By Steve Rhodes from Taper's Quarterly #7 Winter 1995
On Cindy Lee Berryhill's 1989 debut album Who's Going To Save The World?, the song "Ballad Of A Garage Band" tells the story of a star crossed couple brought together by the energy of punk music. Cindy's slow, almost gritty voice is perfectly suited to the song. On her newest album Garage Orchestra, she put together a group that not only includes the electric guitar, bass and drums of all garage bands, but also a mandolin, cello, violin, tympani, vibraphone, toy piano, flute, clarinet, and an assortment of other instruments, together which form the garage orchestra in the album title. With its engaging melodies and a musical complexity, garage orchestra has inspired repeated listenings, and I've enjoyed her two Rhino releases again, as well.
When I told her during a phone interview (she was outside Boston where she had recently played a show) that I thought her earlier work had more of an edge, she replied that garage orchestra was done "quicker, faster and far cheaper than anything I've done. This was done for $5000 in six days -live, so really this is the rawest record I've done." She went on to explain that it doesn't sound like that because "I arranged it in such a way where I got what I wanted, and I got it quickly. Partly what is trendy and what is popular now is an illusion of rawness, where people work really hard at creating something that sounds raw."
Cindy Lee described that when first writing the songs for the new album, "I was playing with a regular bass player and a drummer and it wasn't satisfying for me. I was hearing other instruments in my head. Eventually, I found people who could play those parts." She developed the songs during workshops with a number of musicians who became part of the garage orchestra including percussionist Randy Hoffman, who formerly played with avante-garde composer Harry Partch
In the late 80s Berryhill was part of a loose group of musicians living on the lower east side of New York who called themselves anti-folk singers. It included Kirk Kelly, Lach, Paleface, Roger Manning, Billy Syndrome, and, for about a year, Beck. Kelly, Lach and Manning sang backup vocals on Berryhill's 1990 release Naked Movie Star. She says anti-folk was really more a "a bunch of people who hung out" and created places to play, away from the traditional Greenwich Village folk venues, than a musical movement. After leaving New York in December of 1990, Cindy "got financially bogged down" in New Mexico for about five months on her way back to Southern California (which is where she grew up). She was able to "get back to playing guitar and writing songs," something that was hard to do in the rush of New York. "I rediscovered my love for melody," she recalls. "In the last three years, I would just start hearing more melodies in my head when I sat down to write songs."
When she was in New York, she and Billy Syndrome would get together and "have verbal jam sessions," talking about the Monks, Brian Wilson and other favorite music. Only after leaving NYC was she able to write the most moving song on garage orchestra, "Song For Brian," which grew out of a dream she had in New Mexico:
I know this is just a dream, dreams sometimes they turn out right
I met you Brian, I met you Brian and we fell in love last night
I know this is just a stupid song
and you haven't played on stage since I don't know
but it has been so long
you play the melodies to my heart's rhyme...
Cindy Lee recorded demos of some of the new songs after she returned to San Diego, but they weren't released because plans to put out her third album on Rhino Records fell through. "When I found out that Rhino and I weren't going to be doing anything, I went through a period of thinking, 'I guess nothing is happening, so it doesn't really matter whether what I write is cool or part of any trend or if it is anti-folk or not.' So really this record came out of that - my feeling there is not a chance in hell of anyone hearing this, so why don't I do exactly what I want?"
She wanted to reflect "what was really honestly happening in my heart musically. There was sort of a bullshit detector that was happening inside where I'd play something and it would have to really speak to me on an emotional level. For me, each song had to be like a poem where you could gravitate towards it in a simple way, but you could go in deeper if you wanted to. There's a lot of layers of different things happening. To me that was part of the fun and challenge - to make something that was deep as well as simple." The song with perhaps the most layers of sound and imagery is the nearly eight minute long "UFO Suite." You can almost imagine the movie that would accompany it in your head.
Berryhill has always read widely, so words come alive on her songs. For the past five or six years, she has worked in book stores - The Strand in New York (which advertises eight miles of books) and a small used book store in San Diego. Her liner notes on garage orchestra are fun. "I feel since you can hear the words so well, there is no sense in printing the lyrics. I got so exited about doing these little essays, that I decided to do that instead."
my ol 'buddy david brian once said i wrote songs like a science fiction author. of course to me this was a great trophy of a compliment. after carolyn keene [who wrote Nanc Drew] my earliest wordal inspiration came from arthur c. clarke. i was just thinking today like how people like clarke, asimov and others are so eternally hip and they never even change their glasses or clothes to fit the newest trends. sharyn calls that 'deep cool.'
From the note for "radio astronomy" - a song she says was Influenced by the Errol Morris movie on Stephen Hawking
cindy lee berryhill fan club address: box7lOl sandiego ca 92167
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