David Berkeley is cast from the same singer/songwriter mould as Nick Drake, Cat Stevens and Don McClean. His songs have a bare-bones quality and are quiet observations of the human condition that ring true with a clarity, unflappable in its ability to draw and emotionally engage. So potent that an eager fan once flew Berkeley across the country, for a private serenade-cum-proposal that he hoped would help win back a lover.
A New Jersey-native who now resides in Santa Fe, Berkeley is without a doubt a naturally gifted storyteller, and is aided beautifully by his honeyed baritone. With his sixth album, Cardboard Boat which is released on his Straw Man Music label today, Sept 25, – he has gone one step further, putting his Harvard Literature degree to good use with an accompanying novella, “The Free Brontosaurus”.
The narrative unfolds through ten interweaving stories and ten songs. Though you don’t have to listen to them as you read, you will find yourself leaving heavy-hitters such as title track – “Cardboard Boat”, “Colored Birds” and “Last Round” on repeat.
Each lead character has their own song, and the vignettes overlap in surprising ways. These connections as in real life when they occur between seemingly disparate souls are magic, and for the reader become addictive. A similar yearning the reader feels parallels that of the characters in the book. However, they don’t all connect in a grand way, as in life itself.
The first track “Setting Sail” belongs to Russell, the kind of recognizable lost soul who you’d encounter in the local library, wearing pants cinched at the waist with rope. He gets all excited when he comes face to face with a brontosaurus on a curb.
The track’s intro with its double bass and low-pitched bowed strings evokes a sense of foreboding but it’s never overtly dark or tragic, Berkeley’s poetry has a lightness of touch and his end goal is still ‘love is the answer’. So while Russell may cut a lonely figure and his circumstance sad, his story much like the other nine is about hope.
The story of Hobbes – a professor who has suffered a breakdown and whose emotional hinterland is fleshed out in “Cardboard Boat” is the book’s most endearing. The track’s hushed brass brings to mind another of Santa Fe’s sons, Zach Condon of Beirut. But it is never heavy-handed or drowned out like some of the British Sea Power’s latest (Sea of Brass), just a measured sprinkle carefully heightening the emotions of a song as gorgeous as “Colored Birds”. The kind of song that after several listens prompts you to want to sing along to the chorus, but you find yourself choked.
Berkeley kicks off his tour in support of Cardboard Boat today and it will bring him back to the Bay Area where he lived three years ago before his most recent move to Santa Fe. He will perform at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley.
Fans already familiar with his work know that this is not the troubadour’s first attempt at a book-and-album combo. Four years ago, Berkeley released his memoir, “140 Goats and a Guitar” which accompanied his 2011 album, “Some Kind of Cure”. A memoir written on his year-long sojourn with his wife and young son on the island of Corsica – where they lived in a remote village with more mountain goats than humans.
In an interview with atombash.com, Berkeley who we found excited, like a schoolboy at Christmas, with the delivery of his new books said: “I am super happy about how the book turned out – it’s so striking, the artwork and colors of the cover.” He also shed light on the different motivations of his two writing projects; how successful he’s been with marriage proposals since the famed This American Life interview; and explains how he uses new technology in an art form as old as the trees our books come from.
The imagery behind the album’s title “Cardboard Boat” is a strong one – a tenuous way to stay afloat in a watery world, what was your inspiration for this album?
I wrote the book first and was not entirely sure. Through working on writing the songs the characters and their emotional centers sort of emerge. And then I noticed they are all sort of lonely, misfit characters. There was the elder character who was moving out of her family home and was surrounded by a sea of cardboard boxes, and then it just came to me – cardboard boat! It just seem to worked with the inspiration of the album and how to match the book and align the characters with it.
My favorite story was Hobbes – was that based on anyone you knew? And I loved Colored Birds his corresponding track, it’s probably my favorite?
