Media Songs

David Berkeley | Oh Quiet World

At the start of 2020, Santa Fe-based songwriter/ author David Berkeley, his wife and their two young sons were living in Spain. Once the pandemic took hold of the city, David and his family caught one of the last flights out of Madrid. They didn’t have much time to pack or say their goodbyes, but on the way out the door, David grabbed the half century old Spanish guitar that he had bought on the outskirts of town.  That proved to be an auspicious last act because once they all made it back to America safely, the Berkeleys quarantined in a house that wasn’t theirs, in Rhode Island.  The attic of that Rhode Island house and the old Spanish guitar provided a means for David to process what had happened and to crystallize his thoughts into songs. The results became his newest record, Oh Quiet World, an album of songs written during and in direct response to the Covid pandemic.

The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed him a ‘musical poet’. His articulation and delicate fingerpicking are reminiscent of a young Cat Stevens. David Berkeley attended Harvard, where he graduated with a degree in literature. He has been a guest on This American Life, won the Kerrville New Folk competition and ASCAP’s coveted Johnny Mercer Songwriter Award. Berkeley has released six studio albums, one live album, and authored two books..

David says, “Oh Quiet World is a prayer for the world written during the time when everything stood still a while.” The whole album plays like a prayer, beginning with the call to “wake up in the early light,” and ending with the word, “amen.”

Kosmos | Welcome David. Tell us, do you think of yourself as primarily a poet or primarily a songwriter?

David | I guess I have a broad sense of poetry that includes a lot of different forms of art. I like to think of myself as a poet. Looked at more broadly, the process of writing poetry is one of trying to look closely at things and being able to articulate the magic in a moment or in an instance. If the question is more, do I see myself as a lyricist or a songwriter, I consider my craft to be that of writing songs.

Kosmos | How has the pandemic changed you?

David | It’s a hard answer because it’s an ongoing process. It’s like a roller coaster. I think in the beginning when a lot of what I consider to be extraneous anyway was shut down, when we were so grateful to have got out of a potentially dangerous situation in Spain, we were safely back in America, suddenly, we had a lot of time to ourselves and we weren’t at home yet. The world had stopped. It felt like we had everything we needed and it was, in a sense, lovely to not be distracted by that which we didn’t need. I suppose that was the honeymoon period, which is the space in which I wrote the record. The honest truth now is that as we’ve gotten back to our home, it’s proved more challenging. I think that the reality of this pandemic, the uncertainty of how long it’s going to continue, the wrestling with online schooling, getting work done, and getting back into these routines, given this reality, has been a lot harder.

Kosmos | How do you find hope amidst the current political wreckage?

David | In all of my dealing with the pandemic, the truth is that I’m actually more stressed about the political world than I am about the pandemic. I write some political songs, and earlier in my career, I think I wrote political songs that were a little bit more literal. Now my political songs are more abstract, which I’m more comfortable with. I’m definitely not my best self when I’m in those political shoes. I have a hard time keeping my cool. As a father who tries to raise children who have big hearts and open minds, it’s really painful to see what I see right now.

Kosmos | As a parent and an artist, would you say that is the primary weight you carry?

David | I don’t want to overstate it because the weight I’m carrying, it’s so much lighter than the weight that many people are carrying. I’m healthy, my family is healthy. I’m not hungry. I have a pale complexion. I’m basically as fortunate as one could be. In that respect, my weight is quite light, and I think that that’s an important starting point. That said, everyone’s suffering is their own and you don’t want to make light of someone’s pain just because they’re not underprivileged or part of an oppressed group. I think that my weight is that I am scared about our world. I’m worried about the climate, and I’m worried about our political world. That’s heavy, and that’s something that everyone who is aware of the energy in the world right now feels

I try to live as much in the moment with my family, and with the parts of the world that bring me joy, which are many. I try to laugh and find the levity in things as much as possible. I try to be productive and focus on small tasks at hand, but also the big tasks of trying to be creative and to write songs and stories. I try to nurture my inner spiritual world, as much as I can. I try to be active and I try to have my kids be as active as possible as well. I try to bring as much joy into the community around me as I can, and hope that that spreads out. I’m getting a master’s in Western classics through St. John’s College which is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time but because I tour, I have never been able to commit the time. I’ve felt somehow that nurturing the inner world can help us to see the outer world with a little bit more clarity and hope.

Kosmos | I found a quote of yours and part of that quote said, “Ultimately, we can’t be afraid of the world. It’s the stuff we’re made of.” Just wondering if you can explain and expand on that?

David | I was in Rhode Island where we were living at the time and I was very close to the ocean. I had found a little place on the rocks, right up on the water and it had started to rain while I was meditating. Rarely do songs come to me this way, but I was thinking along the lines of the mantra and this phrase – all that we are is sky, and earth, and stars, and rain came to me.

