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,
hes 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 isnt spinning
what-if tales about Marilyn Monroe marrying Henry instead
of Arthur Miller, or finding himself living in Ani Difrancos
mothers house, hes humbly working that truth
thingoften in the form of the talkin blues.
Bern spoke to Gadfly after the second of a two-night gig
Gadfly: What do
you see as the relationship between comedy and music?
Dan Bern: I dont
really separate it. I dont go, "Now Im being
comical, now Im being serious." I think you bring
everything you have to what you do and comedy is part
of life. You cant go too many days without laughing
or too many months without crying. Sometimes its
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.
of your songs play like stream of consciousness, as if
you are just as surprised where the song is going as we
Yeah, a lot of the time
when I play a song for the first time that I havent
played in awhile, its like Im hearing it as
its going by too. Thats the fun of leaving
things go for awhile, so youre not so familiar with
How has growing
up in a small town in Iowa formed the kind of music you
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,
Im glad we have New York to visit. Its always
felt like home, but I think Im glad I didnt
grow up there. Because many immigrants grow up there,
and theres 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 nights 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. Its also
about what I want to be singing. I dont 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?
Theyre just our icons.
They speak to me the same way they speak to everyone else.
You admire them, but its also kind of creepy, their
icon-ness. The actual life, the actual person versus the
appearance. Its fun to play with. Its also
a kind of shorthand. People understand who you are talking
about. You dont need to sit there and explain your
characters. Its like, heres the film and suddenly
Marilyn walks in and you interact with her.
You have this
obvious humor to songs, but underneath it theres
an air of menace sometimes. In the song "New American
Language" you mention saturation bombing, followed by
the line, "I dream mostly about love." Its messy,
nothings clean and easy.
Look around. Suicide bombings
everyday, threat of nuclear war, global warming, which
we dont even think about thats happening seriously.
Theres this, theres that, and then theres
The Simpsons. And Jim Jarmusch and Beck and the
White Stripes. I dont know. Its a bittersweet
world. You dont want to beat people up with the
music. You want to give them some respite without being
just bumblegum and escape-y. Its 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. Its like those "Laughter
in Auschwitz" books, those chronicles of the jokes that
circulated through there. Its survival. I dont
know how people survive without humor or music or poetry
or paintings. For me thats pure survival, cant
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. Whats your take on that?
Ive always felt pure
about that. You dont sell the song for a commercial
because after that the song is no longer viable. Bob Seger
cant 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
I just want to make records.
Im behind right now. Ive got billions of songs
that I think are good, and Im 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 youre on Messenger Records. Do you
have more control now that you are recording for a smaller
Its a trade-off.
You dont have a big chunk of money to waste (which
is nice). Its 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?
Im just kind of listening.
Its like I do my thing and then they have what they
want to say. Sometimes its just gratifying to hear
that it is working for somebody. Other times it is label
guys from the various countries and Im interested
to hear their impression. I feel pretty good about it.