Eddie Berman Tackles The Dualities And Joys Of Life In ‘Broken English’ (INTERVIEW)

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Modern Folk artist Eddie Berman recently released his latest album, Broken English, which brings across a big sweep of cosmic themes in a very intriguing way through layered lyrics with plenty of cultural references to ponder. The album was very much recorded in ways inspired by Covid challenges, with Berman working remotely and recording all of his parts at home. This led to some musical shifts for him, moving more fully into a guitar-based approach on Broken English, in contrast to his more usual banjo-based compositions in the past. He discovered new opportunities in sound directions based on this and the result is a highly energetic and cohesive album that feels very intentional in its explorations. 

I spoke with Eddie Berman from his home in Portland, Oregon, about his discovery of the value of reading great literature a few years ago has impacted him as a person, as well as how that might have impacted these new songs. We also talked about several tracks from the album and the dualities they explore and examine as part of a return to joy, a return that might only be possible if we get out of our modern comfort zones a little more regularly. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: I saw something that you mentioned online about having an experience that led you to start reading more books and that had enriched your life. I could really relate to that because something like that happened to me a few years ago. Could you tell me more about that?

Eddie Berman: I was never a great student. I did okay on tests, but it was always a game, asking, “What’s the least amount of work I can do?” I think it was something about the obligation of it all. I gravitated towards music eventually and that clicked in some way. It wasn’t a struggle and nobody was telling me to do it. About three years ago, I came to the realization that my attention span had been ground down to a nub and I needed to reclaim it in some way. I wondered what I was missing. 

I picked up The Brothers Karamozov because I’d heard it referred to as a really interesting book. The version that I read was a little archaic in translation, so it took me a while, but I slowly built that muscle back. Then it was about finding people like Annie Dillard and Paul Kingsnorth. Harold Bloom put me onto Blood Meridian, the Cormac McCarthy book. It’s violent and insane, but it’s profound and philosophical. So much of the book is made up of amazing descriptions of landscape. 

I’m going through some of Bloom’s Western Canon. The other day, I finished reading War and Peace. I feel like it’s just another dimension that I had closed myself off from. The music that I’ve usually loved has been from a singular voice, and that’s also been true of the movies and TV shows that I like, coming from only one or two people, whether it’s Seinfeld, The Wire, or Deadwood. We’re all trying to get back to that beautiful communication between one mind and another and inhabit that mind. It’s getting to see dimensions of life from a different viewpoint. 

HMS: I found that I stopped reading as much because of working too much. Then I discovered that non-fiction really appealed to me and I was able to get back into reading books more often. I totally agree with you that it takes some willpower if you’re not used to it, because we aren’t used to paying attention for longer periods of time anymore. I think you become a totally different person based on the books that you read.

EB: I totally agree because, even now, think about how we are being so inundated with so much information that influences us. What is it that David Foster Wallace said, that TV is made by “people who hate you”? Everything that we’re involved with now is like that, whether it’s apps or other content. 

HMS: I heard that Broken English was originally going to be a banjo-based album. What led to it becoming more guitar-based?

EB: I wrote the whole album on the banjo and thought it would be a banjo album. During the time when I realized that I was going to have to record them all myself, due to Covid, I changed my mind. The banjo is a tough instrument to play while singing because it’s so loud. I try to do everything as live as I can. As I was transposing it back to the guitar, I wasn’t sure about things, but it sounded good on the guitar. Only one song stayed banjo, but I put some claw-hammered banjo on a number of songs. 

I think the writing and recording process is, for me, like a reinterpreting of my own songs anyway. There was something really cool about that which led to different rhythms and playing styles. It probably led to me doing a little less finger picking than I usually do. I was doing a lot more strumming, without a pick, and it was doing this percussive, dull but melodic thing that spoke to the songs. I wanted to explore that some more. 

HMS: How do you feel about talking about your song lyrics? Do you prefer to leave things up to the audience’s interpretation?

EB: I’m okay with talking about song lyrics because I think I know more about them than anyone else does. Especially because these songs on the album were written two years ago, though, my own understanding of the songs has changed, and they continue to change all the time. I don’t necessarily want to hear Bob Dylan going through “Visions of Johanna” line by line, telling me what it’s about, but I like to know generally what he’s thinking. 

HMS: I bring that up because I feel like I can see ways in which your reading has informed your songwriting. You mentioned Cormac McCarthy, and I can see that the song “Cherokee Rose” has a connection to Blood Meridian.

EB: Yes, that’s the part that I mentioned about the landscapes. Anyone who has read the book wouldn’t necessarily listen to the song and see a connection, but there are these really amazing passages about deserts and the sea. That, combined with the feeling of the ending of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, influenced the song. “Cherokee Rose” is actually the only song I wrote during Covid. I had a guitar part and melody that I really loved but I didn’t know what to do with it. 

