3. David Berkeley


Club Passim, Cambridge, MA // October 2015

David Berkeley is an internationally touring singer-songwriter and author. He is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but he’s covered a lot of ground, lived in a lot of places, and thoughtfully documented much of that experience in his work: one song of his has a refrain which goes “homesick is hard when you don’t know / just where it is that you call home.” Not only has his life included all the traveling required of any touring musician, but on top of that, his wife is an anthropologist and their life together has taken them to places ranging from Santa Fe to New York City to Berkeley to Atlanta to Corsica. David's ongoing fascination with travel and movement is reflected well not just in his songcraft but in his performance career: among his current projects is the folk duo Son of Town Hall, in which he and London-based musician Ben Parker travel the world performing in character (I'm serious) as swashbuckling Victorian seafarers who met on a raft.

I was a big fan of David's music in high school, and gradually got be friends with him when I was in college and he’d loop through the Boston area on tour to play in clubs like the one at which I interviewed him here. Significantly, as we got to know each other, he’d often invite me to sit in with him on some instrument or another for a song or two at his sets in town. While I was certainly very grateful for this at the time, I did not begin to appreciate, as I do now, that these invitations were acts of almost unimaginably gallant beneficence. I’m now about the age that David was when I met him, and I can promise you that if some eighteen-year-old were to be joining me onstage without much in the way of rehearsal or any earned trust, I would be absolutely terrified. Those early opportunities meant the world to me though, and playing with him taught me a lot about being a good sideman, just as watching him when I was a kid unconsciously taught me a lot about the kind of performer I’d want to be as an adult. I owe him a lot. When he offered to contribute some vocal parts to one of my albums several years later, I eagerly took him up on it.

I thought he’d be a good person to talk to for this project – and he was actually one of the very first people I interviewed, back in 2015 – mainly because he and his work have been shaped by an archipelago of places, rather than by deep immersion in just one or two. Despite the impossible breadth of that experience, he seems to have always engaged with the places he's passed though with an uncommon thoughtfulness, and they've all influenced his life and work in different ways.

More about David is here, and if you're interested, you can pick up his books, CDs, audiobooks, and other stuff here. We talked in the green room of Club Passim, a folk club in Cambridge with an interesting history of its own.

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Ben Cosgrove: So yeah, I think I explained roughly what these are for --

David Berkeley: Which we don’t know?

BC: Which we don’t know.

DB: [laughs] So, in fact, very roughly.

BC: Ha, yes – just about as rough as it gets. Just generally, I’m talking to people about how where they are and where they’ve been has connected with what they do, without really thinking about what will happen with these. You’re actually the first person with whom I’m doing this in a place which is not – which is not, strictly speaking, where they are at.

DB: But still a place that influenced me. So not irrelevant!

BC: And actually, this is where I met you!

DB: Yes! Our connection. Perfect.

BC: So yes. In fact, probably 95% of the times we’ve interacted have been here. But you were not originally from – okay, where were you born?

DB: New Jersey.

BC: Right. Which part?

DB: Central-northern, a town called Scotch Plains. Which is just a sort of pretty leafy suburb of New York City, more New York City than Philly. It was a great place to grow up, but I, uh, – I’m not attached to it in any way, which I think in some ways was the best thing for me because it freed me to explore other places. I have a lot of friends who come from, you know, beautiful parts of Vermont or San Francisco or New York City where they grew up and they feel like they have to live there, and I don’t feel that way about… New Jersey.

BC: Yeah, but hang on, I’m kind of a New Jersey defender.

DB: Yeah! Don’t get me wrong, I have only good memories of it there, but I have no romantic attachment to it other than that it was where I spent my first seventeen years, which was obviously, well, a pretty formative time. But… well, yeah.

BC: And then you were up here.

DB: Then I came here. No – I actually went to California for a year, before college. San Jose. I did a program called CityYear, which was big in Boston at that point. It was actually the first year it expanded to other cities, so we were their first year in San Jose. And then I went here, to college. And took some time off while here – I went to California again with my friend Ty Gibbons, who we were just talking about; he and I took a year off and lived in Santa Cruz together and worked on music. That was during our, maybe our junior year. I think it was our junior spring semester.

