When Van Morrison released Veedon Fleece in 1974 he introduced the world to something quite new. Fresh off his divorce from first wife Janet Rigsbee and onto a new relationship with fiancé Carol Guida, Van presented an album that was introspective and personal, much like 1968’s classic Astral Weeks. Gone was the Caledonia Soul Orchestra that had helped propel many of his then-recent hits with punchy horns and deep-pocket grooves. They were replaced with session players who helped him shape a sound that was daring and different. With a new folk-jazz-fusion focus, Van delivered an album that has been called “inherently Homeric in scope” and a “pastoral epic.” It would help shape the music he would create from that point forward.
I was reminded of Veedon Fleece when I gave Eddie Berman’s latest album, Broken English, its first spin. Known initially as a folk artist, Berman doesn’t quite abandon his past with Broken English, but elevates the music with remarkable arrangements and extraordinary instrumentation. Berman is known for being a great picker, both on banjo and guitar, and those skills are put to formidable use on the new record. But what sets this apart from his prior work is the cinematic nature of the sound he and his band create throughout the album. It unfolds like a classic John Ford film, with terrific depth and atmosphere. This is guided by the strategic deployment of strings and various brass instruments in moments that matter. They help create a majesty that is difficult to find elsewhere in modern music being made today. Like Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece, Broken English propels Berman’s music in a manner that transcends classification and sets a course that you’ll want to follow.We
We caught up with the Portland-based artist to talk about his creative process, how the record was assembled, and where he hopes it will ultimately take him and his promise-filled future.
Ray Chelstowski: This new music has a cinematic scope to it. How did you approach the making of this record?
Eddie Berman: I have heard that about my music ever since I started writing. Growing up in Los Angeles I often wondered if I would one day become a cinematographer or something. My dad worked in film and television, so I think that film has always held a big place in my mind. For me, songwriting is so visual. I could always see what I was writing as it was coming to me. I think that part of that comes from the music that got me into playing, like everything Bob Dylan did in the 1960s, from his first album to say Blonde on Blonde. I think because of these records there was always this visual way of seeing the songs, that was baked inside of me.
It has always been less about ideas and instead about images and piecing them together. I also wonder if the instrumentation that rose from it, much of that coming from my band mates with the trombones, other horns, and some harmonium, gave it some atmosphere. The guitar does as well. What I am playing is very intricate and helps establish the atmosphere that these songs sit in.
RC: I read that when you start out writing a song it begins with the melody and you build from there.
EB: I think because I have always been a guitar player first. When I was fifteen I first heard The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, never before having had an interest in playing music beyond a few piano lessons. It really stuck with me and I just had to start playing. I developed an approach with a “double thumb,” where your thumb is playing the bass line [with up and down strokes] and your other fingers are playing the melody. That helped [to] create an inherent melody to anything I played. That’s [also] given me some limitations, which in the writing process is so vital. I also don’t try to get too much in the way of what’s developing, because you start to lose the flavor of it.
RC: Is the songwriting approach a collaborative one where you take input from the band?
EB: It normally is. Ever since 2013 when we put out our first EP, Blood and Rust, we decided to film ourselves playing some songs in a friend’s studio. We weren’t focused on acoustics, but instead camera angles. And when we went to listen to it we decided that it was the only way to record, just us in a room together, zero isolation. That’s the way it has been with every album up until this one. I had written everything for it before COVID and was scheduled to record it during the summer of 2020 in Los Angeles. But we all have kids, and because of COVID, decided to go in a completely different direction. Usually, my parts are all locked in when we get together as a band. Then with these amazing band mates of mine we decide together what this will shape into. This time I had to build the songs in my home studio with drum tracks etc. Then I went to Gabe Feenberg, who is the multi-instrumentalist on all of my albums and Max MacVeety, [our] drummer, and had them add their interpretations. It was all done in everyone’s own studios while we were a thousand miles apart.
RC: Not only is he recording process different these days, so is the way we consume music.
EB: It’s so different now. You put the music out there and it isn’t in the form of physical copies. Instead, you review data points on how many times a song has been streamed. I guess that’s OK but its missing the shared experience, whether it’s live or [hearing it] playing on the radio. I remember the first time that my songs were being played on [Los Angeles radio station] KCRW. They were probably played at 11:30pm on a Tuesday, but it was amazing to think that it was being heard by all of these people at the same time.
RC: Folk music has long been about storytelling. What tale you are trying to tell with this record?
EB: This album started in a funny way, even though it was written for the most part in 2019. It’s an album about isolation. It explores a lot of those different feelings about how, in this modern-day world, how we eat, spend time with your community, the ways [in which] we are entertained, how we take care of ourselves, who teaches our family, [and] it all happens [while] being isolated from each other. I think that’s why so many people are losing their minds. I had been reading a lot by people like Andy Dillard and John O’Donohue, this great Irish poet who led me on this great internal path. The album was written pre-COVID but people have [been becoming] more and more isolated for decades.
RC: How do you take this record on the road?
EB: For me these songs are an interpretation of their original versions, which is [with] a single instrument and voice. With this album, a majority of the songs were written on the banjo. Initially I thought I was going to do a “clawhammer banjo” album. There ends up being a little bit of clawhammer on the record. But eventually I transposed everything to the guitar, and they became open-tuning guitar songs. I have always approached writing with a sense of flexibility, so that I can go off and perform these songs [either] on my own or with a whole band.
RC: On “Skin of the Earth” and “Water in the Barrel” there are horn solos. Were they done with a trombone or a baritone sax?
EB: Those are both trombones. Gabe Feenberg went to the Berklee school of music in Massachusetts to study guitar, and in the end it just wasn’t his vibe. So, he moved to the trombone and on this album he did a series of trombones layered over each other.
RC: Many people find the piano to be tricky because it can quickly overpower a song. How did you decide on the way to include it here?
EB: It does [tend to be overpowering]. It’s another place where Gabe had an impact. He can sit and play a Nina Simone R&B type of piano line that just kind of breaks your heart. He has a great feel for that. You know, the songs are already dense, with guitar strumming that takes up a lot of sonic space on the bottom. This gave Gabe room to play some really beautiful stuff [on top].
RC: Whose career would you want to model your own after?
EB: The Leonard Cohens of the world have a single voice and a single instrument and that’s what got me into this. I really enjoy playing with my band and building this atmosphere together. To me it’s about this expression of a single voice and instrument. There’s a quiet dignity about it. Whether it’s filmmakers or songwriters, people who have that are committed to self-exploration and [to] having that continue to deepen their art. I often think about those great novelists who wrote their best work at the end of their lives. I would hope to do something similar, to at least continue to be interested in the world and in art and the evolution of it all. Hopefully that will always come across in my music.
Header image of Eddie Berman courtesy of Joanna Berman.