He's lived all over: California, Idaho, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico. Movement releases his muse. "I do well when I change scenery drastically," Berkeley says. "And it also helps if I have some ideas going away and then I break off into some place that's very different from me."
For now, Atlanta is providing him with a welcome respite from the madness of Brooklyn: "I have a real love/hate with New York. While I was there, I was getting ready to leave for a long time. We had a back yard and a garden and a nice setup, but there's something so relentless about it. In the end, I was ready to get out."
Actually, he may not have been ready quite yet.
"I miss it terribly. There's an energy there. You can feel like an artist. You feel like you're doing something even if you're not, just by living there."
But wait, he may yet be confident in his decision to move.
"It's also a distraction. And now that I'm not there, you really have to bone up to who you are and how you're spending your days and what you're thinking about. And there's nothing to block out your inner world, which I think, in a deeper sense, is a big plus and what I wanted. But it's not always easy."
All right, let's call it a draw.
The 27-year-old Harvard English grad uses these alternating emotions, these fixations with time and space, to craft the songs on his second album, After the Wrecking Ships (Ten Good Records). He also has a unique gift for melody, wringing new life from old chords. Listeners have likened him to all sorts of confessional troubadours -- knowledgeable ones hear Grant-Lee Phillips, whereas laymen see an acoustic guitar and improperly invoke James Taylor. The confusion only makes the anxiety of influence that much more pronounced.
"I always have a hard time with the influence question because it implies something that's maybe more intentional," says Berkeley, "like that I listen to and try to emulate. But that's not the case."
For the record, Berkeley himself occasionally hears a little Tracy Chapman. Her deep resonant sense of bittersweet informs Berkeley's saddest numbers, "The Matador" and "Chicago." (His first album, The Confluence, often recalls Cat Stevens in its bucolic wanderlust, which he has since sharpened.) But when it comes to sculpting lyrics, Berkeley's clearly on his own, hand-picking historical figures and scenes and infusing them with an emotional wallop that's every bit in the present tense.
Whether it's the obvious call to founding father Thomas Jefferson in the album's opener or the Civil War memory behind "Shiloh," Berkeley travels centuries to find the right point of entry. "I didn't set out to write a Civil War song," he says of "Shiloh." "I sat down to write something that I thought expressed some sadness and fear about the war going on in Afghanistan then. I wanted to show the human side and somehow ended up in the lap of 'Shiloh.'"
But Berkeley asserts he is not a historian. "I like looking elsewhere than music for ideas and inspiration, but I wouldn't call myself a history buff," he says. "I'm pretty romantic about different times, but I'm not devouring history journals and whatnot."
No, Berkeley's obsession is marrying words and music into perfect form. "It's strange, because I think of myself more as a singer and a writer than a musician. And yet it often comes first with the guitar, and then I'll get an idea and then I'll struggle with that idea."
For the moment, he's been fortunate to work with co-producer/engineer Alex Weinstein, whose arrangements, be they strings or drums, never overpower the songs. And the romance that Berkeley feels for distant eras all comes together perfectly.
Storm clouds gather. Berkeley takes notes.
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