Songs can tell stories. Stories can turn into songs. But it’s the space between the two that inspired singer-songwriter David Berkeley to set aside his instrument and pen 140 Goats and a Guitar, a collection of essays that accompany — but don’t quite completely explicate — his newest album, Some Kind of Cure. “I love telling stories onstage,” Berkeley said, “and this batch of songs all seemed to have stories that I wanted to tell before playing them. I am really interested in the relationship between story and song and how events and emotions translate into lyric and melody.” The Harvard-educated Berkeley — who has appeared on This American Life and whose songs recall a less psychedelically inclined Sean Hayes or a more upbeat Nick Drake — has only recently moved to the city that bears his middle-cum-stage name, after doing time in the Atlanta suburbs and, before that, in a 35-person village in Corsica, where he lived for a year with his wife and young son while the missus was doing fieldwork for her master’s degree.
Most of the stories in 140 Goats are from this time spent in the remote Mediterranean, where Berkeley and his wife often felt helpless and alone in a tight-knit, non-English-speaking community. Measuring his artistic temperament and Western lifestyle against the wood-chopping, fire-starting, and even song-singing and cheek-kissing of Corsican males often found Berkeley feeling that he fell short; add that to first-time fatherhood and not speaking the language and you’ve got a recipe for sheer confusion. Luckily, Berkeley has a clear-eyed appreciation and — at least upon returning to the states and writing these stories down during breaks from recording or performing the songs on Some Kind of Cure — a self-deprecating sense of humor.
“I wrote the goat story and the wood-chopping stories first,” he explained. “Although both happened relatively early in our time on Corsica, I remembered each of those situations with painful clarity. Each of those stories deals with a level of displacement and bewilderment, fish-out-of-water stories, which I felt with unfortunate frequency through the year. They also are full of self-mockery, which I enjoy writing about. I take my music very seriously, and I take my life pretty seriously. But I laugh all the time. And I love to laugh (and make others laugh) about idiotic things that I have done.”
Berkeley suspects he may have some more books in him, possibly fiction. And he’s thoroughly enjoying doing readings with music, a subtle but refreshing change from telling stories between songs. “Since the expectation at a reading is to just read, it feels great to put the book down and pick up the guitar. It’s almost like breaking some unspoken rule. The stories all end in their own right, but I really wrote them with the hope that people would play the songs after each story, that somehow the songs act as the real conclusions to the stories. I get to fully realize that vision at these readings.
I also just love bookstores, and I’d far prefer to play in a place that smells of books than booze.” So keep that bottle of Charles Shaw in your brown bag when he reads, plays, and sings on Wednesday, June 1, at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley). 7 p.m., free. 510-525-7777 or BooksInc.net