JENNY BERKELJl plays the Cameron House Sundays in February, with guests Milk & Honey (Feb 3), Adrian Glynn (Feb 10), Grey Kingdom (Feb 17) and C.R. Avery (Feb 24). 6-8 p.m.
Jenny Berkel took a break from her studies at Western five years ago for an internship at a magazine in Winnipeg and found herself becoming a songwriter instead.
Her stark, sad and introspective debut, Here On A Wire, was recorded in the summer of 2011 with producer Matt Peters (Royal Canoe, The Waking Eyes).
Recently, she's been spending time in both Ontario and the Prairies - we spoke as she was getting ready to come to Toronto for a February residency at the Cameron House. She told me about the difficult events that inspired her album, and the farm job that helped her break her writer's block. She also defended sad songs, and talked about inspiring female guitarists.
I was going to ask you why you're spending a month in Ontario, but then I realized that you're from here, right?
Yes. I'm from the countryside close to Tillsonburg (about an hour and a half from Toronto), but I've been living in Winnipeg for the past three years.
What made you decide to move to Winnipeg?
I originally moved here five years ago for an internship at a magazine - this is before I was playing music - I stayed here for a year, and that's when I started writing songs.
Two years ago, I decided to try to be Jenny Berkel the musician for real; I did a lot of deliberating [on where to live] but Winnipeg won out: partially because I had lived here before and had some real dear friends, and partially because Winnipeg has a really strong musical community - there's lots of support here. I just thought it would be a good place to hit the ground running.
Your debut album, Here On A Wire, is a pretty mellow and introspective listen. It's also very sad. Would you be willing to tell me a little bit about your writing process, and what inspired the album?
Some of the songs happened before this event, but a lot of the songwriting happened after my grandparents died - they were killed in a car accident in 2010 - and so, obviously that was a huge shock and one of those life-changing moments.
I was also out of a relationship that fell apart and was very devastating for me and also I have terrible luck with apartments and homes - that was a timeframe where I was kind of bouncing around a lot from place to place for a variety of reasons and I think that sense of homelessness was also finding itself in my songs and lyrics.
Also, I really only listen to sad music. So I think that also impacts my songwriting style.
What have you been working on since recording Here On A Wire?
After I released the album [May 2012], I went on tour out east, and had another hard summer, actually. I wasn't writing then at all, and this is a really devastating thing for me. I knew that part of the reason I wasn't writing was because I didn't have a place to be writing in. So I spent my fall back in Ontario at a little farm that I worked at years ago when I lived in London.
The farm has a common cottage built in 1880 and [the farmer] let me live there. I was working full time on the farm, from you know, sometimes 5:30 in the morning for 8 to 10 hours, but then I was able to come home and have lots of solitude and so I started writing again. I'm getting close to having enough material to record another album.
Actually, I recorded a song with Matt Peters [who produced Here On A Wire] and I'm debuting a video for it Feb 1 animated by Karsten Wall - I think he really captured the mood of the song, and I will say - it's a kind of a sad song.
I really enjoyed your guitar playing when I caught you last fall at the Holy Oak. I'm wondering if there are any guitar players that you've been listening to and maybe bringing into your work?
I listen to a lot of Karen Dalton, which is how I learned Green Rocky Road [Berkel does a cover that combines Dalton's version of Green Rocky Road with an original song].
I feel really inspired when I listen to women guitar players really moving around on their guitar. I've been listening to Laura Marling recently and she's such a great guitar player and carries a melody in her guitar.
What about Sharon Van Etten?
I love Sharon Van Etten - I find it really inspiring when I see women who really are playing their guitar and I'm trying to push myself further because it's still a kind of new instrument for me. I want to be somebody who can be up there just myself and my guitar and it's enough.
Berkel won't be alone at the Cameron House; she'll be backed by Tyler Butler (upright bass), with guests Milk & Honey (Alanna Gurr and Gordon Auld from Lowlands) the first Sunday (Feb 3), Adrian Glynn (of the Fugitives) Feb 10, Grey Kingdom (Feb 17) and C.R. Avery (Feb 24).