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Turn Me On: Singer/Songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill
Singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill, equally influenced by the topical folk music of Greenwich Village and the expansive pop song cycles of Brian Wilson’s Smile period, seamlessly melded these influences with her own personal stories and unique perspectives in creating 2017’s The Adventurist. While the album was conceived as an expression of Berryhill’s experience caring for her late husband, Crawdaddy founder Paul Williams, what makes The Adventurist a thoroughly joyous and emotionally engaging achievement is the omnipresent resilience pulsating throughout. While the songs were written and recorded during a time of grieving, The Adventurist serves as an awe-inspiring testament to the human spirit’s ability to endure and a celebration of the strength, wisdom, wonder and happiness gained while on the road to healing.
Since releasing The Adventurist in 2017, Berryhill has played a cornucopia of shows, ranging from playing the album in its entirety with a twelve-piece band, to career-spanning solo acoustic shows and recent three-piece gigs accompanied by cellist Renata Bratt and percussionist Paula Luber. Last year saw the deluxe edition re-releases of Berryhill’s third and fourth albums, 1994’s Garage Orchestra and 1996’s Straight Outta Marysville, with selections from the former anchoring recent shows alongside songs from The Adventurist. Berryhill is also a mainstay of the Wild Honey Orchestra’s annual show at the Alex Theater in Glendale benefiting the Autism Think Tank, with this year’s concert celebrating the “Good Time Music” of The Lovin’ Spoonful. Berryhill recently spoke on the phone with Rock Cellar, generously sharing insights into her history with New York’s “Anti-Folk” movement, crafting The Adventurist, and her impassioned reverence for The Lovin’ Spoonful.
“When I was ten-eleven years old, I started playing guitar,” Berryhill recalled of her initial forays into music. “Within a month or two of learning a couple of chords, I just started writing songs. I don’t know where I even got permission to do that. It wasn’t like the teacher said to or anything. I wrote my first ballad. It was called ‘Cretaceous Times.’ It was all the various theories of the demise of the dinosaurs. My guitar teacher thought it was way too many verses. So I wrote the next song and kept it shorter.”
Asked what informed her perspective as a songwriter, Berryhill expounded on her formative connections to the music around her and her lifelong love of science-fiction. “That little kid in me. I had really strong opinions, when I would listen to the radio, about what was good and what was not good writing,” Berryhill remembered. “I was really into reading science-fiction. My favorite author at the time was Arthur C. Clarke. I was really moved by ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ I liked thinking about big things, whether it was big, destructive things, like an asteroid hitting the earth, or a volcano erupting and covering the city; or big, wondering things, like where can mankind go. That always really stuck with me. That informed me. That really set me on the path.”
“I had a lot of loss when I was young,” Berryhill reflectively stated, offering a more vulnerable aspect of her emotional and artistic journey. “My Mom died when I was eight. So I had to kind of think outside of the box. ‘What am I now? What is a person like when you don’t have a mother?’ I’m not very good at seeing my place in things. I live in a slightly insular world. In a certain way, I would say, it’s a way of taking care of the ten-eleven-year-old. So that entity can continue to find expression.”
On how she found herself in New York, Berryhill gleefully recounted, “I bought a bus pass to go around the country from San Diego, and then landed in New York. I was reading ‘Bound For Glory’ by Woody Guthrie. I was reading ‘Hoboing Across America,’ that kind of a thing. And I was reading ‘On The Road’ while I was on the road.”
When asked for her take on the formation and naming of the early days of the “Anti-Folk” scene, Berryhill provided a fascinating oral history. “I met these other people that were kind of like-mind. We’d see each other every week for a number of weeks in front of Folk City. Then we’d see each other at these other open mics. We kind of banded together in a way, just to have our own jokes and our own fun times.”
“The summer of 1985,” Berryhill continued, “a few of us got together with this [singer-songwriter and promoter] Latch. Latch later did a lot of open mics and kept the whole Anti-Folk thing going. Latch said, ‘Hey, I’ve having this folk festival, sort of Underground New York Festival. Or The New Folk Folk festival or something like that.’ I said, ‘Wow, those are really boring names. You should really call it something like the Anti-Folk Festival.’ He said, ‘Okay, that’s good.’ So he called it that. And we just started calling ourselves Anti-Folk. I’m a Southern Californian. So yes, I got the name from the Anti-Club,” Berryhill gleamed, referencing the gone but not forgotten punk mecca on Melrose.
After releasing her first two albums on Rhino Records, Berryhill met Paul Williams. In 1995, between the release of Garage Orchestra and Straight Outta Marysville, Paul suffered a brain injury as a result of a bicycle accident. After the couple were married in 1997, Paul’s brain injury inflamed the early onset of dementia, requiring him to receive full-time care beginning in 2009. Berryhill was exceedingly kind in sharing her experience as a care-giver to Paul and how it gave life to the songs that became The Adventurist.
“My husband, we put him in a nursing home,” Berryhill began. “One night, he put oil in the oven and turned it on and it caught fire. He could fall down. He wasn’t safe anymore. So he had to go into a nursing home. Which was a horrible process, the decision making process. And once I got to that decision, then we had to go through the process of him getting actually accepted. Once he did go in there, it was just shocking, the amount of freedom I suddenly had. Because my son and I could maybe go to the market and then come back to be with Paul.”
