When Amy Sue Berlin was 10, she attended her first Kerrrville Folk Festival. That was 1990 and Berlin’s mom, Anne Feeney, won the New Folk Competition that year. Tonight at the Cactus Cafe, Berlin debuts her Matt the Electrician-produced bow, Fragile Bones, roping in Grace Park, Mike Meadows, and B Sterling Archer for the CD release.
Berlin grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. Back then, her mother considered herself a recovering lawyer. Berlin, meanwhile, considered her parent a “singer, songwriter, and hellraiser.”
The younger songsmith’s been in Austin since 1999, with a short stint for a couple of years in Portland, Oregon. Last year, she married Mike Meadows, founder of Swan Percussion and drummer for Ben Kweller and Sam Baker. Berlin bears a resemblance to Audrey Hepburn with a guitar, and her broad smile, comforting and promising like spring, draws the listener in first.
Then, with perfect posture, she sparks the spirit of summer with her singing. Her voice is like no other. She’s an Austin original.
Austin Chronicle: How did going to Kerrville at such a young age effect you?
Amy Sue Berlin: Ever since being exposed to that whole other lifestyle of music and camping, I’ve remained open and never developed judgement. I was shown early how much music brought people together. Every time I went home from Kerrville I would cry and say I wanted to live in Texas. I hated living in Pittsburgh. I felt different, but also I felt like I was let in on a secret that nobody else knew. I felt like I had been let in on this secret world of weirdos and freaks and musicians that all got together and got to be themselves.
AC: Your mother must have been a huge inspiration?
ASB: My mother’s a political activist songwriter. She’s been on the road since I was in my early teens. All of her songs are extremely political. Part of why it took me so long to start writing songs is because she would say things to me like, “If I hear another love song, I’ll puke.” She felt so many people wasted their time on things that didn’t matter, which I agree with in a lot of ways. She’s a very strong, powerful woman, so it made it very daunting for me to feel that I had something to write that would save the world.
She’s one of my greatest heroes, though. She gets arrested at protests and works for human rights and woman’s rights. She really puts herself on the line.
AC: How did you finally get into music?
ASB: I started working for my mom on the road. I would tour with her sometimes and do tour managing, sell merchandise and that sort of thing. That led to me doing that with lots of other groups like the Blue Hit and the Green Mountain Grass. I also toured with Mary Gauthier, and most recently I did tour managing for Sam Baker. I’ve been in the back on the scene for a long time.
AC: Tell me about the new album, Fragile Bones.
ASB: When I was traveling with Mary Gauthier, she was teaching at a song camp in Sisters, Oregon. We worked a deal that I could sit in on the classes. I wasn’t planning on becoming a musician by any means, but I was very inspired by some of the lectures that I sat in on. I wrote a song and Gauthier told me that if I made an EP she would take me on tour with her. That was a pretty good incentive and I decided that at the very least I would make one EP.
AC: How did you hook up with Matt the Electrician?
ASB: Matt’s been one of my very favorite songwriters ever since I heard him. The thing that really draws me to Matt is his honesty through songwriting. It’s very raw and truthful. There’s not a ton of metaphors, so it’s obvious what he’s talking about. I feel like my music is similar in that way and I knew that I needed help recording because I’d never done it before. Because I’m so new to this, I wanted to work with somebody I really respected but that wasn’t one of my closest friends. I put the ball in his court.
AC: What was the process of recording like for you?
ASB: Matt kind of tricked me. He said, “Why not pick out 12 of your songs and we’ll record them and then decide which ones to use.” We did that and the next day he said, “Okay, so which songs did you like the best?” Then we picked six songs. I thought we were just making a quick demo and he basically said that the more times we did it the more I would think about it. Matt brought all of his equipment over and we recorded it in my living room.
AC: Other influences?
ASB: There’s this woman that’s been cleaning my dad’s house since I was a kid. She’s always been one of my heroes. She’s worked really hard every day of her life, and she finds beauty and joy in the smallest things. I remember one time I was upset about something. I went to her and she said, “People are going to talk about you no matter what you’re doing, so just enjoy what you’re doing.” I remember that being a great lesson for me that I still hold onto.
AC: What’s performing like for you?
ASB: I’m usually a really open person, but when I first I started playing music I found myself being extremely shy and uncomfortable. My heart would beat fast and my hands would shake to the point where sometimes I couldn’t even play guitar. It was a huge feat for me getting over that and it’s been gratifying getting comfortable.
I played a song about a friend of mine who had recently passed away in front of a group of people and after I had finished playing the song several people in the room were crying including myself. After the show, this guy came up to me and told me that his mother had died when he was 5 years old. He said that he felt like he hadn’t processed that until he heard that song.
I think that’s one of the most powerful and beautiful things about music – its ability to heal and connect people.
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