With her innovative blend of folk, rock and country styles, singer/songwriter Jennifer Berezan has nurtured a loyal international following for her songs of profound depth that tackle contemporary issues with insight and striking melodies.
Berezan brings personal and political topics to life with songs that create in music a world of challenges and hope, whether as introspective ballads, or folk-rock dance tunes.
Her intense and personal approach to music as a transforming experience (on record and onstage) have brought her strong rapport with audiences from small clubs to festivals throughout North America and Europe. Berezan's superb voice and her percussive approach to rhythm and lead guitar playing has won her acclaim from a wide range of critics and fans including avant rocker Henry Kaiser.
Over the course of four albums Berezan has developed and explored recurring themes with a rare wisdom. Her songs confront such universal issues as alienation, transformation and finding a sense of place in a constantly changing world. Home is a recurring subject for the Canadian-born singer who today calls Berkeley, California, home when not on tour.
Her 1988 debut album, "In the Eye of the Storm," laid the groundwork for what has become since, music in a style that then had no label but today is part of "Americana." The more rock-oriented "Borderlines" (on Flying Fish Records) was nominated for a 1993 NAIRD award (the Grammy of the independent record industry). "She Carries Me", her 1995 meditative and theatrical recording, was a stylistic departure which featured narration by Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis.
Berezan's long-awaited new compact disc, "Refuge," released in fall, 1997, is her most acoustic album, but it is also her most direct and powerful statement. "Refuge" strips away some of her past studio production in a more spare exploration of subjects that tie into the title theme of refuge as a place of safety and strength that can also provide a home, a community, meaning.
"The whole idea of home is a personal and a political theme for me," Berezan explains. "The technology of modernity is supposed to make life better yet it often disconnects us even further from meaning and a sense of place."
"l'm not the kind of songwriter who sits down alone every day and crafts songs," she adds. "I can only write if I get an inspiration. It's about having a strong feeling about something. They're all very personal to me whether it's a love song or one dealing with the homeless issue. I took the Persian Gulf War very personally, and it's the same level of intensity if someone leaves me. Those experiences are ones that move me so deeply that I sit down and put them into music."
The energy comes through in songs on "Refuge" such as "Crazy Saints," which updates the story of seer and truth-teller Cassandra who predicted the fall of Troy by putting her in today's Los Angeles. "Turning of the Wheel" confronts the inevitability of change in a powerful folk-rock ballad setting. "If I Can't Dance" is Berezan's inspired anthem that takes its cue from rabble-rouser Emma Goldman's declaration about revolutions. "Evie" delves into fundamentalism and small town conservatism.
Jennifer's vision of music as a source of spiritual renewal can be traced back to her childhood growing up on the Canadian prairies of Alberta, where she learned first- hand the relationship of humans with the wonders of nature. Since then her studies of Buddhism and indigenous spiritualities have continued to influence her writing. She picked up her first guitar at the age of seven, and by the sixth grade had formed her own female folk-rock band. In her teens, when her friends began writing in journals and diaries, she was putting her innermost thoughts into songs, inspired by such early influences as Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn and Joan Baez.
While attending college in Calgary, Berezan honed her musical skills in clubs and coffeehouses, and clarified her own life themes through involvement in the peace, solidarity and women's movements and working nights in a battered women's shelter. Moving to California to finish her master's degree, she taught in a girls' high school and recorded her debut album.
Over the past decade as a full-time performer, she has become increasingly busy
with recording and international touring, using music as her most effective means for
unifying her concerns and involvement in political, social and spiritual worlds. She
has created a unique and lasting presence in the crowded realm of progressive music.
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Written by JT Mason
Berezan grew up in Calgary, Alberta in the heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. She was in second grade when a traveling saleswoman came to her family's house. "She was selling guitar lessons and gave me an aptitude test, which I'm sure she gave to the other children and told us all that we were geniuses. She convinced my parents to sign me up for her company's guitar lessons. And that's how it all began."
Berezan started off playing the music of the 50s that her parents listed to and embarrassingly admits that her next phase included Partridge Family songs. "I was only seven years old", Berezan explained. "Eventually I started to move in to other forms of music. Song writing happened when I that adolescent angst period when I needed an outlet for a lot of emotional stuff that was going on in my life."
She attended a progressive Catholic high School. "Our religion classes were more Like personal development classes. We'd sit and listen to music such as Simon and Garfunkle's I Am a Rock and then we'd talk about how it applied to our lives. Introspective music Like that had a big affect on me.
"In 1978, when 1 was a senior, one of my English teachers introduced me to Bob Dylan's music. I was stunned when I discovered this music. I was just becoming socially aware and politically conscious. I went back and rediscovered the whole American '60s experience through the music."
Canada has its own native crop of introspective folk singers; Joni Mitchell, who also grew up in Alberta, Neil Young, Ferron, Bruce Cockburn, The Band and Heather Bishop just to name a few. "It was amazing to find these singers. Connie Kaldor was a great discovery for me. She was singing songs about the Canadian Prairies. Through them I first discovered Holly Near and then much later Chris Williamson and Meg Christian".
Berezan went to the University of Calgary to study comparative religion. After a year there she traveled around Europe for a while. "One of the first times I ever played music publicly was on the streets of Europe. I had played in church choirs before that but my real public performance debut was when I took my harmonica and guitar and played '60s folk music on the street corners in France and Germany."
