Chelsea Berry: Who is she, and why is everyone talking about her?

©2010 The Noise
by Bejon Gae

Chelsea Berry in The Noise Boston
photo by Louise

Some of you may remember Harry Nilsson’s brilliant self-promotion — he put this question about himself in the middle of a full-page ad in a newspaper. A newpaper in New York. A lot of people saw it and wanted to know who he was. He got everybody talking about him.

Enter Chelsea Berry. the statu-esque, powerhouse of a songwriter, singer, musician, performer extrodin-aire, and is originally from Alaska! She hasn’t taken out the ad yet. She may not have to. The buzz is happening without it.

Do yourself a wonderful thing: find out where she’s playing and go see for yourself—or at least get a copy of her recently-released CD, Walk With Me. She is a rare artist, a musician’s musician, and a global force similar to Joan of Arc. Then you’ll know why everybody’s talking about her.

Noise: I’ve seen you play many times. Seldom do I come across a talent like you. How did you get started?

Chelsea: Thank you. My dad is definitely a closet musician. Great piano player—he had a guitar and taught me a few chords on it when I was 14. Before that I was always in some kind of choir and by the time I was 12, my parents and brother and I were singing in four-part harmony at church, Christmas caroling…

Noise: At church?

Chelsea: The pin-drop vibe in a church is amazing. Beyond the fact that there is something bigger than you in that room. People are so emotionally available. Oh, speaking of which, if I drop an F-bomb, can we strike it? My mom is going to read this.

Louise (photographer): Well, there goes half the interview.

Chelsea: Ooo… zing.

Noise What is your memory of your first performance?

Chelsea: (Laughs) Oh, my God… third grade… I was dressed like a witch… lip-syncing to some God-awful song for a school talent show.

Noise: Tell us about the most influential teacher you ever had.

Chelsea: My parents are from the East Coast. They moved to Alaska in the early ’80s and met Robin Hopper. She’s an amazing singer/songwriter. We would go to folk festivals to see her play and I always wanted to do what she did when I grew up. I hung onto her coattails.

Noise: How did you land in Gloucester?

Chelsea: I was going to school at Berklee in Boston and got bored on weekend. I got on a train and ended up in Rockport. It became an escape for me. After I left Boston, I moved to Chicago and then Nashville… but I knew David Brown[Billy Joel’s guitar player of 12 years] was in Gloucester. I came back up two years ago and started going to his shows. I tried not to be too obvious about how in awe of him I was. Guess it worked… we play together all the time now.

Noise: How easy was it to break into the scene here?

Chelsea: [laughs] Not easy. I didn’t know anybody. I had to convince people that I had something to offer that was worth having… which is what the music business is, if you think about it.

Noise: A lot of singers lose steam as the night progresses. Your voice gets stronger. Why is that?

Chelsea: When David Brown and I play together he’s always mentoring me [laughs]… in a loving way, of course. He tells me to save some for the end—don’t give it all away too soon.

Noise: Not many have the power on stage that you have. What do you attribute that to?

Chelsea: It might sound dumb but I’m almost six feet tall and when you walk on a stage with height like that people are already looking up to you. Physically, I mean [laughs]. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like being the center of attention.

Noise: You’ve gotten the attention of a lot of seasoned players in the last year or so.

Chelsea: Yeah, David Maddix, David Brown… these guys have played with the biggest names in the world. Maddix reminded me in a conversation this week that it’s not about the pot of gold at the end, to stop and smell the roses, enjoy the experience. Good advice.

Noise: What does making it big mean to you and how do you intend to get there?

Chelsea: If I can afford a massage every week, a therapist every other week, and dance lessons, I’ll know I’ve made it. [laughs] I just want to play music for people who want to listen. There’s something so amazing about playing a room where people have paid money to come and listen to you for two hours.

Noise: How do songs land? What’s your process?

Chelsea: Lately I have become much more conscious of the groove. I can hear the guitar and melody and lyrics all at once and it’s just a matter of being able to write fast enough to keep up with my brain before I forget it.