BC: Huh, that’s interesting – so when did you start writing songs?

DB: It was actually around that–

[scuffling noises]

Bill Titus (David's guitarist): Oh, are you guys doing an interview? 

DB: Yes.

BT: Oh, I’m sorry. 

DB: No, you’re great; you can chime in whenever.

BT: I just did.

DB: Right, anyway, I started writing songs here! In college. And very much in the shadow, at least in my mind, of Ty, I thought at the time. He was writing for a long time and I always really loved what he did. So we really went to Santa Cruz with that in mind. And we were singing together and doing stuff – just cover songs really, cover songs of my choosing, but it was around then that I tried to start writing songs.

BC: Huh. And were you performing?

DB: We were performing, but hardly. We did a few bar gigs, and busked – I busked a lot, actually, when I was here – and we would get gigs around campus, but I wasn’t playing. And I never really thought of myself as like, this is what I wanted to do; I was helping him with his music, primarily. I managed his band for the first couple years. But I was mostly interested in writing and expression. I wanted – I thought I wanted to be a travel writer. Which is actually what I did when I left college. I was still managing his band, but I got an internship at Outside Magazine, in Santa Fe, which is where I ended up working. That was the first place I went after college. I was there for about eight months or so.

BC: So what did you do as a travel writer?

DB: Well, I had written for Let’s Go: Alaska when I was here, which is one of the best perks of Harvard, is getting to write for those Let’s Go books…

BC: Oh! Yeah, I wrote for another one of them , the – ah, the roadtrip one.

DB: Through Let’s Go?

BC: Yeah, it was called like Let’s Go: Roadtripping USA or something. [NOTE: Yep.] They had me drive from Vermont to British Columbia. 

DB: Huh, I don’t think they had that one when I was here.

BC: Oh yeah, I think they only did it for a very short time, because it was... well, you know, completely impractical for any reader, traumatic for all the writers, and financially disastrous for Let’s Go

[both laugh]

DB: Ha, right. So I did Alaska. And then at Outside, I was pretty much just fact-checking, calling people up to make sure their stuff was right. But I also, backing up a little, during college, I had worked every summer while I was here as a river rafting guide. In Idaho.

BC: Really?

DB: Yeah, and that, actually–

BC: Every summer?  

DB: Every summer.

BC: How’d you… find that gig? 

DB: Before I went here, I went on a trip with my dad and my brother, in Idaho, just randomly. I don’t know why. And I loved it. I was at that point seventeen, and the guides were, you know, twenty, and I thought they were just the coolest people in the world.

BC: What part of Idaho was that in?

DB: That trip, that first trip was in Hell’s Canyon, along the Snake–

BT: Sawtooths… up there.

DB: Sure thing. Saw a lot of moose up there. But I did work in the Hell’s Canyon on the Snake, but I mostly worked on the Salmon, on the middle fork of the Salmon.

BC: Yeah! The River of No Return. 

DB: Yeah, exactly! And some in Montana too, on the Clarks Fork – we did 5 six-day trips every summer, when we were out, so my summers were basically I’d leave here, like, the day we were done and I’d drive out, and I’d just be on the river the whole summer. Only one day a week we’d be back in "civilization," and it was just this little town next to a paper plant called Potlatch.

BT: Lewis and Clark… the Salmon River… Sacajawea procured them enough salmon so they could survive because they were on the brink of starvation. 

DB: Is that why it’s called the Salmon River?

BT: I don’t know if that’s why it’s called that.

[general laughter/crosstalk] 

DB: Right. That’s cool. I didn’t know that. Anyway, so yeah, so that was the summers, and that’s basically – right, so when I left here, I kind of was really into the rafting thing, and I loved the west, and so Outside Magazine was kind of an obvious choice -- that was kind of the place you’d want to go if you wanted to be a travel writer.