All these characters are an amalgam of a number of different people. The guy who was a professor and done too many drugs I might have known someone like that at University. His brain was fried – he would have these bursts of brilliance and then disappear inside and cry. A lot of these characters were also based on homeless folks or neighbors I had encountered on the streets while living in the Bay Area. People in the neighborhood.
My second favorite was Harvey’s story “Driftwood’ and of course, “Cardboard Boat”. Also it holds the line “ Are you still listening? Cause I’m still taking to you. With curtain drawn, tell me what else should I do? I’m on a cardboard boat tonight.” That’s very meta, is that a reference to being a singer/songwriter?
I don’t think it did when I wrote it. Well perhaps subconsciously I did. It does have an inherent double meaning. It’s a powerful line to sing live. It comes after a pretty big climax and it’s the peak of the show, there’s a big vocal part and now I’ve done a few shows live – when I sing it, I feel pretty exposed on stage. In the tradition of a singer/songwriter – even if it is a big crowd in a room, it’s pretty powerful to sing, “are you listening to me?”.
Did the experience of your last book-and-album combo have a bearing on you wanting to embark on this one?
Yeah, very much so. I really enjoyed the process – teaming snippets from stories and writing the songs. My first project was far more autobiographical, a memoir, it tells the story of how I became a new father, living with my wife and kid in Corsica – it was very confessional and ultimately the message was – love is the answer to this problem. Then when I was on tour, I found myself feeling a little guilty, I knew not everyone was as lucky as me – I knew that they were people or friends who weren’t married, or couldn’t have kids. One time, I actually knew someone who was going through a divorce and they were in the audience. So this time, I wanted to do something that distanced the story from me. Subjects that I was encountering rather than it be me. To have a more universal theme. When you do it as a work of fiction you can explore the benefits and drawbacks of the medium. And how emotional each story can be – exercising and teasing out some of the differences in the genres.
I didn’t get a chance to read the first one, though I feel like I should have but the pages I did read seemed more superior in its storytelling, description, use of language – is that just a stylistic thing or the fact that Corsica was as you said ‘powerfully beautiful’?.
First book was a lot easier to write. It’s exactly what you said. The second, it’s a slow build and you get drawn into it. In the first it was my life, and I just put it down on paper – the palette was Corsica’s. It is much harder to pick out how to write a fictional story, where to begin. We did just record an audio book, and Dan Bern reads the first story. He’s such an amazing and funny reader that now a listener will get pulled into the story immediately.
Have you figured out what experiences make for a good story and what’s only expressible in song?
Yeah, I don’t know. I think about it a lot – it’s not black and white. You just have to do it. My songs end up very impressionistic. In general I write emotional songs – it will be something I feel a connection to without taking note why? In a story, you can populate it with other things. When something happens to me I want to to write it in a story. When I am struck by something powerful that I can’t describe, it comes out as a song. I write songs when I can hardly explain what they’re about. I hardly have this problem with stories.
Did you write those songs with a female voice in mind (Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek) – will she be touring with you?
I don’t think so, she’s busy. I definitely wrote then thinking I want to have a female voice, and I always secretly hoped it would be Sara. There are a number of people I play with when I go on tour and I did have a few female vocalists in the Bay Area but I haven’t worked it out yet.
How has moving to New Mexico influenced your songwriting and this album?
I’ve moved a lot in the past decade, each place kinda brings something profound – for New Mexico it’s the light, quiet, space and dryness. The shifting frame of my perspective. A powerful place to work and tour from, when I come back it is very peaceful. We’ve usually lived in cities. I can’t put a finger on what it is, it just seeps in. It’s a great place to work in without too many distractions. I don’t know if I’m writing different songs.
Now you have that famous interview with Ira Glass on This American Life and that failed proposal but you have done many successful ones too right? How many so far?
