A darling of the Chicago music scene since her debut album’s 2005 release, Martha Berner has gone on to win fans and critical accolades both nationally and abroad. Now ramping up for an aggressive push in support of her sophomore album, Fool’s Fantasy, Berner spoke with Our Town about her new band, her ideal audience member and what makes a performance great.
Our Town Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Martha Berner I didn’t write it on purpose. I was feeling sort of forlorn, a sort of typical teenage longing to know where I belonged, and I began to write a poem. This was out of character for me. I was very shy about my thoughts and never wrote them down. But I had written this poem, and pretty immediately I decided to try and put it to music. I don’t recall it taking that long to put it all together, maybe just a day or two.
OT Have any songs changed the way you write?
MB I don’t know if there’s one particular song or artist. Whether it’s a melody, lyrics, or a production approach, it’s hard to listen to music without constantly making mental notes, conjuring new ideas for songs or sounds. That’s why I listen to a lot of NPR. It’s my only real escape!
OT What’s your writing process like?
MB In the past, I’ve mostly put songs together all at once, so to speak. Find a chord progression I like, then put melody and lyrics together as I move through the song, making decisions about new chord progressions, melodies and lyrics as I go. However, that’s really begun to change for me. I’m now thinking mostly in rhythms and am doing a lot of lyric writing separately. Then I experiment with putting different ideas together and observe how they change each other.
OT How long does it generally take you to write a song?
MB You never know! Some take a day, some take a year. The rest fall anywhere in between.
OT In what ways is Fool’s Fantasy different than your first record?
MB It’s still very rooted in the singer/songwriter genre, but with the Significant Others I was able to bring to life the full band sound I had in mind when writing many of the songs on this album.
OT How did you go about assembling the Significant Others?
MB Part luck, part strategy. Scott Fritz (electric guitar/producer) and I waited tables together in the west loop when he moved here from New York City to develop his own studio and work as a music producer. Things took off for him at the studio and he was able to quit working in the restaurant. But a year or so later I needed a band for a gig I had booked and I dropped him a line. At the time, my ideal, long-term plan was for Scott to play with me live long enough to really get him inside the songs, not just technically, but energetically, emotionally. If that went well, my hope was to have him produce the new album. Lucky for me, Scott had been playing with Will Sprawls (keyboards) since they were teenagers and Will had moved to Chicago from New York City as well. They were up for doing some shows and we’ve been playing together since. Tyson Ellert (drums/percussion) and I were love at first rehearsal. It was a blind date, so to speak. We didn’t know each other, but a mutual friend set us up. It’s always kind of nerve wracking to do that. Like any blind date, if you discover you have little in common and there’s no chemistry, you’re sort of stuck there trying to figure out how to make an exit. But we rehearsed for a few hours and gelled immediately, both musically, and as friends.
OT What makes or breaks a performance?
MB Worst are the ones I don’t feel prepared for. I’ll spend the entire performance in agony, never really finding that space, a feeling that’s hard to explain; when you’re locked in and every delivery is just how you want it. You can’t control what kind of audience you’ll be playing for, but you can control your performance. And if you’re prepared and feeling good, then you can experience the show however you want to. But if you’re spending the whole show just trying to keep it together, it’s not much fun.
OT Best/worst parts of being a performer in Chicago?
MB Best is that the city is full of really cool, talented musicians. I love being apart of a community of artists who respect and support one another. Worst? Well, with all these amazing musicians running around putting on great shows, you’ve got to work even harder to get your piece of the pie. But is that a bad thing?
OT Who’s your dream audience member?
MB My mother. She died before I began performing publicly; I was very shy about it until sometime in my early twenties. She loved music and I know she would get a real kick out of seeing me play.
You can see Martha Berner play September 3rd at Reggies Rock Club.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," is forthcoming from Soft Skull, an imprint of Counterpoint Press. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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