comparisons to Tim Buckley and Nick Drake nipping at his heels, the
Atlanta-based songwriter is on the move.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
David Berkeley, the rising singer-songwriter whose latest album is Strange Light, has as unusual a story
about his musical roots as you’re likely to hear.
He was taught to sing at his nursery school by nude female
hippie teachers who wore guitars strapped around their necks and played music
all the time in class. In New Jersey, yet!
Well, confesses the 32-year-old Berkeley upon interrogation,
maybe that “naked” part isn’t true. “That’s a rosy memory,” he says, as in
viewing the past through rose-colored glasses. “They were definitely hippie,
definitely had guitars. The nude part is maybe an exaggeration.
“But when I look back on how I ended up doing what I’m
doing, I often come back to that nursery school. It clearly left a mark.”
His third album, Strange
Light, was issued quietly in October of last year on his Straw Man label – he undertook that
self-release after doing a segment on the NPR show This American Life – and is now getting a proper national
roll-out via Thirty Tigers. It also shows signs of leaving a mark, showcasing
his voice’s broodingly romantic qualities, introspective yet emotional lyrics,
and sumptuously dramatic melodies that allow ballads and mid-tempo numbers to
have the swing and crackle of tasteful rock.
It was produced by Brian Deck and features Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins
on backing vocals.
Songs like “Hurricane,” “Willis Avenue Bridge” and
“Halloween Parade” show Berkeley’s knack for using vividly visual objects as
symbolic entries into the world of his feelings. He has earned comparisons to
both Tim Buckley and Nick Drake – past masters of similar music.
He also has an engaging storytelling style that lures the
interest of crowds unfamiliar with him or his music, as he displayed recently
at a late-night round-robin session with three others – including local
favorite Kim Taylor – at Cincinnati’s Northside Tavern.
Could he have learned all this in nursery school? “It was a very musical and creative place,
and I was verbal at a young age,” he says by telephone, after returning from a
brief solo tour of England and Scotland. That followed a U.S. engagement accompanying
British singer Katie Melua. “I remember us doing all sorts of musical things
all the time, whether singing or theatrical productions. I was singing as early
as I was speaking. So I became comfortable using my voice as an instrument from
But as if that wasn’t enough positive reinforcement for a
youngster, Berkeley also partnered at an early age with a traveling saleswoman.
He’d sing when homeowners came to the door as a way to get them invited
inside. If that sounds like something out
of The Grifters, it was far more
“She was a woman who looked after me and sold Avon Products
door-to-door,” he says. “Neighbors would open the door and I would sing – it
would be a song about the Titanic sinking, and they’d give me cookies and
ideally buy her products.
“So the general theme here is I was used to getting positive
feedback, whether cookies or applause, from a young age.”
Berkeley needed a nanny
because his mother was frequently busy as a health/medical writer for The New York Times, while his father ran
a garment business out of his Empire
Serendipitously, as this phone interview was being
conducted, an E-mail press release arrived from Shout! Factory Records
announcing a new tribute album honoring singer-songwriter Mark Mulcahy. That
release for Ciao My Shining Star listed some impressive participants – Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, The National,
Elvis Perkins, Dinosaur Jr and, on track four, Berkeley performing Mulcahy’s “Love’s the
Only Thing That Shuts Me Up.” (The trib comes out Sept. 29.)
This information is shared with Berkeley, who had only
learned days earlier that his submission for the album had been accepted –
apparently, there were more than the 21 selected for the final release. That’s
a testament to the high regard for the New England-based Mulcahy, who was once
in the band Miracle Legion.
“One of my early supporters was Ellen Cavolina Porter, who
used to run Club Fez in New York,” Berkeley says. “She turned me on to his
music; they were friends.” (Club Fez closed in
previously has released Live From Club
Fez on CD and DVD.)
Given his family’s intellectual background, it’s perhaps not
surprising Berkeley would enroll in Harvard and study literature and philosophy.
But what is unusual and unexpected is that he became an avid outdoorsman -doing
whitewater-rafting in Idaho, getting a writing internship at Outside, and
contributing to the Let’s Go Alaska guidebook. He traces his interest in the
outdoors to a year spent in California between high school and college, working
for a Peace Corps-like group in San Jose. In his free time, he would discover
California’s outdoor wonders.
Berkeley has always maintained his enjoyment in singing. And
he wrote down thoughts and observations in journals. What was missing was
songwriting, and he says he needed the experience of “heartbreak” to move in
“I came to writing music late, but always I’ve been verbal
and reflective,” he says. “It continues to be the hardest thing I do. There’s a
lot of mystery to it. It isn’t that I found something very easy for me or that
I’m confident about my abilities. It’s in fact kind of the opposite. But I
stick to it.”
Berkeley now lives in Atlanta where his wife is a graduate
student in anthropology at Emory University. They have a young son. Before
moving to Atlanta, they spent a year in the tiny Corsican mountain village of
Tralanca, where she did field work and he made inroads with the Corsican music
“I just sang the English verses on a Corsican version of
‘Hallelujah,'” he says. “The whole French and Italian music scene is about
singing as big and full as you can and I sing very quietly. When I was
recording ‘Hallelujah, I had to do 20 takes. Everyone said, ‘More, bigger.’ So
I’m afraid of how it’s going to sound.”
[Photo Credit: Caleb Chancey]