Program Director of the nation’s most influencial Triple A Radio Station – WXPN- offers his review of the new David Berkeley CD – “After The Wrecking Ships.”
Richard Thompson. Tim Buckley. Joan Baez. The Band. Grant Lee Buffalo. David Gray. 10,000 Maniacs. Nick Drake. These are some of the touchstones that singer/songwriter David Berkeley evokes on his new album, After The Wrecking Ships (self-released on Ten Good Records).
From the very first second I played this record I was immediately drawn to its magic. Twelve great songs, each one better than the next. Rare, in these times of 75-minute records with barely two great songs. The fact that I listened through to the album in its entirety was an even greater sign that something unique was going on here.
David Berkeley is a singular new voice to arrive on the music scene, a 20-something graduate from Harvard who studied literature and philosophy. Dividing his time between Atlanta and New York City, 2003 saw Berkeley showcase at South By Southwest, complete a national club tour and support artists including Ben Folds, Rhett Miller, Ed Harcourt and Rachael Yamagata. After The Wrecking Ships is his second independent release, following his 2002 debut, The Confluence.
Made in a basement up in New Paltz, NY, After The Wrecking Ships boasts acoustic, electric, classical and baritone guitars, electric, upright and tenor bass, mandolin, banjo and Dobro, drums and various percussion instruments, alto and baritone sax, flute, trombone and piano. The everything-but-the-kitchen sink instrumentation on the album is gorgeous and shimmering. With each subsequent listen, Ships reveals new layers of well-crafted songs, and on top of it all is Berkeley’s confident, charismatic voice.
Like new artists Josh Ritter, Damien Rice, Mark Geary, Kathleen Edwards, Rufus Wainwright and Ray Lamontagne, Berkeley is a first rate storyteller and songwriter. One listen to the album places you right into the painting. There’s mystery, melancholy and compassion, which showcases a very mature songwriting style, and the instrumentation, arrangements and ensemble playing on this album are beautiful.
A seemingly straight-ahead collection of highly literate rock, the songs on After The Wrecking Ships are reflective stories about people (“Jefferson,” “Red”) and places (“Chicago,” “Times Square” and “All The Weight.”) Mostly though, Ships is a record about the road-leaving and sometimes returning; sometimes never turning back; sometimes never knowing where to go next.
After The Wrecking Ships is an album you must not miss out on as the plethora of new releases begins to tide you down. This record will lift your listeners up.
Bruce Warren is an acknowledged leader in the Triple A community, having been with WXPN for more than a dozen years, the past six of those as the PD. Prior to joining the highly respected Non-Comm outlet, he was a freelance music writer, contributing pieces to Spin, Option, the Philadelphia Inquirer and some of the Philly weeklies. In the ’80s, Bruce was covering the local music scene in a weekly music column when he met former ‘XPN programmer Mike Morrison, which ultimately led to his hiring by the radio station.
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Well-traveled Berkeley returns to Steel City
By Fern Brodkin
What makes a great singer-songwriter? Well, clearly the person should be adept at both singing and songwriting, which is all too often absent from many of today’s more popular artists. Instrumental prowess is a bonus. But what constitutes a great song? This question can elicit many different answers, depending on who you ask. “I like music that makes you work, makes you think, and certainly (makes you) feel…” says David Berkeley.
Berkeley’s music does that and more. This critically acclaimed singer, ASCAP songwriting award winner and acoustic guitarist creates music that has been described as thoughtful, introspective, meaningful and profound. You won’t find mindless pop here.
It is no surprise that Berkeley’s lyrics have literary, historical and philosophical references when you consider his background. He graduated from Harvard, where he studied literature and philosophy. Just as he lists Nick Drake and Paul Simon as influences, he also credits WB Yeats and Wallace Stegner.
You might think that such an educated man would be wise enough to not enter the dog-eat-dog music business but Berkeley knew that this was his calling. He made the decision to do music full-time while teaching at a public school in Brooklyn.
“I felt that (writing songs and singing) was uniquely mine – what I had to give,” says Berkeley. “And it seemed that trying to express my thoughts and emotions through song, although difficult for me, was what I was supposed to be doing.”
