Like a page out of a diary you’re not supposed to read

In the 1970s and ’80s, Vancouver-born Art Bergmann bashed out music with bands like Young Canadians, Los Popularos, and Poisoned that showed us how to be young, angry and pulsatingly alive. In the late ’80s and ’90s, he released albums under his own name that helped us live vicariously via hit singles with melodical musical imagery edgier than an icosagon. 

After a hiatus spent living with his soul mate, wife Sherri Decembrini, in a homey farmhouse outside of Airdrie surrounded by fields and sky, Bergmann started making music again, with albums like 2021’s monumental Late Stage Empire Dementia — co-produced by Russell Broom (Jann Arden-co-writer, producer and Juno Award winner) — showing us how to be well-versed, how to kick at injustice until it bleeds integrity, and how to tug the skin off the ugly bones of the world that’s been pulled over our eyes.

Then, in March 2022, after being announced as a recipient of the Order of Canada the previous December, Bergmann found Decembrini dead, in the home they had shared under sprawling Alberta sunsets. 

His world smashed into fragmented months of grief. 

Those who knew him were alarmed by his agonized social media posts; those who visited him were frightened by his discombobulated state.

But from that dark time came an exquisite, raw album — ShadowWalk — to be released by (weewerk) Sept. 29 with a show at Vancouver’s Rikshaw Theatre and a Nov. 2 concert at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. And once again, Bergmann is showing us life. It’s not the soaped-up images that float across your daily screens, but life — awkward, disordered, raunchy. Like how to put your heart back together after losing parts of it to blackness, how to find hope again even as you cut your feet every morning waking up and walking over its jagged missing pieces, how love finds a way to salve wounds, and even how sex at 70 is fucking marvellous, literally.

Of his album Bergmann told me, “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s all in the album … every painful gut wrench and coming out of it … what more can be said?” Then added, “You say it … if ye can.” 

To that end, we agreed co-producer Russell Broom and co-writer and friend, poet Patricia Kay, would share insights on the musical journey.

From his Calgary home, Broom recalls Bergmann contacting him in the spring of 2022. “He had some music and he needed to do it, and of course I just said yes. He would come in and obviously he was in all stages of shock and grief at once, and I just made a deal with myself — I was not going to ask him how he was. Because it wasn’t going to be a conversation about that. It was just going to be, ‘Here’s an opportunity for you to get something out of your system and for us to work together on something.’ I just needed to be here to give him a vehicle to get some of that stuff out…It was just trying to facilitate space for him so he could create something with whatever he was feeling.” 

The result, the song “Death of a Siren,” which became a track on ShadowWalk, was released in August with an accompanying video featuring the land and home where Bergmann and Decembrini lived. The line, “There is no crack that lets in the light,” is a grim counterpoint to Leonard Cohen’s lyric “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

Broom first worked with Bergmann on the Dementia track Christo Fascists, featuring MC5 legend Wayne Kramer on guitar. “He is a musical genius, you know. When I looked at the melody and the chord structure and the chorus (of Christo Fascists), I was like, you know, this is so harmonically dense and complex yet musical, it was pretty fucking cool.

“To me that’s Art. He creates this tension and this release with what he does that is really second to none. And it’s just that basic conversational tension and release that good music has, and he just does it in such a unique kind of way. There’s no one like him.”

In September of last year, Bergmann returned to the family homestead in Cloverdale in Langley, B.C. for The Gathering, a memorial for Decembrini. He had been corresponding with Decembrini’s friend Patricia Kay and the two connected. 

“Sherri was my friend, Art my friend’s husband who also happened to be an artist I respected,” Kay says from her Vancouver home. “We only ever had the most cursory of greetings prior to Sherri’s death. We connected over FB messenger, condoling. In our conversing it was evident that we shared a love of language; of obsolete or unusual words. Words became poems, poems turned into song. A lot of our correspondence ended up in lyrics on this project.” 

Kay shares co-writing credits on most of the tracks on the album.

The opening track, Jagged/One, written by Kay and performed as a spoken-word piece by Bergmann, captures how he felt when he realized Decembrini was dead. Of writing it, Kay remembers the loss of her own spouse. 

