Some artists are really able to encapsulate the thoughts or experiences of many. Jennifer Berezan feels music can take on a wider spiritual role in our lives, just as her own music has grown well beyond her folkie roots.
Since moving to California in 1984, the Edmonton-born singer, songwriter and guitarist has come to value music for its power to both heal and communicate. Today, she’s a part-time teacher and political activist in Berkeley who has travelled to far-flung parts of Asia and Europe, picking up international flavours that season the textures of her own sound.
“Before music became entertainment, it was part of the ritual life of the community,” notes Berezan. “From birthing and dying ceremonies to shamanistic healing rituals, it was woven into the central life of cultures. I got exposed to this a lot from travelling and studying world music.”
Since 1997, she has been teaching a course called The Healing Ecstasy of Sound at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and her own recordings have included occasional experiments with chants and more exotic instrumentation.
When Berezan returns to her hometown Friday, she will be packing some of the strongest, most penetrating songs of her career, based on her most recent release End of Desire (Edge of Wonder, 2005). The title track is a reference to Buddhist philosophy, the idea that humans must try to move beyond their attachment to a material lifestyle.
“All my writing comes from a personal place or gets filtered through my own experiences, and it’s hard to live in the Bay Area of California and not be influenced by Buddhism. That song is about a state of being where you feel what you have in the moment is enough; a sense of well-being that runs against the idea that you always have to get something bigger and better.”
Berezan hired top players from California and beyond for the album, including guest spots for singer Bruce Cockburn and mandolinist Mike Marshall. Still, it’s her thoughtful lyrics that keep the songs happening.
She says this November’s U.S. election has sparked a highly charged political atmosphere in California. She expects to be personally involved in the campaign once the Democratic party chooses an official candidate. Berezan, born in 1961, is no greenhorn when it comes to political thinking. One of the most intriguing songs on End of Desire is Take Me to the Mountain, a reflection on the idealism of the 1960s.
“I guess it’s about the realization that certain changes people worked to bring about in the ’60s are not going to happen overnight. When I started to get involved in some of those movements, some of us believed everything was going to be transformed because there was such idealism.”
Along with other tunes that express environmental and humanitarian concerns, Berezan calls Mountain her “love song for the ’60s,” and it certainly picks up on a line of thought that must be common to a lot of the baby-boomer generation.
“In that period, people sowed the seeds of the modern environmental movement and women’s rights and civil rights and all this stuff that has become part of our language. But in the song, there’s also a kind of heartbreak over the dream that didn’t come to fruition as soon as some people hoped.”
Since her recording debut in 1988, Berezan has never really fit into any neat musical pigeonhole, and current directions suggest she’s keeping it that way. Given her Canadian background, she also enjoys an outsider’s perspective on American life and continues to take “a great amount of pride” in being Canadian. While she allows that northern California is like a separate nation from an artistic and cultural perspective, Canada still feels like home.
When she performs Friday at St. Basil’s Cultural Centre, she’ll have several top-notch musicians from the End of Desire sessions in tow: keyboardist Julie Wolf, bassist Jon Evans and electric guitarist Geoff Pearlman.
Tickets are $17 in advance at Southside Sound or Tix on the Square, or $20 at the door. The show starts at 8 p.m. at 10819 71st Ave.
© The Edmonton Journal 2008