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Featured February 16, 2012.

by Richie Frieman

There isn’t much in the music industry that Deborah Berg hasn’t seen – from taking on the industry solo as a singer/songwriter to her days signed to one of the biggest labels in the world, Berg is now enjoying making music on her terms, her way.

She started out with the group Eye to Eye, eventually signing with Warner Brothers Records, even working with Steely Dan’s producer, Gary Katz. Deborah recalls those days: “It was great!  But it was really hard too, for me because I knew so little about the music business.  Opportunities would come up and we just didn’t know how to kick them into gear.  Our name came up to be the support band for Fleetwood Mac and for Eric Clapton’s tours but we didn’t have a firm grip on what a manager could and should do for us, not to mention, how to stretch a budget.”
Nonetheless, Berg did release a few records with Eye to Eye, and also 
dropped her first solo effort, “Place Where I Dream” in1999. Today, she brings in her band to release her latest record, “No Rush”, a 10-song collection due out February 29. Keep the date on your calendar. In the meantime, check out Berg live, performing with the bluegrass band Dusty around NYC. There’s much more to get into, so keep reading for all the answers to the XXQ’s.
XXQs: Deborah Berg (PEV):  Calling New York City home, what kind of music where you into growing up?   Was anyone your main influence?

DB: Well first of all, I call NYC home now but I did not grow up here.  I moved to NYC in my 20’s, with Eye to Eye in 1983.  I was born in Seattle, but virtually grew up in Lincoln Nebraska.  As Neil Young would say,  “all my changes were there”.

First songs that made an influence were introduced to me by my mother and my paternal grandmother.  My mom was a talented pianist who quit Music College to marry my dad and become a preacher’s wife.  She played the piano and marimba.  She would also play show tunes on the record player back in Seattle.  She turned me on to Perry Como.  Man, did I love his voice!  Then my grandma would always sing to us grandkids when we stayed over.  She taught me, ‘You are my Sunshine’ and ‘A Bushel and a Peck’ (and a hug around the neck) and “Stay on the Sunny Side.”  She loved the Carter Family.  Sweet memories.  Sunday school was a big influence too, with ‘Jesus Loves Me” of course, and ‘Little Baby Moses in his basket bed”.  We didn’t have a lot of records.  But we knew a lot of songs.  I would say main influences were simple, country tunes that everyone knew, good clean old time songs.   Pretty much church songs but my mom always wanted to break out and play something more contemporary.  Those songs and Saturday morning, Merry Melodies cartoon music were my major influences.

It was after we moved to Nebraska that I heard music that really blew my mind. The first time I heard the Beatles’, “She Loves You”, I demanded to be driven down to the local radio station in Lincoln, because I wanted to meet the band who was playing that music!  My brother laughed his ass off and told me they weren’t at the radio station, they were in England!  That was my first moment of conscious thought about recorded music. 

I remained a loyal Beatles fan and pretty much knew every song, all the lyrics and every harmony by heart.  Their music made a huge impact in my own musical journey.  And I would have to say, their lifestyle, too.  I remember thinking how much I wanted to have a relationship with music like they seemed to have.

After I left home I listened to old time & Blues music like Sony Terry and Brownie McGee and Doc Watson, and then the Allman Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Graham Nash, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni, Mitchell  Taj Mahall, the Band, some Grateful Dead.  At school, I was a dance major so I was also listening to music that I wanted to choreograph to; John McLaughlin, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, John Fahey, Stan Getz.  For a few years, I was a full-blown vagabond hitch hiking, commune living hippie so I didn’t have much of a record collection back in those days.  The records you had, or your household had, you played over and over again.  I just kept listening to the same records and they became my anthem songs.  Mostly I would learn the lyrics and sing lead and /or harmonies. 

I went back to school in Minneapolis and got in to Tom Petty, Prince, the Pretenders, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Bonnie Rait, Ricki Lee Jones and soon after this phase I met Julian Marshall and we formed Eye to Eye.  That’s when I started listening to more jazz tinged pop songwriters like Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac. Now that I play guitar, I find I’m back listening to old time music.   Even though I now live in NYC, I’ve gone back to my roots.!

PEV: What was it like for you when you first started out in the music business and trying to make a name for yourself.?  Any war stories from those early years?

