by Sheldon Birnie
Blake Berglund is a Saskatchewan songwriter with a keen eye for detail and the work ethic of his cowboy forefathers. With a full summer of bookings looming ahead, Stylus caught up with hard hustling troubadour on a break from seeding at his family farm in Kennedy, SK, to talk about touring, songwriting, his background in hard rock and country, and contemporary roots music. Our conversation stretched on for longer than anticipated, but here’s the bulk of what Blake had to tell me.
Stylus: So how you doing, Blake?
Blake Berglund: Oh, same old. The last three weeks, actually, I’m sort of on my longest break from performing live that I’ve had in probably six years. I’ve had eight weeks off, and the past four I’ve been putting in a crop here on my family farm in Saskatchewan. We’ve been doing 15 hour days on the tractor. It’s therapy. You get going here and there, radio, just doing everything that has to get done. I’ve sort of stepped away from that for four or five weeks, and it’s like “Wow! This is what it’s like to relax!” It’s been pretty bad ass, I tell you. Much needed. But with Dauphin [Countryfest], that kind of kicks off the summer of touring. While it’s nice to take some time off, I’m pretty pumped to be back at it full bore.
Stylus: Have you played Dauphin Countryfest before?
BB: I’ve been involved with playing Dauphin Countryfest before with a band from Saskatoon, where I was the keyboard player. We played the mainstage, opening up for Doc Walker I think. Then we did two beer garden shows that weekend. But this is the first time I’ve played it with my own project. It’s going to be fun. I think we’re playing the MTS Stage and the Credit Union Coral Stage. So it’ll be nice to play to those rowdy, beer drinking crowds. That seems to be who we play to best.
It’s a bit of a chameleon act that I run. We have a solid five piece act, and we work very well as a four piece. Then we can also strip it right down to three, two and one, whenever someone in the mix can’t make it. We do a lot of small town theaters, 150, 200 person theaters in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta mostly. We’ve done a few in BC, but they seem to work best in the prairie provinces. It’s nice to have a group of guys that can do a rodeo dance or cabaret to a slowed down, storytelling kind of original show, to a festival. It’s going to be a great summer.
Stylus: Sounds great. Real busy, but better to be busy than idle.
BB: Totally. We’re also doing, and I shouldn’t call it a “last push” on the album [2012’s Coyote], but sort of a “middle push.” When it came out in fall of 2012, we did a nice big massive tour from Vancouver to Toronto, played Canadian Music Week. Then in March we did 20 shows in 25 days, almost all in Ontario. Just hitting all those secondary markets. The secondary markets are great. I just find my best results there. Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, whatever is great and everything, but it’s those cool little secondary markets like Dryden and Kenora, Brandon, Moose Jaw that we just have such unforeseen success in. Lots of full houses and great media coverage. They just go really well. We always try to hit as many of those towns as we can. So yeah, that’s what we’ve got this summer, then the end of fall we’re heading down to the great America, planning to hit Texas.
Stylus: That’s great.
BB: Yeah, we’ll try our hand. The influences that we write from are all kind of Texas guys. Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson. Kristofferson… But yeah, that twangy influence. We did a show in Montana a few weeks ago. It was just… different eh? And I mean in a good way. It was just awesome. We played this beat up little honky-tonk, and it was very welcoming. So I’m excited to get back there.
Stylus: Yeah man. When I was down in Texas this past spring I just fell in love in with it. I’d never been before, but it was straight up what you’d imagine from listening to your honky-tonk heroes. I’m sure you guys will go over well down there.
BB: My sister went to college in Carthage, TX, and my brother went to college in Snyder, TX. They both got scholarships, in volleyball and in rodeo. So I had the opportunity to head down and visit them a few times and take in everything. I’ve yet to be to Austin, though, and that’s always been the ultimate goal for me. When in Texas, to spend a week or so to just hang out.
Stylus: We’ve touched on your Texas influence, but what were some of your earliest songwriting influences?
BB: I played in a hard rock band for ten years called the New Weapon. We were heavily influenced by Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, that 90s hard grunge movement. My first taste at doing music as a profession was within this band. Everything I wrote up to that point was with the intent of screaming my guts out and having these soaring choruses and heavy riffage. But every time I moved back to acoustic guitar, my approach at the softer side of Nirvana always ended up more like Kristofferson. So nothing was ever done with it. I’d do a little demo, put it in my back pocket. But as I was writing it, it was never intended to be country. At some point, you know, the guys were all getting into our mid-twenties, and some of them were thinking of going back to school. You know, “How long is this gonna last?” We had a killer run, and to tell you the truth I still believe that band could have done great things. So some of the guys started taking some classes, and I thought, like any pretentious lead singer, I figured I’d do my “solo project.” We went into the studio with $2000 and kind of a rag-tag band and we did this acoustic album. It didn’t come out country, but it had a little bit of a twang element to it. So I pushed that on the side when we were winding down with the metal band.
