STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
Singer-songwriter David Berkeley has a new duo Son of Town Hall with singer-songwriter Ben Parker of London. Berkeley has been recording under his own name since 2002 and he is also a published author. His most recent solo album, “Cardboard Boat” (Straw Man, 2015), was released with the companion book of short stories entitled “The Free Brontosaurus” (Rare Bird Books, 2015).
“The book and album was a very long piece of work for me,” said Berkeley in a telephone interview from his home in Santa Fe, NM. “It took a lot out of me creatively and emotionally and I think I was looking for a little bit of a break from my own head and heart and the intensity of that. So the idea of kind of diving into something that was very much mine but not just me was really appealing.”
Son of Town Hall is all about a journey for Berkeley and Parker and they invite the audience to join them on this journey. The premise is that they are sailors in the late 1800s, and they dress the part.
“The prime purpose of the travel is to get to where we’re going,” explained Berkeley, “but there’s not much to do out on the open waters and so most of our time is spent playing songs and writing music. And then we would share those songs with other boats that would pass by. Tether our raft to another ship and we’d float for a while. And they’d share songs, we’d share songs … and once we get to wherever we’re going on dry land, whether it’s Europe or America, we would present those songs.
“It’s an incredible experience to get to play on dry land the songs that we learned or wrote out at sea. Often when we’re playing together out in the ocean our instruments lose strings, they go out of tune, they crack, they get wet, waterlogged. And so it’s a real luxury to be able to perform them in quiet theaters where the stage isn’t rocking and our instruments have all their strings.”
The real life story is that Berkeley and Parker have been friends since they toured together in England, on Berkeley’s first tour of the country.
“Ben is an incredible songwriter and side man for a number of amazing bands in Europe and we had a great time together on the road, just the two of us, and had long wanted to do something together,” said Berkeley.
The opportunity finally presented itself.
“It was (Ben’s) idea initially but we kind of let it sit and didn’t do much with it. And then I found myself in a hotel room, I think in Boston, with a little extra time, so I decided to try to write something that I thought would be cool for him to do. I recorded it on my computer and sent it to him. It was a little video and I said ‘let’s do this.’ That, I think, was the start.”
Having a collaborator has been a welcome change for Berkeley. And it gives him the opportunity to return to his first musical love: vocal harmonies.
“One of the things that… made me start playing music is my love of harmony and singing with other people,” said Berkeley. “I tend to often have side men that don’t sing that much. This project is very Simon and Garfunkel-y in terms of the harmonies, basically pretty complex harmonies throughout. That for me is my greatest joy as a musician — singing with other people. And to get to do that on stage is just the best for me.”
And despite being accustomed to writing autonomously, Berkeley said that the songwriting collaborations have been an enjoyable experience. He also enjoys the opportunity to write from the perspective of fictional characters within the framework of the story line.
“I’ve really enjoyed the feedback and (Ben’s) ideas and his songs. This isn’t like your typical Nashville co-writing situation where you’re sitting in a room with someone you don’t really know to write a pop song. This is someone I trust and love and respect and I think he feels the same.”
He added: “I think we have different strengths and they complement each other really well. Maybe I have a little bit more of a lyrical strength and he has more of a musical strength as far as coming up with really great changes or a bridge idea. And I can kind of edit some of his lyrics and we try to give to each other where we can.”
Beyond the premise of the characters, what really comes out is great songs being performed well.
“It’s really about these songs, which I’m incredibly proud of. I think they’re beautiful and really powerful. What’s amazing is to think about how some imagined character from the 1890s, doing something pretty different from our lives right now, might have been wrestling with the same ghosts and demons, might be struggling with the same complex emotional world that I am or that Ben is or that you are as a listener. You place these things in a very different time and yet it turns out that the essential heart message is the same.”
Berkeley added: “I do think that the live show is a pretty incredible experience. We intersperse our songs with readings about the sea – some that we wrote ourselves and some that came from famous writings about ocean travel. Everything is delivered with a really dead pan delivery… so you have this dual experience of having it be both extremely funny and also the songs being, I think, pretty moving and heartbreaking and very tender.”
Son of Town Hall has recorded a two-song vinyl 45 and a four-song CD, both self-titled, which will be available at the show.