DB: When I first started out, my group at the time, Eye to Eye, was pretty lucky.  We had an opportunity to sign with Warner Brothers and have Steely Dan’s producer, Gary Katz produce us.  It was great!  But it was really hard too, for me because I knew so little about the music business.  Opportunities would come up and we just didn’t know how to kick them into gear.   Our name came up to be the support band for Fleetwood Mac and for Eric Clapton’s tours but we didn’t have a firm grip on what a manager could and should do for us, not to mention, how to stretch a budget.  What I didn’t know then was that huge record companies didn’t always manage a band like us, they signed a record deal with us.  I thought it was going to be more like a one-stop-shopping kind of deal but it wasn’t!  We had very limited management help for negotiating deals and opportunities came up and then fell through.  I think back then, WB was looking for the big hit makers.  If you broke out fast, they would pour money into your band to keep you greased and ready to hit again.  We had a huge WB budget, recording those Eye to Eye records and I am grateful, for that experience, plus we worked with some amazing session musicians.  But looking back, I think we should have been figuring out how to promote the band with some of that financial support and not just record the band with it. Because, as it turns out, recording two albums with us was the extent of WB’s financing our musical climb. 

PEV:  Do you remember the first time you thought to yourself – I am really on to something?:

DB: I guess after Jules and I got signed to Warner Brothers, I must have felt something like that; that we were really on to something!  It’s amazing and humbling how, even when you think you have made the big time, you can still ride that roller coaster up and down for much of your career.   Some times it’s your personal life that lifts you up again. But what you learn through it all is that when the hard times bat your around, you just get back on that horse and ride, even if it’s a little pinto pony this time, and sooner or later, the music gods will reward you for your good efforts.  Again.

PEV:  What can fans expect from a live Deborah Berg performance?

DB: An exciting and intimate musical evening of great musicianship, country soul lyrics and sterling vocals, all for you!

PEV:  What is the first thing that comes to mind when you step on stage to perform?

DB: The first thing that comes to mind is, “What a privilege!  May this performance give my audience a lift, a laugh or some positive insight, if even for one passing moment.”

PEV:  Any preshow rituals before you take the stage or do you just wing it?

DB: The day of, in a perfect world, I try to stay loose and not to be too busy with things other than music prep.  I drink water, water, water to keep myself hydrated for later. I go light on the caffeine, as it has a dehydrating effect on my vocal chords.  If possible, I hit the gym or take a yoga class because it helps me burn off some accumulated, unwanted nervous energy.  I take care of my guitar, make sure my batteries are good for my tuner, etc.  I change the strings if they need changing, and go over some of the songs in the set.  I warm up my voice with some vocal exercises and  I’ll also take a hot shower and do some vocal warm ups in the shower.  I meditate and/or do some breathing exercises and then I’m ready to go!  If possible, I like to have a moment with my band, before we go on, to just look ‘em in the eye and say something positive like, “you guys are my backbone.  I couldn’t do this without you.  Let’s go have some fun”!

PEV:  What was the underlining inspiration for your music?  Where do you get your best ideas for songs?

DB: Underlining inspiration for my music – to share some light and some feel-good times with people who are willing to hang out and ingest my musical style. Best ideas from songs usually come from something I see, hear, read, observe, remember, dream or do.

PEV:  Tell us about your latest work, an upcoming solo CD. . What can fans expect from this work?

DB: My latest work is a solo CD with band, called ‘No Rush’.   It is my 5th CD. “No Rush” is a 10-song collection of original tunes written on guitar, due for release on February 29, 2012.  I have a great group of musicians in my band!  Ken Rich is my bass player.  He engineered, produced and mixed the record.  John Putnam plays on electric and acoustic guitars, Andrew Sherman on keyboards and piano and Frank Vilardi on drums.  We also asked Richard Hammond to play acoustic bass on some of the songs and a myriad of guest artists who came in and added texture and flavor.  It was a great experience.  Very satisfying.  I love the recording studio!

Before this CD, I have recorded two albums with Eye to Eye for Warner Brothers Records in the 1980’s, produced by Gary Katz.  I recorded my first solo CD, ‘Places Where I Dream’, in 1999. Eye to Eye recorded a 3rd CD, “Clean Slate” in 2005, with producer Rhett Davies. 

PEV:  Do you ever find yourself getting writer’s block and if so, how do you get over that?

DB: The best way for me to get over writer’s block is to stay busy and have a deadline! It also helps me to record ideas while I’m walking or doing something else, like running a load of clothes or riding the subway. I love working in a moving car or truck, too.  I use my microphone on my phone and just sing into it.  Something about traveling down the road frees my mind.

I had a finished song that had no lyrics at the beginning of this latest recording session.  I knew what I wanted to write about but didn’t have anything solid to sing at the rehearsal before the recording session.  I wrote and wrote but couldn’t seem to tie the lyrics together.  I remember walking my dog and looking around at the glimpses of spring that were trying to peep up out of the ground in the tree beds and parks we were walking by.  Suddenly, the song lyrics popped into my head like a crocus pops through snow.  I needed a sign of spring to help me realize, the song lyrics needed some redeeming hope!  I finished the lyrics that morning, and we recorded it later that day.  It is called, “Distance Between Us”.