Then the idea came to me as a song for my wife, imagining two people walking through this landscape and in an Annie Dillard sort of way. They are seeing both the micro and macro level of things, whether it’s the flowers beneath their feet or the constellations above them, there are parts of the landscape that are comforting and others that are terrifying. There’s a slow journey out to the sea for some sort of revelation that may or may not ever come.

HMS: I think that’s amazing that after reading two very existential books, you came up with this song that feels a lot more hopeful than those books.

EB: Maybe that’s why I do gravitate towards art forms that are so different from music, to find these influences that can come through you. It’s these small moments. I’m not going to write a song about people trying to uncover a conspiracy or a song about violent psychopaths, but those other, more ethereal parts of those books kind of came through me, through the little prism of my own bizarre mind. You’re right that I ended up with a much sweeter song.

HMS: Well, there’s an opposition between those two things, a dualism to the images that are beautiful and terrifying. But it’s the mood as much as anything that brings a sense of hope. It’s perfect that you used footage of The Grand Canyon for the video, given that landscape connection.

EB: Other than the two animated videos that we’ve done, I’ve done all the artwork for the album, singles, and videos. There was something about the found footage element that I really loved. 

HMS: I’m pretty crazy about the video for “Taurus”. I don’t even know how you could have found something that goes so well with the song. 

EB: I did a little bit of manipulation of the video. I was looking through public domain footage, and I had seen some work by Georges Melies before. He did the film of the rocketship that goes to the moon. I had come across another really good one, too, with a cauldron, but I watched this one with the track. I found some moments where it almost matched completely with the song. I didn’t have to tweak things much. As I was listening to it, there’s the moment where the devil is going to grab the guy at the end, and it hit the last lyric and note exactly. Then I knew it was clearly the right thing to use.

HMS: When I listen to just the song, there’s so much about weird dualism and Western ideas of good and evil in there, to put it with this video makes it both sinister and funny. It’s hilarious. Do you think of “Taurus” as being a particularly dark song within your history of songwriting?

EB: Well, when you think about the span of a single day, you can see the highs and the lows that you have within a single day. You can have rapturous joy and total misery. I think “Taurus” was more tinged with the idea of the doom that awaits us in different ways. The different afflictions our times seem to bring to us. 

HMS: I wanted to also bring up “Song of Joy”. This is a really cool song because it seems to invert expectations. It’s definitely a kind of upbeat song in some ways, but we don’t get off that easily. What do you think about that, and why did you put it at the end of the album?

EB: I think there may be a little bit in there about the destruction of the ego. Sometimes my understanding of songs deepens and broadens after the writing process, but the one part about being third in line at the guillotine, is based on the story about Dostoevsky where he was sentenced to death and put in line, then they killed one person and sent the rest to Siberia. This also happens near the end of War and Peace. Anyway, for him it was this soul-destroying moment in line, for better or worse, a huge moment that shifted his entire mental disposition. 

This song is about those different levels of self-destruction, and about seeing yourself as part of this beautiful, vast universe, that you are as much part of as the furthest star. There is a kind of Buddhist sensibility to it. So many different people, from religious or non-religious backgrounds talk about it. Whether it’s Meister Eckhart, Christians, or Muslims, there is often that through-line that we are all part of the same thing. Sometimes there’s a real violence and darkness that precedes that realization, and maybe it has to. It’s that idea of being born anew. I think that’s why it felt like the last song, too. 

HMS: How significant is the title of the album to you?

EB: Broken English was one of the themes that ran through the album, the limitations of language. That can also apply to thinking, which dilutes and separates things, or as Alan Watts says, thinking of life as the menu rather than the meal. If there’s anything negative in any of the songs, it usually stems from me trying to talk to myself about this. I think “Song of Joy” narrows things down in a way, toward the idea of ego death or something like that.

HMS: The different belief systems you’re mentioning, for the most part, have the idea that there’s a moment when one thing turns into its opposite in a moment of revelation. That really chimes with the feeling of “Song of Joy” for me, because it explains how a devastating moment can also somehow prompt this feeling of joy. It’s when something flips.

EB: Completely. I think that’s also because we get are in a kind of pleasure machine these days where we get all our tasty treats delivered to us, whether it’s Netflix or DoorDash. I’m guilty of all this stuff, completely, too, and it’s a difficult to extricate yourself from the warm feeling that brings. It’s like we were saying about reading books and trying to concentrate on that. I can’t even concentrate on a TV show if I have a phone on my lap! But old literature has been talking about the same issues and problems of ours for hundreds, if not thousands of years. 

Photo credit: Joanna-Berman

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