I am constantly surprised by how much I enjoy David Berkeley's work. There is just something about it that speaks to me. There is a sweet vulnerability about it that never fails to transport me into the music. The melancholy beauty of each careful song reminds me of rainstorms and road trips. I first fell in love with Berkeley while reviewing the Ciao My Shining Star compilation which he contributes a breathtaking version of "Love's The Only Thing."
In person, David is well spoken and funny. His speech contains the same thoughtfulness his music does. The man is refreshingly candid and a pleasure to spend time with. Make sure you visit DavidBerkeley.com where you can stream a good portion of his work. If you've got the time and the opportunity, stop by a show as well. You'll be treated to an evening of gorgeous, skillful music.
Before Mr. Berkeley's show at Swallow Hill in Denver, Colorado, I sat down with him and the wonderful Mr. Jordan Katz (who supplies trumpet and banjo) for some conversation and Italian food.
So this is your third show in Colorado?
On this tour, yeah: Boulder, Salida and here.
Are you having a good time here?
I love Colorado. My mom’s whole matriarchal line is from Colorado. I used to come here a lot growing up. I don’t get to play here enough because I don’t live very close and it’s a little spread out once you get out west, but yeah I love it here. I’m eating a lot of pie.
Oh, good, good.
I had a little bit of trouble with some of the wait staff in different establishments… I think we maybe talk a little too fast. But we’re getting used to it.
How did you get started as a musician?
I’ve been singing forever. I went to a musical nursery school and literally was singing on stage when I was 3 or 4. As early as I was talking, I was singing in front of people. I didn’t start playing guitar for a long time. That’ll show during my show. I played tuba first-- did you know that? I gave that up and then I started writing songs pretty late--in college-- and decided to become a musician and “do this as a career” pretty late, also.
What do you feel makes you unique as a musician?
Well…terrible question. (laughs) My songs are extremely inaccessible and not commercial. (laughs) No, I think I work on lyrics a lot longer and harder than some people do, maybe because they don’t come as naturally to me or because I care more about them than a lot of people do. It’s very hard for me to write a lyric- a throw away lyric. I don’t repeat lyrics very much which is probably one of the reasons why my songs aren’t super “hook-y” because even in my choruses they often progress; they’ll change a little. That’s the thing I’m most proud of. I try to write songs that are honest and thoughtful and emotional. I very rarely write a song with an intention. Like, “I want to write this kind of song.” They come out of a natural and organic place therefore I don’t always write a lot of songs because I can’t force it.
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
I think the This American Life thing I did is my proudest moment. I don’t know if you heard it but I told a long story on This American Life and played a little bit and it was a pretty big shock that we got to do the story at all. It was kind of a thrill to talk to Ira (Glass) for as long as I did and get to do that. [Listen to the segment here.]
What is some of your favorite music?
Brother Ali. The Hold Steady. I listen to a lot of Wilco. I listen to a lot of stuff that’s maybe a little closer to what I do. Like Nick Drake or people like Paul Simon or Neil Young. Jordan plays with a lot of gangster rappers so we listen to a lot of stuff on the road that might surprise people who come to my shows when they hear Ghostface Killer blaring. It’s true. If you could see Jordan right now he’s holding up the Wu Tang “W” (laughs). We often listen to things that people give us on the road. We have a CD that we’ll listen to for the girl who’s opening tomorrow for us. Jordan then throws a lot of those CDs quickly out the window. (laughs) I give them a longer listen than he does. I try harder.
Do you get some real terrible stuff?
Yeah. That happens, but we know how hard it is to make music so we try to give them a fair shake. I’m going to go wash my hands real quick. Ask Jordan a question. (David leaves the table).
(To Jordan) Now’s your chance to get all of your viewpoints in.
Jordan: No. We’re kidding around. I loved his music the first time I saw him. I didn’t know who he was. I went back and listened to his MySpace page. I chose him; he didn’t really choose me. I’ve milked him for just about every dollar he’s got.
At least you’re getting paid and not just doing this voluntarily.
Jordan: Yeah, I’m getting paid. (laughs)
(David, returning) I don’t like automatic things. Like automatic doors. I don’t like the automatic water sinks in the bathroom and the soap dispensers. Some of them don’t work and I’m always like, “You know I could have done this manually!” Also, the soap in there doesn’t give you enough soap. It only gave me a little.
