A Q&A With New Canadian Songstress Jenny Berkel
It’s hard to believe Jenny Berkel has only been writing songs and playing the guitar for four years. Born out of a love for writing poetry, Jenny started to create music around her written words while living in an empty apartment in Winnipeg. After a year in Winnipeg, she traveled Canada and Europe the spent two months in Belfast, Ireland where she found her voice and started performing alone. Two years ago, Jenny moved back to Winnipeg where she spent eight months working on her EP Gather Your Bones when tragedy struck her family, which in part led to her phenomenal full-length debut Here On A Wire.
This afternoon I was able to chat with Jenny about herself and Here On A Wire, which has already been released in Canada and is climbing the college radio station charts, but has yet to be released in the United States. New to the whole music business thing, she is working out some kinks on the business end, and is hoping to release it in the Spring. Meanwhile, you can download the three-song preview of Here On A Wire for free and her EP Gather Your Bones for an affordable price on Bandcamp.
CFM: When and how did you first become interested in music? Who were your earliest musical, or even, non-musical influences? Are there any current artists who inspire and influence you and your music?
JB: I grew up going to a church full of hearty singers who all seemed to have an ear for harmony, so I’ve been surrounded by music since I was small. The harmony lines in hymns still get me – they can be so haunting. My family used to listen to a lot of 1960s rock and roll – not a lot of folk, actually, other than Simon & Garfunkel. It wasn’t until I went to university that I discovered many of the great folk legends that most people grew up on – Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell. Soon after I discovered folk music, I began writing songs.
CFM: Was there one particular experience or instance that helped you to realize music could be a career? When and what was it?
JB: About a year ago, I took the train across eastern Canada to do my first solo tour. My sister joined me for the first half of it, and we did a house show in Hamilton. There was something about the buzzing excitement in the room that convinced me this was worth pursuing.
CFM: How has growing up in Ontario surrounded by both the forests and urban landscapes affected your music? Has moving to Winnipeg changed your music? If so, how?
JB: Our home was nestled beside a deep ravine and forest, but only about 15 metres away from a busy highway. I think growing up next to that severe contrast gave me a perspective that often shows itself in my lyrics. Winnipeg is very isolated compared to southern Ontario – when you drive into the city, it seems to erupt out of nowhere. Moving to a place like that, and so far from home, might contribute to the melancholic feeling of my music.
CFM: How would you describe your music and songwriting style? What do you think makes your music unique and special?
JB: Somebody recently used the term “haunt folk” to describe my album, which I’ve taken a bit of a shining to…
CFM: Can you describe your creative process while making and recording Here On A Wire?
JB: I wrote and shaped most of the songs while living in a one-room studio in downtown Winnipeg with a good friend, her dog, and my cat. I was waitressing about 25 hours a week while preparing to record. Because I was sharing such tight quarters and working so much, it meant being very organized with my time in order to work on music. I was lucky enough to have the aid of my sister, Kristen Berkel, and my producer, Matt Peters. It was so helpful having fresh ears involved in the project. We wanted to be sure that despite all of the extra sounds, the album stayed focused on my vocal and guitar parts, so we were very careful with the arrangements.
CFM: Describe Here On A Wire. Are there any themes? Do you have a favourite song or is there a song that is more personal than others on this album? Which song and why?
JB: Here on a Wire is a quiet collection of mostly sad songs. Throughout the album, there are images of ghosts, dreams, lost love, and cityscape. I’m not sure I have a favourite song, but I think “Come a Long Way” draws the whole album together, both lyrically and emotionally.
CFM: On an album where all of the songs seem to have similar sounds and styles and flows easily, how does the spoken word track, “Awaken In Stars” fit? It keeps within that same dreamy, mellow, and somewhat melancholy vibe of the album but what was your purpose? Why a spoken word? What did you want the listeners to gain or experience from it?
JB: The poem was written by a good friend of mine, Michelle Elrick. We’ve spent the last four years side by side, almost glued at the hip – this has often caused our creative projects to delve into similar themes. About a year and a half ago, we did a tour together to launch her first book of poetry (To Speak) and my first mini-album (Gather your Bones). We would incorporate both elements of our projects into one performance. As a long time lover of poetry and a strong believer in Michelle’s poetry, I really wanted her words on my album. I gave her all of my lyrics and she came up with that piece, which I find very moving. I think listeners will react the same way.
CFM: Name a song, any song, you think best represents you during this time in your life. Why?
JB: “If I’ve Been Fooled” by the Weather Station. I can’t stop listening to it. It’s wrapped itself around my whole apartment.
CFM: What are your future plans?
JB: Here in Winnipeg, we’ve entered the part of winter where we plug our cars in at night, so I’m trying to stay warm while working on getting this album heard. I’ll be doing a lengthy tour in the spring to launch it across the country.
— April D. Wolfe @ Common Folk Music