Upbeat music from the heart of the pandemic
On their soon to be released self-titled debut, Cardboard People give 10 songs that mix cheerful dance beats with lyrics addressing the country’s current political and social tensions with wry humor. The arrangements touch on funk, soul, R&B, rock and a lot more, with a wide-open approach to the songwriting process. The two people at the heart of the group, Jim Greer and Yunoka Berry, are both familiar faces on the local scene.
Greer is a producer and multi-instrumentalist with a long resumé. He has had a hand in creating tracks for folks like Foster The People, Head Automatica and Macy Gray. When he saw a gig by The Onyx, an Oakland based, all woman band that blended elements from a broad musical spectrum, including hip-hop, R&B and world music, he was blown away. “I fell in love with the band’s musicianship,” Greer said. “I wanted to write something they could play.”
When The Onyx went on hiatus, he got in touch with Berry, one of the band’s lead singers, suggesting a songwriting collaboration. “I was cautious during our first interactions,” Berry said. “I was willing to go and listen to the music he had, but I was really reserved. I hadn’t had good interactions with industry people, but I saw Jim was a musician first. He said, ‘Let’s make music with no inhibitions or expectations. Let’s just say yes to everything and not worry about anything. If I say yes and you say yes, we can take it wherever it goes.’”
“As a Black woman, I liked the idea of not being boxed in by the music I make, or the way that I look,” Berry said. “There’s an idea of how one should look in today’s music scene. There aren’t a lot of Black women standing apart and doing their own thing. I don’t like to have preconceptions weighing me down too much, so having Jim reaffirm that definitely helps.”
The songwriting partnership progressed quickly, and Greer knew they were onto something unique. “I was stoked that Yunoka was willing to come and play with me. [We weren’t] even a band for a year. It was just the two of us, writing and making music at my studio in Berkeley. We started the year before the pandemic lockdown and just kept going, figuring out what we were doing,” he recalled.
“I said, ‘Let’s do a Eurythmics kind of band. I’ll be the producer man with the beard and you’ll be the killer vocalist. It won’t require anything else.’ I was daydreaming and thought, ‘If we can write some good songs, we can play them live together. It’ll be easy.’ I never would have dreamed it would become what it is now, which is so perfect,” Greer continued.
“This is a passion driven project,” Berry said. “I can express myself to the fullest extent, unlike other projects, where I had to hold back. We don’t tell each other, ‘No.’ We figure out how to make it work and, if it’s not working, we challenge each other creatively and push each other to our fullest potential.”
To introduce Cardboard People to the world, the duo took a measured approach, releasing a series of singles online during the past few lockdown years. “Bondage” is an ominous look at political oppression, with a hint of sci-fi in the lyrics. It opens with a menacing synthesizer hook, a slow funk beat and Berry’s processed vocals introducing a Big Brother-like character intoning: “I am your leader/ Your fearless leader/ Let me control your mind.”
As the easing of COVID restrictions began, Berry and Greer enlisted the aid of the rhythm section from The Onyx—bass player Rhonda Kinard and drummer Genesis Valentine. They began building a fan base with selected live gigs, many put on by Sofar Sounds, an organization that brings bands to smaller venues for younger listeners. “It’s better than playing in a bar,” Greer said. “People really listen, the bands get paid and we’ve become one of their favorite acts, because of our fun live show.”
After the success of their live show, and the singles they’ve put out in the past few years, they’re ready to release their debut album, Cardboard People. “The album signals that we are tying up the work we did during the pandemic,” Berry said. “The album allows you to see the full story, with all the singles put together.”
“This is the end of Part One of Cardboard People,” Greer said. “It feels right to bundle it all up and present it as an album. We have a bunch of new songs in the works, as well as a re-mix album. We’ll be playing the songs on the record live for the rest of the year, then start thinking about Part Two. I can’t wait to see what that is, maybe one long 45-minute super jam?”
Greer laughed and Berry joined in, adding, “We have been writing a lot of songs. Traditional R&B and EDM, so I’m not sure where it’s going to go, but it’s going to evolve.”
‘Cardboard People’ will be released on April 3 on War Chant Records. Hear the singles they’ve released on their Bandcamp page: cardboardpeople.bandcamp.com and their videos on YouTube: youtube.com/c/CardboardPeople/videos.