At that time in the COVID world I was thinking particularly about my parents and just how fragile and frail they were feeling in their bodies, and how other the world was feeling. Climate change is an example of us also being at odds with our environment, but it seemed like a real breaking point at that moment, that we were suddenly feeling so unsafe in our skin and in our skin’s interaction with the world around us, and yet this is the stuff that we are all made of. When I think about what I want to say to children, it is a message that is more like the one that I sing, which is remembering the natural order of the world in its healthy sense and our place in that. Ultimately, the message is that we need to find a harmony with our world, and we need to figure out a way of living in this modern life in a way that doesn’t make us at odds with the world around us.

Kosmos | In your song Beside the Shuttered Doors, you express this really lovely sentiment that when we come back, may we come back changed. I’m just curious, what are some of the post pandemic changes you’re hoping for? What kind of transformations are needed for a brighter future to be possible?

David | I would love for there to be a smaller emphasis on consumerism and on the commodification of the world and our minds. Of course, there’s the problem of jobs and there’s a problem of what we do, but I wish that our lives weren’t so oriented around economic growth, and more about figuring out a way that we can live peacefully and healthily without that emphasis. There is an alignment of a possibility right now and it would be nice to try to channel as much of our hopeful energy as possible toward that being a moment of true change.

The distorted old Spanish guitar, ready for a Facebook virtual gig.

Kosmos | I want to turn to the process of creating these songs. You used the old Spanish guitar, which was the last thing you grabbed. Why?

David | I do know that I didn’t have the intention to create a record. I had the desire to try to articulate something of value and of positivity to my children, and also to the world. I had a desire to get a message out to anyone who happened to listen to what I was singing, that there was a virtue and grace in this time too, that it wasn’t just bad. That contrasted quite considerably with what I was hearing from some of my family, or much of the news where it was only a catastrophe. I wanted that positive side to be true. Somehow working through these songs was a way of doing that. I don’t often write with a lot of intention, and I wrote these songs very quickly, which is not normal for me. In many ways, I feel like the record almost just wrote itself and that doesn’t ever happen to me.

Kosmos | At what point did you realize, “Hey, this is a record”?

David | I wrote a batch of songs and was writing almost a song a day, or every couple of days and didn’t really focus on editing or being too fussy. I released these very homemade videos just of me in my bedroom of this house, singing the song. Once I had about seven or eight of them, I got a call from one of my long-time collaborators and musicians who has toured with me for many, many years, a trumpet player in Los Angeles named Jordan Katz. He said, “I think we have to make a record of these songs.” It was really his idea. Ultimately, the record is basically all me in these bedroom sessions of recording, but I did enlist him to layer a few textures on it. This great friend of mine in Atlanta named Will Robertson, ended up mixing and producing the record for me from there. He played a number of different instruments on it as well. The core of it is all of these home recordings, and then in a couple of different homes in different parts of the country, they added a few other parts.

Kosmos | Did you trade tracks by just emailing them to each other? I’m curious about how that collaborative process was accomplished.

David | We used a couple of different sharing systems. Dropbox was one of them for a while, but then there were other ones that we used that allowed us to note the chronology of the tracks with ease. There is a great software sharing system that I used on a couple of the tracks with my producer in Atlanta, where he could actually open his session of Pro Tools, which is the software we were using in his studio in Atlanta. I could see the dials moving. I could watch him change levels, and I could actually hear it in real time. That was a real saving grace because when you mix and you have to give feedback and you’re not in the same room, it can be incredibly difficult. You can ask for many things and then either the changes are too severe or not enough, and you have to keep going back and forth.

Kosmos | So you recorded the bed tracks in the Rhode Island house. Then you shared them, and after that, you were able to collaborate remotely with the engineer?

David | Yes. For me, vocals and guitar were played all at once with literally one mic and no fancy gear at all because I only had the gear that I brought to Spain. I didn’t have any other options but I think that that served the project because I think the goal was to have it feel like you’re in the room with me and not much else. The software was more sophisticated than Zoom. With Zoom, the audio clarity wouldn’t have been sufficient to make the kind of changes that we had to make. This was a step up.

Kosmos | Were your wife and kids willing backup singers or did you have to cajole them into that?

David | They were surprisingly willing. As much as we sometimes have pushback between us, and I can’t get my almost 14 year old to do anything that I say, he was actually happy to sing on it, and my younger son definitely was as well. My wife sang on another of my records once too, so she’s a veteran. They didn’t want to be on camera when I recorded the video parts so they were off camera.

Kosmos | By the time the record was ready for release, were you back in New Mexico or still in Rhode Island?

