Conversation With Dan Bern On “Breathe”

Aquarian Weekly 9/13/06BUZZ

TENDING OXYGEN BAR WITH DAN BERN A Conversation On Reflection And Dissection In “Breathe”

Dan BernThe paradox of the desert landscape is ample enough proof of the ying/yang turmoil which fueled the songs on the new Dan Bern record, “Breathe”, an aptly titled homage to hope and regret, pain and promise, heart and bones.

Of course this is the place where these introspective compositions were born, where their composer strides comfortably to his daily tennis forays and mineral baths and bicycle sojourns to nowhere. Of course this is where the beat-up acoustic guitar leapt from the wall of Bern’s private artist bunker, strewn with soiled paint brushes, discarded beer cans and pistachio shells, the crackling of ancient Hank Williams crooning from the corner tape player placed carefully above the perpetually suspended game of Scrabble.

Of course.

Somewhere out in the badlands of New Mexico, beyond the endless horizon of sun-scorched rock and bending cacti, framed by mountain peaks painted with snow, in a town better suited as the back lot for a black and white John Ford epic, Bern fashioned his ode to middle-aged angst, soulful longing, and blunt observations on love, life, and the brokered faith of uncertain future. This, his sixth full-length studio recording, accompanied over the past decade by five ep’s, four books, and a continuous schedule of touring the world with or without a band, encapsulates the road-weary experience of a true American troubadour.

Joined by what Bern calls his “dream team” collection of musicians and helmed by legendary producer Chuck Plotkin, who not only steered Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen recordings home, but Bern’s masterpiece “New American Language” five years ago, the pleasing melodies of “Breathe” are cleverly couched in humble arrangements that ferry the poignantly ruthless lyrics as if easing the sting of medicine.

James Campion: I believe it was one of the last times you played in New York that you prefaced one of the songs that ended up on “Breathe” as a song that was born of your environment, of being home and immersed in the idea of being introspective, retrospective, and then looking forth from where you were in life, an exercise in reciting to yourself in song. So do you view “Breathe” as a collection of songs written in a place of comfort where you could exhale?

“Stop what you’re doing and breathe” is like the answers are there, the answers are inside, but you can’t keep going at this pace and expect to right the ship.

Dan Bern: Yeah, taking time away from the road, being here in the desert, looking at the sky, just trying to get healthy. It also came from a completely different approach to writing songs for me. I think in the past I’d always written what the writer wanted to write and then sang it accordingly. At some point I got it into my head that I was a singer, so I started writing for the singer. So a batch of songs like “Remember Me”, “Tongue-Tied” sort of came out that way, as if some singer walked in and you’re a songwriter and he wants something to sing. So you give him something he could actually sing.

Did you plot ahead how you wanted to record “Breathe”, or who would produce it or play on it? Or was it merely serendipity how it all came together?

I think it was as I was writing these songs and thinking about making a record. There became a kind of urgency with this stuff, particularly with the songs “Breathe” and “Past Belief”.

How so?

Well, it’s a message: “Stop what you’re doing and breathe.” It’s the return of the messiah; the return of the “Jerusalem” guy from the first record and this is what he has to say now…to the whole world. If I was to find myself in front of five billion people suddenly with three minutes to tell them something…

…that’s what you’d say: “Stop what you’re doing and breathe”?

Yeah, rather than some specific thing like “Fix this!” or “Do this!” or “Do this differently.”

“Stop what you’re doing and breathe” is like the answers are there, the answers are inside, but you can’t keep going at this pace and expect to right the ship.

It’s like in the past when I had something like “Bush Must Be Defeated”, it became an urgent thing, and something that I needed to get out right then and sort of get behind. This is the ’05 version of that, I suppose.

So the theme of the record might also be a way of responding back to the younger you, the messiah, and you’re now at this point, or the messiah is at this point, and you’re commenting from that perspective. This makes me wonder if all that time on the road stumping against Bush for close to a year in ’04, the blood and guts you displayed for something you truly believed in, and all the shows and the two ep’s you put out and everything you accomplished, and in some ways painfully failed to accomplish, lead to the voice of “Breathe”. Could you have written the songs on this record had you not gone through that experience?

Oh, probably not. Some of it was the result of being broken, and not so much broken…um…I really don’t feel like my spirit was broken, just that my body was broken. (laughs) It required me to sort of learn how to breathe and listen to my insides.

So it was certainly cathartic.

Dan BernOh yeah. It’s funny because everybody reacts to the new thing you do based on the thing you did before. When I did the overtly political stuff, people were surprised by it based on what I had just done prior to that. You know, “Why are you doing this, I don’t understand?” And now people will probably go, “Well, have you abandoned the political stuff?” To me this is in some ways also political, it’s just more personal too, which is really, I think, what I do. There’s the stuff that’s out there and then the personal stuff. To me it’s always intertwined. I don’t really make the distinction between the personal and the political. The political stuff is personal to me, and the personal stuff is political. So I don’t know if I’ll ever make a record again like this one, because I was in a very specific head space for these songs, but I think I needed to make this one.

It’s very interesting that the two songs that became the impetus for this new collection are polar opposites in many ways. There is a conflict there. “Breathe” is a hard look from the inside and “Past Belief”, with that great line, “I’m willing to go on faith, but I’m past belief” is the viewpoint of a man who is more cynical about the things outside of himself he cannot control.

I don’t know that “Breathe” is just about “listening to yourself” as it is about all the rhythms of the universe being in there. Through listening to yourself and being aware of your breathing and slowing it down will lead you back out. And “Past Belief” is basically all the stuff that’s out there – “water’s are rising and world’s on fire.” Things you can’t control. At the same time that leads you back into “right here-right now”, this kind of “What have I got to do to get a little shuteye?” (laughs) It is kind of like breathing; the in and the out. They kind of reflect off each other.

