David Berkeley, Musician and Graduate Institute Student

On March 6th, David Berkeley, a singer-songwriter, performed an online concert as part of our ‘Dean’s Lecture and Concert Series’. It’s easy to forget that concerts are a part of this series, as they are in the minority, but they are always a welcome change of pace. We spoke with David Berkeley about his music, the past year, and his enrollment in the Graduate Institute at St. John’ College.

What is your history with music?

I think I sang before I spoke. I suppose that’s true of mankind as well. I’m not really a schooled musician, though I have taken some theory and a few handfuls of guitar lessons. I had a great vocal instructor when I was young who helped me with technique. But for the most part, my relationship with music is more about heart than chops. I came to songwriting in my late teens and never really looked away. I’ve always been drawn to lyric writing, and craft my words very carefully.  I released my first album shortly after September 11th, and I have been writing songs, touring, and releasing records both as a solo artist ever since and, for the past several years, with my duo project, Son of Town Hall.

What has the past year been like for you as a musician?

This has been quite a year. I am used to traveling and performing all the time. Some years I have played close to 100 shows. Before this year, it was a rare month that I wasn’t away for at least a third of it. All of that shut down suddenly and completely. My family was living in Spain all last year, as my wife (Ms. Davis) was on sabbatical. I was performing a lot in Europe and had a full schedule of shows booked in 2020 all of which were canceled. We got out of Spain on what felt like one of last commercial flights and quarantined in a house in Newport, RI. I started writing songs in the attic of that house. They were mostly songs of comfort and hope, trying to make sense of what was going on as the world shut down. Ultimately, I recorded a record in that attic. The record is called Oh Quiet World. Ms. Davis and our kids sang on a couple of tracks. It’s all very intimate and stripped down and plays a bit like a prayer of hope that this time can provide some clarity to us all about what really matters in our lives. Apart from the record, I began performing online shows, begrudgingly at first and then somewhat enthusiastically. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of private zoom shows. It’s strange to move from preparing dinner for my family in one moment to sitting down in my living room and beaming a concert the next moment without any real demarcation or emotional preparation. One interesting positive, though, is that my professional life is far more integrated into my family life than it ever has been in the past. Touring always takes me away. But this year, I’ve been able to work and be at home. I’m going to miss a great deal of that when the engines start churning again.

How has or how will your time in the Graduate Institute affect your music?

I have loved the GI program thus far, and my head is full of new ideas and images. I anticipate a host of references and concepts will ultimately find their way into my writing. It is likely, though, that they will slip in through the side door rather than head on. I don’t anticipate, for example, sitting down with the intention of writing a song about The Peloponnesian War. But it wouldn’t be a shocker if Alcibiades, perhaps, wanders into a verse at some point while I’m writing about some aspect of the human condition.

How did you approach your performance for St. John’s College? How was it different from your other performances?

I loved singing for the St John’s community. It was part concert, part Q+A. That isn’t a typical format for me, though I often talk a lot in my shows and always enjoy when people chime in with a comment or question. But I loved talking with the students and the tutors who tuned in. I also liked thinking about the relative absence of questions in my lyric writing, a topic that we discussed during the concert. Despite the fact that my writing process is very much about questioning, I tend toward statements in my lyrics. I came away from the concert curious about trying to challenge that tendency. 

Are you working on new music? If so, what can you say about it right now?

I always have a handful of new ideas that I am kicking around. At the moment, though, I am working primarily on writing a podcast series for my duo project Son of Town Hall. This project is part theatrical, part musical, part performance art. We have a whole fictitious backstory that involves traveling by a boat of our own making around the world and to all of our shows. We dress in shabby Victorian attire and appear to be from the late 1800s. The music is serious, but the whole presentation is really funny. The podcast is like old time radio theater complete with sound effects and musical interludes. Each episode is a made-up piece of our history (like when we worked in the circus in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century or got involved in piracy in Cornwall, or worked in a sausage factory in Dusseldorf. I am currently working on writing songs for each episode. 

Do you have any other performances coming up people should know about?

I believe I will be performing outdoors and in person (!) at Tumbleroot on April 7th. Fingers crossed that it will happen. I will post information on davidberkeley.com or facebook.com/davidberkeleymusic 

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