BC: Oh, I see – so that was – the thinking was this would be your boot camp, in preparation for being one of the guys that gets flung out into the field to report stories?

Yes, yes, exactly, then I’d go – and I actually went on a couple assignments; I went to Venezuela to try and do a piece. But then I actually moved back to New York; I left Outside and I went back from Santa Fe to New York City, following a girl, and ended up working at Time Out: New York. So still in the writing world, but with a different…

BC: Inside Magazine.

DB: [laughs] Exactly. Club listings and that kind of thing, stuff around New York City. Still kind of trying to figure out how I could write. But by that point – by then I was writing songs. I mean, I was writing songs on the river, but…

BC: But never with any thought that it could be a career?

DB: Not yet, not yet, but I loved playing music out there, on the river, was the greatest. You’re, you know, around a campfire… the first place I ever played in front of people was on these river trips. But I wasn’t really writing with any intention at that point; it was mostly just to try and find a voice, you know?

BC: Was there a tipping point in that case, when you suddenly found that it was… you know, a fruitful means of expression?

DB: Huh, well…

BC: Like, not even… financially, necessarily, but just in terms of “this is a more gratifying practice and a better way of articulating my thoughts than being a travel writer might be.” 

DB: Yes – yes, yes, there was. There was. Although… I do want to say one more thing about the river, which is that the landscape – just because I know it’s relevant to your topic here – the landscape around that river really influenced a lot of my writing, at the beginning. And still does. Like for example, my song “Jefferson,” which is on my second record, talks about “river stones,” and on the middle fork of the Salmon, as you go, you start at the headwaters and it’s crystal clear and only like a foot deep, and as you’re going through, the canyons are amazing, but the prettiest things you’re seeing are the river stones beneath. And they’re like jewels, the whole way, and you can hear them click and hiss as you go down, and it’s incredible. And that’s made it – that image has made it into a couple of my songs. And the confluence of the Snake and the Salmon, where they merge, is just the most amazing spot –it was a holy spot for the Nez Perce Indians – and that’s the title of my first record. A lot of stuff came from that time, for me, and I still go back to it, in my image world.

But – to get back to your question, I was living in Brooklyn at this point; it was the year before September 11, which was… 2000? 2000. And at that point I’d amassed, you know, a set of songs, maybe like ten or twelve, but you know… songs I thought were good. And I was performing them at like an open mic here and there, little things… but I ran into a guy who was a friend of a friend, a great guitarist called Alex Weinstein. And he was just starting to produce, and he asked to play on a few of my songs. And he was the first one who really got excited about it and said, “let’s make a record.” And so again, at that point, I had no intention of doing anything except just trying to record the songs. But we did – we went to his grandma’s house in New Paltz, New York and we found a little studio right near Ground Zero actually (it wasn’t Ground Zero yet, I suppose, because the Twin Towers were still there), and… ah… we recorded. And that recording started in July or so, and went through September 11th – we were in Boston, actually, recording another guy from Harvard, a drummer from up here, on  September 11th, but we should have been on the studio, right there, right around the corner from the World Trade Center, on that day, which is sort of an unbelievably lucky, weird, scheduling conflict that made us go up to Boston on that day instead of stay there.

BC: Wow, no way. That’s – where was the studio? 

DB: It was right there, like right there. Like, it would have been an issue.

BC: An issue?!

DB: I mean, we would’ve been fine, but–

BC: Sort of an inconvenience.

DB: Yes, it definitely would have interfered with the recording that day.

BC: Yikes.

