WHO IS SHE
AND WHY IS EVERYONE
TALKING ABOUT HER?
by Bejon Gae
Some of you may remember
Harry Nilsson’s brilliant self-promotion— he put this question about
himself in the middle of a full-page ad in a newspaper. A newpaper
in New York. A lot of people saw it and wanted to know who he was.
He got everybody talking about him.
Chelsea Berry. the statu-esque, powerhouse of a songwriter, singer,
musician, performer extrodin-aire, and is originally from Alaska! She
hasn’t taken out the ad yet. She may not have to. The buzz is
happening without it.
yourself a wonderful thing: find out where she’s playing and go see
for yourself—or at least get a copy of her recently-released CD, Walk With Me.
She is a rare artist, a musician’s musician, and a global force similar
to Joan of Arc. Then you’ll know why everybody’s talking about
Noise: I’ve seen you play many times. Seldom
do I come across a talent like you. How did you get started?
Chelsea: Thank you. My dad is definitely
a closet musician. Great piano player—he had a guitar and taught me
a few chords on it when I was 14. Before that I was always in
some kind of choir and by the time I was 12, my parents and brother
and I were singing in four-part harmony at church, Christmas caroling…
Noise: At church?
Chelsea: The pin-drop vibe in a church is amazing.
Beyond the fact that there is something bigger than you in that room.
People are so emotionally available. Oh, speaking of which, if
I drop an F-bomb, can we strike it? My mom is going to read this.
Louise (photographer): Well, there goes half
Chelsea: Ooo… zing.
Noise What is your memory of your first performance?
Chelsea: (Laughs) Oh, my God… third
grade… I was dressed like a witch… lip-syncing to some God-awful
song for a school talent show.
Noise: Tell us about the most influential
teacher you ever had.
Chelsea: My parents are from the East Coast.
They moved to Alaska in the early ’80s and met Robin Hopper.
She’s an amazing singer/songwriter. We would go to folk festivals
to see her play and I always wanted to do what she did when I grew up.
I hung onto her coattails.
Noise: How did you land in Gloucester?
Chelsea: I was going to school at Berklee in
Boston and got bored on weekend. I got on a train and ended up
in Rockport. It became an escape for me. After I left Boston,
I moved to Chicago and then Nashville… but I knew David Brown[Billy
Joel’s guitar player of 12 years] was in Gloucester. I came
back up two years ago and started going to his shows. I tried
not to be too obvious about how in awe of him I was. Guess it
worked… we play together all the time now.
Noise: How easy was it to break into the scene
Chelsea: [laughs] Not easy. I didn’t
know anybody. I had to convince people that I had something to
offer that was worth having… which is what the music business is,
if you think about it.
Noise: A lot of singers lose steam as the
night progresses. Your voice gets stronger. Why is that?
Chelsea: When David Brown and I play together
he’s always mentoring me [laughs]… in a loving way, of course. He
tells me to save some for the end—don’t give it all away too soon.
Noise: Not many have the power on stage that
you have. What do you attribute that to?
Chelsea: It might sound dumb but I’m almost
six feet tall and when you walk on a stage with height like that people
are already looking up to you. Physically, I mean [laughs].
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like being the center of attention.
Noise: You’ve gotten the attention of a
lot of seasoned players in the last year or so.
Chelsea: Yeah, David Maddix, David Brown…
these guys have played with the biggest names in the world. Maddix reminded
me in a conversation this week that it’s not about the pot of gold
at the end, to stop and smell the roses, enjoy the experience.
Noise: What does making it big mean to you
and how do you intend to get there?
Chelsea: If I can afford a massage every week,
a therapist every other week, and dance lessons, I’ll know I’ve
made it. [laughs] I just want to play music for people who want to listen.
There’s something so amazing about playing a room where people have
paid money to come and listen to you for two hours.
Noise: How do songs land? What’s your
Chelsea: Lately I have become much more conscious
of the groove. I can hear the guitar and melody and lyrics all at once
and it’s just a matter of being able to write fast enough to keep
up with my brain before I forget it.
