Cindy Lee Berryhill on Her Latest Record and the Cycle of Life, the Most Rock 'n' Roll Thing
June 13, 2017 | by Jocelyn Hoppa press photo by Joe Murray
Cindy Lee Berryhill (anti-folk musician) met husband-to-be Paul Williams (Crawdaddy! Magazine founder) when she was writing and recording her 1994 album Garage Orchestra. This was the first album Berryhill really delved into her love of arrangements, fleshing out songs with musical flourishes echoing such influential sounds as Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys.
Her career as a musician kicked off in the ‘80s between California and New York, during which she coined the term “anti-folk” — a scene that largely took shape in the East Village, a movement of musicians raised on punk rock but still wanting to play acoustic guitar.
With this year’s The Adventurist, Berryhill has seven albums under her belt, each one showcasing muse-inspired storytelling, featuring a range of sounds always rooted in her keen wit and spellbinding spirit rather than outright confessionals. For The Adventurist, she revisited the type of arrangements first found on Garage Orchestra.
For those who don’t know, Paul Williams suffered a brain injury due to a bicycle accident in 1995. Over time, his brain injury triggered dementia, and he was put in a care facility around 2009. In 2013, Williams died at the age of 64.
Berryhill was her husband’s caregiver for a long time before he went into a nursing home. How that’s translated into her songwriting is something of a wonder. In 2007, during what could only have been among the hardest times she/they went through, she made the album Beloved Stranger. In true anti-folk fashion, although the album sounds more alt-country than anything else, she used her experience to bring awareness to the many soldiers coming home from war with brain injuries.
After a painful time traversing through the grief, Berryhill went back to her happy place — Garage Orchestra and meeting Williams all those years ago — and the concept for The Adventurist began to take shape.
With a song-cycle inspired out of tragedy, the expectation could be that the album is possibly too depressing to listen to (although the title alone would suggest otherwise). The theme on this record is not one of death per se, but rather what it feels like to experience love, desire, life and yes, loss. And although there are for sure some tender moments and raw honesty found on The Adventurist, there’s also an equal, if not greater, amount of joy.
Through some kind of weird shift in my life — right time right place — I had the opportunity to meet WIlliams before he became too ill. I’d recently assumed the position of Editor-In-Chief for Crawdaddy!, where we’d put out an online version of the namesake and keep the long-form music writing thriving. Paul and I sat alone on the side of a long gravel driveway, looking out at Sonoma County vistas, as he shared with me stories of his Crawdaddy! adventures and read some of his pieces out loud to me. It was one of the best moments of my life, even if then I knew he wasn’t well off. It would only be a few years later that we at the online version collaborated with Berryhill to put on a rock show in San Francisco and help raise money for Williams' medical expenses. She is lovely, tough, and just a really neat person. Ever since, I’ve had unwavering respect for her, and her music.
Below is an email interview exchange I had recently with Berryhill about her new album. She is currently touring.
NO RECESS!: You seem to just have a natural knack for writing (I’ve read your blog, as well as general thoughts on social media). But I know what appears to be a knack is more often a result of a lot of work, self-editing, and finding that voice. I’m curious to hear more about your process with writing lyrics.
CINDY LEE BERRYHILL: Thanks, Jocelyn. I’ve enjoyed writing since I was a kid. Once I learned what plagiarism was — in the third grade, I'd copied a poem from the far-remote back of the book — I was off and running. In the fifth grade, I had my first male teacher, Mr. Hutchins, who thought I had a special knack for writing and sent my handwritten 50-page story to a children's publishing house. No deal, but I was left with that wonderful feeling of someone believing in you. So the writing began with stories, but within the year I'd written my first song, which was a 12-verse explanation of the demise of the dinosaurs, called “Cretaceous Times.” Later in the year, I also wrote my first family hit (when aunts and uncles feel compelled to have you perform it yet again, when you visit); that song was “Pompeii,” and yeah, about the demise of the city of Pompeii in 79 AD. I liked the theme of destruction, obviously.
As for writing lyrics as a grown-up person, I tend to rely on the "spontaneous gift" approach quite a lot. In other words, the lyrics and music sort of write themselves and I open my hands and catch it as best I can. I have explored the craft side of lyric writing as an occasional collaborator, most recently with Belgian pop star Eva DeRoovere, but it takes some work and is not as much fun as the place I like to call the "enchanted forest." The Adventurist was a song cycle that was all being in that spontaneous writing space, where lyrics and melodies and chords and sometimes even arrangements come all at once.