DB: So, after that, I basically – I finished the record right around then. It was maybe November of that year. And after September 11th, I was living in New York and I wanted to do something that felt relevant to what was going on there. So I got a teaching job in Brooklyn public school – in what was then a pretty bad part of Brooklyn, in the Bushwick area, which probably looks different now – and I started teaching there. So I was doing that, and at that point the record came out. (When I say “it came out” I mean, like, I had them, like… at my house.) And I had contacts left from my days managing Ty’s band. So I was able to book myself two release shows – I booked myself at the Knitting Factory, and at the Mercury Lounge, on I think – it may have even been consecutive nights, which is… sort of ridiculous because absolutely nobody knew who I was. But I emailed enough people, and both shows were actually pretty good. Although I wasn’t even – I don’t even think I was using a tuner, so like I think in reality they were probably terrible, terrible shows. But I loved ‘em. And I remember going home for like, Christmas or whatever, and having this whole new thing in my mind, that this was what I wanted to do. Now, I was still a teacher, because that was just the beginning of – like, it was only January. So I taught the rest of that year and was booking more shows, so that – that spring I played up here, I played, you know, around.

BC: Oh, huh, so yeah – across what geographic reach at that early point? What was the universe of places to play that made sense to you? I’m always interested in how people look at this.

DB: It was only just people that I knew, so I probably played in Philly, I probably played here – I definitely played here – you know, maybe I played five shows in the northeast, but I was loving all of them. And at some point I remember realizing that I had so many shows that I couldn’t do both teaching and music. And that was the moment where I had to make the decision – I mean, I was still very new in music, for sure, and I was relatively new at teaching too. Teaching was really hard, and it felt really important and really rewarding, but super hard. Music was super hard, but super exciting. Not clear whether it was worth anything or not, but something felt really right and valuable there. But also mysterious, and challenging, and you know, so…. that summer I thought a lot about it and decided not to go back to teach that year. So then I got other odd random jobs, but was basically pursuing music.

BC: And then you remained in New York for a few years, right?

DB: Stayed in New York until 200… 4, then we moved to Atlanta–

BC: Huh, I totally forgot about your initial Atlanta chapter.

DB: Ha, yeah, and we were in Atlanta for – I mean, by then, I was with the woman I as going to marry, and that was the same woman for whom I’d moved back to New York (initially, I guess; we had broken up in between, but we got back together). And we moved to Atlanta, for her to go to grad school. And there I met the guy who we’re hearing over here, Will Robertson, playing bass [Will Robertson can be heard playing bass in the background] – Will would ultimately produce a record of mine and a couple of really important songs. And I met my manager, not in Atlanta, but through a couple of shows in New York, and so… things started to gain a lot of momentum at that point. We moved back to New York, we had our first son–

BC: She had finished with grad school?

DB: No, no, she wasn’t done, but she didn’t want to have the baby in Atlanta because her family – my in-laws – are in New York and we love New York, and at that point – we came to love Atlanta, but we really didn’t that first time. Not having kids, it seemed a little dull, and we’d just been sort of spoiled by Brooklyn. Brooklyn’s pretty hard to get over, if you like cities and you’re young. So we moved back to New York, we had our baby, and I was at that point fully doing music and traveling quite a bit… and then – and then we moved to Corsica.

BC: Yeah, that – that’s – can you talk about that?

DB: That was a big turning point in a lot of ways. So, that was because Sarah, my wife, was at that point getting her PhD in anthropology, so she was doing fieldwork there. So our son was one, and we went to Corsica for a year. Lived in a very teeny village.

BC: Yeah. And you wrote a book?

DB: Wrote a book there – yeah, I wrote my first book there – and didn’t record but wrote all the songs for my fourth record there.

BC: That must have been tricky, though, to dial back – I guess your day-to-day life would have to change so dramatically, in ways that must have challenged your sense of identity.

DB: Yes. Brooklyn to a tiny village in Corsica was a pretty big shift.

BC: I mean, even just as a self-employed person – the things that you can do in Corsica would be, uh, very limited.

DB: Very. Limited. Which is, I guess, part of why I was able to write a book.

BC: Do you – I mean, not to… but do you speak French?

DB: Yes, they do, very much so, for sure.

BC: No, sorry – do you speak French?

DB: Ha! Right. No, I… didn’t. I speak some now. But, you know, I mean, I had a brand-new baby, and I was…

BC: Who probably didn’t speak French either.

