David Berkeley deserves to be the next James Taylor.
He’s been cutting albums and touring since 2001, steadily amassing a body of work that feels rich and textured, and now, with the upcoming release of his latest records, “The Fire In My Head,” he’s produced what will likely go down as one of the defining albums of his career.
I first became aware of Berkeley’s music when he played a show at Liberty Hall last month. I was immediately taken by the honesty and imagery of his music and lyrics and by the low-key yet engaging rapport he had with his audience.
I had the opportunity to chat with Berkeley on the phone this week to discuss the release of “The Fire In My Head,” an album I think is his most accomplished to date. It’s an album of immense warmth, with a selection of songs that feels like a complete refinement of the work he’s been doing over the last decade.
The album has a unique story behind its creation (one Berkeley talks a bit about below) as it was the result of an impromptu, two-day recording session — and that spontaneity shines through on every track. The album releases digitally and on vinyl July 9. And be sure to check out TylerPaper.com for the full audio of our conversation.
Stewart Smith: I really have to say, “The Fire In My Head” is a wonderful album. I’ve listened to it front to back probably a dozen times now. And there’s just such an incredible warmth to it, something that I’ve found throughout your work, but there’s just something about the vibe that this record gives off that really sets it apart. So, I’m really curious, when you start out writing, do you try and write to a certain tone for that album or is that something which comes as a result of recording and arranging?
David Berkeley: That’s a good question. I, in general, have not written for a particular recording project. I think that, in general, I just sort of write as a part of my life, when I’m inspired, and aside from what I’m writing now, I’m writing less with the end result in mind and just trying to be as honest and introspective as I can and let the song go where it wants to go. I don’t know that that’s a good thing. I don’t always have enough control over the song to do what you’re suggesting that I might have done, which is to have a picture in my mind of what I want the end to be and then to write everything to fit that. I’m not sure that I could do that. In general I try to write the best songs that I can and then it feels time to record an album.
This record, I think the warmth you’re feeling is the result of a few things. I think it might be the total lack of intention, because I didn’t even expect to record this record at all. It wasn’t “time,” it just happened because of circumstance. And also, in the studio, I wasn’t sure we were going to release it, so there was just a real laid back thing about it, and the process of performing this in the studio, it was a very live recording. Aside from my doubling and harmonizing my vocals and adding some percussion, and a couple things that Bill (Titus) did where he played a couple instruments, there basically was no overdubbing and hardly any edits. So, I think it doesn’t feel necessarily like a studio project, even though we did it in a studio.
SS: And that was one of the things that really struck me, I was surprised at how much it did feel like sitting in Liberty Hall listening to what you and Bill Titus were playing up there. It was very striking. Is this something you would consider doing again? Obviously you can’t replicate that spontaneity.
DB: I like both. I really like thinking hard about every note that goes onto a record and spending a lot of time. That’s an amazing process, akin to birthing something or someone. This was very different. But I love the lack of preciousness that this had. When you spend a month on something you get so in it and you care so much, and I think sometimes that comes at a cost. And in this way, we just tried to deliver the most emotional performances we could.
Some of these songs we had been touring, and others I was kind of teaching them on the fly. … And that’s the way you make better music. So yes, I think that I will do a lot more like this. I’ve always had trouble, particularly singing in a studio and making it feel real. Singing can be a little bit like acting, and I’m not a very good actor. And when I perform it’s not acting at all. Singing is the most honest thing I do, so, to try to get that kind of performance into the studio should be the goal, and I think we came closer to getting it than I’ve done before. Anything to get that again, I will do.
SS: Talk to me a little bit more about writing the songs for this album. As I was reading up on how you went about writing “Some Kind of Cure,” it sounds like you were in a very specific place personally, and also location-wise, and that really came through in that album. So, how did penning this album compare to “Some Kind of Cure?”
DB: Right. “Some Kind of Cure” definitely is a real stamp of a time in my life and my wife’s life. Obviously most of it was written in Corsica where we were, and that was such a distinct place and period. But also being a young father and parent, that really influenced a lot of the songs. This record, we moved to Santa Fe, and that was also a big visual and sensory shift for us, and certainly the title track and a few of the others really take that.
There’s a lot of, and this has been in my music before, there are a lot of themes of getting a little older and trying to see your life and not let it pass you by. I think that’s become an increasing theme. And so, there are a number of songs that deal with that. Certainly the first track and “The Hedges Are High.” … I think that some of my writing has freed up a little bit. I write a little bit quicker now, and that relates to what we’re talking about the recording. I don’t think I toil quite as much on every word. Which isn’t to say that I don’t care about my lyrics immensely, I do, but there is a certain increased freedom that I have in the writing process, too. So maybe that also lent itself to some of the feeling of spontaneity in the recording and in the writing as well.
There are a few songs that are fairly topical, like the “Coming Home” song is a specific song about soldiers coming home from war, and that was just something I was struck by in the news and thought about a lot. And also, “Song for the Road,” there were a couple of really bad natural disasters that had affected me, not directly, but just in reading about them and seeing pictures. There are a couple of those songs on there that have specific founding stories, but I think in general the move to Santa Fe and this kind of feeling of my life getting on is sort of the dominant theme.
SS: What do you aim for when you write a song? What do you want to achieve? Is it catharsis? What do you have your sights set on when you pen something?
DB: That’s a good question, too. Songs for me tend to come because I have some sort of emotional surge, and hopefully that emotional surge comes at a moment or a time when I’m present enough to feel it and have the diligence enough to work on it. Sometimes you get this rush, or for example, you wake up with a thought and you don’t have the energy to roll over and write it down and it’s gone. So, you have to have this perfect combination of that initial emotional rush and then also the energy and diligence to work it through to get it into something tangible.
So, that’s the first thing, and that’s where things come from typically for me. For me, often, it’s about perfectly articulating and capturing that experience, that sensation, that excitement or sorrow. For me, it often is sorrow because I feel those things the greatest. You’ll feel some overwhelming sense of pity or empathy for something or someone and you want to capture that and harness it and express it in all of its potential power and glory.
That’s the urge, that’s the ultimate hope for me. If I’m going to be honest about what it is that I do, it’s to get that across. People, I think, we all feel those things and most of us aren’t necessarily aware of it all the time, or kind of get blocked up. We don’t live in that space. So, that seems to be one of the roles of the artist, to help get that out so that people can kind of tap into it again. So, someone who can hear a song or see a painting can feel that in such a profound way and remember that, yeah, that’s part of life. … It’s kind of like pulling the veil back on things, and you can’t always live in that space but it’s nice to be able to have it and remember that it exists.