NR!: It’s been 10 years since you released a record (2007’s Beloved Stranger). When did you begin toying around with the idea of a song cycle for what ultimately became The Adventurist? Did you know you would make a record for Paul or did it occur naturally over time?
BERRYHILL: On the topic of Beloved Stranger; it was made at a very difficult time with regards to Paul's health deteriorating and doctors not knowing what was going on, and also having full responsibility for our very young child (as it was clear his dad was not well enough to parent). I’m still shocked I finished that album and found a little money to have the CDs made. It was what I'd call a back-porch production. My friend Christopher Hoffee had a home studio in his historic Victorian home and would call me every week: "When are you coming back in the studio? Let’s get this album made." So it went from a one-off demo to cutting more songs, and this while I was also working full time. Sheesh, hard times.
As for The Adventurist, the songwriting came out of an intention I had when it was clear I could no longer take care of Paul. In 2009, we'd raised enough cash to enter him into a nursing home (and then flip suddenly from private pay to Medi-Cal pending since we couldn't afford the $7,000 a month, and I had lied to get him accepted. Okay, that's a whole 'nother story). I had the idea that I would like to write an album full of songs about love and desire. I remember Paul once saying he wanted to write a book about the experience of desire, and so I gave myself that challenge. Paul was the initial inspiration, when I would consider our first few years of romantic love, and the catalyst, in that the pain of losing him and that great mind was too much to bear, so I needed a great escape. Speculating on romantic love is a pretty good high and it can also get you into trouble, so I had to keep my boundaries straight. But there's so much good literature... poems of Rumi, books on the chemical process of the brain when we meet someone we are attracted to. I was pretty compelled by this idea of desire, and how it feels when we are in it, what we do with it. So these songs came out of that sort of Koan; what is the experience of falling in love.
NR!: At a time when Paul and your son leaned on you for so much care, you had to be a rock, and probably more often than not put yourself second or third (and we know second or third sometimes means never). I imagine music was a source of escapism, or a place to process your feelings. “Somebody’s Angel” and “Gravity Falls” work as confessionals almost… how much did working on The Adventurist help nurture your soul and preserve your own voice during that span of time?
BERRYHILL: While Beloved Stranger was made about the darker feelings of being in a no-way-out situation, in my case as a caregiver, The Adventurist was made with the feelings of blue skies and happy roads ahead. Don't get me wrong, the time with Paul from 2009 onwards was as tough as it was earlier, but I was coming into that place they talk about in grief counseling called acceptance. Knowing there was no way to fix Paul, that no amount of doctor appointments were going to make him better, I was set free in a certain aspect of the caregiving. Also, it had finally come to a point where he needed professional care, and thanks to many, many friends that helped us raise funds, he was able to go into a nursing home. Suddenly, Alexander and I were free to go where and when we wanted! Day trips or overnights. Paul had needed that much supervision.
At any rate, my initial intention of writing songs about love and desire and my feelings for Paul had been gestating for almost a year, and then suddenly, I was able to write new songs. The clouds were parting and I could see blue sky. I’ve pretty much noticed that happiness is my favorite meeting place with the muse.
During this time I began going out to see friends play music and sometimes meet up with them for coffee and conversation. Music friends that inspired me with their own music, their persistence and tenacity beyond youth and their continued artistic vision… folks like Peter Case, Dave Alvin, John Doe, Bob Neuwirth, Exene Cervenka, Stan Ridgway and his wife and music partner Pietra, Gary Heffern (from San Diego's punk band The Penetrators), and my friend Lenny Kaye. Lenny was so entirely empathetic of my odd situation, and such a fan of Paul's, that he even came with me to visit Paul in the nursing home in 2012. Patti Smith invited me backstage on numerous occasions and spoke with me about love and loss: "... just remember you had the time to say goodbye to your husband, not an option that I had with Fred." [Patti Smith’s husband, MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith passed away in 1994 from heart failure.]
Patti was a long-time fan of Paul's and mentions him in [Smith’s 2010 memoir] Just Kids. Sheesh, Paul was so happy when I read him that passage about Crawdaddy! and him in Patti's book.
I felt so much love and support from these folks and so many other friends. It really felt like the equivalent of a punk performer surfing the crowd, being held up by the grace of everyone’s care and love. It was a very nurturing time period. And it's easy to write from that place, where you feel loved.
After he passed away in March 2013, it was tougher. I was really on my own then.
And Paul was really gone for good. But that was when I knew it was time to record the record. We recorded the first three songs in July 2013. I was determined to not be one of those spouses that becomes very ill or dies after their partner does. I put my boots on and got to work.
