Martha Berner: The journey transcends ‘Fantasy’
by Alex Lubischer
Singer/songwriter Martha Berner’s new year is off to a sterling start. With her new album, Fool’s Fantasy, and upcoming shows in Chicago venues, the out frontwoman of Martha Berner and the Significant Others is primed to take 2012 by storm.
Windy City Times had the pleasure of meeting this honey-voiced rocker on the rise.
Windy City Times: I love the album. I’ve been listening to it over and over, and wanted to say congratulations.
Martha Berner: Thank you. I’m really happy with it.
WCT: How did life in the Windy City affect Fool’s Fantasy’s creation? Do you see yourself as a Chicago artist?
MB: I do see myself as a Chicago artist. I’ve lived here for about eight years now. I moved here for music. I think this album is what it is because of the exact combination of the players involved in producing it. Every single member, each part that they brought, is so important and integral.
WCT: This album was mastered by Gavin Lurssen! This is a guy who’s worked with Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. What was that like for you?
MB: It was really, really exciting. It was kind of my long shot wish list: “Wouldn’t it be great to have this mastered by Gavin Lurssen?” So I called a good friend of mine out in LA—a fellow artist—and she’s friends with Gavin, and I said “What are the odds that I can get Gavin to master this for me?” She said, “Well, let me drop him a line.” And he agreed.
We flew out there and sat in the room; he had his three Grammys lined up on the wall and it was awesome. It felt like: “I’m giving the record the best shot I could possibly give this.”
WCT: Are there any queer artists whom you feel a particular affinity towards?
MB: There are so many great ones—certainly the folksier lesbian scene, the smaller artists. Probably more of the queer men. You know, stuff like The Smiths and Morrissey. And, obviously, women like Melissa Ferrick and Catie Curtis, some of the more indie folk rockers.
I don’t know: Where would music be without the queers? The entertainment business, creative anything? A day without queers is what the U.S. should experience at least one time. In protest to some of these human rights issues in our country we should have a day without the queers and see how everyone gets along.
MB: [ Laughs ] The day without gays! I mean the restaurants would close down, the flower shops—I mean what would everybody do?
WCT: Perfect. [ Laughs ] How has your identity as a queer woman influenced your songwriting?
MB: Specifically, there’s a song on the record called “Brave,” which is basically written about being gay, young and afraid, and trying to figure out how to come into my own and stand for who I was, and all of that going against who I was raised to be. I came from a very Christian family. So it was a really frightening experience for me growing up to realize that I was gay because… There’s one thing that my family was asking of me and that was to love God and love Jesus and not be gay. If you could accomplish those two things you were pretty alright.
Had I not experienced that discomfort… You have to sort of leave where you’re from, right? To give yourself the space and the room to explore who you are and who you want to be and shape your own vision of yourself. That was the impetus for the get-up-and-go that took over the next 10 years of my life. And exploring and moving and letting myself grow into the woman that I wanted to be.
WCT: The track “People Are Crazy” has such killer attitude. What was the impetus for that song?
MB: That was politically inspired. I started writing that song while Bush was still in office and just—you know—the jaw on the floor. [ Laughs ] His getting reelected was shocking and just the state of our country… Now, I think it still applies today to politics.
Your mind’s for the taking,
Your savior is waiting,
Try to take a sucker down with you-
That line is about the influence of religion in politics and the non-separation of church and state that drives me absolutely nuts in this country. People are crazy!
WCT: What aspect of your album is particularly accessible to the LGBTQ community?
MB: Certainly the song “Irene.” That’s just a very blatant song from a woman to a woman. The song “Brave” has been mentioned, specifically about my journey. [ Pauses ] The whole thing [ laughs ] the whole thing’s just so gay because I’m gay!
For some reason I was listening to a lot of Johnny Cash when I was writing that song. It’s my little folksy ballad, sorta like Ring of Fire. It’s about loving someone you’re not supposed to love.
WCT: The track “Some Stay Awhile” had such a personal pain to it, but also a sense recovery—of getting back on the horse. Many songs harbored a lovely, reflective quality. What journeys were you traveling as you wrote this album?
MB: What I was going through a lot of during that time was feeling a bit lost in my journey as a young adult trying to achieve all the things I wanted. So the song “Some Stay Awhile” is that no matter what happens, you get back up and you get back on your horse.
But what’s as important as getting back up on your horse is that you never lose the ability to laugh and enjoy also, because it is the journey and not the destination. The destination is important and you need to have a destination.
I think you also need to know that destination may change as your life evolves in different ways. But more importantly, are you enjoying yourself? That was my resolve. I know the things that I’m giving my attention and my time and my life to are worthy. That at the end of the day, it’s not about being rich or being famous. It’s about: Was it worth it, those things I sacrificed for? Did I live well? Did I love well? Did I laugh?
Berner is performing Saturday, Feb. 4, at Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Ave., at 8 p.m.; and on Sunday, Feb. 12, at T’s Bar and Restaurant, 5025 N. Clark St., at 3 p.m. See www.marthaberner.com for more information.
The CD is available at Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark St., Berner’s website or iTunes.