Little Orange Room Sessions is a one-take, one-shot, “living-room”-style performance video series recorded in Eugene, Oregon. Each two-song session is recorded in the 125 square feet that I use for mixing, producing, and sometimes even recording entire albums. Little Orange Room Sessions grew out of my crazy love of music and mixing, a growing curiosity about film and cameras, and a deep-seated passion for performance and the art of song.
*photo: Wriik Maui
Session #8: Dan Bern
Dan Bern is a prolific singer/songwriter, novelist, painter, and podcast host. He has released 25 albums and EPs as well as written original songs for a handful of film and TV projects, most notably Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. His newest album Regent Street was released September 2019. Producer/recording engineer Chuck Plotkin, best known for his work with Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan says of Regent Street, “Fabulous record…moving and fun and wild.” Dan recently took the time to answer some questions via email.
LORS: I’m loving the new album. Your bio states you were unable to play guitar for nearly a year due to a snowblower accident and ended up doing a lot of the writing on piano. Did you notice your writing approach change at all being on the piano vs guitar? I know for me if I get stuck writing something on guitar I’ll switch to piano to get out of my comfort zone for a bit to try to hit the reset button so to speak. Did you feel like you were pushed out of your comfort zone? Was it something you embraced?
DB: Big time. I feel like a totally different songwriter at the piano, and a totally different singer, too. Whatever grooves I’d worn into my song-paths on the guitar, were completely erased at the piano. It was like shaking an etch-a-sketch, or when a Zamboni machine lays down a new sheet of ice. And the piano gives sonic support to a singer that the guitar, cool and edgy as it is, just can’t match. So I feel lucky, all in all.
LORS: There is prolific. And then there is you. Your output is impressive. How does a Dan Bern song get written? Is there a tried-and-true method for you?
DB: The best way to describe a song coming in for me is like a fever coming on, or when you know you’re getting a sore throat. Or maybe you’re an air-traffic controller and a plane is coming in, and you have to give it your full attention, at the expense of other things, until you’ve landed it. Maybe it’s like hauling in a fish. My only tried-and-true method is to finish them. They can begin in a million different ways, but once you’ve started to corral them into structures and verses and choruses and bridges and rhythms and all, at that point it’s just a matter of seeing it through. A lot of people start songs. Songwriters finish them.
LORS: I love the story of the title track. I think you had mentioned that it wasn’t even going to make the cut for the album but then you heard a version that your friend Roger Daltrey recorded (for the readers: yes, that Roger Daltrey, of a little rock band called The Who). You describe your version of “Regent Street” as a cover of Roger Daltrey’s version. That must be such an unreal feeling and so unique to connect with one of your own songs in a way that maybe you hadn’t connected with yet. Do you ever write with other artists in mind? In other words, writing to pitch opposed to writing to record.
DB: I have written and love to write for projects that aren’t about “me the artist.” I wrote a bunch of songs for the movies “Walk Hard” and “Get Him to the Greek,” for John C. Reilly and Russell Brand to sing. I wrote 2 seasons of songs for the kids’ cartoon “The Stinky and Dirty Show.” Those I sang, but they were songs that had to fit to the script. “Writing to order” remains one of my favorite things to do. I’ve joked with my buddy Mike Viola about opening a Song Store. “I need a bridge.” “OK, come back around two-thirty”
LORS: Guy Clark sings, “Some days you write the song / some days the song writes you.” Which line best describes you?
DB: Sure. Both. Either. The funny thing is that those relationships between you and the songs remain after they’re written. And they change over time. I had this one song called “Walking Through Glass.” It had hung around a long time. Every record we made we’d record it. But it would never make the cut. In our minds the song became this character, this bitter drunk, dashing the hopes of the newer songs. “Ha! You think you’re gonna get released?! Sitdown! Lemme tell ya how it is….” I used to think of my songs as each being a room in a big apartment building, or a mansion maybe. And when I did a show, I got to play around in each one of those rooms. Then, eventually, there got to be too many rooms….
LORS: Any music you’re listening to (old or new) that I should put in my ear holes? Or any good books you’re currently reading or just finished?
DB: Any music you can get by Carlos Trujillo, this guy in Albuqueque, is great. Orit Shimoni has an album of Hebrew songs called “Songs for my Father” that I listened to a lot on my travels this fall. I heard a new EP by Cliff Hillis that he’s calling The Inside Passenger that was really good.
I just finished “Raised in Captivity” by Chuck Klosterman. I’ll read anything he writes. I’m deep into Georges Simenon’s “The Murderer.” He’s a Belgian detective writer from maybe the 1940s and 1950s. I make sure to read every Murakami as it comes out.