20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers
In part 35 of our continuing 20:20 Q&A series,
the wonderfully entertaining Jefferson Berry —guitarist, singer-songwriter, teacher, teller of interesting tales—
joins us to talk about his band, the Urban Acoustic Coalition (UAC), creating an album during quarantine, teaching in inner city Philadelphia, and much more.
Soon! is Jefferson and the UAC’s fourth full-length album and was released April 23, 2021. A pleasant blend of Americana and folk, Soon! offers stories of city dwellers during a surreal time and a hopeful message that soon we’ll be together again.
Welcome, Jefferson, and thank you for joining us.
20:20 with Jefferson Berry
NWM 1: Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician and human of Earth.
Jefferson: There’s a song going off in my head, pretty much all the time. So, when a guitar gets in my hands, there are influences in my playing that I may not be completely aware of. UAC [Urban Acoustic Coalition] songs have structure to them, but at first, they’re just an echo of a strange brain.
For the past twelve years, I’ve taught Government and Economics to inner city high school kids in Philadelphia. How to talk to the police, how to make money (legally), politics, and race: basically, what power in America looks like. From them I’ve learned what life looks like in that part of society that is often hidden from most of us.
The city has so many stories to tell.
NWM 2: Famously, you were Lil Uzi Vert’s history teacher in inner city Philadelphia, where you continue to teach today.
Please share the importance of teaching to you and the challenges and rewards of your specific locale.
Jefferson: I was dealt a pretty decent hand. I teach at a school that services the poorest population in America. The intersection of white [baby] boomers and Black and Hispanic teenagers is more than interesting. There is so much to learn from one another. For some, there’s a tremendous amount of fear to overcome. In my 12 years as a corporate refugee, teaching government and economics to victims of government and economics, I’ve witnessed a spark of cognition almost every day. ‘Really? Is that how that works?’
The city has so many stories to tell.
As for Symere Woods (the Uzi I knew), I’m not at all surprised he hit so large. He was magnetic in high school. And he just keeps getting better. Listen to Pluto x Baby Pluto. Wildly talented. But the odds are long for what he’s accomplished, and I had nothing to do with that. I just hope he learned something from me about paying his taxes.
NWM 3: Name three things that make you smile.
Jefferson: I’m mad in love with my wife. Blue Eyes makes me smile every day.
There are moments in every studio session with our engineer Matt Muir that makes me smile. It’s where an arrangement is touched by the magic of a performance.
A couple times a month I’ll run into a former student here in North Philly. They’ll say something like, ‘Yo! Mr. Berry, that shit you taught us about our constitutional rights and what to say to the cops, man, that’s kept me out of jail a bunch of times.’
NWM 4: Where were you and what were you doing when you realized COVID-19 had just changed your life as a performance artist?
Jefferson: Double Deadbolt Logic, our last album, was released at the end of February 2020. Our only show to support that record happened on March 5th at the Attic Brewery in the Wayne Gulch section of North Philly. So many of our friends were there, but many told me they thought it would be dangerous. I read a couple newspapers a day, so I knew about the virus weeks before. But that people were taking it seriously in early March was not promising for our latest project.
What changed everyone’s life was the realization that this plague was going to kill people in our community.
On April 17th, Gene Shay died of COVID. Gene was a legendary folk radio personality, one of the founders of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and a friend. Musical projects come and go. What changed everyone’s life was the realization that this plague was going to kill people in our community.
NWM 5: Tell us about your band—the Urban Acoustic Coalition—and your local Philadelphia music scene.
Jefferson: The Coalition scheme has two tenets. The best players have other projects, so we clear the best players for specific dates, and then rehearse a set based on the players that are available for the gig. In this way, they’re in the band when they say they are. Our crowd loves it because no two shows are the same.
Bud Burroughs on mandolin and keyboards has been on six albums with me. But when his Dead band (Box of Rain) has a gig that will pay him the big number, our show with Dave Brown (on keys, banjo, lap steel, and guitars) is absolutely solid. Caleb Estey on drums is in high demand as one of the best drummers on the east coast. If there are harmonica players in Philly with more range than Marky B!, I haven’t heard them. Uncle Mike, on bass, and I are joined at the hip, and he’s who I go to first with the new material. Female vocalists, we’ve had some great ones. Meaghan Kyle is doing shows with us this summer. For several years, her band (No Good Sister) was the most in-demand Americana band in town. Key players in the UAC have also included Irene Lambrou (Almshouse), Emily Drinker, Peter Farrell (Megan Cary and the Analog Gypsies), Mike ‘Slo-Mo’ Brenner, Matt Muir (US Rails), and a dozen others.