Jordan: You’re a germ freak.
No. that’s not true.
Jordan: That’s almost true (laughing). You never touch anything!
No, I’m gonna wash my hands! I don’t thing it’s fair to say…I mean, I clean my hands! I just did-- I share microphones! That’s the whole thing. If I were a germ freak I would have a really hard time doing what I do.
I can never trigger the water correctly and wash my hands.
That’s what I’m saying! And the soap thing! You can’t actually have water running and the soap at the same time, so…okay enough of that. Sorry. (laughs)
How did you get involved with the Ciao My Shining Star project?
The guy who masterminded this whole project. The guy that, in my mind, should have been a producer for this record is a guy named Nathaniel Smalley. He’s a mastermind but he’s not given a production credit like I think he actually deserves. He’s a college kid who brings musicians to this little school in West Virginia and he’s brought me a couple times and he’s brought Mark Mulcahy as well and I think it was one of the first shows Mark had done in a long time. Nathaniel is a big fan of his. When he found out what happened to Mark’s wife, (he) got this idea to do this and called me to see if I would do a song. I said yes just because I was a fan of Mark’s music and was pretty blown away by the tragedy. I honestly didn’t think the project was going to happen. Nathaniel’s a great guy, but he had in mind all of these amazing artists (performing) on the record and I really didn’t think there was a chance. In fact, he got basically all of them. At some point, it got so large that he had to turn it over to a record label they were able to get a couple more people, but he got the big ones himself and that was amazing. That’s how it started. I was living in Corsica at the time and wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to record from where I was so I wasn’t totally sure I was going to get the track done but I got back to America and did it.
My friend Frank Turner was doing the project and that’s how I heard about it and asked to review it early on. I couldn’t believe the names on it. Your cover was one of my favorites … I was like who is this guy? Then I saw you were coming to Colorado and here we are.
Jordan was the trumpet player on that. And it was produced by my friend Will Robertson who is producing my new record right now.
You released an album earlier this year, what can you tell me about that?
I did it in Chicago with a producer named Brian Deck who works with Iron & Wine, Josh Ritter, and Modest Mouse. Actually he did the last Counting Crows record, too. It’s my favorite record that I’ve done. I think that the production is a little more sophisticated and it has a broader emotional range. The songs are more recent so I’m more attached to them. Thirty Tigers put it out. It’s a company in Nashville. Sarah Watkins sings background vocals on it. What else do I say about it? It’s available on iTunes. (laughs)
You’ve also got an upcoming album. Tell me about that.
I’m recording in Atlanta. I have a three-year-old son named Jackson and this is the first record that I’ve recorded in between child care, touring and doing what I need to do. This last one I went to Chicago and stayed there a month and recorded the record, which is amazing. This one, every few days I’ll go for a couple hours and do some stuff and then I’ve gotta go. It’s sort of just fit in my life in a way that I haven’t done before and at first I thought that was bad and I wanted intensity; that want of just a straight, uninterrupted session, but I actually love this way of recording because it’s much more natural and if we feel inspired we work. If we don’t, we won’t. I think that will come across in the songs on this new album more than in anything else I’ve ever done. My voice sounds like my voice. I recorded a lot of songs live, playing and singing at the same time. Jordan plays all over the record. There’s a ton of trumpet on it, which isn’t the case in my previous records. I think it better reflects what we do live. Not to say my other records don’t reflect our live shows; I don’t believe you need to reproduce your old records when you perform live. I actually think if you hear my records it sounds different than what we do live. I’m excited that Jordan is featured as much as he is on the new project.
Jordan: I like what we do. I’m glad that we finally have this new record.
Do you have a favorite song to play live?
I enjoy playing this Mark Mulcahy song. I think it really showcases my voice. When Jordan and I are playing solo, the trumpet is such a powerful sound. He doesn’t enter until midway through the song (we do that on some of my songs as well), but I think that’s a really great effect. People aren’t used to hearing the combination of an acoustic guitar, voice and trumpet and we play a lot of harmonies. We’ll play a harmony line with my voice. That’s a great one. I think of the songs I have written, it tends to shift and it’s often the newer songs that I like but I think that “Fire Sign,” the song that I did on Without a Trace, that song works very well for us too. Jordan has some new effects he runs his trumpet through that gives it an even eerier sound. He also plays banjo, so there’s a couple banjo songs from the new record. The song “Milwaukee Road” works really well as a duo. I like playing that one live. It’s more up-tempo. A lot of my songs are a little bit down so it’s fun to have a couple that people can really get loose to.
