Like any songwriter worth his weight, David Berkeley is a storyteller. Unlike the bulk of his contemporaries, Berkeley also possesses a degree in literature from Harvard. So rather than simply apply is narrative skills to musical compositions, Berkeley has gone beyond that to exercise his penchant for words towards traditional writing as well.
In 2011, Berkeley released 140 Goats and a Guitar. Comprised of thirteen essays, the book acted as a companion to his album Some Kind of Cure, elaborating upon the origins of the songs.
Reaching a bit further into the realm of literature in conjunction with music, Berkeley’s new album Cardboard Boat will be released simultaneously alongside the hardcover book The Free Brontosaurus. Unlike 140 Goats and a Guitar, The Free Brontosaurus is not an autobiographical companion to the record but rather a novella that could be viewed as the main attraction. According to Berkeley, the characters and stories came first, providing the thematic foundation for the songs. Naturally, as the songs came together, they influenced further developments within the stories, emphasizing the interconnectivity of the two endeavors.
Judging by the combination of its title, dimensions and beautifully illustrated cover, one might assume that The Free Brontosaurus is a kids book. I certainly did. [Here I am, admitting that I’ve judged a book by its cover.] The reality is that Berkeley has written a novella along the lines of “Olive Kitteridge, if reimagined by Miranda July.” Comprised of 10 vignettes, The Free Brontosaurus presents the interweaving stories of a series of characters existing within the same place and time. The characters portrayed by Berkeley are often down on their luck, struggling through a vividly grim existence. Berkeley not only describes his characters with exquisite detail, but also an admirable affection. He’s not placing the struggling single mother or depressed city archivist within these unfortunate situations for his own amusement, but rather sympathetically discovering them there and providing a means to keep hope alive. For all of its dark humor, The Free Brontosaurus spoke to me as an optimistic book about how the seemingly little things in life can so immensely alter our perceptions give us hope during the most trying of times.
The first thing you should know about the companion album, Cardboard Boat is that while the ten songs reflect the vignettes of The Free Brontosaurus, this does not occur in sequential order. You’ll need to listen closely in order to tie them together. His sixth studio album, Cardboard Boat continues to showcase Berkeley’s critically acclaimed songwriting talent. In the past Berkeley’s tunes have presented a hopeful optimism under cover of the darkness of melancholy. While I’ve felt that his 2013 release The Fire In My Head presented an atmosphere of dusk, Cardboard Boat may actually be Berkeley’s delivery of dawn. Still dealing with similar melancholy themes of longing, alienation and self-discovery, Berkeley’s latest collection is brighter, more open and uplifting in comparison to its predecessor. No better example than this may be “Colored Birds.” A toy piano decorates the song with a playfulness apt to cure any sense of sadness while Berkeley and Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) duet with charming results. Immediately following “Colored Birds,” Berkeley turns in the sing-a-long drinking song “Last Round” featuring the memorable line “La de de da, let’s go burn this place down.” This is likely the most playful we’ve heard Berkeley on record, but he also never let’s it subtract from his more sensitive intentions. Sara Watkins, Bill Titus, Jono Manson, Will Robertson, Jordan Katz, Mathias Kunzli, Jason Crosby, Kort McCumber, Lex Price, Sarah Zaslaw, Sarah Davis and Ruth Einstein all contribute their talents to make Cardboard Boat a success.
Currently in Michigan in the midst of a tour, Berkeley answered a few of my questions about his latest release.
Mecca Lecca: I’m admiring the level of affection you’ve displayed towards the characters in The Free Brontosaurus. Is there a particular character you most relate to?
David Berkeley: That’s a good question. In ways, I relate to them all. I like the first character who finds the brontosaurus. He’s a strange eccentric who sees beauty in places most of us wouldn’t. That spirit is somewhat of a theme throughout the book. For Russell, it’s a mark of a certain lack of sanity, but I like looking at it as a gift.
ML: Luke Dorman’s illustrations of the characters are somewhat reminiscent of some of the work of Robert Crumb. Was his style an influence? And more importantly, do they resemble the characters as you initially imagined?
DB: Luke and I worked closely together on this project. We discussed Crumb and a San Francisco artist I admire named Wendy McNaughton. We played around with old antique framed drawings and making some sort of weird family tree of the characters. Ultimately, the vision and style were his own. He based the drawings on what he took from the tales, and then I would suggest alterations and edits, occasionally showing him other pictures of people I thought looked like the characters. It was a great collaboration, and I’m super proud and impressed by how the package looks.
ML: I can’t help but feel there’s a lighter atmosphere to Cardboard Boat than previous records. Was this a conscious effort, reflective of the book, or figment of my own imagination?
DB: Lighter in tone of writing or production? Not sure. The singing may be more relaxed. The band breathed more. New Mexico slipping in a bit? I think the big difference is that I was taking on the issues of my characters, so there’s perhaps more range of emotions in these songs and recordings.
ML: And on that note, how would you say the various locations you’ve lived in have influenced your songwriting and the sound of your records?
DB: Definitely the landscape and environment influence all that I write and record. We did this record up in Chupadero where there’s nothing around but cactus and sky. It definitely led to a relaxedness and, even, a kind of sacred energy that came across in the recording. New York was a great place to live and work. And of course, Corsica altered my palette greatly. But so far New Mexico is my favorite.
ML: Totally hypothetical. If The Free Brontosaurus becomes a bigger hit than anything you’ve done musically, do you think you’d shift your focus to place a greater emphasis on your writing career than as a musician?
DB: I do love writing. But I’m not sure I can give up singing and writing songs.
The Free Brontosaurus and Cardboard Boat are both out today. They can be purchased together or independently at davidberkeley.com/store. Copies of The Free Brontosaurus come with a download code for the record. And if you’ve rather hear Berkeley and nine others read the stories to you, I’ve been told that an audio book is in the works.
Berkeley is currently on the road, hitting bookstores and music venues in support of both releases.
Upcoming Tour Dates
Sep 25 • Pin Drop Concerts at Seven Steps Up • Spring Lake, MI
Sep 26 • Schubas Music Hall • Chicago, IL
Oct 01 • The Falls Church Episcopal • Falls Church, VA
Oct 03 • Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2 • New York, NY
Oct 04 • Tin Angel • Philadelphia, PA
Oct 05 • South Orange Public Library • South Orange, NJ
Oct 07 • Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center • Brattleboro, VT
Oct 08 • Club Passim • Cambridge, MA
Oct 10 • Midtown Scholar • Harrisburg, PA
Oct 11 • Culture Center Theater (Mountain Stage) • Charleston, WV
Oct 22 • Blue Rock • Dripping Springs, TX
Oct 23 • Natachee’s • Houston, TX
Oct 24 • Longview Museum of Fine Art • Longview, TX
Nov 05 • The Last Bookstore • Los Angeles, CA
Nov 10 • Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse • Berkeley, CA
Nov 21 • The Fibonacci • Amarillo, TX
Nov 22 • Rockin; Box 33 • Lubbock, TX
Dec 05 • Eddie’s Attic • Decatur, GA
Dec 06 • Moonlight on the Mountain • Birmingham, AL