“My husband had a surgery that went terribly wrong 10 years ago. It was a long summer of ICU horror before he was able to find peace beyond this world. It was senseless and tragic, and very difficult to move on from. Writing helped. Jagged is a perfect snapshot of that time.”

Kay says the process of writing with Bergmann flowed easily. “(It was) effortless, as far as the lyrics go. It’s something we both love. Musically, humbling. The melodies are all Art. He hears them complete in his mind, the works to bring the full essence to life. It’s amazing to watch.”

Broom, however, did not find the process effortless. “The difficult part with this record was more of how to marry the optimism and the hope with the despair. Because when you listen to the songs, when you go from Westerly Caress and WinterFire into (A) Hymn (For Us) and stuff like that, you’re sort of seeing this, and even Raw Naked Monday is kind of lighthearted and humorous. 

“When we made the record, I was just trying to be conscious of trying to be true to those emotions that Art was bringing to the table. So, when you listen to Westerly Caress, it’s extremely raw, it’s almost unmixed, and that one and WinterFire specifically, both have scratch vocals (from the first take) that we did in Vancouver and then we kind of had to build the track around that … when you look at the overall body of work, it had to be raw, it had to be vulnerable, and it had to be like a page out of a diary that you’re not supposed to read.”

Matching the scratch track to the rest was technically challenging, but Broom, who has worked with Ian Tyson, Chixdiggit, and is the musical producer for the CBC show Jann, was up for it. 

“We’re not going to compromise the rawness of some of that stuff and then some of the attitude and the joy in the other songs,” says Broom. “One thing I know about Art is, if he says, ‘We need to turn left here,’ I want to go down that road because there’s a good chance that something great is going to happen because he’s been doing this long enough and made enough records that his instincts are so highly developed and his musicality is so brilliant that if he feels inspired to do something it’s fully my duty to follow that and facilitate it.”

Those who attended the Calgary Folk Music Festival in July got the treat of hearing Bergmann performing songs from ShadowWalk including A Hymn for Us, Westerly Caress, and Raw Naked Monday. 

In 2017, Bergmann told theSCENE “I’m just going to be a shoe-gazing old folkie,” making him and Decembrini laugh when they read it. On workshop stages, Bergmann came close to that. But on Stage 1 with his Calgary-based band, the singer blasted out a performance that showed that the Art Bergmann who played Toronto’s Lee’s Palace in 1988 supporting the release of the Crawl with Me album had nothing on the 2023 Art Bergmann bedecked in glitter and letting rip gritty rock like Dementia’s Amphetamine Alberta.

“He was so surefooted at that show and he was such a leader and he sang with such conviction and played with such conviction. It was just a really fun rock and roll show. With Art doing the live show, he came in and he was firing on all cylinders and he led us, you know, and that was great.”

Broom picks WinterFire as the song he is most proud of on the album. “It’s an exceptional piece of music. It goes from being really dark to really being a crack of light in a nightmare. It’s a pivotal song on the record, and when he first brought it in, I didn’t hear it that way. I didn’t know what to make of it and it took me a long time to get my head around it. And I think because it was a sleeper for me, I think it’s my favourite song on the record just because it hits me in the place that I find, as a listener of music, emotionally to be hit. You know, it’s got some hope, it’s got some sadness, but none of it is clean, and none of it is disingenuous.”

In closing our interview, Broom reflects on the album, “You know, I like all the songs. I find them all surprising, like I do with all Art Bergmann songs, but I find it more concise, and more honest … And they’re all their own little novellas, you know? I don’t feel like this is a book with chapters, I feel like this is a series of small books about this lifetime that he lived in a year going from losing Sherri to finding a new version of himself.”

Kay also found special moments, despite how ugly the journey sometimes was. “(Art’s) decision to continue. To be present. To embrace the now.” As for being part of an album with a Canadian legend, she says, “It’s not something I had on my BINGO card; a beautiful surprise. Stay curious. Magic is everywhere.”

ShadowWalk will be released September 29 with a show at the Vancouver’s Rikshaw Theatre. Pre-order ShadowWalk from (weewerk) at weewerk.bandcamp.com/album/shadowwalk-by-art-bergmann-2.