Santa Fe, United States
“I went out to the hazel wood because a fire was in my head.”
Itinerant songsmith and author David Berkeley went out into the sagebrush and cactus of New Mexico and found his head was similarly ablaze. Indeed Berkeley’s head has been ablaze for some time now, writing songs capable of both breaking and mending the heart.
Berkeley is a New Jersey native, but in the past decade, he’s lived in Brooklyn, Atlanta, Berkeley and Corsica. Santa Fe is now home, where he lives with this wife and two young sons. Within months of arriving and still overwhelmed by the palette of reds and browns, the endless open sky, and the frightening lack of water in his new high desert surroundings, Berkeley wrote and recorded his most haunting and personal songs to date.
“The best of the young American songwriters, a voice full of feeling and a big, big heart. And the balls to say what he thinks.” —Boston Phoenix
The result is The Fire in My Head (Straw Man), Berkeley’s fifth studio album, recorded in two days at Jono Manson’s ramshackle studio in the wilds above town. All the songs were performed live by Berkeley’s trio (David on vocals, guitar, percussion and bass; Bill Titus on guitar, keys, organ, drums; and Jordan Katz on trumpet and banjo).
Berkeley’s doleful baritone and vulnerable falsetto, called “lustrous and melancholy” by the New York Times, is up front in the mix, showcasing his profoundly elegiac lyrics. Indeed, Berkeley cites Yeats and Melville among his greatest influences. For his unique way with words, the San Francisco Chronicle dubbed Berkeley “a musical poet.” He seems even more reflective and more mature than usual in this collection, though, confronting themes of aging, mortality, and the enduring and redemptive power of love.
“Dashing singer-songwriter David Berkeley delivers his warm, thoughtful songs, along with a reliably hilarious line in onstage banter.” —Time Out New York
If there is a genre of American literary songwriters out there, Berkeley could be its poster child, and not simply because he graduated from Harvard. He penned a memoir called 140 Goats and a Guitar, which accompanied his last album Some Kind of Cure. Both were written primarily during the year Berkeley lived in a remote mountain village of only 35 people on the island of Corsica. Goats tells thirteen stories, which led to the writing of the album’s thirteen songs. This unique concept allowed Berkeley to perform in bookstores across the country, as well as his usual clubs and theaters – something that made him very happy.
“I’m fascinated by the relationship between stories and songs,” Berkeley explains. “What experiences make for a good story? And what is only expressible in song?” It’s a question he’s exploring now as he writes his second book, a fictional set of interweaving short stories called The Free Brontosaurus. The stories are all told in third person, and Berkeley is writing first person songs from the perspective of the each story’s main character. The finger-picked love song “Broken Crown,” from Fire is one of the songs from that project.
Perhaps the most compelling song on The Fire in My Head, “Shelter,” has a literary link as well. It was written at the request of New York Times bestselling author Harlan Coben, who asked Berkeley to write a song based on his new novel. Coben has been using the song in the international promotional campaign for his book.
This was not the first song Berkeley was commissioned to write. In fact, he’s been moonlighting of late as a sort of Cyrano de Bergerac, writing high-ticket personalized love songs, serenades, and songs to accompany wedding proposals. Perhaps inspired by the hilarious tale Berkeley told on “This American Life” of one such private serenade, Berkeley is frequently flown in to perform these songs in the most intimate situations. “It’s been an honor,” Berkeley explains, “to get to play a role in such important moments in other’s lives, but it can also be incredibly awkward. Some of these situations, wedding proposals for example, are really meant to shared between only two people.”
“Berkeley crafts his songs like watercolor paintings. Intimate and introspective, his gentle yet colorful melodies are graceful and resonate long after the last note fades.” – Creative Loafing, Atlanta
Berkeley’s voice has found its way into another unexpected place as well: soaring above processed drums, booming bass and swirling synthesizers in the dance clubs around the world. After his hit song “Fire Sign” (which originally appeared in the CBS-TV show “Without a Trace”) was remixed by a German DJ, Berkeley has been sought after by a host of DJs to write and perform vocals over their backing tracks. His collaborations with Sean Tyas and Steve Brian, among others, have been spun by Tiesto, Armin van Buuren. David Guetta and Pedro del Mar, to name a few. In 2012 Beatport had Berkeley on its list of the 50 Best Male Trance Vocalists, and one of his co-writes made its list of 50 Best Trance & Progressive Songs of 2012.
“It is an odd development, I’ll be the first to admit,” Berkeley laughs. “I have to write a very different lyric for these songs to be effective. The words have to inspire and excite without getting in the way. And I let them put on any and every effect imaginable on my voice. I end up sounding a lot like Cher.” Berkeley has also begun a pop side project called Orchard Thieves with a Miami-based producer/instrumentalist. Expect a release of a very different stripe soon.
Berkeley is the recipient of ASCAP’s Johnny Mercer Songwriter Award. He maintains a near-constant touring schedule both in the states and abroad. He’s opened for Adelle, Mumford and Sons, Dido, Don Mclean, Ben Folds, Ray Lamontagne, Billy Bragg, Nickel Creek, Rhett Miller and many more. His music has been spun on stations across the country and around the world, and he’s performed on Mountain Stage, the World Café and told the now legendary story on This American Life. While living in Atlanta, he also co- founded the ATL Collective, which puts on a monthly show featuring hand-picked local musicians covering a classic album.
“If you're into literate soulful singer songwriters, David Berkeley is the Gabriel García Márquez of beautiful-voiced troubadours.” – KRUU
Berkeley’s gift as a songwriter and storyteller is that he sees both the tragedy and comedy in life, managing to both reveal the sorrow at the heart of the human condition and the blazing joy and beauty in the same. It’s a duality that audiences experience at all of Berkeley’s shows as he tells uproarious stories between heartbreaking songs. It’s why his fans respond so deeply to his music and why so many look to him to express what they are often unable to articulate. It’s also why his voice and lyrics have cross-genre appeal. Berkeley’s songs are at once hard and hopeful.
The Fire in My Head showcases this in full measure. “So I sing for the land,” Berkeley sings in the closing epic “Song for the Road,” “for our fields washed away. They flooded the grave where my grandfather lay.” Yet by the final verse, he pleads “come on back from ledge, come on in from the rain. Here’s some things that won’t hurt. Here’s some things that won’t change – like the afternoon light when the clouds break apart, like the way that I feel bout the good in your heart.”
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