That’s the irony – that was my first and since then I’ve had many successful ones. By the time this comes out, I think I would have done about a dozen – some are more involved than others. Sometimes, it involves a lot of staging, and can be very dramatic, and awkward. I also write private serenade songs. It’s not always about trying to get back together. Sometimes, it’s an anniversary. And I get really close to these people. I become like a confessor or psychologist.
How do you feel about being a part of people’s like in such an intimate way?
In some ways, that’s what you hope your music does anyway. Just that you don’t usually intend to deliver it by hand. This way, you do get entangled in the fabric of people’s lives. I generally like people. This is a particularly intimate and profound way to be involved in what for some, is the biggest moment in their lives up to this point. You’re playing a large role in it but to do it well, you shouldn’t. You have to be present but also be invisible.
Where do you see yourself in the musical landscape being the kind of singer/songwriter that you are? What would you consider as success for yourself?
Here I am producing a book and a CD – a medium not even relevant anymore. And in a very physical way of experiencing music. I use social media but not as well as my younger peers. I have to use it, though sometimes I don’t want to. I still like you to hold my music in your hand – to have it be weighty. I am not a luddite and I use social media to reach as many people as possible but in the end, I still hope it’s about writing good songs.
What was the rationale behind doing fan-only releases like your holiday album?
Yeah, I just wanted to give a premium for fans who have been there supporting me, there was no huge agenda.
You’ve done a handful of virtual concerts on Stageit – what is that experience like?
It’s really weird. I think I’ve done three now. The first was a terrible experience and I didn’t think I would ever do it again. But it was very early on, people didn’t know how to interact. There were some people who were a bit stalker-ish and saying inappropriate things but the subsequent shows have been good. There is no substitute for a real concert but you do reach people you can’t physically. It’s a neat way to hit people up in Scotland, I would love to do one there but can’t. Ironically, it’s a very intimate relationship – it can be from your home, they can be in their bedroom. Sometimes, if you’re on the road, you’re in a hotel room. Then there’s direct messaging that you can do, you just don’t get that at a real concert. I will do it again but couldn’t do it instead of a live show.
To purchase Cardboard Boat, please click here. You can listen to the album stream which premiered on CBS News, here. For tickets to see David Berkeley at the Freight & Salvage, please click here. For tour details, please see below.
David Berkeley Tour Dates:
Sept 25 – Spring Lake, MI – Pin Drop Concert Series
Sept 26 – Chicago, IL – Schuba’s Music Hall
Oct 01 – Falls Church, VA – Falls Church Episcopal Church
Oct 03 – New York, NY – Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2
Oct 04 – Philadelphia, PA – Tin Angel
Oct 05 – South Orange, NJ – South Orange Public Library
Oct 07 – Brattleboro, VT – Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center
Oct 08 – Cambridge, MA – Club Passim
Oct 10 – Harrisburg, PA – Midtown Scholar (reading and performance)
Oct 11 – Charleston, WV – Culture Center Theater (Mountain Stage)
Oct 22 – Wimberley, TX – Blue Rock Live
Oct 23 – Houston, TX – Natachee’s
Oct 24 – Longview, TX – Longview Museum of Fine Arts
Nov 05 – Los Angeles, CA – The Last Book Store
Nov 06 – Seattle, WA – Fremont Abbey Arts
Nov 07 – Portland, OR – Abbie Weisenbloom Music Series
Nov 09 – Arcata, CA – TBA
Nov 10 – Berkeley, CA – Freight & Salvage
Nov 11 – Austin, TX – Rock Room
Nov 12 – Austin, TX – Open Ears
Nov 13 – Fischer, TX – Fischer Fest
Nov 21 – Amarillo, TX – High Plains Public Radio Concert Series
Nov 22 – Lubbock, TX – Rockin’ Box 33
Dec 3 – Nashville, TN – TBA
Dec 4 – Memphis, TN – TBA
Dec 5 – Decatur, GA – Eddie’s Attic
Dec 6 – Birmingham, AL – Moonlight on the Mountain