“There was so much care-giving, that my life was on a very short leash,” Berryhill continued. “As soon as he went into the home, I started writing songs. Especially about a year or two into him being there. He lived at the home for four years. When you’re in deep misery and grief from the loss of your life partner, the human spirit finds ways to have joy. I just had this high, in terms of writing songs, and hearing in my head how they would go. A number of those songs, most of them I got to play for him before he died. I remember playing one of the earlier ones for him, ‘Thanks Again.’ He said to me, ‘That’s powerful.’ I thought, ‘Oh good. He likes it.’”
Berryhill then embarked on the adventure of recording her sonically vast yet emotionally intimate song cycle. “I knew in my head how the songs worked together. The arrangements, part of them I heard in my head already. I could hear how that would work. Some of them I had already been woodshedding with some musicians. Like my longtime cellist, Renata Bratt. She and I actually worked on some of the string arrangements together, like on ‘Somebody’s Angel’ and ‘An Affair Of The Heart.’ We started recording right after Paul died. He died in March of 2013 and the first recordings happened in the summer of 2013. The grief thing is hard. So I thought, ‘Let’s figure out a way to record.’ And this was before I really had any money. The guy who was playing bass with us, David Schwartz, had a recording studio. He said, ‘Come to my place and we’ll do something there.’ So the first few songs we did were ‘I Like Cats/You Like Dogs,’ ‘Horsepower’ and part of ‘Thanks Again.’ I had no money. I needed to do a Kickstarter campaign. So much later that year, I started that off. At the end of 2014, the money came in. Much to my surprise, I asked for $16,000. I think I got $19,000. We did a few more songs with David Schwartz. He makes music for TV shows. He’s done the music for ‘The Good Place.’ In the past he did ‘Arrested Development’ and ‘Northern Exposure’ and other shows. He got busy. So we had to move to another studio and I needed another bass player. We just had to shift gears. Because I already knew in my head how the arrangements worked, it was a non-issue.”
Berryhill produced two music videos for The Adventurist, one for the album’s opener “American Cinematography” and another for the crowdpleaser “I Like Cats/You Like Dogs.” Of the former, Berryhill stated, “The filmmaker for that was Matthew Kohn. As you can see when you watch the video, he’s a New Yorker. So we got all these beautiful vistas, views of New York, which is one of my important cities of joy for me. Partly because that was the first city where I felt completely accepted.” The spirited video for “I Like Cats/You Like Dogs” was conceived by Berryhill and filmmaker Joe Murray. While it’s best seen to be believed, Americana devotes will delight in the additional scenes directed by Jeff Wyant that feature cameos by Berry’s friends Dave Alvin, John Doe and Steve Poltz.
Berryhill is currently lining up potential shows for the summer of 2020, while rehearsing for the Wild Honey Orchestra’s celebration of The Lovin’ Spoonful on February 29th at the Alex Theater in Glendale. On what makes the Wild Honey Orchestra an annual priority for Cindy Lee and so many other outstanding musicians, Berryhill revealed, “That’s one of my favorite, favorite places and groups of people to be involved with. Because a lot of these musicians are people that have known each other over the years. I’ve lived mostly in San Diego. But I kind of got my beginnings through Rhino Records and doing shows at Largo. So a lot of these musicians, we would share the stage and do shows together. It’s really nice to play music with people that know your span of time in music, and the work that you’ve done and you know theirs. There’s some kind of sort of comfort in it, and mutual respect and love of one another’s work. And Wild Honey really pulls all that together.”
In addition to regularly participating in the Wild Honey Orchestra as a longstanding community member, Berryhill shared a personal resonance for her of raising money for the excellent work of the Autism Think Tank. “My son was just diagnosed with mild-to-moderate autism. Which for him is more of a processing issue. Sometimes he takes longer for homework or tests or things like that. So I really like what they’re benefiting. And I have a deep understanding of how they’re helping these young people.”
While Berryhill said that this year’s Wild Honey singers are largely keeping mum at this point about what treasured Lovin’ Spoonful classics or deep cuts they might be performing, she was happy to expound on her affection for the band. “I love The Lovin’ Spoonful. Because, just off the top of my head, and you know that I’m a huge Brian Wilson fan, but I would say that ‘Summer In The City’ is just as amazing in arrangement and songwriting and everything about it, and is as important as ‘Good Vibrations.’ It’s a similar kind of a song. And it’s always been my favorite thing, ‘suite songs,’ where there are movements within the song.”
In addition to her genuine passion for The Lovin’ Spoonful and their blend of folk, pop-rock and jug band influences, Berryhill was happy to recall recently performing alongside Lovin’ Spoonful founder and primary songwriter John Sebastian. “I was lucky enough to share a stage with him last year at a show in Central Park in New York. It was kind of a celebration of music in New York’s Greenwich Village in the Sixties, so we did songs from that time period. He was a part of it. So it was very cool. And I’m friends with [legendary photographer] Henry Diltz. So Henry would tell me all these great stories, ‘Yeah, that was the first tour I went on. I was kind of helping them out and playing music with them when they wanted it. I brought my camera and that’s when I started taking pictures.’”
As Berryhill looks toward the recording of her next album, The Adventurist continues to be cherished by new and old fans, including those who recently saw her perform selections from it with her trio opening for David Lindley. As a final meditation on the stunning song cycle, Berryhill offered, “The story was that I lost my husband, and thus came this. But it’s a story of Jonah coming out of the whale. It’s like ‘Fuck. I came out and there’s the light shining down. Life is so freaking good.’ That’s what the album is.”
To turn yourself on to Cindy Lee Berryhill, go to cindyleeberryhill.com for tour dates and to sign up for Cindy Lee’s mailing list. Cindy Lee is on twitter @cindyleeb and Instagram at @cindyleeberryhill. Cindy Lee is also on Facebook, her preferred place to interact.
June 20, 2022