- 23 Sep 20
American multi-instrumentalist Peter Broderick discusses the powerful songwriting of Joni Mitchell, foraging and living in Galway.
“I’m modulating between existential crisis and total bliss.” As it has often done over the last six months, COVID lockdown is serving as a conversation starter between myself and folk musician Peter Broderick.
At the start of the lockdown, Broderick, his partner and his stepson relocated from the bustling metropolis of London to the quiet solitude of Galway.
“We moved over to London last summer,” he says, “ and we probably would have stayed longer if it hadn't been for all this. But the big city especially lost all its charm during this time, because all the big city stuff isn't available. If you live in the countryside, your life doesn't change nearly as much.
While Broderick was ready to “embrace” London for a while, he’s glad to be back and so close to nature, which heavily inspired Blackberry, his latest album.
Growing up primarily in Oregon on the West Coast of America, Broderick abandoned the great U-S-of A to live in European cities for most of his adult life (Copenhagen and Berlin, chiefly).
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how badly I want to have a dance in a Berlin nightclub. “How good does that sound right now?” Broderick echoes enthusiastically.
Sadly, it’s about the least socially distant thing you can do.
“Arthur Russell has this song called 'Go Bang',” he explains, “and one of the lines is, 'I want to see all my friends at once’. It's kind of repeated like a mantra. I always loved that line, but then once the pandemic hit, it really had a whole new weight to it."
The folk music scene lends itself much more easily to solitude and tranquility. Blackberry is Broderick’s first solo album in five years, although he works frequently as a film composer and classical musician. “I draw quite a difference between commissioned work and work that I make of my own accord,” he says. “So it's my first kind of artistic statement, if you will, in five years.”
While the album is certainly about turbulent times, Broderick takes a decidedly local approach to the discussion.
“I focus on family relationships, or people who I've been really close to, and use them as springboards to dive into deeper subject matter,” Broderick says. “There's a lot of that, and a lot of newfound love for foraging and spending more time out in the natural world.”
“Yeah,” he laughs, indicating I’ve heard him correctly.
“I have a few friends in Portland who are more immersed in the world of herbalism, but I was walking with a friend one day, and she was going past people's yards, picking stuff up, and sticking it in her mouth.”
I’m skeptical, but Broderick was intrigued.
“Do you know the composer John Cage,” he asks? I do not.
“He was famously very into mushrooms. To one person, he introduced himself as a mushroom hunter who sometimes writes music. There's a great story about him arriving in Russia for the first time to perform there, and as he got back to the apartment block of the men he was staying with, he spotted some dandelions in the corner of the courtyard and said 'hey, let's pick those and make a salad.' When I read that, something clicked. I said, 'dandelions?! I was paid to pull those out of the yard when I was a kid. Just to get rid of them’. To find out that you can eat them really blew my mind.
It does go to show you how much we actually waste, as humans.
“Having lived in Berlin and Copenhagen and all these big cities, I was always more interested in progressive technology. I kind of grew up in front of the TV and didn't have too much time outside, so that's something that has really piqued my interest in recent years, and that's reflected in the music as well.
“There's a podcast I love to listen to called 'WildFed',” Broderick says, “and the tagline is 'food is all around you'. Because it really is. Even if you're in the city, you are within walking distance of foragable, edible foods. And nutritious food as well!
“Also, from an ecological perspective, once you get to know the plants that are growing around you, you automatically want to take care of that landscape a lot more. Because you see value in those plants, as opposed to seeing them as a wild nuisance.”
So how does this translate into his life? I’m imagining him taking long walks along the coast or in the forest, bending to pick at some grass or turn over a log. I’m not that far off.
“Interestingly enough, my stepson – who is nine years of age – and I were outside picking blackberries yesterday, after I had forced him to get off his screen and come outside with me for a bit, and he was telling me that he wanted to make a YouTube channel for unpacking his Pokemon cards, so he could show people what cards he was getting.”
This makes about as much sense to me as the foraging, and this time Broderick and I are in agreement.
“I was sitting there trying to explain to a nine year old how bad it can be, when you're sitting there looking for validation in your YouTube comments to make you feel good inside,” he laughs.
“He did kind of get it actually, but it was a weird conversation because he sees videos online of kids opening up toys, and naturally he wants to partake. And I'm not going to tell a kid they can't use technology at all. I feel like what's more important is balancing it out. For you and me, we use the Internet every day,” Broderick says. “For me, what's most important is that I balance that with something else, like going outside and taking a nice walk.”
Blackberry’s titular song, ‘Ode to Blackberry’, makes me curious about Broderick’s musical heroes. With it’s vaguely sean-nós melody line, jazz chords, and stream-of-consciousness writing style, Joni Mitchell immediately jumps to mind.
“Well, my parents were folkies,” he says, “so I would have grown up listening to a lot of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young.
“My partner is really big into Joni Mitchell, so I hadn't listened to Joni much since I was a kid and she’s been a new rediscovery for me. She brings that jazz element into the folk world. That really rubbed off on me, just in terms of the type of chords I was choosing to write. I'd sometimes choose something that feels a little more ambiguous or mysterious.
“I love how she speaks from that intuition place. She totally made up her own tunings and just felt her way through the instrument.”
“But I also love Bill Callahan. I love his stoic, sparse songwriting and that deep voice. There's a guy who is kind of a weird folk legend. He's quite old now, but he's been doing his thing since the 60s, he's called Michael Hurley, he's more on the quirky side of songwriting. His songs kind of appear to be in this world that only he really knows, that he's painted.”
Listen to Blackberry below.