It’s difficult for Berkeley native Rachel Garlin to pass a group of teens on the sidewalk without them waving and shouting, “Hi, Rachel!” She smiles and waves back to her former students. For the past two years the folk-rocker has been teaching English at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School near her home, and at a concert last year she was joined onstage by an entire class of students singing the song they wrote together as a course assignment.
“I get the inspiration for one or two songs a year from watching my students,” she explains. Outgoing and dedicated to inspiring in others the same passion for the power of words that she holds dear, Garlin is turning those words into a fast-growing career as a singer whose songs reflect life around her. The insightful and catchy tunes touch on fears and challenges of adolescence, love themes, old age, and death. Not that she planned it that way.
No blinding flash of inspiration struck Garlin when it came to a career choice. She didn’t groom herself to become a musician or a teacher. They just came naturally to this youngest in a long line of teachers on both sides of her family. At Berkeley High (class of ’92) she was better known as a member of the state championship girls’ varsity basketball team and as student body president.
Music has always been a part of Garlin’s life. She grew up on the socially aware songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and at Harvard, her thesis was drawn from interviews with low-income mothers about how they navigated or tried to navigate the childcare system. “I didn’t think of it at the time, but that project sowed the seeds of my work as a teacher and songwriter,” Garlin says. She began incorporating stories and experiences into songs she would sing at Cambridge coffeehouses while still in college. Back in Berkeley, she taught during the day while receiving accolades for her music, including twice winning “Best Song” from Northern California Songwriters Association.
As she prepares to celebrate the release of her second CD of original songs, Five Minutes, Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Freight & Salvage (1111 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-548-1761) before launching a busy fall concert tour schedule, she admits she doesn’t have time for full-time teaching. “But I’m looking forward to substitute teaching when I’m in town.” At the concert Garlin will be joined by her band: accordionist-pianist Julie Wolf (of Ani DiFranco’s band), bassist Matthew Sperry, Lisa Zeiler (of Rebecca Riots) on guitar, and percussionist Paulo Baldi.
Last spring Garlin and fellow singer Melissa Crabtree did a cross-country concert tour in a veggie van, an eco-car that ran on used vegetable oil that they refueled at fast-food restaurants as they traveled. It inspired a song on the new CD, the rollicking “Alternative Fuel.” She performs at events for community causes she supports, but it will be interesting to see if a song comes out of her experience a few weeks back at Berkeley Community Theater, singing for 1,100 women who broke the record for number of simultaneously breast-feeding mothers. Laughing, Garlin says, “It was my biggest audience so far, and there were 2,200 if you count all the babies!”