Seven years on the open road

By Jesse Keith

A lot of musicians have forgotten music can be used to spread a message. These days most popular musicians have very little to say besides what brand of jeans they wear or why Pepsi is the best cola.

Folk singer/songwriter Dan Bern doesn’t fall into this category.

He is, above all else, a man with a message, or perhaps messages is a better way to put it. For the past seven years he has been hitting the road with his acoustic guitar while still supplying the world with a prolific output of witty albums. Bern’s lyrics cover a wide range of topics, from Charles Manson’s real name to religion in American politics. In fact, for Bern, having a message is the reason he makes music.

"[Having something to say is] supremely important, it’s kind of what drives the whole [creative process], it’s kind of like the engine of it," he says. "When I have new [ideas], when I’m feeling energized by a message, then I’m at the top of my game. When I’m just aching to put stuff in a crock it feels really worthwhile and there’s no alternative but to do it.

"Then there’s those times when I’ve got a whole mess of gigs, and I don’t have any new songs. That’s when it gets really hard, that’s when it starts to feel like work."

Communicating through his music is almost compulsive for Bern. When he’s got something to say, he just has to get it out.

"People ask, ‘why did you write that?’" Bern explains. "Well, because it was fun or I need to because I was feeling so bad. And then you write it and it’s not dogging you anymore. I think that’s why people write. It’s like saying ‘here, you deal with it. I’ve been sitting here dealing with it and I’m done with it now.’ Except, guess what? You’re not done with it, you’ve got to go sing it now every fuckin’ night."

Those who know of Bern will know he’s a very productive artist, having released six albums and two EPs in his seven-year career, and he’s just putting the finishing touches on his novel Quitting Science. All of this was completed while touring and performing constantly. Still working hard, Bern has a mess of projects on the go, but what he doesn’t really have is a plan for the future.

"I really just take it one day at a time," Bern says, when asked about the future of his career. "I don’t sit down and write a list of my goals. I’m really more immediate, like I want to say this, I want to get this out, I want to express this, I want to get this off my chest."

According to Bern, the downside of being someone with a message is you can’t control the influence your ideas are going to have on your audience.

"As far as the effect [my music] has out there in the world or the ripples it makes," he begins. "Unfortunately, a lot of that is not in my immediate control. So you make what you make as best as you can and try to be as complete about it as you can given whatever constraints you have. And then you let it go."

It might seem useless sending out a message whose effects are uncertain, perhaps it might not accomplish anything. But for Bern the reception of the message isn’t the only component of songwriting.

"You accomplish two things when you write–you got it off of yourself, so it’s not dogging you so much, and you’ve made something that’s real," he says. "It may not be a table, but it’s yours and you get to go sing it. And [performing] is part of the process too, because a song is a social thing. It’s not a table that sits in one place and waits for somebody to come to it. It moves around and gets passed around, and it belongs to whoever wants it. It wafts through the air."

With his past success behind him and a flurry of ideas in his head, you can be sure Dan Bern will keep on strumming his guitar and letting you know what he thinks for quite some time.