Berkeley acknowledges Harvard as being a place that nurtured his talent. “The biggest thing Harvard gave me is a community of musicians (including bassist/singer Tyler Gibbons) to collaborate with. It also surrounded me with thinking people who like to try to see beneath the surface of the world,” says Berkeley. “I read a lot there, and many of the writers I discovered have influenced my lyrics a great deal.”
But don’t think that Berkeley’s music is too intellectual for the masses. One of his first big breaks came when he was asked to write a song for the CBS television show “Without a Trace.” The result – “Fire Sign” – received prime placement in the show and played virtually uninterrupted by dialogue, a rarity for songs used in television and film.
Berkeley was asked to write the song by one of the producers of the show, at the suggestion of a woman he was dating, after she saw one of his concerts. The circumstances were challenging.
“They sent me the script for the episode and an unedited version of the footage for the episode. I rarely write on demand about a particular topic that’s been given to me,” says Berkeley.
Compounding the pressures of having to write per this assignment, he was out of the country at the time he was commissioned to write the song and he had a deadline.
“I remember getting the call about writing the song… while I was in Budapest. I scribbled some stuff down in my book on the plane home (to Atlanta). I only had a few days to get the song to them, but it worked out… “I had to find the bigger emotions that the episode was dealing with and get into that space. Once I found that, the process was similar to my usual process.” He continues, “There’s a sadness in ‘Fire Sign’ that I probably picked up in Eastern Europe… a certain Eastern Bloc brand of quiet loneliness and longing.”
The song is on Berkeley’s reissue of his second CD After the Wrecking Ships (2004). There is also a solo version of the song on Live from Fez (2005), which was recorded at the now-defunct New York City venue.
Berkeley’s lyrics are often influenced by his surroundings and circumstances. He has lived in a wide variety of locales – the cities of Brooklyn, Atlanta and Boston; Idaho, where he worked as a river rafting guide; Santa Fe; and Alaska, where he worked as a writer. The birth of his one-and-a-half year old son Jackson has also impacted his writing.
“I’ve been writing a great deal since (Jackson) was born – writing more freely… more emotionally. My emotions have been closer to the surface since he’s been born. I see more beauty and sorrow in the world, and that leads to more and more music.”
On a lighter note, Berkeley comments “I’ve (also) written some silly children’s songs for him. But in fact, he likes my normal music more than goofy songs about ducks.”
Currently Berkeley is residing in Tralonca, Corsica – an island in France with a population of 37. He moved to Corsica with Jackson and his wife Sarah, who is doing doctoral research there.
“There are no stores in our town,” says Berkeley. “No cafes. No post office. Nothing. There is no Internet. We don’t have a phone in our house. It is silent here.”
He continues. “The stars are everywhere… I write a lot. Because no one speaks English, I can sing rough drafts of lyrics without being embarrassed. That is very helpful to me. I (also) have very few distractions here, and that is quite different from my life before in New York. If and when we leave it will be quite hard to give a lot of this life up.”
Berkeley recorded what will be his third studio album, Strange Light, in 2006. It will be released “sometime soon,” he says. The recording process was much different than that of his previous two studio albums. It was produced by Brian Deck (Iron and Wine, Josh Ritter, Modest Mouse) and recorded in Chicago. He said he decided to record with Deck after listening to a Josh Ritter record that Deck produced. He also wanted to record in Chicago where he didn’t know many people so there would be fewer distractions.
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“I really feel good about it,” says Berkeley. “I think this is my best album.” Berkeley explains some differences between recording this album compared to his previous ones. “It was a far more professional studio than the home studios and basements I had worked in before,” he says. “Brian and I worked really well together. He brought out a wide emotional and sonic range from my songs. We also recorded more of the material live…”
He continues: “I’ve learned a couple (of) things that I think we applied nicely on this project – like I figured out how to sing in the studio more like I sing on stage.” Despite Berkeley having gotten used to the feel of a modern studio, he says he would like to record in Corsica before he and his family move back to the states.
“I’d like to record here… perhaps with Corsican musicians and instruments… or perhaps just a solo project. Maybe I’ll do another live session in some ancient church or amphitheater over here.” He says that one challenge will be having to record between the hourly and half-hourly church bells.
Berkeley will perform only two concerts on this short trip back in the US. It is in preparation for a more extensive tour when he returns to Europe. “Philly and New York are my favorite cities to play,” says Berkeley. “This (will be) my second time playing at Steel City, and I find it a very warm and intimate space.”
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