Interview by Scott Preston
The story of David Berkeley is the story of so many indie musicians: He first sang publicly at age 4 in the company of a traveling saleswoman. They went door to door, and he sang to help her sales. He honed his musical skills at a nursery school run by hippies, where young female teachers wore guitars around their necks (and in David’s memory, nothing else). “My first crush was Miss Judy,” David recalls. “She had an old Gibson and flowers in her hair. I was 5 and had found my calling.
That said, the true uniqueness in David’s music is his gift for melody and his poetic and philosophic lyric writing. “I’ve always been singing, but I came to song writing late,” David says. “I can’t quite say where my melodies come from, but I work long and hard on every word in every song I write.” There is a profound depth in his songs, a refreshing honesty, and his delivery is unaffected. The New York Times’ Jon Pareles praised Berkeley’s “lustrous, melancholy voice,” finding “shades of Tim Buckley and Nick Drake” in David’s music, a comparison also made by Rollingstone,com. Pareles went on to write “as [Berkeley’s] melodies ascend to benedictions and consolations, the music shimmers and peals.” Atlanta’s Creative Loafing writes that “Berkeley crafts his songs like watercolor paintings, intimate and introspective.” Relix Magazine calls David “one of the most promising young singers to emerge in recent times.”
Cincy Groove: What brought about the All The Lads & A Lady Tour?
David Berkeley: I ran into my friend Micah Dalton in a Decatur coffee shop a few weeks ago, and he was putting together some dates with a few songwriters that he liked. We had talked about collaborating on things before and this seemed like a perfect chance to do it. Playing shows in the round forces us to work together on the fly–literally learning harmonies during someone else’s performance and jumping up to try out parts in front of the audience. It has an energy that most rehearsed shows don’t have.
Cincy Groove: Tell me about your album Strange Light, Inspirations for the songs?
David Berkeley: The songs on Strange Light were written during some of the dark years, as I call them. I think there was a double crash post 9.11. There was the actual tragedy. But out of that (I was living in NY at the time), there was also a spirit of potential in the aftermath. There was a coming together and a thought that out of the ashes, something new could be born. When that didn’t happen, there was, I think, a second fall. These songs were an attempt to conjure some light out of that darkness, albeit a strange light. I wrote many of these songs in New York or Atlanta and several on the road. Many came out of personal tragedies or challenges that people I love were going through, and most tried to maintain or encourage a sort of hope.
Cincy Groove: Collaborations on the record?
David Berkeley: The only real collaboration was with my dear friend and bassist Tyler Gibbons who co-wrote Sweet Auburn. I wrote that song while living in Atlanta–very close to the Sweet Auburn district (near where Martin Luther King Jr. preached…I also wrote Halloween Parade in that area, too, after a visit to the MLK museum in Atlanta). I had pretty much finished the lyrics and music, but there was something that didn’t feel quite right about the song (Sweet Auburn that is). My version was more folky than the current version. Ty helped cast it more with a soul feel. And in doing so, he reworked a few of the chorus lyrics. But mainly, I work alone and rarely play songs for anyone else (except my wife) until they’re long finished.
Cincy Groove: Any more projects you are working on?
David Berkeley: I recently did a song for a Mark Mulcahy tribute record coming out soon (other artists include Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, the Decemberists, Josh Rouse, the Autumn Defense…). And I’ve actually started recording a new record of songs I wrote while living in my little village in Corsica.
Cincy Groove: When did you start playing guitar?
David Berkeley: I have always been singing, but I didn’t start playing guitar until late high school. And I didn’t start writing songs until my heart got broken badly enough to warrant that sort of expression. That was late college.
Cincy Groove: Are you still living in France? how is your music received on Europe?
David Berkeley: I am no longer in Corsica. I’m back in Atlanta. Though we will be in Corsica most of the summer, and a part of me is definitely still there. It took a while for my music to get accepted there. I didn’t speak any French when I arrived, and talking between songs is a big part of my shows. But stylistically, I think they are more used to songs without as many dynamics as I employ in my music. I like to play and sing very quietly and ramp up toward big choruses. They have a ballad tradition that is a bit more epic from the outset. After a while, though, my music was really well received, and I got to play in some pretty amazing spots (500 year old churches, ancient village squares, beaches, etc.)
Cincy Groove: Do you remember when you first heard one of your songs on the radio?
David Berkeley: Yes. It was my song Red off After the Wrecking Ships. I was en route to play in Philly, and the song came on. We had to pull over. It wasn’t quite a Paul Simon moment, but it was close for me.
Cincy Groove: What was the Jeep Compass Summer Music tour like?
David Berkeley: Very strange. I played about 40 concerts in 30 days out of the back of a car I would never otherwise have been driving. Some of the shows were great. But many were very weird. We didn’t always have permits to play where we were supposed to play, so we often got ushered off by police. One show was at the NY State Fair, and I played across a path from a guy trying to attract visitors to pay a $1 and see the world’s biggest pig. I eventually gave up playing and just went and hung out with the pig. It was truly enormous.
Cincy Groove: What do you like to do when you are not touring? hobbies?
David Berkeley: I play with my 2 year old boy Jackson. We’ve got a vegetable garden going, and we’re both obsessed with our compost pile.
Cincy Groove: Who are some of your influences?
David Berkeley: I read whenever I can. And I’m very influenced by writers and poets. I was very into Yeats in college. I read everything I could by Ted Kooser. I go through non fiction phases and recently read a couple books by Rory Stewart. I of course love music, but when I’m writing, I like to read prose and poetry more. And I think I get more influenced
and inspired by a long hike than by listening to musicians who are obviously in my genre and who I love like Nick Drake or Ryan Adams.
All the Lads & A Lady tour will be appearing Wed April 1st, 2009 at Northside Tavern in Cincinnati, OH, 10pm. The lineup includes David Berkeley, Micah Dalton, Ryan Horne, Jon Black & Kim Taylor
David Berkeley – Miss Maybe live in New York 2007
Upcoming David Berkeley tour dates:
for show details visit http://www.myspace.com/davidberkeley
Apr 1 2009 Northside Tavern Cincinnati, Ohio
Apr 2 2009 Natasha’s Lexington, Kentucky
Apr 3 2009 The Living Room Muncie, Indiana
Apr 4 2009 Schuba’s Chicago, Illinois
Apr 5 2009 The Dairy Metropolis, Illinois
Apr 6 2009 Melting Point Athens, Georgia
Apr 7 2009 Square Room Knoxville, Tennessee
Apr 8 2009 Workplay Theatre Birmingham, Alabama
May 2 2009 Roadhouse Concerts at the Savannah Room Greensboro, Georgia
May 21 2009 Freight and Salvage Berkeley, California
Jun 12 2009 Robinson College–Cambridge University Cambridge, London and South East
Jun 27 2009 Charles and Myrtle’s Coffeehouse Chattanooga, Tennessee
Jul 9 2009 Palmetto Acoustic Series at Muddy Waters Coffeehouse Charleston, South Carolina