By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of David Berkeley.
Imagine if a character from your favorite novel leapt from the page and into a recording studio.
Ishmael–fresh off the docks from seafaring afar–might bawl and bellow into the microphone with the gusto of a drunken sea song. Jay Gatsby would croon smooth velvet from the vocal booth, while Holden Caulfield’s pre-adolescent sneers of indifference might be well-suited for an angsty punk rock verse.
Short of our imaginations, the world will never hear these moments. Singer-songwriter David Berkeley, however, is bridging the connection between fiction and music into a reality. His newest record, Cardboard Boat, is slated for release in late September and will be accompanied by a book of short stories titled The Free Brontosaurus.
Each of the 10 short stories will correlate to a different song on the album; every pairing replete with a character singing his or her own perspectives through intimate first-person style narration. The series is made all the more revealing and honest through Berkeley’s homespun layered lyricism and tender compositions.
Merging the two mediums together in seamless harmony wasn’t an easy task. The songwriter outlines and admires the differences inherent to each craft.
“With a story you naturally have a lot more space; you can explore a metaphor in more depth and provide details,” he tells BTR.
“[With] songs you have to be much more precise and choose your words carefully. But you have the benefit of melody–which can deliver the words with more power. You also don’t have to rely on a reader to provide the intended voice and spirit.”
The exploration is something of a recurring joy for Berkeley, who first tried his hand at the unusual experiment nearly four years ago. The Harvard graduate traveled extensively; living in Alaska as a travel guide and instructing river-rafting in Idaho for a brief stint before settling in Brooklyn to teach creative writing at a public school.
It was there that he realized he wanted to do something different. While he thrives in big cities, Berkeley knew that he needed to find someplace closer to nature for his new writing.
Of all the places, Berkeley (joined by his wife and son) journeyed to the island of Corsica. It’s a tropical paradise nestled in the Mediterranean known for its coastal towns, craggy peaks, and overwhelming beauty.
The village they chose had a population of less than 40 people.
“There were more people living on my apartment building floor in Brooklyn,” he laughs. While there was electricity available, an absence of stores and internet connection forced Berkeley to connect with the individuals around him instead.
When he wasn’t hiking with his son or sitting on stone walls plucking his guitar, the songwriter was penning the words to a memoir. The 13 vignettes were eventually published into the collection 140 Goats and a Guitar, which was accompanied by the companion album Some Kind of Cure. The characters came to life from the people he knew intimately during his stay on the island.
“I move a lot, and the experience of culture shock and adjusting to foreign surroundings is good for writing any kind of genre,” says Berkeley. “Especially music–it offers a new palette and new struggles to draw from.”
The next move proved quite a contrast for the family. San Francisco offered a cornucopia of strange characters, accordingly: the wealthy, former hippies, and crazies.
Amidst the entire Bay Area hullabaloo, Berkeley began to notice a common thread to the madness. Everyone he met appeared to be filled with loneliness.
He set to work writing a new book–this one entirely fictional. Each story, however, was a portrait of a different person he saw or met around him. Berkeley explains that they are all profiles of loneliness, of people who don’t quite fit in with society.
Berkeley wanted to see if he could bring these people together in a way that would offer them comfort and solace–albeit fictional. Often this arrived in the forms of music, art, and appreciation of beauty; connecting these characters who otherwise seem unable to find much connection in their lives.
This is not to say, however, that every story ends with a happy ending. In the past, albums like Some Kind of Cure and his most recent release Fire In My Head often dealt with challenging relationships through looking to the positive. On Cardboard Boat Berkeley admits there will be a lot more broken relationships and even anger.
Take the title track, for instance. The song revolves around an older woman, inspired from someone the songwriter met in San Francisco. In the lyrics, the old woman’s husband has died, so she leaves her oversized house for the city of Plainview (a fictional epicenter where all of the stories’ characters converge).
As the story and song both progress, we learn that she communicates with the spirit of her dead husband. Or maybe she does. It starts off sweet, but suddenly becomes much more melancholy when the listener/reader learns she’s really struggling to cope with living in a world without her husband. It’s a world that has decidedly moved on without her.
“It’s heartbreaking,” admits Berkeley. “Someone’s crying out for help, and the other person’s just not there to listen anymore. In my opinion it’s the most emotional duo between record and book.”
The mediums, when combined, offer a transporting effect. Berkeley is looking forward to touring in support of the album come early fall–where he’ll be one of the only touring bands that makes itself just as comfortable tearing into a set as it does reading from spellbound passages.
To hear the rest of the interview, tune into this week’s Discovery Corner.
Or find your own way to interpret David Berkeley by clicking here.