Name: Jenny Berkel
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, poet
Recent release: Jenny Berkel's These Are the Sounds Left from Leaving is out via Outside Music.
If you enjoyed this interview with Jenny Berkel and would like to find out more, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, and Facebook.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
There’s something that happens deep inside the body and heart when you’re creating something; it’s this feeling that I return to over and over again.
For some people, performing might be the element that pushes them to make songs, but I have always found the process of songwriting itself to be the most satisfying of all. I don’t tend to wait around for creative inspiration—I try to set aside time as much as possible to sit and write. When I do, I pull a lot from emotion—personal, cultural, political—and images from my daily life.
My new song, “You Think You’re like the Rain,” takes images from my surroundings (a dripping tap, the creaking floor) while considering heavy feelings.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I start best when things aren’t concrete at all. Although I can see how it might help to visualize something in a finished state, I don’t like to visualize what a finished creation will look or sound like. My creative life is one of the only areas where I’m really able to do this. As a relatively anxious person, I tend to do a lot of planning and ruminating in my regular life. While that isn’t really productive in any areas of life, it’s particular unproductive for creativity.
I try to get my brain out of the way as much as possible in the beginning stages and just follow ideas, shapes, and sounds. My planning starts later on, once I’ve managed to get the shape of a song out into existence.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
The space I work in is fairly important to me. I’ve always been a bit envious of people who can write anywhere. Perhaps it’s partially a self-induced limitation, but I really rely on my little space of home for creation. I need a closed door, a quiet house, and a desk to sit at. It’s not the most comfortable place to sit and play the guitar, but it’s really the only place I write songs and poems. When I use the piano for writing songs, I tend to feel a little bit unsettled because it means I can’t write lyrics at my desk.
One exception comes to my mind—on my last album, Pale Moon Kid, there’s a song called “All That You Do,” which I wrote in my car while stuck in a dead-stop traffic jam on the highway outside of Toronto.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I really like writing in the morning after my first cup of coffee. Most of my creative work is done in the morning—I discovered a long time ago that my brain works best before noon.
Although for years I’ve have the bad habit of avoiding taking breaks, I’ve also (finally) recently discovered how critical a break can be, especially if I spend that break walking outside. I have the tendency to fixate on a problem for too long. A walk through the woods can help break that perseveration and bring in new ideas.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
Although I play around with chords first, I tend to build the music and words together. I find the starting point to often be the most difficult point. It can be hard to get out of your head—doubt and distrust can get in the way so easily.
Often I’ll just start singing whatever melody first pops into my head over the chords, and that melody will come with shapes of words. I try not to judge myself in those early stages, otherwise I’ll never get anywhere. Sometimes I put my guitar in an unfamiliar tuning to disorient myself a bit.
The song “Half Dream” from Pale Moon Kid was born out of a new tuning.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
My lyrics tend to enter the picture early on, essentially alongside the melody. I find that song lyrics need to grow together with the music—this allows the lyrics to really build upon and move into the melodic mood of the song, and it also allows the shape of words to grow with the melody.
It’s fairly rare for me to start writing a song with a specific lyrical idea; I find that the melody pulls particular images and ideas out.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
Although I know there are many great lyricists in the world and many different ways of writing great lyrics, my favourite lyrics are almost always poetic lyrics that are full of vibrant imagery. I love it when somebody puts together images and words in a way that makes me think of something differently.
At the same time, I also really like it when those poetic images are accessible to listeners. This balance is something I strive for in my own songs.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I like to try to get myself out of the way as much as possible when writing.
If I start trying to control the process, ideas can quickly become stifled. This can be hard for me to do, but I think it’s critical in the early stages of writing a song or poem. I like to let my brain and heart kind of soften so that one image can move to another image in strange and surprising ways. Later on, once I feel like something has formed, I start to approach it with a stricter ear.
But even then, I try to limit that control. It’s easy to accidentally wreck a song or poem by over-editing.
When I was writing “St. Denis,” another song on Pale Moon Kid, I considered returning to it to make some edits later on; I’m glad that I resisted that compulsion.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
This does happen to me sometimes. Sometimes I feel resistant to those new ideas and alternative roads, especially if I’ve been working on an idea for a long time. But I try to follow them when they arise—perhaps the original idea will end up abandoned, or perhaps I’ll send up with two new songs instead of one.
If an idea comes, I think it’s important to give it some space to become something real. Then you can decide what you want to do with it.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
The creative state is the most giving place I can imagine. It can also be the most frustrating.
But when I get into a true, deep, and focused creative state, my whole self feels like it’s buzzing. I don’t really think of it in terms of spirituality, but it does feel like a meditative and sacred space.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
That’s very true. It can be so hard to finally decide that something is done. I think that for me, it’s a feeling that—hopefully—arrives at some point. There have been times where I’ve finished a song but have then pushed beyond that point and kept working at it. Those songs never make it onto albums, as they end up feeling like the life has been squished out of them.
I think outside of a personal feeling, it’s also helpful to have your artistic community give input. Sometimes it can be hard to see outside of yourself.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
A lot of refinement comes through playing a song live, playing it with a band, and then when recording it. And again, I find community to be so helpful here, both for improving a song and for helping me know when a song is done.
“Kaleidoscope,” the newest single from my forthcoming album, went through some changes and refinement as it moved from guitar to full band to recording, and I think all of these steps helped sharpen it.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Most of the people who hear my music will hear it in recorded form. I want my recordings to sound and feel full of life and tangible emotion. I think it can be really hard to capture that in the studio and then maintain it through the mixing and mastering process, but I think we managed to do that on These Are the Sounds Left from Leaving.
While I’m learning more and more about this part of music-making—I helped co-produce the new album—it’s really helpful and important for me to have other people involved who are aligned with my vision for production. Having outside ears can be critical, especially for when I’m doing vocal takes.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Yes, I relate very strongly to this feeling. This is one of the reasons I really like working in more than one world of art. I can move back and forth between music and poetry.
I’ve also been trying to work on writing fiction. So when I finish something, I fill that new space with something new. Last year, for example, I released my first chapbook of poetry, Grease Dogs.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Certainly creativity is critical in so many areas of our lives. We often associate it with art, but it goes far beyond that.
That said, even though we can approach many tasks creatively, they don’t have the same effects or impact as art. I often return to Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “To Music,” wherein he describes music so beautifully and perfectly: it is the “language where all language ends”; it is “the transformation of feelings … into audible landscape”; and it is the “heart-space grown out of us.”