If They Are Laughing, You Can Talk about Anything
A conversation with singer-songwriter Dan Bern
By Grant Rosenberg
Photos by Laure Feton

With five albums to his name, Dan Bern quietly makes his way around the world, bringing music to people. Never taking himself too seriously, Bern vacillates between outright comedic ditties and songs packed with more solemnity than one expects. A troubadour with a penchant for pop culture, he’s the David Sedaris of folk music. "Yes, exactly," you find yourself saying as you listen along. His most recent album is New American Language (Messenger Records), and on the title track he sings, "I have a dream of a new pop music that tells the truth, with a good beat and some nice harmonies." When Bern isn’t spinning what-if tales about Marilyn Monroe marrying Henry instead of Arthur Miller, or finding himself living in Ani Difranco’s mother’s house, he’s humbly working that truth thing—often in the form of the talkin’ blues. Bern spoke to Gadfly after the second of a two-night gig in Paris.

Gadfly: What do you see as the relationship between comedy and music?

Dan Bern: I don’t really separate it. I don’t go, "Now I’m being comical, now I’m being serious." I think you bring everything you have to what you do and comedy is part of life. You can’t go too many days without laughing or too many months without crying. Sometimes it’s strictly technique, of course. This terrorist shit is ridiculous. In this climate, how can I talk about it? Well, I better make sure they are laughing. If they are laughing you can talk about anything.

Lyrically, some of your songs play like stream of consciousness, as if you are just as surprised where the song is going as we are.

Yeah, a lot of the time when I play a song for the first time that I haven’t played in awhile, it’s like I’m hearing it as it’s going by too. That’s the fun of leaving things go for awhile, so you’re not so familiar with it.

How has growing up in a small town in Iowa formed the kind of music you make?

I think a lot times when I was younger, I wished I had grown up in New York. Now having a little more perspective, having been in New York, I’m glad we have New York to visit. It’s always felt like home, but I think I’m glad I didn’t grow up there. Because many immigrants grow up there, and there’s a certain commonality to it. My particular case was a little weirder, to grow up in a really small town with parents who had three-fourths of them still in Europe. I feel that as a songwriter or any kind of writer, one has a different perspective than many who grew up the child of immigrants.

How do you adapt your set for non-native-English-speaking audiences?

I think you are always conscious of your audience to some degree. From night to night in the States, the audience is not going to change that much. At least your idea of who you are playing to. But in Europe, from country to country, it changes everyday. For instance, in last night’s show here, I felt I had done not as good a job of that. But we had just been in Germany for a week, and it carried over from there. I was playing my German set last night. I have so many songs I forget about. They start sort of bubbling up to the top if you are in a certain place. It’s also about what I want to be singing. I don’t want to be in Paris singing about Texas. A little bit, you bring some of it. I was feeling Jacques Brel tonight. All evening I kept remembering him, letting his spirit come through.

A lot of your songs namecheck pop cultural figures like Marilyn Monroe, Henry Miller, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, to name a few. Beyond simply naming them you create alternative realities for them. What attracts you to writing songs about these people?

They’re just our icons. They speak to me the same way they speak to everyone else. You admire them, but it’s also kind of creepy, their icon-ness. The actual life, the actual person versus the appearance. It’s fun to play with. It’s also a kind of shorthand. People understand who you are talking about. You don’t need to sit there and explain your characters. It’s like, here’s the film and suddenly Marilyn walks in and you interact with her.

You have this obvious humor to songs, but underneath it there’s an air of menace sometimes. In the song "New American Language" you mention saturation bombing, followed by the line, "I dream mostly about love." It’s messy, nothing’s clean and easy.

Look around. Suicide bombings everyday, threat of nuclear war, global warming, which we don’t even think about that’s happening seriously. There’s this, there’s that, and then there’s The Simpsons. And Jim Jarmusch and Beck and the White Stripes. I don’t know. It’s a bittersweet world. You don’t want to beat people up with the music. You want to give them some respite without being just bumblegum and escape-y. It’s a balance. So you bring some reality and you twist it a bit, give it a little bit of distance that way. If you can laugh at the shit, your soul is going to survive. It’s like those "Laughter in Auschwitz" books, those chronicles of the jokes that circulated through there. It’s survival. I don’t know how people survive without humor or music or poetry or paintings. For me that’s pure survival, can’t live without it.

So many well-respected musicians are now selling their songs for advertisements and even appearing in ads, such as the Gap. It seems selling out has changed. What’s your take on that?

I’ve always felt pure about that. You don’t sell the song for a commercial because after that the song is no longer viable. Bob Seger can’t sing "Like a Rock" and have anyone think of anything but Chevy. Which is bullshit. But like everything else in this culture, they take commerciality to the nth degree. Like Moby did, selling every song on Play. I can see where that becomes part of the art. The brazen salesmanship of it becomes some statement in itself.

Depending on the statement you want to make.

It depends if you are in control or not. I think Moby is in control. Britney Spears is probably not. Although when she winks and says Pepsi I get weak in the knees.

So where are you going? People who do "talkin’ blues" songs are usually not on the cover of Rolling Stone. What are your plans?

I just want to make records. I’m behind right now. I’ve got billions of songs that I think are good, and I’m continuing to write. I want to make one record a year.

Is that feasible?

I need to figure out a way to make it that way.

You used to be on Sony, now you’re on Messenger Records. Do you have more control now that you are recording for a smaller label?

It’s a trade-off. You don’t have a big chunk of money to waste (which is nice). It’s good though because it makes you better, to figure out ways to do things you want to do.

Fans take your music personally. Since you are so accessible after shows, what kind of interaction are you having with them?

I’m just kind of listening. It’s like I do my thing and then they have what they want to say. Sometimes it’s just gratifying to hear that it is working for somebody. Other times it is label guys from the various countries and I’m interested to hear their impression. I feel pretty good about it.