It�s only straight ahead if that is what you�re used to.
Geoff Berner: Unearthing the Many Layers of the Grotesque
Geoff Berner digs out all the country songs that wouldn't fit and come us with something grotesque.
Geoff Berner begins our conversation by calling me out. And rightly so because I begin our interview by describing his new album, Canadiana Grotesquica, as “straight ahead.” On this album Berner strays from the distinctly klezmer and Jewish folk sound of his previous albums and he objects to my description, “If that’s your background then you’d think it was more straight ahead but if you had a different background you would think it was exotic. It’s only straight ahead if that is what you’re used to.” He’s right and he’s right. It’s only straight ahead if Canadian roots and country is what you are used to and I was raised in Southern Alberta so it’s what I’m used to.
Canadiana Grotesquica is a fitting name for the album for multiple reasons. While most of his music is in the eastern European and klezmer vein he would once in a while pop out a country song or a rock song and then there wouldn’t be anywhere to put it. Eventually there were so many of these outliers that he had an album on his hands. Berner says, “The word grotesque means ‘stuff that got dug out of the grotto’ and these songs are older and I dug them up from my own personal grotto.’”
He describes the album saying, “a lot of the subject matter is about Western Canada, prairie places, prairie people, and some of my lyrics are kinda weird, (he laughs), kinda grotesque.” One of the draws of Berner’s music is that it can be difficult to pin down – he combines traditional sounds with modern existential lyrics, sharp wit, and folkloric flair. So, a country song by Geoff Berner is no simple country song. Instead, it fuses with his activism, sense of humour, and historical lens and becomes intriguingly grotesque.
Furthermore, the Canadian project as a whole strikes Berner as notably grotesque. Having spent much of his life touring Canada Berner has a unique grasp on the strange and sometimes awful contradictions at the heart of the Canadian ethos. When asked what he wishes people knew about the Canada he has seen he replies, “I guess people should be aware that there’s a kind of Canadian PR that we are the nicest, politest, most goldilocks country. And we’re really a colony. A white supremacist colony. That’s what we were founded to be and that’s how we roll now. That’s the most important thing. It’s a grotesque contrast. The Canada in PR and what Canada is.”
To close the conversation, we came back to the music that for Berner is the straight ahead - the music of his upbringing – the familiar chords and melodies. He recollects, “Old people I grew up with knew it all so well and I remember them singing these songs. It’s a way for me to connect to that part of myself. I believe it keeping it alive. Keeping a diversity of voices in our culture. So that everything isn’t a big homogenous golf course of straight ahead pop music.” Canadiana Grotesquica is anything but a big homogenous golf course of an album. It’s wise and wise-cracking but also thoughtful and studied. In the final song, Berner references an earlier song of his called “Keep It Light Enough To Travel” updating the sentiment to the road weary but wise “Rule of the Road” with a chorus that goes, “everything that you take on this trip / is gonna be broken by the time you get back.” Berner laughs and sighs, “I just learned to trust going into the song. No matter how you feel coming off the road or how you feel about how you are doing in your career. Just get in front of people and start. Then you’ll go somewhere that helps.” Berner is a road warrior of the finest variety and that is on display in Canadiana Grotesquica. He is a true artist. One that is honest, poetic and a bit of jackass.
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