PEV:  What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about Deborah Berg?

DB: I have eyes in the back of my head.  At least that’s what my kids think.

PEV:  Was there a certain point in your life when you knew music was going to be a career for you?

DB: Yes there was, in my mid twenties.  Until then, I worked really hard being a dancer.I took my first ballet class when I was six years old.  Meanwhile, I sang all the time, non- stop; to the radio, to records, in the car, on vacations, I must have been really obnoxious to live with!  I was forced to be in every church choir throughout my childhood and signed up for every school chorus, because it was fun and easy and I loved singing!   I did not fully appreciate the fact that singing came easy for me until later on.  After I injured both knees dancing in San Francisco I realized I might need to shift priorities and sing more.  That’s when Eye to Eye was forming and sing more, I did!

PEV:  What one word best describes Deborah Berg?

DB: Adventurous.

PEV:  How is life on the road for you in the music world?  Best and worst parts?

DB: Life on the road is not tour busses and names on the marquis.  I travel by plane, yellow cab, subway and station wagon.   This new project has a new band and a new lineup.  We have only played in NYC so far.  Who knows, maybe it’s time for a bus and driver?!

PEV:  Is there one area you wish you could travel around and play that you have not

DB: Yes!  Like I said, this is a brand new band.  I would love to travel and play in many venues and festivals in America and in Europe and Japan and who knows where else… as long as the sound system is good! 

PEV:  How have your friends and family reacted to your career?  What’s it like when you get to play at your hometown?

DB: My friends and family have been loving, honest, loyal fans since day one.  They are my heart.  They give me encouragement when I feel anxious or down and somehow seem to know when it’s time to remind me why I do this in the first place, which is to spread a little love and happiness through the healing power of music. I haven’t played my hometown of Lincoln Nebraska in many years, other than private events.  But you have given me a good idea!  Thank you!

PEV:  What can we find you doing in your spare time, aside from playing/writing music?

DB: Like I said, I love adventure.  When it’s time for fun, I love nothing better than to get out of town!  Ultimate great day would be taking a hike in the Colorado Rockies to a cold clear spring fed lake.  The air is so clear and clean and the whole experience is transcendental.  I love road trips and seeing America.  Also, every summer, I go to a guitar camp with some friends in the Pacific Northwest, called, Puget Sound Guitar Workshop.  That place and the instructors are awesomely awesome.  Afterwards I make sure I get out to spend time in the beauty of Washington State.  Some of my family lives out there, so it’s a double treat to go west in the summer.

We have a very big extended family and we get together a lot; I have a lot of people I like to connect with when I can.  One family summer spot is the beach town of Avalon, NJ. Some of us are taking a river rafting trip down the Grand Canyon this Fall so besides my weekly yoga practice,  I have been working out, trying to get stronger for that trip. Also, I am a big fan of the New Orleans Jazz Festival and will be hitting week 2 this year!  Maybe some day I can play there!?!

PEV:  Is there an up and coming band or artist you think we should be looking out for now?

DB: I teach songwriting workshops and I have to tell you, there are a lot of talented songwriters coming up out there!  I will keep you posted on their progress… I am a huge fan of Grace Potter and the Nocturnal’s but I wouldn’t call them up and coming anymore!  She is just up! I was involved with a Songwriter’s Festival here in NYC and our Grand Prize winners were a band called, Walking Upright, from Brooklyn, NY.  They had a great sound. The Water Tower Bucket Boys are a Portland Oregon based Bluegrass band that can really wail.  They come to guitar camp and we hear them making music down in the holler til the wee hours.  Sometimes we take our guitars and go make music with them!

Wes Corbett is a banjo player, who played on a song of mine called ‘Free to Shine’.  His band, Joy Kills Sorrow is a tight four piece bluegrass band.

PEV:  If you weren’t playing music now what do you think you would be doing as your career?

DB: I would still be involved with something to do with the arts, definitely.  I think I might like to be an Ethnomusicologist.  To have the privilege of studying a musical culture would be fascinating to me.  Or, maybe because we are working furiously on CD cover art as we speak, I would say maybe I’d be a graphics designer or fabric designer.  I love weaving color and texture and light and making something extraordinary out of it all.

PEV:  So, what is next for Deborah Berg?

DB: What time is it?  5:00 on Friday?  How about a glass of red wine?