Dan Bern is a consummate artist. He is a witty social commentator with a flair for irreverence and a keen sense of humor. His many hats include folk-punk
singer/songwriter, painter and prose writer. As a tune-smith, Bern has proved apt with a variety of subject matter – from a poignant eulogy for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, to the song “Tiger Woods,” in which he tells us he’s got “big balls.” (The record was produced by celebrated feminist icon, Ani DiFranco.)
Bern has built a strong following through prodigious touring and four critically acclaimed albums rooted in the folk tradition. Never one to idle too long in one particular genre, New American Language is a fine-tuned locomotive fueled by a five-piece rock band that is decisively more Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers than Louden Wainwright or Woody Guthrie.
In support of his new album, Bern has dragged his International Jewish Banking Conspiracy with him on a musical journey from New Mexico to Alaska that includes stops at coffee shops, bars, theaters and one-of-a-kind venues such as Skipper’s Smokehouse. The tour kicked off Oct. 9 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Two days later, while en route to Arlington, Virginia, Bern awoke from a day of rest to answer a few questions via telephone.
“When playing solo you can play anything that pops into your head. With a band it’s a little more set. It’s more fun to travel with a band,” said Bern.
Bern is very proud of New American Language, the most ambitious release of his career.
“We took our time with it – over a year – went back to it several times in between touring. It was a longer, more careful process (than the first four albums).” Bern conceded, “It was hard to let go of. You got to get on with your life at some point. (Albums) take over your life for awhile.”
In the title song of his new album, Bern sings, “I have a dream of a new pop music that tells the truth.” Bern does not subscribe to the instant gratification illusion espoused by the majority of today’s buoyant, MTV hit-makers.
“It’s like in sitcoms, a problem presents itself and it is solved within 30 minutes. In a lot of songs we don’t get as full of picture of reality as it exists,” said Bern.
On “Alaskan Highway,” the third cut on his new album, Bern jests, “I met Leonardo DiCaprio / Leo, he’s trying to get away from the unwanted advances of Eminem.” Despite the fact that the two artists’ work differs dramatically, Bern respects Eminem’s talent, which at times mirrors Bern’s brand of acerbic wit.
“I think (Eminem’s) clever. I enjoy listening to him. If somebody is saying something that speaks to people, then I think that’s good,” said Bern.
On Sept. 11, Bern was residing in his New York City apartment, on Manhattan Island.
“When the planes hit, I was uptown – 100th St. and Columbus. When the first one hit I jumped on my bike and went downtown. When the first (tower) fell I was about three blocks away,” said Bern somberly.
Within a couple of weeks, the hyper-prolific Bern had written two songs about the tragedy, “NYC 911” and “America, Hometown of the World.” In the latter he sings:
Let the enemies of liberty / From this day forward tremble / Let hatred and oppression / Die with the heroes in the rubble / And you see it on every street corner / That love is stronger than hatred / And the strong will survive / America, hometown of the world
Bern believes, “there will definitely be a shift” in the direction popular music takes following last months atrocity. He adds, “The Backstreet Boys may have seen their best days. I think everybody sort of paused and re-examined what they are saying and doing.”
Regardless of specific events, Bern is well aware of music’s cyclical nature, “In general, music is bound to change,” he said. Bern is an extremely prolific songwriter. Whereas many artists have to wait years between albums in order to get enough material ready. Bern has a constant backlog. He has composed more than 2000 songs and when he is not touring, writes almost a song a day.
“If something happens, or some seed of an idea (forms), I’ll stop what I am doing and get the song done. I’ve never been very good at saying, ‘Now I’m gonna sit and write a song.'”In the past, Bern’s songs tended to be more “topical” – relating to current events and politics.
“I’ve probably written 200 songs that were about a certain event or topic,” estimated Bern. “As time goes by, I’m a little more selective.”
Bern feels his best songs, “combine personal with political (issues).” He takes a “post-modern” approach to the songwriting craft, ” (I) take everything that’s’ been done and combine it with (my) own experiences and see what comes down,” Bern said.
In addition to being a fertile and acclaimed songwriter, Bern is also an accomplished painter and prose writer. The paintings and drawings that adorn New American Language are all done by Bern himself. He has also published three books of pictures and stories. His most recent publication, Merton the Hawk, will be available at the concert Friday.
“(Paintings and prose) come out the same way the songs do. Sometimes ideas will happen that aren’t expressed best in song. Then there will be stories and there will be paintings,” said Bern.Aside from writing stories, Bern also enjoys telling stories.
“The energy the audience brings (to a show) pushes and twists you in different ways. There’s been times when (the storytelling) has practically taken over. Especially when there are people in the audience to interact with – (the exchanges) can be as interesting as the songs. It definitely keeps it interesting,” said Bern.
The most powerful song on New American Language, is “God Said No.” It is a harrowing account of a man asking God to take him back in time to alter certain events: Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Hitler’s rise to power and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Each time the narrator asks to alter history, he is denied, and God explains why.
Bern’s words are imbued with a brand of searing emotional integrity seldom found on today’s musical horizon. Bern feels that it is very important for an artist to gain the trust of his/her audience – it comes naturally for him.
“I don’t even consider being dishonest,” Bern said.