Hear it for yourself a while: A few questions with Dan Bern

“Don’t ask me what kind of music I’m gonna play tonight. Just stay a while, hear it for yourself a while, and if you must put me in a box make sure it’s a big box.”

Iowa born, former long-term Californian Dan Bern put it out there in the song Jerusalem from his first, full length, self-titled album over 20 years ago. Those lyrics hold as true today as they did back then in unpacking the songwriter who at times has no face huge enough in which to hold his cheek, pressed full of tongue, and at other times has no eyes ancient enough to cry all the tears for injustices of the past, present and future. But this doesn’t stop him from trying.

In fact, Bern is the ultimate role model for the slogan “Just do it!” (or perhaps more fittingly, “Just write/sing/paint/mock/celebrate/torch it!”), but is the kind of artist who would burn that kind of endorsement down, roast marshmallows over its ashes, share them with the neighbourhood and then parody it all in tune more sing-alongable than most fast-food commercials. In that spirit, he has, indeed, given his fans reasons to “stay a while” as the songwriter has continued to release both live and studio albums, including some for children co-written with his daughter Lulu (b. 2010), books, children’s books, film scores, paintings, cartoon soundtracks, and more.

Bern’s balancing of the deep past, such as his family’s near annihilation in Lithuania during the Holocaust, with present politics, including smarty-pants songs regarding current era politicians from his own period, all while rounding up figures like Madonna, Kurt Cobain, Tiger Woods and God together in song and spirit make him one of the most engaging artists of our era.

We caught up with him for a few questions as he returns to our city to play a couple of shows as part of the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Block Heater.

Q: Since the start of your career, you have been prolific, putting out 26 albums and EPs since 1997. When do you find time to write so many songs and what does your process for that look like? Has the process changed much over the years?

A: The writing process has changed a lot in many ways over the years. For example, I recently finished my second season of writing for a cartoon, The Stinky and Dirty Show, on Amazon Prime. They send me scripts, note where the songs should be, (then) I write the songs, and three or four people/departments weigh in on them. At which point I revise until everyone’s happy. So in some ways that’s easier – write this song, about this – and in some ways it’s tougher. I like it: it’s fun, I can do it from home, or anywhere else. But it can be rigorous.

Q: You have put out albums, children’s albums, books, children’s books, art, stories, and songs. Will you be expanding into other media? What do you want to do next?

A: I want to start bringing a lot of these things together. For example, I want to do shows in galleries or industrial spaces or who knows what — where my paintings are on the walls, I do a regular show, a kids’ show, and maybe some song workshops – over a period of several days. That’s one thing.

I’d love to be involved in the writing and staging of a musical. I want to keep writing for TV and movies. I’ve written a bunch of stories for kids, and I’d love to see those find their way to the screen, and, of course, write the songs for such a thing.

I also want to get my old rock ’n’ roll band, the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy, back together for some recording and possibly live shows.

Sometimes it feels like too much. I don’t know if I’ll ever do everything I want to do. Probably not. But you do as much as you can, while you can.

Q: What’s on your turntable/mp3 player/CD player right now? What’s the last thing you read?

A: I have my own Internet radio station, called Radio Free Bernstein. You can get a free app for it on your phone. So I’m listening to stuff all the time to add to it. The last things I added were Poppy Ackroyd, Luke Bryan and Sara P. Smith.

I’m reading Larry McMurtry and the French detective writer Georges Simenon. 

Q: What does a typical day look like for you (if such a thing exists)?

A: On a typical day I will walk my daughter (Lulu) to the school bus stop. Then I’ll go to the gym, do some painting, work on some music. Then it will be time to get her from the bus stop. Once she’s home, I don’t get much work done. But we have fun!

Q: How do you balance writing, recording, playing live and being on the road with having a family?

A: That’s the big question, really. I guess the thing with trying to balance all of it is, as much as you can, stay present and do as well as you can no matter what you’re doing. I don’t tour as much as I did before I had a family, and I don’t stay away as long when I do go touring. And maybe because of that, I love my work more than ever.

Q: What question do you wish I had asked that I didn’t, and what would the answer be?

A: You could’ve asked, “How do you deal with being the greatest artist America has yet produced?” You could have asked, “What’s it like being such a great role model for the children of the world?” You could have asked, “You move so well on stage – was it difficult choosing between music and being a professional athlete, which you obviously could have easily done?”

But maybe those questions can be for the next interview.

Q: OK, Dan, let’s make it so!

(Photo courtesy Judd Irish Bradley.)

Dan Bern performs at on Saturday, Feb. 17 at 3 p.m. at Festival Hall in the Big Balls Collaborative session and is in concert at National Music Centre’s Studio Bell at 8:15 p.m.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who has been writing about her two passions, music and horses, for over 25 years in FFWD Weekly, The Calgary Herald, Swerve, Western Horseman, Western Horse Review and other publications.