/songwriters? I haven’t kicked my love of Neil Young. He is a force of nature. I respect honesty in singers. It’s a little rare among today’s breed.

AS: What’s on your iPod right now?

DB: Some hip hop that my trumpet player gave me, some clips of my son singing (he’s 2 ½), Ricky Gervais podcasts, a lot of Dylan, Wilco, Sufjan Stevens, a lot of Tom Waits, Gillian Welch, Lucinda, Innocence Mission…

AS: You have traveled extensively and lived in various places (Alaska, Santa Fe, France etc.). How have your varied experiences contributed to your songwriting?

DB: The only thing better than reading for new images and worlds is moving. I wrote a lot of river songs while I was working on rivers in Idaho. I wrote a lot of city songs when I first moved to New York. I think being an outsider helps you observe your surroundings and learn about what you believe in. I find beauty and sorrows are in better focus when I’m going through a kind of culture shock, feeling longing for home or some former comfort. The village we lived in in Corsica was tiny (35 people). We moved there from Brooklyn (more than 35 people). I spent the entire year in that heightened state of awareness and reflection, and I wrote a lot of songs. There is also a beautiful tradition of singing in Corsica, and I got to join many of them in their particular brand of chanting. They sing quite loud and allow for harmonic tensions that I wasn’t used to. It was really liberating and exciting to sing with them. I am going back there this summer and may record some of those chants to put on my next record, which I am starting to record.

AS: Once you are working on a third album how has the process progressed for you as a songwriter?

DB: I’ve gotten used to the creative ebb and flow. I recognize that there are months where I won’t want to write anything and then a week where 3 new songs come. I know the sweet spots in my vocal range. I think I play with more complex ideas. And while recording, I know how to sing into a microphone better. I don’t get nervous when the tape is rolling.

AS: How have you changed as a musician over the years?

DB: I can sort of play guitar now. That’s not entirely a joke.
And I’m a far better performer—though I’m always a bit insulted when people say, “man you’re so much better than before.” I’m far more myself onstage. I talk more. And I don’t have to plan what I will play or say before I go out there.

AS: How has being a parent affected your performing and songwriting?

DB: Absolutely. The only thing better than reading and moving is having a child. I have a whole new realm of emotions and cares and concerns to dwell upon. I write clearer lyrics (maybe not at a 2-year old level, but a bit less hidden). I write more about getting older, about life changes, perhaps.

AS: Are you constantly writing songs in your head?

DB: On good days. And I always keep a notebook with me. At times I kept a little recorder, too. But now I just leave myself cell phone messages with snips of songs.

AS: How many re-writes go into each song?

DB: Hard to say. It’s not as clear as it is when I’m writing a story or a paper, where you do a draft and then rewrite a couple times. Every time I sing through a song before I “finish” it, I’m rewriting it. Some songs take months to write. I just finished a song that I started a few years ago, actually. Other songs come out in a couple days and I never rewrite them.

AS: How long do you think it takes to write the lyrics for a song? Can you briefly describe your process to put together lyrics from the song’s subject matter coming to you to the final product?

DB: I write emotion based songs, primarily. It’s hard to generalize, but a lot of my songs start with a melody. As I start hearing that, some words start coming (if I’m lucky). At some point, I start to try to figure out what emotional world the melody is expressing. Normally it relates to what’s going on in my life, what I’m writing about, reading, thinking about. So that’s not normally a hard quest. The work begins as I start to flesh that emotion into a form and story with characters and an arc.

AS: What keeps you inspired?

DB: My son. My wife. Running. Reading. Being outside. My garden. My compost pile.

AS: What do you like about creating a song and about performing?

DB: Song: The knowledge that good or bad, it’s entirely mine and wouldn’t be in the world otherwise. Performing: Making people laugh.

AS: What is the most rewarding aspect of being a singer/songwriter?

DB: When my son wants me to get my guitar and accompany him on his uke.

AS: What is your favorite song on Strange Light?

DB: “Measure of a Man”

AS: Why did you name the album Strange Light?

DB: It’s from a lyric in “Hurricane” (the first song on the album). I thought it summed up the sort of eerie optimism in my music, the light coming through a dark tunnel. It’s hard for me to write simple cheery songs. Life is harder than that. But I’m not a pessimist. I am hopeful, but I don’t deny pain. That is a sort of strange light.

AS: When you perform, what do you want your audience to experience at your shows?

DB: I want people to be emotionally impacted. I want them to think. I want them to laugh. When I hear music that is good, I always want to go home and hug my wife and maybe write a song myself. I suppose I want the same from my audiences.

Thank you David and I look forward to seeing you perform back in Harvard Square at Club Passim.

David’s tour dates are :

Mon, May 11th Minneapolis, MN Dakota Jazz Club– 7pm

Tues, May 12th Chicago, IL Schuba’ Tavern– 8pm

Wed, May 13th Ann Arbor, MI Zingerman’s Roadhouse– 8pm

Thurs, May 14th Dayton, OH The Dayton Series–8pm

Tues, May 19th Los Angeles, CA Hotel Cafe– 6pm

Thurs, May 21st Berkeley, CA Freight & Salvage– 8pm

Tues, May 26th Northampton, MA Iron Horse Music Hall– 7pm

Wed, May 27th Boston, MA Club Passim– 7pm

Thurs, May 28th New York, NY Highline Ballroom– 8pm

Sat, May 30th Philadelphia, PA Tin Angel– 7pm

Sun, May 31st Alexandria, VA Birchmere– 7:30pm

Mon, June 1st Annapolis, MD Rams Head Tavern– 8pm

Thurs, June 4th Decatur, GA Eddie’s Attic– 7:45pm

Fri, June 5th Nashville, TN Third & Lindsley– 7:30

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