Eloquent Alt-Folk singer/songwriter shares the story of two of her most seminal works
Cindy Lee Berryhill’s early career progressed through fits and starts. Initially part of the so-called anti-folk movement in the late ‘80s, she established herself with a pair of two strikingly suggestive albums — Who’s Gonna Save the World (1987) and Naked Movie Star (1989) — both of which gained her limited notice but sadly, not enough to sustain additional incentive. By the time she got around to releasing her next album, Garage Orchestra, six years had passed, and, by her own admission, her career had come to a standstill. Her next album, Straight Outta Marysville, followed two years later, but it was recorded at a difficult time. Her boyfriend and future husband, Paul Williams, a noted rock journalist and founder of the influential music journal Crawdaddy!, sustained a brain injury in a bicycle accident, and sessions for the record coincided with her caring for Williams in its aftermath.
For an artist whose initial musical outlay had begun with such promise, the two albums offered an opportunity to regain her traction. Now reissued by Omnivore Records, they also offer her past and present fans a chance to catch up and fill in the gaps between those earlier efforts and her most recent recording, 2017’s well-received The Adventurist.
“When they came out at the time, which was in the thick of the grunge era, they were really weird records. They probably still are,” Berryhill says in retrospect. “I was living in San Diego where you were either a grungy band, an alternative artist or nu-folk, kinda like Jewell. I had already had a career before Jewell came along, but I was thrown into that style. So I was trying to come up with something that wasn’t folk, wasn’t my old Anti-folk, and it certainly wasn’t the alternative of the day. I was really trying to follow my own muse. I was following the path of ‘what’s the music that I like?’ One of my favorite bands of the sixties was the Wrecking Crew, and I thought, I’d like my own Wrecking Crew. So I was looking for musicians that could play all types of music both live and in the studio.”
The answer to her ambitions lay in the Garage Orchestra, a formidable group of prime players that boasted a wide array of instrumental abilities and an equally expansive sonic sweep.
Still it wasn’t easy. After Naked Movie Star failed to deliver the anticipated breakthrough, Berryhill had found herself without a record label, dropped by her booking agency and in a new home, San Diego, where she had relocated after living in New York City.
“I was thinking, okay, everything’s kind of ground to a halt,” Berryhill remembers. “Where do I want to go from here? If no one’s listening, what do I want to do? And what I wanted to do was create this kind of new sound that would be based around an orchestra. So it took a couple of years of finding the musicians and woodshedding around. I had these amazing people, including my husband Paul, that were shopping me around to labels and seeing if there might be an understanding of what this undertaking I was embarking on was all about. But nobody got it. Nobody went for it. So I went with this small label called Cargo that was putting out San Diego alternative rock. I made the record and called it Garage Orchestra. It was one of those things where you’re either riding a wave or the wave’s flat. You have to define yourself, and out of that, I think I made one of my best albums, especially at a time where nothing much else was happening.”
Straight Out of Marysville was supposed to continue the momentum, but the domestic duties that became her focus in the aftermath of Williams’ accident impeded the progress. “It took me another year to figure out my next move,” Berryhill explains. “By then, it was do or die. Marysville was a combination of songs I had written since Garage Orchestra came out and some older songs as well. Paul compared it to a fire sale. You just pull out everything you have and see what might work. ‘The Virtues of Being Apricot’ was written around the time of my first album. ‘Riddle Riddle’ and ‘Elvis of Marysville’ came out of that slack time between my early era and my Cargo era, that five-year gap.”
In addition to their extensive liner notes, the two reissues also boast several bonus tracks. “I’m actually very fortunate to have a sound archivist named Alan Bershaw and he has everything cataloged. I don’t really like listening to the old stuff. I’m always looking forward. It was great that we had Garage Orchestra Stack-A-Tracks kind of things, recordings without vocals on them. That was kind of cool. As far as Straight Outta Marysville, I had actually planned on putting out an EP because we had more money for that album. We recorded five extra tracks for that EP, but after we put everything together, I thought, ‘Nah, I don’t want t put out the EP,’ so we had these extra tracks to put on the re-release. I liked the idea of including the songs without the vocals so you can hear what the instrumentation is doing. For me, the instrumentation was just as important as the words.”
In retrospect, Berryhill says she gets some mixed emotions when revisiting these records. “I hadn’t listened to these albums in years,” she admits. “It had been over 20 years. Garage Orchestra was a little easier for me to hear on a personal level. That album was about falling in love with this kind of music, and I met my husband to be, so I was really falling in love as well. Some of those songs were written when I met Paul Williams. And then Straight Outta Marysville happened a year after my husband had a brain injury. So I have to say that going back and listening to some of that stuff is a little bit like PTSD. It brings back the time period for me, so while there were good things happening — he didn’t die, he still had a brain, he was able to write again afterwards — but it was a shift. Things would never quite be the same.”
Other than a live album, Living Room 16 that was released in 1999, it would be yet another nine years until her next album, Beloved Stranger, and, finally, nine more years until The Adventurist.
“Life intervened,” she said, summing it all up. “I had a baby in 2001. I did have some great tracks I recorded around that time and maybe someday maybe they’ll come out. Alan compiled some things and he calls it ‘The Secret Life of Cindy Lee Berryhill.’ Maybe we’ll do something like that, because there are all these odds and ends in the vault. There wasn’t a label at the time and I didn’t have the wherewithal to go out and hunt for a new one. I just kind of moved on. Having a baby took a lot of time. I was forced out of the house in 2008 by some producers, but that’s the only reason that happened. In 2004, 2005, 2006, Paul Williams was suffering from a brain injury related to the accident and he wasn’t able to take care of our kid, so I was a single mom. Like I said, it was just life. I was taking care of my husband and my kid. It was a hard time.”
Berryhill says that now that her son is preparing for college, she might have the opportunity to resume her recording regimen and possibly get out on the road. Given these two choice reminders of all she once had to offer, and with The Adventurist still looming large, Berryhill hopefully she has the bigger boost she needs to effectively return to the music world. Let’s hope so. This pair of albums offer some indication of what many of us have been missing.
VIDEO: Garage Orchestra/Straight Outta Marysville trailer