Do you ever get nervous about performing?
I tend to get nervous if there’s something strange about the show, like if we’re playing with a new band member that I haven’t played with before or trying some new songs. I might get nervous, ironically, at the smaller shows. If we’re playing a big show and I know there’s going to be a lot of people there and I know the sound is good then I’m just kind of excited. But if we’re playing in some strange place and I’m not sure if there’s any people there, or if anybody will be there, and I’m going to have to play a show in an awkward situation, then I might be a little uncomfortable. (laughing) I don’t really have stage fright anymore. I used to be very shy on stage. I would just play my songs, thank the people and I would leave. After a little while, I started to feel much more comfortable and more myself. Now I really enjoy being on stage. If the sound is good, I love playing music and I love interacting with the audience so there’s not really that much to be nervous about. We have bad shows but I feel like even our bad shows for us are fine for the people. They don’t necessarily think they suck. They may not be as moved as in a great show but we’re not really going to make fools of ourselves, so I’m not really nervous.
Who and what inspires you?
My wife and my son inspire me the most. Most of my songs are about them to some extent. I’m also inspired by traveling and by the outdoors. I used to be a river-rafting guy that lived in a lot of different places. I get pretty moved by the landscape and by change of scenery. Cities as well-- I lived in New York for a long time and wrote a lot of songs there. I get inspired by things that piss me off, political things that bother me. Anything that gets me going, whether it’s love or anger or frustration with the world, that’s where my songs come from.
What are your plans for the future?
My future plans… I just hope to be able to keep writing songs that I care about play them for people who care about them, too. I care about my family and I care about having a life that’s balanced. I don’t want to be on the road constantly. I want to be on the road enough that I can make a living out of it and have people hear my music, but this isn’t the only thing I like to do. I taught public school in Brooklyn and I can imagine at some point doing that again and still doing music but maybe not exclusively. I love to write. I would love to write short stories. I love having time with my son. For me, it’s about trying to find a balance where I can do it enough where it fulfills the part of me that loves to do it but doesn’t ruin the other parts of me.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I love food. This interview has actually cramped my normal eating habits because I’ve had to talk so much. I love my website which is DavidBerkley.com. I think it’s really pretty. I think we’ll probably change it at some point soon, but I really like it and I’m proud of it. I may be doing a bio-diesel tour in the spring, where I’ll be promoting alternative energy and fuel by bio-diesel. That’s very much in the planning. I know what I want to tell you about! The ATL Collective which is this thing that I’ve started in Atlanta with my friend Micah Dalton, who’s also a singer/songwriter. Each month we pick a classic record and then, with local Atlanta bands and musicians, we have a concert event at this room called Danneman’s. We assign the songs to each of the acts and we cover the record in its entirety, in sequence- with a hook. We did Rumors by Fleetwood Mac and it was called “Fleetwood Mac and Cheese” and I got the local barbecue to give us mac and cheese. We’re about to do “Harvest” and we’re going to get pumpkin pies for everybody. Then we’re going to do “Velvet Underground” and it’s going to be called “Red Velvet Undergound,” where we’re going to have red velvet cake. It’s been a really fun event. We’re on Facebook.com/ATLCollective. I love it because for one the goal is to sort of revive the respect for the album in its art form. In the age where we’re just listening to singles and people aren’t writing complete records anymore it’s nice to listen straight through the record and be like, “Oh, my god I can’t believe how good this entire record is.” Also it’s a chance to discover local bands and, unlike some cover nights where bands perfectly capture a record note for note, we’re doing our own interpretations of the songs and so you get to feel the character of each artist playing these great songs. It’s been a lot of fun and there is a sense of collectivity and mutual respect. At a lot of shows we play there’s a little competition some nights between the bands. Everybody is trying so hard to promote themselves that they don’t necessarily listen to or appreciate the other acts. You kind of forget about your love of music sometimes when you’re a musician, unfortunately. This is all about the love of music and the love of each other, so it’s been a really great event. That’s my piece.