There’s a great deal of outside forces mentioned throughout the songs on “Breathe” like the rain and the wind and standing against it, not unlike dealing with much of what you cannot control sometimes…like politics, no matter how personal you make it.

Yeah, and it will break you if you try and fight some of the big forces. It’s like those trees that bend in the wind. They’re fine, but the ones that try and fight it are the ones that end up broken and lying in the ditch.

The irony of the whole thing is breathing is involuntary, yet it seems like a metaphor for being more in control of your immediate environment: “Just breathe already!”

It’s weird, because it’s a subtle thing. It’s not controlling your breathing so much as it is being aware of it and allowing it to work for you. I mean, by breathing through different parts of your body you can open up all those cells that sometimes get clenched without you ever being aware of it. I don’t want to sound too fruity with all of this, (laughs) but it is a pretty primal thing, and I think everybody at some point in their lives needs to get down to these basic things. Having said that, in the first song on the record, “Trudy”, let’s discuss this “escape route” you write about “from my life, from my time”.

Do you feel when you brush off the dust of the road and you’re back home and you’re forced to be introspective and more isolated you become this other person? The one that writes, “Just one push of this button over here/New clothes, new face/New name, vanish with no trace.”

“I think a few years ago it would have scared me to make a record like this. I would have squelched it, short-circuited it somehow. You know, ‘I’m Dan Bern, I’m supposed to write about pop culture, I’m supposed to mess around with images of Jesus and Elvis and Einstein. That’s what I do.’ But that’s as limiting as anything else.”

Oh yeah…yeah. There are times I definitely forget that I even go out on stage and play, and have this life beyond what most people know of me, especially in the past few years when I was having a lot of ambivalence about ever doing this anymore. Well…yeah…you and I have had these conversations where I told you “I’m done. I quit. I’m not doing this anymore”, so it became necessary that when I do have breaks to completely disassociate myself form that aspect of what I do.

Strangely, I think I’ve come through that. Check with me in six weeks, (laughs) but I don’t think I’ll quite have that difficult a time with that anymore. But, yeah, there is that thing where at times you need to do different things: paint, play tennis, ride a bike, and sort of get back to yourself the way you were when you were 12-years-old.

I think almost all of the songs on “Breathe” are about, in one way or another, defining one’s self or redefining one’s self. For instance, the line from “Feel Like A Man” – “I’m lost, crazy lonesome/a plane with no place to land/And I do what I have to/ to make me feel like a man.” To me it’s coming from a person who lets go of himself, and like the line says…does what he has to do.

Yeah, I think to get back to there…you have to let go. Getting that far away from that grip that we have on ourselves, feeling like we can maintain some control, and to really let yourself get blown around by the wind, you can never get back from that. You know, we’ve seen people raving in the streets and they don’t know who they are. That’s extreme, obviously, but we sometimes go through some version of that, and if we come out the other side, we’re better for it.

Is this the most introspective of all of your records?

I think a few years ago it would have scared me to make a record like this. I would have squelched it, short-circuited it somehow. You know, “I’m Dan Bern, I’m supposed to write about pop culture, I’m supposed to mess around with images of Jesus and Elvis and Einstein. That’s what I do.” But that’s as limiting as anything else. There was a time when that was freeing, but if that becomes your job description and doesn’t allow for anything else…? I mean the reason you’re an artist in the first place is so that you don’t have to conform to what you or anyone else decides your place in the world is.

Was this a fun record to make?

It was probably the easiest record to make that I ever made. It was just really congenial. I liked everybody. Everybody got along. It was done pretty quickly. I was living on the beach, swimming in the ocean every morning before we went into the studio. There’s probably something in the songs that didn’t want to be terribly messed over and over and over with. Most of these are first and second takes. Almost all of them were live vocals. I tried to redo them or improve them, but, almost without exception, the vocal I sang as the whole thing was going down is what seemed the most right for the thing.

Which is the complete polar opposite of the last record you recorded with Chuck Plotkin, “New American Language”, which is a brilliant record, my favorite of yours, but one that took a year or so to finish, and one you pained over, right?

Yeah. It was just a completely different process. That one we did in two different towns over a long period of time. Chuck wasn’t there for all of it. He’d come in two or three times for a few days, and I’d send him tapes and we’d talk, but it wasn’t a soup to nuts kind of process for him.

We just took it a tune at a time and shook out the arrangement. Then we’d record it. If there was something we did six or seven, eight, nine times, it was usually the first or second take that we ended up using.

You’ll be touring this record?

Yeah, but I don’t really know how to tour a record as such, because what happens is I write some songs, we go in and record them, and at some point you gotta say, “Okay, that’s done.” Then the next song you write is for the next record, but it continues. But I’ve never felt like I’m touring a record. It’s like, “I have a new record for this tour,” which is cool.

Do you see being on the road with the new material as the final snapshot of the recording experience? In other words, do you see a tour of this kind as a celebration of the complete experience or have you already entered a new headspace and left the work back in the studio?

Well, both, really. Because in some ways once its mixed and mastered, it’s done, and I’m working on other songs, but at the same time it’s part of the whole sphere surrounding the whole thing. So, yeah, it is kind of a celebration, and I probably will emphasize the songs on this record. And there is a way the record doesn’t quite feel complete until you’ve gone out and played it and given people a chance to hear it and talk about it, and go on the radio and play a few songs from it.

This way you can just let the songs speak for themselves.

Yeah, it’s like “You want to know about the record, then listen to it…and then you tell me.”

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