David | We were in Cape Cod for a little bit, then Taos and finally back here. The record was ready to be released and I had intended to release it in late May. That was right around the time when all of the racial issues came to the fore in our country. I shelved it for a while because this was the most topical thing I had ever done. It still speaks to most moments, because I think it’s about bigger things, but there was a particularly charged thing happening around the George Floyd time. It didn’t seem appropriate to release it.

Kosmos | How did you handle the release? Did you have socially distanced live gigs or did you have to do a virtual gig?

David | Unfortunately, it was probably the weirdest and least exciting release I’ve ever had. Ordinarily, I would tour and do various press campaigns, and I couldn’t do any of that. We didn’t even make a physical record, only digital. I did a number of online shows in conjunction with various venues and on my own but nothing that I really consider to be a fitting release. I love to tour and I love to sing songs in front of, and with people. That’s why I do this. I was excited to share these songs in person with people because this record is really personal and relates to things that almost all of us have been going through. I still feel like I haven’t really released this record. I don’t know that it will ever get more of a release, which is a shame…

Kosmos | Written, recorded, performed and released…in  isolation.  What did you need to learn and how did you need to adapt to perform virtually?

David | I had a couple of technical issues early on, but I haven’t had many technical hurdles since. I don’t know that the sound I get is exceptional, but I think it’s fine, and I think people have generally been fairly generous about that on the listener side. The hardest thing, for me, has been that I don’t get that experience of singing in an actual physical space with real people and that’s what it’s about for me. The last thing I want to see is myself looking back at me when I’m singing.

Kosmos | Will this be a spontaneous fleeting response to unique circumstances, or will you continue to host virtual gigs?

David | Well, I definitely am looking forward to not having to rely on the virtual gig. However, I will say one thing, there has been a beautiful gift in this. I’ve been able to reach audiences and people that I don’t normally get to sing for. Despite the lack of intimacy and connection on my end, I think that some audience members feel that there’s quite a bit of intimacy and connection on their end because I’m pretty close to them, at least it seems that way through a screen. I can respond directly to questions and I wouldn’t be as able to in a larger performance. You’re seeing my home and there is a value to that. I might continue to do some of them, particularly, with my duo project called Son of Town Hall that I’m in with a partner of mine in London. The virtual concert is something we had never known was an option before.

Stars and Rain | featuring David’s wife Sarah and his children. “There’s a lot to be scared of right now, but ultimately we can’t be afraid of the world. It’s the stuff we’re made of.” Soundcard by Kari Auerbach
Beside the Shuttered Doors | A fan-made video by Ehud Lazin using photography he took on an iPhone of the empty streets of New York during the Corona pandemic.

Kosmos | What is your wider picture for the decade?

David | I certainly don’t have an easy, quick answer to that. One of the great gifts that I have received from getting to tour, is that I really get to experience the world at its best, I’m able to connect with a lot of different parts of the world and see the common good in so many people. That gives me great hope, that down deep, there’s much more good than evil and the things that we share outweigh the differences. In some ways, that’s what I want to share in my songs. 10 years is a long time but I look forward to remembering that more actively.

Kosmos | What’s your idea of a great community? If you could pick where and what it would look like, what do you see?

David | I definitely get excited by cities but I’m mostly happy when I’m pretty far out in the wilderness. I like diversity, and that’s the challenge because what you hope you mean is a diversity of voices and opinions. As we know right now, that is hard because we don’t often actually like the difference of opinion part. We want people to look different than us, but actually think the same and that’s tricky.

I like intergenerational communities. I think that’s lacking but really important and I want my children to be part of that. Another kind of diversity that is often lacking, is the temporal one. I want communities that are generous and thoughtful. I like gatherings that are creative and where it’s generative, where it feels like we leave a gathering richer and better than we came.

Kosmos | Plato said that we come into the world with purpose. And then we drink from the river of forgetfulness and it’s up to us to find it again.

David | Socrates would say, it’s a kind of recollection; that we basically contain all that we need within us. We just have to open up to it.

Kosmos | Thank you so much for these really beautiful tunes. I’m hoping that if given some wings and legs, they might reach some new places so that when you can safely tour or if you find yourself moving again, the new community will have already heard of you. “Oh, Quiet World, right? You’re David Berkeley!”

David | Absolutely. Thank you!

About Kari Auerbach

Kari Auerbach is Music Editor at Kosmos Quarterly. She grew up all over the world learning about music and working as a jewelry designer. Currently living in New York City, she is social media director for several recording artists and a jewelry instructor for the New York Institute of Art and Design. She enjoys her many roles as a teacher, artist, mother, mentor, as well as advocating for artists, children, and a better, cleaner world.

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