Then I had this good buddy come to me and say “When are you gonna do this second Blake Berglund album?” Well, fuck, I never thought about doing the first one! I definitely hadn’t considered doing a second one. He wrote me a cheque to get me going. He just said “This is yours, get started.” And for the first time I figured this was really something I could work with. The band was whittling down, so I thought maybe I should put some effort into it. It was an album that eventually came to be called The Ends of The Earth. And there are songs on there that kind of sound like the Foo Fighters, and almost like a Kid Rock kind of screaming thing. Then there were songs with the twang influence, with pedal steel and fiddle. So the album was so, in the genre sense, very confusing. But it allowed me to be artistic. I figured, shit, let’s just put it out! And it ended up gaining me a lot of ground. We were getting booked not as the New Weapon, but as Blake Berglund. And I felt a guilty about that… but I got a couple of the guys from the band and said, “Hey, can you learn these tunes? We got this rodeo gig…” And I never thought I’d be playing a rodeo! But we learned a few Waylon covers and got into it. The more I started to take what I was doing seriously, the more I just started to do my homework on real country music. I don’t know if it’s a weird trend that happens, but you look at Corb Lund coming from the Smalls. Or you look at Ridley Bent and his rap stuff moving into country…
Stylus: Or a guy like Daniel Romano from Attack in Black…
BB: That’s a great example! What I think it is, is you get to a point in rock n roll… I shouldn’t say you lose an authenticity, but you get this pressure to get on the radio. Which is great, and you have to make a living, but… I mean, the writing was there, but was it as authentic as it could have been? I don’t know. But I found this outlet in country where, throughout the years, it doesn’t get more authentic than Waylon Jennings, or Kristofferson, or Hank Snow, or Hank Williams. I know it’s cliché, but Johnny Cash is everybody’s influence. How do you not love it?
So I started going back to my roots. Coming back to the farm, where I’m riding horses all the time. It was a lifestyle that was handed to me on a silver platter. My dad was a cowboy, my brother does rodeo. My grandfather was a competitive rodeo competitor. It got to the point where, for lack of a better word, it was bred into me. I write everyday, and have for ten years, but at some point I started writing these songs where I was like, “Fuck, now that’s a country tune.” So I’d put it in my back pocket and save it. Then one day I listened to Ridley Bent’s Buckles & Boots album and I looked at the producer, John MacArthur Ellis. I said to myself, “One day, that guy is going to produce an album for me, and it’s going to be country.” I don’t know how the hell it happened, call it manifestation or what have you, but he saw a picture of me on the CCMA website and he contacted me.
He said, “I saw this picture of you riding a horse like a maniac, and I wanted to know what you’re all about.” I was like, you gotta be kidding me! I’ve already got the album written that we’re supposed to do together! It ended up working out well. I went out north of Kamloops there, to Ashcroft, and we buried ourselves in his basement with Ridley’s band and we made this album, Coyote. About that time, my dad bought me this cowboy hat and said, “You looked good wearing a cowboy hat as a youngster. You might as well put it back on!” As a kid we grew up on a horses back, and I guess I just got reacquainted with that lifestyle and it became rather comfortable.
The writing process right now has been great. It’s been nice to have been married to the guitar for so long lately. It’s been great. Even Del [Barber], I was in Winnipeg this past weekend just to catch some Times Change(d) shows and hang out with Del, drink some beer and write some songs. It’s funny how Winnipeg has become my cultural place to go to, to take everything in, and write before running back to my farm in Saskatchewan to put it all together.
Stylus: Speaking of Del Barber, who are some other contemporary guys who you look up to, or take inspiration from these days?
BB: Corb opened up a door on this whole alt-country thing that a lot of people are trying to walk through right now. There’s no denying he’s doing something special right now. And the whole lifestyle thing, too. When you listen to his songs and his lyrical content, he’s not bullshitting. He even talks to cowboy slang, it’s not BS. Growing up around that stuff, he knows exactly what he’s talking about. So you can’t not respect what he’s doing. And that leads straight to Hayes Carll, and Todd Snider. I’ve always been a fan of Todd Snider. When I was listening to Pearl Jam, the whole Seattle thing, I found the “Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” and I was like, “Fuck, this guy can write like a son of a bitch!” Then I was introduced to Corb Lund through Todd Snider.
Del’s been a beautiful influence on me, lyrically and his approach to his career. I’ve always struggled with the balance of my career. It’s always been “music, music, music,” without anything really to shape what I’m writing about. The more I got acquainted with Del, the more I realized that in order to do your music in a very pure sense you need to have so many other outlets in life. Then there’s Belle Plaine, from Regina, her voice and she’s an excellent songstress. She’s great. Turnpike Troubadours, too…
Stylus: Man, I’ve been obsessed with that band lately. I saw them open for Corb Lund in December and they just blew me away.
BB: They’re killer. I got a cool Gin Blossoms vibe from them, in a melodic sense. The first time I saw them was in Winnipeg at the Corb Lund show too, and yeah, they just blew my mind. Corb’s doing a pretty good job at introducing us to these American bands. I value that too. There’s also an artist out of Medicine Hat, J.R. Lewis, he calls himself “dumpster garbage rock,” but it’s taken on some more of this back roads, pedal steel kind of thing. I write a lot with him. And of course Ryan Adams. Who doesn’t love Ryan Adams?
I really could have kept talking with Blake about country music, the Highway, and what have you for hours. But an interview can only last so long. Take the trip up to Dauphin later this month to catch Blake Berglund and his band at the Dauphin Countryfest.