Our crowd loves it because no two shows are the same.
The local Philadelphia music scene has so many pivot points. With the inclusion of so many players in the Coalition and my insistence on covering other local singer songwriters (Ben Arnold, Skip Denenberg, and Megan Cary, to name a few), I’d like to think we are one of those pivot points of the Americana and folk scenes in Philly.
NWM 6: Soon! is your fourth studio album and the follow up to your critically-lauded 2020 release Double Deadbolt Logic. Soon! was written and recorded during quarantine. Please tell us about the creation of this heartfelt album and the difficulties you overcame working during the pandemic.
Jefferson: Several of the guys in the band are really on top of the tech. Uncle Mike found this internet program, SoundTrap. It’s a recording studio for dummies like me. I recorded the guitar parts and then sang along with it to refine the lyrics. The tracks then got shared to Mike, Bud, Marky B!, and DB. Unlike the fruitless attempts to play together with other internet programs, this was a tremendous pre-production tool.
The actual recording of the album came in stages. We never had more than three people in the studio at the time. The bass and drum tracks were postponed several times with COVID surges. Dubs were done one player at a time. Matt and I spent over a hundred hours masked up. It was expensive, but I’m really happy how it came out.
Now if that sounds synthetic, know that the band was forced to really drill down on the details of each song. This has made our come-back live performances really strong.
Urban Acoustic aims to be a storyteller medium for city people.
NWM 7: From your press release:
Americana for better urban living, Soon! tells stories of city people through the medium of acoustic-jamband music. The first single ‘We’ll Soon Be Together’ is a song of promise and hope.
Share with us the message, vision, and conception of Soon!
Jefferson: ‘When will things ever be the same? Soon!’
Urban Acoustic aims to be a storyteller medium for city people. ‘We’ll Soon Be Together,’ ‘Changes in Kensington,’ ‘Party on the Roof,’ ‘Too Old to Matter,’ and ‘That Guy Was Fun’ all were inspired by the lost year for city folks. In their own way, each tells a story of people touched by these strange times.
NWM 8: Please share a unique childhood experience that you feel helped contribute to who you and your music are today.
Jefferson: There are so many songs that bring you back to unique moments in your childhood. For me it could be running home from elementary school to see Stevie Wonder on American Bandstand or listening to Paul Revere and the Raiders, or The Lovin’ Spoonful getting spins from Cousin Brucie on WABC late at night, before my family moved to California. I was 12, and the KHJ soundtrack that was recently resurrected by Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was huge: hippie music.
NWM 9: What is a favorite of your songs? Please tell us a little bit about it.
Jefferson: ‘Changes in Kensington’ has a bunch of my favorite elements. It offers a social justice narrative while delivering a groove that will move your butt. The fictional characters operate in a neighborhood here in Philly that is in the midst of gentrification. Kensington is home to the most outrageous open air drug market. Zombieland. But if not for the exceptional performance of Bud, Marky, and DB, the song may have been too tedious to include on the record. People want to have fun with the jams more than hearing my take on how f’d up the world can be.
[‘Changes in Kensington’] offers a social justice narrative while delivering a groove that will move your butt.
NWM 10: Beatles, Stones, or Zeppelin?
Jefferson: Wow, such great experiences with each. Sunday, February 9, 1964, was a school night. I begged to stay up to see The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was the night my life changed forever.
March 27, 1970, was not a school night, but I wasn’t asking permission to sneak out and see Led Zeppelin at the fabulous Forum in Inglewood. Zep III. Hundreds of shows later, that one is still top five. Astounding.
And the Stones? From ‘Ruby Tuesday’ in ’66, to some cute make-out session as a teen listening to Sticky Fingers, to a radio promotion I was involved with on their show at Candlestick Park on the Start Me Up tour in 1981, the Rolling Stones have always rocked my world. … Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin? It’s really an unfair question.
NWM 11: Who might we be surprised to find on your playlist?
Jefferson: I have a Spotify playlist called ‘Brunch Guitars.’ It’s got the smooth jazz guitar work of Russ Friedman, Craig Chaquico, John Scofield, and a bunch of others. Blue Eyes and I had a dinner party for a dozen folks once, and I put it on and one of our guests said, ‘What is this shit? Are you trying to get us to leave?’