Noise: Your recent CD project, which is amazing, by the way, you made a hugely ambitious effort by producing it yourself. What did you learn from the experience?

Chelsea: [laughs] I’ll definitely never do it again—not produce it all, I mean. I’d like to say that part of what I’ve learned is that it’s not important to be in control of everything all the time. People are put on the planet for different things… I’m here to write and perform. It makes me appreciate those people who produce and engineer that much more.

Noise: Did your ears take a quantum leap in the recording process?

Chelsea: Absolutely. My under-standing of sound is different now. I was fortunate to have Tony Goddess as my engineer on that project. He was patient enough to answer my questions in layman’s terms and explain why things sounded the way they did.

Noise: Your presence is galvanizing. You command the attention of the room when you play. When you play noisy bars, how do you get past the noise?

Chelsea: If it gets crazy and people get loud, I bring it down. Quiet and intense. It makes them pay attention. The most incredible musicians ever have been like that—Joni Mitchell and Eva Cassidy—taking all their energy and focusing it in on one tiny point—one controlled, perfect moment that makes the audience hold their breath.

Noise: Tell us more about the Gloucester scene. You have said that the Rhumb Line has been an incubator for a lot of great musicians.

Chelsea: It’s a comfortable place for all of us. We know the staff, we know the patrons… and Fred Shrigley, the owner, is the captain of the ship and is the one who makes this place happen. A lot of people that I play with now I met at the Rhumb Line. There’s a lot of, dare I use the word, inbreeding. [laughs] We all share instruments, players’ bills… the newest band to come together there is the Bandit Kings. Funky pop/rock sound, awe-some vocals, solid songwriting.

Noise: There’s a rumor that you reconnected with one of your professors from Berklee.

Chelsea: Yes… so cool. I took a class from Livingston Taylor in college and he had been mentoring me these last few months. He’s a master performer and it’s exciting being in his space. He calls my voice world-class. That rocks.

Noise: You’ve done some recording with Andy Pinkham at Mortal Music in Charlestown recently. Andy is one of the gurus of the recording biz. He has worked with many major players in the business. He shared with me that you’re one of the most amazing musicians he’s ever worked with. In regard to the Carol King tune: “that may have been the most amazing performance I have ever recorded.”

Chelsea: He understands vocalists better than any engineer I’ve met. He gets the little nuances and delivery and technique in a way that many engineers don’t. Andy has worked with all the pros that I love. Ellis Paul just recorded there—my hero. I’m finally stepping onto the same playing field as these guys.

Noise: So where do you go to kick back?

Chelsea: When I want to be alone, I go for a jog in Dogtown (Gloucester woods). That’s the best way I know to clear my head. When I want to be around people? Hands-down, the Cape Ann Brewing company. I miss being home sometimes. The Brewery is like a little piece of Alaska in Gloucester. The people are always cool, outdoorsy, music lovers… and the beer is fantastic.

Noise: You recently attended a performance of the one-man opera, Why Do We Go to War? by T Max, founder of the Noise. Thoughts?

Chelsea: It was fantastic and moving and really thought-provoking. I was blown away by his vocal ability and presence. The issue of war isn’t black and white and T Max is very aware of that. His show sparked a ton of conversation. Nobody in that room got up and left without discussing his message first. He really got to them.

Noise: Do you have any shows coming up that you want us to know about?

Chelsea: Yes, I’m really excited because I’ve wanted to play Johnny D’s in Cambridge for a long time. I saw Chris Smither there years ago and put it on my to-do list. The Chelsea Berry Band is on the bill for the 11th of November.

Noise: There are many young songwriters who are working toward the same things you are. Any words of empowerment for them?

Chelsea: There will be 200 people out there who will tell you how amazing you are, how much you inspire them, and how exciting it is to see your music grow… and there will be two people who will try to bring you down. It’s too easy to focus on the negative—the two people. My advice is to turn it around. You’re doing something that enriches other people’s lives. Focus on the good stuff.

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