She returned to the University of Calgary to complete her degree. Music was something she continued to do on the side. "I'd play at clubs and cafes and even did a stint as a lounge singer for a while with another woman in northern Alberta."
About that same time Berezan discovered feminism which led to playing at political rallies events and conferences, She became interested in liberation theology. "It came out of Latin America primarily where people were Catholics but they were also revolutionaries. They were starting to look at their theology through a social eye. It is a radical kind of theology that underpins the desire for people's liberation.
"I got very interested in the roles and treatment of women by the major religions. By my final year at the University it had become my complete obsession. I also took a lot of women's studies classes. The role that religion has played in keeping women down through out history is incredible. I believe religion has been the strongest arm of the whole patriarchal body.
"I had a huge crisis experience when I left Catholicism. I could no longer stay there after I'd been exposed to feminism. I was this wild, young radical in the religion department writing papers on women in Buddhism, women in Hinduism, women in Islam, whatever."
Berezan moved to Oakland nine years ago to pursue a masters degree at the Institute in Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College. It was run by a renegade Catholic priest named Matthew Fox. The school had a remarkable staff including Starhawk, Luisah Teish and Charlene Spretnak, "His program involved not only academic study but experiential, hands-on artistic spiritual practices. There was a focus on political awareness as well. I was very drawn to that, and that's what brought me to California initially."
She didn't hook up with then Bay Area music scene until her second year here. One of her first connections was through her friendship with photographer Irene Young. "My first gig was a double bill with (fellow Canadian} Lucie Blue Tremblay at the Valencia Rose in San Francisco. After that I played at local clubs and restaurants and then built it up from there.
Though the Canadian government has traditionally been more financially supportive of its artists than the United States, many Canadian artists come to the US. to pursue a music career. "Canada's population is one- tenth that of the United States. Small towns are spread out far apart from each other. Sometimes it will take twelve hours to get to the next place you can play and that makes touring much harder ".
Berezan released her first album, In The Eye Of The Storm on her own label, Edge of Wonder Records, in 1989. It was produced by Robin Flower. The album combines original material with a few other people's songs. They showcase Berezan's interest in spirituality and politics. " People write from their own experience. Politics and spiritually was much more than academic study for me. It was this completely obsessive quest to try to figure out what happened historically on this planet. Why are women so oppressed? Why are things the way they are?
"I've had a healthy amount of rage in my life but I don't believe that striking out in blind rage works, either on the personal on the larger level. There are movements happening with in all cultures toward social change but I don't believe we're in the age of Aquarius and all we have to do is wait and it all will transform. Everyone knows we're destroying the environment, and we're not changing that in any big way.
There's also a lot of fear in this country that to giving fuel to the right-wing. They're extremely organized, well-funded, powerful and very serious about establishing a Christian Right government. I don't mean to be fatalistic, but its quite frightening. There's definitely some kind of showdown happening.
"I hope my music is helpful and not just cathartic. I want give something back and be useful on a larger picture".
Berezan's second release,Borderlines, came out last year on Flying Fish Records. It was produced by Mike Marshall, a Windham Hill recording artist. "I knew more of what I wanted with this album. Chris Webster, a member of the band Mumbo Gumbo, and I had recorded most of the material already on a demo tape so we had already worked up the arrangements. Mike took the songs to a whole new level. He's great to work with."
This album also deals with spiritual and political issues. There's a compassionate song about homelessness called Shadows on the Street. Another song is reaction to the Gulf War and a song called One and One makes Three. "This song came about because there was this Midwest evangelist, Larry Lee, who decided a few years ago that folks in San Francisco were in a lot of trouble. We were under the demonic influence of the spirit of the new age movement. He got some people together called prayer armies and they carne to San Francisco on Halloween night. They rented a warehouse and prayed to save us all. 1 read about that with horror and amusement.
'The song takes a look at fundamentalism of various stripes whether it's neo-Nazis or fundamentalist preachers, To me they are all part of the same mind set, the same seed".
Borderlines was nominated for a l992 NAIRD (National Association of Independent Record Distributors) award in the adult contemporary category along with records by Rory Block, June Tabor and Maria Muldaur.
For the past several years Berezan has been working with Vicki Noble on a multi-media piece involving a slideshow and music. Noble is the creator of the Motherpeace Tarot Deck and author of the book Shakti Woman. Part of their program involves a healing circle including drumming and chanting. Many of the participants wanted the chants to take home with them so Berezan recorded a tape called Voices On The Wind.
"Beyond that tape, I haven't written too much specifically spiritual music because there's a way it can sound trite. The new age and goddess movements have gotten somewhat co-opted and reduced. I don't want to be part of that."
Jennifer Berezan will be coming to the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in concert along with Nina Gerber and others on Saturday , April 8 (1995) for one show only at 8:00 pm. "Nina is an amazing guitar player. She adds her own flair to everything. She's a true delight."
Bezezan is a beautiful performer both in looks and spirit. She absolutely shines in concert. "A concert
is an interesting dynamic. You create this circle with the audience and for two hours you are immersed
in this womb-like entity. It's interactive because we give a lot to each other. I leave feeling very
full and that's a real gift."------JT Mason
You can E-Mail Jennifer at: email@example.com
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