NWM 12: What are your special interests beyond music?
Jefferson: Philly is the best sports town in America, and this is home. Phillies, Eagles, Sixers (in that order). I never have been able to figure out hockey, but I appreciate the hard-core nature of Flyers fans.
Philly is the best sports town in America, and this is home.
NWM 13: We have had several 20:20 participants who are either history teachers or deeply interested in history.
What fascinates you from or about this subject, and how, if at all, is it reflected in your songwriting?
Jefferson: History, [well-presented] history anyway, is storytelling. My Dad was a storyteller, and, while his parenting lacked most of the important things, he got me into reading the newspaper and history books at an early age. I read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in middle-school, and I’ve been that kind of nerd ever since.
What’s really cool about history is how it’s made every day by ordinary people, and then recreated later. The process of revisionism is where storytellers flourish. Frequently it’s this process that provides the context for my lyrics.
NWM 14: What in particular fuels your inspiration? Tell us about your space or what is most necessary for your writing.
Jefferson: Songwriting vacations are my thing. I’ll go to the Marin Headlands in the Bay Area or the Oregon Coast and throw songs into the ocean, playin’ and writin’, writin’ and playin’. Just me, a rent-a-car, and some cheap no-tell motel. Nothing better than that.
NWM 15: If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
Jefferson: I never saw Prince.
The Beatles with 21st century production values would be pretty cool, but documentaries reveal things like the ’65 tour as being more of a social event than musical experience.
NWM 16: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received that you actually follow?
Jefferson: Put down the pipe. I still hang with smokers and drinkers, but sobriety has worked out well for me.
Put down the pipe. I still hang with smokers and drinkers, but sobriety has worked out well for me.
NWM 17: What song/album could you play on repeat?
Jefferson: This past week it’s been Bonnie Raitt’s ‘I Knew.’ But if I pick up John Mayer’s Continuum, I have a hard time putting it down.
NWM 18: We often ask: Apart from live music, what are you most looking forward to when things return to ‘normal’? And though we are interested in this answer, we would like to get a sense of what feeling you are getting now playing music in your area—are things beginning to return to normal with a continued element of caution or is everyone openly embracing freedom with a general feeling of being ‘over it’?
Jefferson: Normal has never been anything more than a setting on the drier. I’m really interested in seeing what of our pre-pandemic life really does return.
I’ve got tickets to see The Dead with the aforementioned John Mayer. That’s kinda normal and abnormal. … People here are still a little leery to take their masks off, but seeing people’s faces again is going to be nice. Virtual teaching blows.
We had our first show this past weekend, and while it was great being on stage with the UAC, it may have been a little soon for Soon! People are still afraid to go out. That will change in a few weeks.
Just me, a rent-a-car, and some cheap no-tell motel. Nothing better than that.
NWM 19: What is one thing you would want our readers to know about you which we might not know to ask?
Jefferson: Sushi? Yes, since 1972.
NWM 20: What’s next for Jefferson Berry?
Jefferson: The First Purple Light is going to be the title of our next album. I’ve written a third of it and would like to get it produced by the end of the year. It will be our third in three years. I’ve got quite a few stories to tell and even more music to serve them up with.
I guess I need to go on vacation.
About Jefferson Berry and the UAC
The Urban Acoustic Coalition came to be in 2014 with the release of Guitar on the River. Bud Burroughs served as the music director for a collection of Jefferson’s city-themed songs. The album’s sessions grew the band into Jefferson Berry & the Urban Acoustic Coalition—which played the Camp Stage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival that year with a Coalition of players from Boris Garcia, No Good Sister, and Beaufort. This was an example of the “coalition” aspect of the band, an ethic that allowed players to keep their other projects alive while clearing dates with the UAC periodically.
While bass players (Billy Hyatt, Dean McNulty) and female vocalists (Irene Lambrou, Emily Drinker) have cycled in and out of the band to pursue their own projects, the core of the coalition for the past six years has been Jefferson, Bud, Marky B! Berkowitz (on harmonica), Dave Brown (on banjo, guitar, keys and anything else needed. In the past year Uncle Mike Damora (bass), Caleb Estey (drums), and Meaghan Kyle (vocals) have been steady contributors.
You may enjoy our previous 20:20 with CHILLEMI
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