We’re so excited about the music of Alec Berlin. We don’t often review instrumentals, but music as good as Berlin’s needs to be heard, and to find a wider audience. His creativity and viruosity has really caught our ears, so we were thrilled that he agreed for us to interview him. You’re gonna love his sense of humour and, considering his level of musicianship, his self-depracating humour is humbling. Read on…

What we love most about your music is your ability to create striking and unique songs which contain both incredibly creative progressions and sections with more standardised rhythms and patterns. What’s your secret?!

Honestly, it comes down to a secret brew that I concoct before every writing session. I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to share the recipe with you:

3 eggs from a Bolivian purple-toed salamander
1 tablespoon Squonk’s tears
2 cups of rain from the Pacific Northwest – note: must be collected in either October or April
4 leaves from a Baobab tree
1 thimbleful of sand from Maktesh Ramon

-mix all the ingredients in your favorite drinking vessel
-put on any record by James Brown
-shake said drinking vessel like a sex machine (duh)
-drink it in one gulp

The music will pour out of you. I promise.

(More seriously – it just comes down to taste. You have to arm yourself with an arsenal of tools – rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, timbral, dynamic, etc. But in the end, you have to ask yourself what you want to hear, and what kind of music you want to make. If you have a verse and a chorus, you have to write the bridge that you want to hear. If you have the loud parts, you have to write the quiet parts – or else you have to know that you aren’t going to have any quiet parts, and then you have to make the loud parts interesting on their own. If you have a weird section, you have to balance it with a more conventional section. Or else you have to deliberately write a song that consists of only weird parts – and you need to make it work without contrast.

Actually, maybe there are 2 answers – taste and contrast. I think about contrast a lot, as I mentioned above. That’s how you keep someone’s attention – that’s how you avoid being predictable.

As far as taste, that just comes with experience, with listening, A LOT, and thinking about why you like what you like, why you don’t like what you don’t like, etc. I don’t really like when people say that they don’t like certain artists or certain music. I try to think more in terms of “what about his music do I like? what about it do I wish were different?” It’s very rare that I can’t find SOMETHING about a particular song/recording / artist that I don’t like. There’s always at least something.)

We love your style, but please describe it in your own words for our readers.

Often I describe my music as “instrumental singer-songwriter” music.

A lot of times I say “it’s guitar-driven instrumental rock that skews more towards song than shred”.

If I have the opportunity to elaborate, I’ll explain that, when there are guitar solos, they aren’t open-ended 14-minute jams – they’re just part of the song. Most of my songs have guitar solos, but not all of them do. And the solos are always succinct.

Sometimes I tell people that, unlike a lot of other instrumental music, if my band were to play one of my songs twice in a row, the two performances would be the same length – in the hopes of conveying that, although I’m a guitar player and I play instrumental music, I don’t play open-ended jam music.

Who are your biggest influences?

Paul Simon
Joni Mitchell
Bill Frisell
Wayne Krantz
John Scofield
Duke Levine
Steely Dan
The Meters
Miles Davis
Wayne Shorter
Little Feat

These fall into a few different categories. I could have expanded each category quite a bit, but I just grabbed the first few names that came to mind. There’s the songwriting category; the guitar playing category; the New Orleans category; the “life-would-be-meaningless-without” category; the “this-is-what-I-was-listening-to-when-I-was-writing” category; the “music-I-listened-to-endlessly-when-I-was-a-kid” category.

The Beatles basically fall into each of those categories, except for New Orleans.

Tell us something about you that we wouldn’t believe!

I have studied 4 languages. I don’t speak any of them. 2 of them are dead.

You’re obviously a highly skilled musician. Tell us about your training.

I have a Master’s in Music in Jazz Performance from The New England Conservatory.

I didn’t study music for my bachelor’s degree. I went to a small liberal arts college called St John’s College, which has campuses in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico. (I went to both.) St. John’s is a unique school for a few reasons: there’s a core curriculum for all 4 years that every student participates in. There are no electives or even majors. We basically study Western Civilization, starting in Ancient Greece and working our way up to modern times. The material we study is all from original sources – so, instead of reading a physics textbook, we read Einstein. Instead of reading a psychology textbook, we read Freud. Instead of reading a Mathematics textbook, we read Isaac Newton. (You get the idea, right?) The subject matter is basically equal parts philosophy/theology, math, and literature. And all the classes are discussions – no lectures, no tests (but LOTS of papers). No grades – we’re evaluated based on our participation in class discussions. We studied Ancient Greek and French languages.

All the while, I practised the guitar like crazy – I transcribed a lot of be-bop solos by Charlie Parker. It was a lot of work, but I thrived on having a hardcore academic program balanced with a focused, self-motivated course of study in Jazz.

And then when I finished, I wanted to go deeper into music, so I went to the New England Conservatory.

And after 2 years there (and a little bit of travel), I enrolled in the university of trying to be a working musician in New York City. THAT’S where the real education happens!

What are you working on at the moment?

A few things:

I have released 9 of the songs that I recorded back in 2021, so I have 3 more coming up – one each in Feb, March, and April. Additionally, I have recorded basic tracks for 3 additional songs. My goal is to complete those recordings and release them sometime in 2023.

As a working guitarist, I’m learning a lot of music at the moment. I work on Broadway a lot as a guitarist. From 2015-2022 I was the guitarist for the Broadway production of Come From Away. It was an amazing experience and a life-changing gift to get to be able to work on such a great show with such great people – in part because it freed me up to focus on my own original creativity.

Now that Come From Away has closed, I’ve rejoined the pool of guitarists who sub on different Broadway shows. This requires learning a lot of music. It’s a really good skill to have – it’s a great memory exercise, and it really demands a wide range of skills on the instrument.

Aside from music, what are you passionate about?

Jogging. Astronomy. History.

If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?

I know this will sound like a cop-out, but I don’t know enough about the music industry to give an intelligent answer. Obviously, independent artists should be able to make money practising their craft. Streaming services should pay musicians. Society on the whole should value music and in particular independent music more than we do. There – see what I mean? You asked about the music industry and I went on about society. But I think the music industry and society have a simpatico relationship – they reflect each other. If society valued music more, then the industry would respond accordingly. And the industry impacts how music exists in society.

You really should ask this question to someone smarter than I am.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Take chances. Have fun. Call her, and don’t worry about it too much. For goodness sake, it’s summer! You’re 21! She’s 21! Just have a good time!!!! (Was that too much information?)

What first got you into music?

Just the image of someone playing a Les Paul. It just looked SO. COOL.

Also, I have an older brother – so, in the age-old tradition of nuclear families (especially suburban nuclear families), he played me his music collection, which included The Beatles, The Who, and Pink Floyd. Those were the records that hit me the hardest.

Thank you so much, Alec, for sharing your thoughts with us. We thoroughly enjoyed your sense of humour as much as your music!