Noise: Your recent CD project, which is amazing,
by the way, you made a hugely ambitious effort by producing it yourself.
What did you learn from the experience?
Chelsea: [laughs] I’ll definitely never do
it again—not produce it all, I mean. I’d like to say that part of
what I’ve learned is that it’s not important to be in control of
everything all the time. People are put on the planet for different
things… I’m here to write and perform. It makes me appreciate
those people who produce and engineer that much more.
Noise: Did your ears take a quantum leap in
the recording process?
Chelsea: Absolutely. My under-standing
of sound is different now. I was fortunate to have Tony Goddess
as my engineer on that project. He was patient enough to answer
my questions in layman’s terms and explain why things sounded the
way they did.
Noise: Your presence is galvanizing. You command
the attention of the room when you play. When you play noisy bars,
how do you get past the noise?
Chelsea: If it gets crazy and people get loud,
I bring it down. Quiet and intense. It makes them pay attention.
The most incredible musicians ever have been like that—Joni Mitchell
and Eva Cassidy—taking all their energy and focusing it in on one
tiny point—one controlled, perfect moment that makes the audience
hold their breath.
Noise: Tell us more about the Gloucester scene.
You have said that the Rhumb Line has been an incubator for a lot of
Chelsea: It’s a comfortable place for all
of us. We know the staff, we know the patrons… and Fred Shrigley,
the owner, is the captain of the ship and is the one who makes this
place happen. A lot of people that I play with now I met at the
Rhumb Line. There’s a lot of, dare I use the word, inbreeding.
[laughs] We all share instruments, players’ bills… the newest band
to come together there is the Bandit Kings. Funky pop/rock sound,
awe-some vocals, solid songwriting.
Noise: There’s a rumor that you reconnected
with one of your professors from Berklee.
Chelsea: Yes… so cool. I took a class
from Livingston Taylor in college and he had been mentoring me these
last few months. He’s a master performer and it’s exciting
being in his space. He calls my voice world-class. That rocks.
Noise: You’ve done some recording with Andy
Pinkham at Mortal Music in Charlestown recently. Andy is one of
the gurus of the recording biz. He has worked with many major
players in the business. He shared with me that you’re
one of the most amazing musicians he’s ever worked with. In regard
to the Carol King tune: “that may have been the most amazing performance
I have ever recorded.”
Chelsea: He understands vocalists better than
any engineer I’ve met. He gets the little nuances and delivery and
technique in a way that many engineers don’t. Andy has worked
with all the pros that I love. Ellis Paul just recorded there—my hero.
I’m finally stepping onto the same playing field as these guys.
Noise: So where do you go to kick back?
Chelsea: When I want to be alone, I go for a
jog in Dogtown (Gloucester woods). That’s the best way I know
to clear my head. When I want to be around people? Hands-down,
the Cape Ann Brewing company. I miss being home sometimes. The
Brewery is like a little piece of Alaska in Gloucester. The people
are always cool, outdoorsy, music lovers… and the beer is fantastic.
Noise: You recently attended a performance
of the one-man opera, Why
Do We Go to War? by T Max,
founder of the Noise. Thoughts?
Chelsea: It was fantastic and moving and really
thought-provoking. I was blown away by his vocal ability and presence.
The issue of war isn’t black and white and T Max is very aware of
that. His show sparked a ton of conversation. Nobody in
that room got up and left without discussing his message first.
He really got to them.
Noise: Do you have any shows coming up that
you want us to know about?
Chelsea: Yes, I’m really excited because I’ve
wanted to play Johnny D’s in Cambridge for a long time. I saw
Chris Smither there years ago and put it on my to-do list. The
Chelsea Berry Band is on the bill for the 11th of November.
Noise: There are many young songwriters who
are working toward the same things you are. Any words of empowerment
Chelsea: There will be 200 people out there
who will tell you how amazing you are, how much you inspire them, and
how exciting it is to see your music grow… and there will be two people
who will try to bring you down. It’s too easy to focus on the
negative—the two people. My advice is to turn it around. You’re
doing something that enriches other people’s lives. Focus on
the good stuff.