NR!: This album has a more orchestrated feel than Beloved Stranger, calling back to even earlier music you made in 1994 (as heard on Garage Orchestra). What did going back to that “sound” bring up for you, emotionally or creatively? What compelled you to go back?
BERRYHILL: Beloved Stranger, as I mentioned above, was written in between the cracks of a very difficult and busy time. I was working full time (as a guitar teacher) five days a week and had a small child, and Paul was becoming increasingly ill. So I wasn't able to make records the way I like to. When I recorded Garage Orchestra, I spent a lot of pre-studio time workshopping and trying out parts, orchestrations. I was learning how to do that. I did a bit more of it on Straight Outta Marysville, but Paul's brain injury and recovery made it difficult to spend time on arrangements like I did on my third album.
When I write a song it often comes along with a full sound, so it was a delight to get to explore that again on The Adventurist. I think I’m kinda good at arranging, actually. I have my own sound. Counterpoints are easy, there's always a million little co-melodies that are going along with the main one in my mind. So you get to hear some of that on The Adventurist.
In a way, making an album like this one or Garage Orchestra is like making a film. It takes a long vision and it takes a lot of money and loads of people have to be onboard with where it’s going. We are all on a ride. It's a lot of fun. I just let the arrangements and songs tell me what they want and hope that I have the knights at the roundtable to make its vision come into being.
NR!: Despite having a lot of players/instrumentation on these recordings, the orchestrated flourishes never feel overwrought. They are welcomed and even celebratory. How’d that happen? Good players or a particular studio recording style?
BERRYHILL: I sorta answered that above. But it’s staying true to the vision, or what I hear in my head. I'll have an idea, but it’s also the collaboration that makes it work. For instance, I had two bassists on the song “The Adventurist,” with Probyn Gregory playing a high treble-like part. When the other bassist, David J. Carpenter, came in and saw there was already a bassist in the room, he said he'd sit out. I said “Let’s have them both. You play the low parts and he plays higher.” If you listen, you can hear them both on the track working around one another. It turned out great, and they both had a blast working together on it. For me, the studio is the best party ever. It’s like throwing a party to honor that particular song. And yes, great players! I am so honored to have had some of my favorite musicians on this album.
NR!: “Thanks Again” is just great. It’s got this matter-of-fact truth to it ("thanks again for doing me in"). It's the type of sly, witty comment you can only make with someone you’re that close with, even in injury or death… like you know he’d get it. But it brings up another question: Were there subjects or themes that were off-limits in terms of writing these songs? Things too sacred or just too personal?
BERRYHILL: I definitely was not thinking of writing from any real personal experience on this album. Maybe with the exception of “Somebody's Angel,” but that song came from an imperative that my friend Dave Alvin gave me: "There's something that only you can say in a song, that comes out of this experience you've had." And even then, I had to put it in a form that took it away from me. The song is really a retelling of [Mel Tillis’ 1967 track] “Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town” — yep, that weird song about the guy that comes back from war all messed up and his wife takes care of him. I thought a lot about how hard it is to be a caregiver, and I realized that was what Ruby was. Didn't she have a right to go out now and then and see friends, people that could bolster her up after a hard day of taking care of her man? And maybe she did have an affair, so what, and maybe not. The truth is, she had to do whatever she had to. She had to find a way to keep her sanity while caring for her husband. So I thought of Ruby, and it made it far easier to tell the story. If you look at the lyrics in that way, you'll see it’s not so much about me and Paul really.
The other songs were tone poems and excursions into romantic love and the way it feels when you are in the thick of it or finally at the end, moving out of it. I’m not a very confessional sort of songwriter. I had an intention, in this case, a sort of Rumi intention of songwriting; what does desire and romantic love feel like. Of course, the fact that I’d had that kind of love with Paul, well, sure there is some of us in there.
I must say, I’ve been enjoying the ways folks are listening and interpreting the album. The stories they hear when they listen. To me, that is the greatest compliment. A good piece of art tells your story. Or the one you want to hear.
Are the songs about me and Paul? Yes and no.
NR!: Since the album is made and you’re playing shows and generally still living with all this material, I'm curious: How is the adventure going for you today, in the present?
BERRYHILL: I still relish the feeling the songs give me. It came out of a feeling of pure joy, and the invitation is still there, to bathe in it. In that way, they are really fun songs to play live. They emerged from a place of great joy and it’s easy to catch that feeling when I’m playing them now. In a time of socio-political unrest, perfect escapism perhaps.