DB: Sure didn’t. But I was so crazy about just having this baby around, so, you know, we spent a lot of our days just hiking, with him in the backpack. And I toured a bit in Europe, and I did a couple tours back here during that time, so I was still active, but definitely, uh, out and remote, which really did take some adjustment.

So we moved back to Atlanta after that year, and then we moved to California.

BC: Oh, right!

DB: Ha! Yeah.

BC: Yeah, I’m glad we’re having this talk, because just keeping these straight –

DB: [laughs] Yeah, we were there for two… two? Two years, in the Bay Area, and then we moved to Santa Fe. And that’s it. That’s where we are. We own a house. First time.

BC: How do you like it?

DB: It’s amazing.

BC: And how does it compare to your original experience of Santa Fe, when you were fact-checking for Outside?

DB: Oh that’s a really good question. Very different. It’s crazy – it’s one of those things where you come back to a place and you think 'I can’t believe I even lived here.' I mean, I remember things, but I was such a different person. And I don’t feel that way necessarily – I feel like it’s been a continuum – but being back there fifteen years later... there are so many things that are the center of my life now that I didn’t even know existed when I was there in Santa Fe the first time.

BC: Like, uh, elementary schools.

DB: Ha, yeah, exactly – elementary schools. But also just like, the ski mountain. We go skiing just about every weekend now, in the winter. I didn’t even know this thing was there, which is stupid – I worked at OUTSIDE MAGAZINE, for god's sake. I mean, I knew that people skied there, but… but… I guess I just thought they were backcountry skiing down from… I don’t know. It’s literally called the Ski Basin. I guess I – I don’t know, whatever. There are a lot of things that I – I’m a very different person.

However! The things that – so, Sarah and I were dating then too, and she was in France for a lot of that time. And we have some letters that I was writing her from back then. And the things that I was telling her about Santa Fe then are the things that I still love. I mean, the light.

BC: Yeah.

DB: I mean, the light down there is incredible, and you don’t get over that. There are definitely some things that are still the same, and still the virtues that I love about it. The smells, the landscape – we’ve recorded, I’ve actually recorded three records there now, two of mine and one with this new side project we were talking about with this guy from London. All in this little studio in the hills above Santa Fe, and it’s a pretty awesome place to work, off in the middle of nowhere.

BC: Yeah, I love – huh, I’m going through there, actually, I just remembered.

DB: When?

BC: Oh, in like, a few weeks – you’ll probably still be out here.

DB: Ah, yeah. Are you playing in Santa Fe?

BC: No, I’ve never – I think I’m playing in Albuquerque and Taos, but I can never get booked in Santa Fe.

DB: It’s an unbelievably hard place to play.

BC: That makes me feel better. Where do you play in Santa Fe?

DB: Huh, I guess a couple different places, but it’s a real – I mean, there’s a place called The Gig; do you know it? Bruce Dunlap is the guy who runs it; he’s a jazz guitarist – do you know that guy? I don’t know if you'd have crossed paths with him, but he’s an amazing guitarist, just this crazy, crazy guitarist. That would be the place I think, but, you know, no one’s there unless you bring them. And there’s a couple bars.

BC: It’s such a weirdly laid-out town, I always thought – incredibly beautiful, but all these big, arcing streets kind of sweep through it along those weird trajectories –

DB: Oh yeah, it’s not griddy at all. For better or worse. That’s griddy, with a D.

BC: Or, really, gritty, either.

DB: Very true. Not gritty, but definitely dusty.

BT: Those big wandering – they used to be streets and now they’re covered with dirt, and they never moved the dirt, and, you know, now it’s the main drag and it’s just a big dirty road. I was there one time and I was like “where’s the main street?” and someone was like “you’re on it. It’s under the dirt.”

BC: Ha, well that seems like a good place to stop. Thanks so much for doing this.

DB: Cool! Is that enough?

BC: Yeah, I mean – I have no idea. This was fun though. Thanks again.

DB: Absolutely.


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Ben Cosgrove