- Photo via Bandcamp
- Andy Berkhout
In 2010, before he began releasing albums as Trotting Bear, Andy Berkhout challenged himself to write, record and post one song per week for a full year. He's not the only artist to undertake a songwriter's challenge — Michael Zapruder and, more recently, Jens Lekman have laid their sketchbooks bare in the past. But for Berkhout, the exercise pushed him to define the contours of his songwriting, without the safety net of a long gestation between creation and dissemination.
"I think there's a desire to censor or filter, sometimes, what you're putting out when you're songwriting, so I think I became more comfortable in taking risks with songwriting," Berkhout says of the project.
He credits the 52-week exercise with helping him develop as a guitarist, particularly in the fingerpicked style that is a regular feature on his recordings; youthful dalliances in punk, rock and bluegrass bands had compelled him to emphasize force and volume over finesse. But after that initial flush of songs, Berkhout continued to write and record swiftly, issuing three releases between 2011 and 2013. Places, which has its release show this weekend, comes after his longest gap between albums by some measure.
"I'm just getting comfortable with taking time with things and letting things breathe," says Berkhout.
Berkhout grew up in Manitowac County, Wisconsin — the setting, he blushingly confesses, of the Netflix true-crime procedural Making a Murderer. He moved to St. Louis in 2009 to attend Washington University, and currently works with St. Louis' homeless population as a social worker at St. Patrick's Center downtown.
Since the release of the first Trotting Bear album in 2011, Berkhout has been a keen arbiter of gentle folk music, with songs much more interested in ambient noise and aural space than rock & roll dynamics. On his latest album he has expanded the line-up of Trotting Bear, and in the process widened the scope of the band's music. Berkhout has played for the last five years with local singer-songwriter John Donovan, who on this album lends melodic guitar leads and intuitive keyboard color. The rhythm section, with Ryan Soles on percussion and Steve Lenivy on bass, offers a crucial pulse to the album, feathery as it may be. Berkhout has long subscribed to that millennial-folkie dictum that quiet is the new loud, but on Places the dynamic shifts give grist to what might otherwise be unmoored passages.
In talking about the new album, Berkhout credits this iteration of Trotting Bear with giving shape to the material. "I think the most important thing is that there's a real good sense of respect and trust and brotherhood for each other's musicianship," Berkhout says. "Especially for the way we made this album, we recorded everything live — it was all of us together in a room for a week, so it can get pretty intense in there.
"Having that ability to be able to listen and play off of one another — everyone is committed to a group dynamic," he adds.
As on previous Trotting Bear recordings, Berkhout had initially recorded a version of this album at home, with the same hushed presentation of earlier releases. Dissatisfied with the results, Berkhout called on fellow Wisconsin native Beau Sorenson to helm the production of the sessions. Sorenson, who formerly worked out of Smart Studios in Wisconsin before a fruitful stint in Portland, Oregon, that found him engineering records for Death Cab for Cutie and Bob Mould, had recently relocated to San Francisco. Trotting Bear was able to secure time at John Vanderslice's vaunted Tiny Telephone, a studio famed for its dedication to using costly but sonically superior two-inch tape.
Credit the producer's pedigree, or the top-shelf studio gear, or band's intuitive relationship, but the resulting record is Trotting Bear's strongest to date. Like Berkhout's other releases, it is in no hurry to get from here to there, but some of its discursive passages help set the mood. Opening track "Centro" is a mere 90 seconds and serves as a seamless lead-in to "Catherine," but the instrumental intro helps cleanse the palette and set the mood for the gentle twang of what follows.
"I think the record is made to be listened to all the way through," says Berkhout. "Our plan is to eventually have a small vinyl release for it. At least in our minds, there is kind of a clear A and B side to it.
"If you listen to the first side, it probably sounds closer to how the last few Trotting Bear releases are arranged," Berkhout continues. "The second side is more where we explore a little more sonic territory, doing a little more with the synthesizers and some extra instrumentation. There's a little bit of dynamic contrast between the two."
Stream the new album below: