Cindy Lee Berryhill pays tribute to late husband Paul Williams with new album The Adventurist

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It would have been easy, and certainly understandable, for Cindy Lee Berryhill to drown her sorrows in songwriting when she began working on the material that became The Adventurist. She had spent years caretaking her husband, Paul Williams, surrendered those duties when he entered a nursing home, then moved into the position of advocate, visitor, and ultimately widow. Instead of dwelling on the pain, she focused on creating a song cycle meant to celebrate the good years, the love, and the memories.

Berryhill grew up in California and began playing guitar at age nine. As a young adult she made her way to New York, where she became active in open mic nights in Greenwich Village, gigging as part of what was known as the “AntiFolk” movement — the meeting of punk rock and acoustic guitars. In 1987, she signed her first record deal, with Rhino Records, and released Who’s Gonna Save The World.

She returned to Southern California in 1990, and met Williams, a journalist, critic, author, and founder of iconic music magazine Crawdaddy, two years later. They married in 1997, two years after he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a bicycling accident. What the couple never expected was that the aftermath would result in dementia. Early onset presented in 2004. In 2009, Williams was moved to a nursing home, where he remained during his final four years.

Throughout all of this, Berryhill was a wife, mother, and caregiver, leaving home only when necessary, bringing in assistance in order to continue her job as a guitar teacher, and experiencing the inevitable emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that comes with being on around-the-clock duty to tend to someone’s needs. Yet, rather than allow herself to become mired in sadness, she turned to music as a source of comfort.

“I began writing with an intention,” she says. “At that point I had taken care of my husband for so many years. I set out to write an album that he would love, and that honors all of the good things that we loved together.” 

Cindy Lee Berryhill - photo by Richard Kerris
Cindy Lee Berryhill – photo by Richard Kerris

Usually we talk about how a new album is the next step, the next chapter, in the timeline. In your case, The Adventurist is a new volume entirely, although you liken it to a bookend with Garage Orchestra. Where do you see a connecting thread between that album and your back catalog and now?

This album, in the earthly sense, closes that chapter on the time with the person that became my husband. The songs on Garage Orchestra started being written around the time that I met him. He was definitely a muse for me. This album closed that chapter. I made a definitive decision not to go into the sadness. My last album [Beloved Stranger], ten years ago, was more of that. I wanted this to be a tribute to the good stuff that I loved in him, and the things we shared, the music we shared a passion for, people like Brian Wilson and Neil Young. I put bits and pieces of those kinds of things in the album.

The material is so intensely personal while at times almost light, for example, “I Like Cats/You Like Dogs.” Did you write without filters and with intent to bare your soul regardless, or did you edit your thoughts as you wrote the lyrics?

I didn’t edit, but even before I started the song cycle, I wanted to go into the good stuff. With that intention, songs began to pour forth that had that feeling to them. When you go through something as intense as what my family was going through, it didn’t serve me to go into any kind of dark place. I don’t do well if I’m feeling depressed, and the day-to-day stuff was enough of a challenge that I wanted some feeling of escape. The escape became going into the beautiful place of the feelings of love and desire you have for somebody. Part of the intention of this album was what is desire, what does it feel like and look like internally.

cindy lee berryhill the adverturist album coverAs you wrote, did you already have melodies? Did the lyrics create their own melodies?

This album had almost no labor to it. The songs came out almost as whole pieces. There would be a little editing later, but most of them came out nearly finished. With the “cats and dogs” song, there was a night when I was with my son, I was babysitting some friends’ two kids, and they were playing in the other room. I came up with the riff, and they all came out and started dancing to it. By the end of the evening the melody started coming to me. There was a piece of paper where I had written words as an afterthought, and the riff and melody and words all came together as one.

Another song that was riff-driven is “American Cinematography.” I had a melody and a riff. I teach guitar, sometimes in groups, and a lot of them are tweens and teens. I play something and ask, “What does this make you think of?” A lot of them said, “Like somebody driving around in the West and there are mountains.” I began writing lyrics and they became what they were.

Other than that, the songs came out as whole pieces. It was always fun writing these songs and there was no work involved. They just came out of the enchanted forest of the creative mind with very little filtering.

Sound is one of
my favorite senses.

In a podcast interview you discussed the instrumentation and layering of sounds that are such a big part of the landscape of this album. What was the process of arranging the songs?

A lot of times I hear them in my head. Sometimes when I write the songs I can already hear parts. On other pieces I got together with a few musicians and we tried out parts. I rarely use the studio as a place to try things out, because I can’t afford that. I do some woodshedding with musicians ahead of time, or I make my own demos with guitar parts that can be turned into other instruments later.

The first album I did that on was Garage Orchestra, which came out in 1994. I was listening to a lot of Brian Wilson’s more obscure music, like the Smile bootlegs and Making Pet Sounds. I was always good with harmony and harmony parts, and I began to realize that arranging is like taking harmony parts and giving them to different instruments.

Back in the early ’90s I was listening to instruments just to hear the tonalities. I’d go to the symphony and listen to how different instruments sounded together, and I became intrigued with how you can pair instruments during the same notes and they can meld together to make a different sound. That’s how synthesizers were born, but I like doing it with horns or woodwinds or stringed instruments. Sound is one of my favorite senses. I’m not artistically driven in a visual sense, but I love sounds, and everyday sounds can be so delightful. There is a pleasure in sounds.

Is it challenging to bring musicians into a project like this one? Do they need to have some understanding of what it means to you personally, or is it enough for them to simply understand it musically?

For me, going into the studio is like a kid in a playground, so mostly what’s important to me is musicians that want to go play and are open-minded. A few of the musicians on the album know that I have that style, and they knew what was in store. Everybody knew my story because they were my friends in some capacity. But a few of the people I hadn’t played with before, and probably they came in the studio at first not knowing what to expect. I told everybody ahead of time that we were going to do ensemble playing, including me as a guitar player. There are a lot of instruments, but there is a lot of room and a lot of space, because not everyone is playing at the same time. Sometimes they came in with ideas we’d sculpted, or parts that I had given them, so it’s layered in a spacious way. It was a Brian Wilson and Wrecking Crew kind of arranging. That is my model.

The liner notes credit five producers, yourself included, and two executive producers. That’s a lot of cooks in one kitchen.

The executive producer is like the producer in the world of cinema, where it’s about the funding and support in those other kinds of ways. The co-producers — I had several, and a lot of times the person someone might call an engineer, I call a co-producer because I want his opinions. I want him on board. It did move around to a few different studios. We started with David Schwartz. He writes and composes music for television shows like Arrested Development and a bunch of other ones, so there were times when he wasn’t available. I decided to do some tracks in other places and he was fine with it. We did a few in San Diego with Ben Moore, and then there were other players I wanted for some of the more expansive songs like “The Adventurist.” I wanted DJ Bonebrake [X] and Probyn Gregory [Brian Wilson] and some L.A. players, so we did it with Sheldon Gomberg at his studio. We did at least half the record with Sheldon. The tracks with David are the ones that kicked it off. The first track we recorded was “Horsepower.”

For me, the perfect sound is what happened on “Cats/Dogs” on my guitar, and that was using my 330, which I’ve had since 1988.

You relied on your 1962 Gibson 330 for the majority of this album, but shifted gears with amps, noting, “In the past I’ve normally played the guitar through my early-’70s silver-faced Fender Super Reverb, but I’m just not digging that sound these days.” What did you use, and what were you “not digging” about the Fender?

David Schwartz had a Skylark, and man, did I fall in love with that thing! It had just enough snarl. For me, the perfect sound is what happened on “Cats/Dogs” on my guitar, and that was using my 330, which I’ve had since 1988. I bought it with the advance on my first record deal, with Rhino Records. A month or so before that, I got a 1973 Martin dreadnought, but that guitar and I didn’t quite hit it off. It’s too big for me. Around 1995, I found a 1937 Martin 00-17. I traded in the dreadnought, paid $100, and I love that guitar. I used it on “Horsepower” and “An Affair Of The Heart,” and Probyn played it on a few songs, like “Contemplating The Infinite (In A Kiss).” I’m playing my 330, and he’s doing a simple strumming thing that keeps the rhythm.

I grew up with horses, and you get to know their personalities. You are either a match with them or not, but you can still have a relationship with any horse. I think guitars are the same way. With some guitars it’s a partnership. Others you might use now and then. You kind of marry a couple of your guitars, and I have that with the 330. It’s interesting to me — I bought it so long ago and I’ve used it on a number of albums, but once I started playing it through the Gibson amp, it was a different beast. It was a whole other guitar.

I was trying to find that sound again when I went back in the studio, so I went on Facebook and asked if anybody had a Gibson amp I could use, I’d be happy to rent it. A friend of mine, Jack Butler, came forward and had an early ’60s Invader amp that was similar to the Skylark. We were in the studio for four days with it, and I was always very cautious. If I was taking a break, I’d turn it off and let it cool down. Maybe two days into the recording I thought I blew a speaker. It got really grungy. I couldn’t get the grit out of it. If you listen to “Gravity Falls,” you can hear the guitar breaking up with the amp. The amp is blowing. It sounded so good — what a happy accident! A couple of days later I took the amp back to Jack, and I was concerned that I blew the speaker. We plugged it in and it sounded perfectly fine. There was some kind of ghost in the machine that happened at the right time, and that’s something that can happen with old tubes.

IK Multimedia's iRig Acoustic Stage

I love the Super Reverb, and dressing it up it can be the perfect sound, but with my 330 it has a brighter bell tone that can be perfect in some instances, but it was not what I wanted. I wanted a deeper, darker sound, less bright and precise, and the older Gibson amps gave me more distorted depth. I have a great amp in my Super Reverb, and I’m sure I’ll rediscover it and think it’s the best ever, but with the 330 I’m enjoying something that’s darker and the distortion is a littler messier and murky.

Live, I’m taking a Vox AC-4, which is somewhere in-between. It’s got tubes, it’s got that sound, but it’s also got nice gain on it, so I can get some messier tones. And I can lift it! I’m not 25 or even 35 anymore. I want something I can move around easily, walk in with and it’s a nonissue, it won’t mess up my back, and I don’t have to rely on someone to move it for me. I hadn’t used Vox much before, but I did a gig last year, a friend had a Vox that I used, and I loved it.

The acoustic I’m using live is a Godin 5th Avenue Kingpin that I bought the year it was introduced, maybe nine years ago. I teach at a family music school and this guitar came in. I’d forgotten to bring in my guitar, I picked that one up to teach on, and it felt so great that I bought it at the end of the day. For an archtop it’s super road-worthy. You plug it in and it sounds great, somewhere between an electric and an acoustic. It looks like a vintage archtop and I always get a lot of compliments on it.

How is your approach different on acoustic as compared to electric? 

An acoustic guitar is a percussion instrument, in a way. Especially if you’re playing without a band, you’re covering all the bases with the guitar. I talk to my students about this. When I play acoustic, there’s a lot more being covered. When I play electric, I’ve come to realize that less is more. The less in-between notes, the better. Usually if I’m playing my electric, I’m playing with other players and they can fill in the gaps. With electric, it’s “don’t fill in all the spaces.” An electric guitar is loud, it can take up all the room, and you don’t want it to do that, except maybe in sustain or something like that, so less playing is better. You insinuate more with the electric. When my students go from acoustic to electric, it’s intimidating at first. You have to get past the fact that every nuance can be heard so well.

Cindy Lee Berryhill - photo by Stevo Rood
Cindy Lee Berryhill playing Guild Freshman 1960 electric guitar – photo by Stevo Rood

For many people, experiencing difficulties, illness, caretaking, grief, and so forth puts an end to creativity, at least for a while. You were able to write and play guitar. Was that constant?  

I’ve had depression in my life, which was not necessarily based on anything external. As a young person I went through a time when I had acute depression, and I brought myself out of it before I tried medication. I found that I couldn’t go into the dark places and play around there.

That being said, the hardest part of what I went through with my husband was the time period when I wanted him to be saved and before doctors had figured out what was wrong. I tried to convince them that it wasn’t just a brain injury, that he’d been better months ago. There was no diagnosis in terms of why he was falling apart, why his coordination was off, why he couldn’t remember things. Around 2008 or 2009, it became clear that he was falling into dementia. It was a lot like football player head injuries — they’re fine for quite a while after their injury, and then they develop dementia.

My husband recovered from his injury, went back to writing and doing lecture tours, and then seven or eight years later started to fall into dementia. There is a pit of despair where you still feel like you can do something to help your loved one, or you could save them if you just had more time, or more money, or if you could do a little more, or afford to get them to a specialist. That was the hardest time for me. Once I realized that I had tried everything and I had done my best, that there was no doing that would make it OK, then a big part of what I thought was my responsibility came off my shoulders, and that was a relief. Then it was about going into acceptance, which is knowing that somebody or something can’t be fixed, that it’s not going to get better, and in his case, that at some point he was going to die.

By the time I was in acceptance, the worst was over. It was bad — going to the nursing home and seeing him falling apart — but it wasn’t as bad as the time when the responsibility was up to me to find out what was wrong and get it fixed. At that point it was about comforting him and finding ways to comfort myself, knowing I had done everything that I could. I started running, exercising, playing music, seeing friends doing shows, and priming myself to being an artist again. I got a lot of support from my friends, who knew what I was going through. I would go back and forth between guilt and “I have to have a life too,” but I knew Paul would want me to have a life.

It’s been four years since he’s gone, and there’s a residual part of me that says, “I should have done more. Is there more that I could have done?” I felt that when we put him in a nursing room, because he was in physically good shape, but nursing homes don’t take very good care of people. The hard stuff was having to be the warrior and have meetings with the nurses. That was hard. So music, seeing my friends, and writing and playing new songs for them was a relief. Also, I could not fall apart because of our son. He felt like I was the rock, and I had to hold it together for him.

Did I understand correctly that you are working on another book?

I’m taking the better pieces that I wrote on my Beloved Stranger blog, collecting them, and looking for a publisher to put out a book about caring for my husband when he was ill and that whole process. Even at the time I was writing those pieces, I had the idea that maybe someday I would put them together as a book. This will be my second book. [Berryhill’s first book, the novel Memoirs of a Female Messiah, was published in 1999.]

You’re doing a string of West Coast dates. Do you hope to add more to the itinerary?

I’ve got dates through August. I hope in the fall I can do a proper swing through the East Coast. Right now it’s mostly in the west. I have dates with David Lindley, and then I fly to the East Coast for a few dates. [Additional dates are scheduled with 10,000 Maniacs, and then Roots on the Rails with Dave Alvin, Jon Langford, and others.]

Immersing myself in this project, the music, the theme, the subject matter, really saved me.

This is not asked lightly: How did you come out of a decade of pure hell with your sanity intact?

Immersing myself in this project, the music, the theme, the subject matter, really saved me. The biggest thing was I had to have it together for my son. Those two things brought me through. The other thing is that Paul and I believed in each other as artists, and we both felt that individually we had our missions. I have always felt, and still do now, Paul’s support of me as I do my mission in life, which is to be a creative entity.

There’s something about a project … ever since I was a kid in fifth or sixth grade and the teacher would tell us to pick a project, I would write a song and cast a play, and I’m doing that over and over again. This is the fun for me, doing creative projects. It creates sanity for me. I’m somewhere between indulging in the fantasy of creative projects and looking squarely at life on life’s terms, because I have to do that to pay my bills. Somewhere in between, I find life.

When Paul was gone, I needed to rebuild a life for myself, and having written all these songs, it was time to make it happen. I had to push myself into gear and that really did help. I made my first album in 1987, and now I’m on a record label, I’m in my 50s, I made one of the best albums of my life, and I feel joyful about what I’ve been able to accomplish. I feel it for my husband, too, because I know how much he was a fan of mine. I don’t live in grief. I’ve never been a sentimental person, so it’s easy for me to be here now and not speculate on “if he was still alive.” I feel him in me and I see him in my son every day. You go on, you still have good things in life, and it’s better to feel them with you, even when they’re gone, than to pretend that they never existed.

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