Chelsea Berry on her music, her mentor, and coming home
After graduating from Chugiak High School in 2001 and playing the local music scene for years, singer-songwriter Chelsea Berry left Alaska to tour around the Lower 48 and produce music from her new home town in Boston. She returned to Alaska early this week, and plays a show at Jitters coffee shop in Eagle River on Thursday, July 16 at 6:30 p.m.
Star: In an interview last summer, you said you played a few gigs a week as a self-sustaining musician. What’s changed with your career since then?
Berry: The last four months or so, a really big switch has happened. It’s pretty subtle but it’s a big deal for me: bookers and venues are reaching out to me. Up until this point it’s always been me reaching out to venues. Livingston (Taylor) and I have been working more together. We’re working on a new album right now, and we’ll be returning to Alaska together next summer for some bigger shows.
What happened that you starting playing music with him?
Five years ago I reached out to him to see if I could learn some things from him. He gave me critiques on performance stuff, writing style stuff, guitar playing, singing, a bit of everything. When it was over, he said, “If you want to do this in a month or so again call me.” I kept doing it for six months before he brought me up to stage, and then I was opening for him. The last couple months I play a half hour, he goes on stage, we do four songs. It’s really exciting, it’s become, we’re having shows billed as Livingston Taylor and Chelsea Berry with my name in the same size font. I’m grateful, he’s an incredible mentor.
It can be challenging to find a mentor in any field who identifies things in you and helps you develops them, versus someone who just tries to turn their protégé into a carbon copy of themselves. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what your mentorship relationship has been like.
He is good at pushing me into doing things I’m not necessarily super excited about. He loves musical theater, and the classics. I’ve never been excited about that, partly because I was intimidated. He said, ‘Look, this is in your voice, you have this ability. I want you to do it because you can.’ So that’s crept into my performance quite a lot, Oscar and Hammerstein, all these old musicals. I started singing and enjoying them, and how complicated the melodies and chord changes are, and getting an appreciation of that stuff, and working those melodies and chord changes into my own music. It’s been amazing and valuable. And that’s really what music is. There’s creativity, but you’d be kidding yourself if you thought you were pulling it out of thin air; it’s all based on stuff we’ve heard.
Something else that’s been good for me, I have to stick to my guns. He has ideas about the way things should be done. For example, I’m really outdoorsy and active, because I grew up in Alaska, and my parents were that way. But Livingston hates the fact that I rock climb, and I do a lot of yoga, and that changes the way I breathe and sing, and the rock climbing he’s concerned I’m going to break my fingers. But I’ve stuck to my guns, I’ve said, “Look, I’m not going to be a good singer if I’m depressed, if I can’t do these things that I love to do.”
What are some songs from the album you’re working on you’ll be performing at the Jitters show?
There’s “Don’t Call Me Baby,” that I co-wrote with a friend of mine. And I would tell you the name of the new one I just finished, but it’s untitled for the moment. And we’ve recorded a really cool cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” Brad Hatfield is this phenomenal pianist and composer and arranger with Boston Pops Orchestra, he’s engineering and producing the album.
What’s something you wish your Alaska fans knew about you?
I don’t know if it’s anything they don’t’ know already, but I’m given a lot of heat and love about being from Alaska, and showing up to my sound checks in sweatpants, which I do every single show. I’m so grateful for, it my folks were from the East Coast and they moved to Alaska on a total whim in their 20s and I’m so grateful for not just that place to come home to, but the way that it shaped me and the things I think are important. I’m coming home on Tuesday, and it’s so great to know that, no matter what happens and where I am, it will always be there, Alaska and that lifestyle and those people will always be there, and that approach to life and that sort of ease.
Chelsea Berry will be selling her Dec. 2014 album, “Remedy,” at her live show at Jitters July 16 at 6:30 p.m. For more information, go to www.chelseaberry.com.