Home ANS Feature David Berkeley: Boats in the High Desert

David Berkeley: Boats in the High Desert

by Brian Nixon

By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service

buddyhollySANTA FE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – April 24, 2016) — There’s lots New Mexico has to offer: beautiful landscape (think Carlsbad Caverns and the Rocky Mountains), art (New Mexico is the third largest art market in the US), and culture (the confluence of Native American, Spanish, and Anglo make it unlike any other place in the US).

But one thing is usually missing when discussing New Mexico: it’s vibrant music.

There’s the storied history of New Mexico music: Buddy Holly recorded his early hits in Clovis, New Mexico [1]. And the Doors, Jim Morrison, lived in Albuquerque twice, being heavily influenced by the culture [2].

But since the 1960’s, people are not too sure what defines New Mexico music. Some folks may have a scant understanding that the Platinum-selling flamenco guitarist, Ottmar Liebert, lives in New Mexico; or the Grammy Award winning flutist, Robert Mirabal, is from the state; and still others may think that Mariachi is played on every corner (not quite, but it rocks many places in the region).

So it may come as a surprise that New Mexico — along with other places in the Southwest [3]– has a unique sound, producing amazing artists such as The Shins, Beirut, and Grammy award winner, Ryan Bingham.

But one of the most talented and enigmatic artists that make New Mexico home is singer-songwriter, David Berkeley.

Born David Friedland in New Jersey, Berkeley is a Harvard graduate, writer, and musician that composes compelling and thought provoking music, some of the finest in the Southwest — or anywhere else for that matter.

CardboardBoatHaving released six albums, Berkeley’s newest recording, Cardboard Boat, is thus far his Magnus Opus, a brilliant album that accompanies a novella he penned, The Free Brontosaurus. Together, the CD and book highlight alienation, yearning, and a hope for redemption—all beautiful writ around well-crafted stories.

Berkeley told CBS news reporter, Lauren Moraski, “A few years ago, I began dreaming up a world of overlapping stories all set in the same fictional city at the same moment in time,” the Harvard graduate told CBS News. “The stories would portray slightly off-kilter characters who don’t fit in smoothly with mainstream society and who often find beauty in strange and somewhat surprising places. These characters might meet in each other’s tales, some could fall in love, some would just find a friend. Though each character no doubt would have struggles, I wanted the stories to ultimately be uplifting, celebrating the potential for connection even among people for whom that is rare.”

And in a recent PBS interview, Berkeley describes the backdrop of writing both the book and music, explaining why stories “connect people,” stating, “Ultimately what brings us together has to be something that hits us at a more of an emotional core [5].”

Yet the album is more than just stories, there is fine musicianship (with the help of notable musicians such as Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins) and melodic, well-crafted songs, bringing together diverse instrumentation such as banjo, trumpet, and accordion in a cohesive whole, something akin to what I’d call a tone poem (to borrow the phrase from the composer Franz Liszt).

TheFreeBrontosaurusConcerning the sound of Cardboard Boat, writer, Lee Zimmerman, describes it as “elusive and affecting, boast[ing] a soft shimmering aura all its own [6].”

But what is most striking about the album and book are the narratives, a contrast of characters living ordinary lives (some would say, dreary), but underlining each character is a search for meaning and purpose; a yearning for something more in life — be it God, relationships, or redemption. Some of the characters in the book are eccentric; others are just trying to make it with through the daily toil of living. But all are seeking something more.

As an example, in the song Brighter Day, Berkeley sings about why people pray, a hope of mending a “heart that’s never whole”:

By the time the fruit was tasted the fall was long in the cards
By the time the earth was shaking we all were rattled hard.
My oh my it’s been like this for too long. It’s why we pray.

“That there is a brighter day.
Can you see it coming close, my love.

Wait, please don’t run away
tell me what is it we’re so scared of

“Cause I have tried to look for God in the cracks before the sky.
And in the eyes the lost and lonely attract. It’s why we pray

“Lord, you know the hardest gift was a heart that’s never whole.
And so we search the farthest reaches and parts. It’s why we pray. It’s why we pray. It’s why I pray.”

And in the title track, Cardboard Boat, Berkeley uses the metaphor of a boat as a means to show the human condition of riding on something that is bound to sink due to it’s construction:

“I’m on a cardboard boat
And the water is high
When you’re on your own
Feels like there’s nowhere to hide
I’m on a cardboard boat
Tonight.”

DavidBerkeleyIn the end, Cardboard Boat and The Free Brontosaurus are more than just a pop album and book; they are theological mediations on human fragility and hope, with a touch of remorse and an ethereal, existential seeking that is found in only the best songwriters and writers working today. And David Berkeley is one of them.

It’s musicians like Berkeley that keep New Mexico a place of wonder, helping define the Land of Enchantment (the state motto) as an mysterious region, known for it’s landscape, art, culture—and music.

David will be playing a few shows in the New Mexico area over the next few months, go to his website for more information: http://davidberkeley.com

1) http://www.sloppynoodle.com/wp/i-sat-on-buddy-holly%E2%80%99s-couch/

2) http://www.sloppynoodle.com/wp/jim-morrison-new-mexico-the-beautiful-gallows-and-the-gothic-connection/

3) http://server.greedbegone.com/~assist/index.php/component/k2/item/1671-the-southwest-sound-music-to-stretch-the-ears-and-confound-the-senses

4) http://www.cbsnews.com/news/album-premiere-david-berkeley-returns-with-cardboard-boat/

5) http://portal.knme.org/video/2365719617/

6) http://www.popmatters.com/review/196745-david-berkeley/ 

Photo captions: 1) Buddy Holly. 2) Cardboard Boat. 3) The Free Brontosaurus. 4) David Berkeley. 5) Brian Nixon.

Brian NixonAbout the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.

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