The National’s Matt Berninger on going solo: “These songs are about the people that made me… me”

As he releases new album ‘Serpentine Prison’, the self-reflective frontman talks to Andrew Trendell about the power of empathy and his love of Taylor Swift. (Photo credit: Chantal Anderson)

Pretty much every music fan remembers where they were when they heard the news that David Bowie had died. Matt Berninger certainly does. While the rest of us were wallowing in Youtube holes and replaying the best of The Thin White Duke, mourning the first of many legends in that cursed year of 2016, he was tasked with honouring Bowie on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert that very evening by covering ‘Let’s Dance’ with his punk-inspired side project EL VY.

“We had one afternoon to learn that song, rehearse it and do it live on television,” he remembers, still aghast. “It was such an intense and scary thing – how do you pay tribute to David Bowie like that?”

In Berninger’s own words, his day job band The National have often been more renowned for “sad-sack-mope-dad-rock-brunch-core-Americana” than putting on your red shoes and dancing the blues. However, EL VY were built on a foundation of fun and spritely pep. While ably assisted by the chat show’s awesome house band, Berninger rose to the challenge. “Those experiences are terrifying,” he tells NME. “It’s like climbing up a diving board, then they suddenly raise it up 100 feet. I wasn’t going to say no. You have to honour everybody that you’ve stolen from and learned from.”

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It’s that same impetus that led him to create his debut solo album, ‘Serpentine Prison’. Originally, he set out to make a covers record in the same vein as Willie Nelson’s 1978 collection of pop standards, ‘Stardust’ – one of Berninger’s father’s favourite albums. Fate aligned when the frontman became pals with ‘Stardust’s producer, the R&B legend Booker T. Jones.

They got to work and started recording some of Berninger’s favourite songs – including ‘Holes’ by Mercury Rev, The Cure’s ‘In Between Days’ and an attempt at party rock banger ‘Sabotage’ by Beastie Boys. “We almost tried too hard with that one,” laughs Berninger. “Some songs are un-coverable – but it’s fun to try and step into someone else’s shoes and melodies and that role of channeling yourself and them. When you cover a song, even one that you’ve listened to a million times, it’s a whole different thing to perform it and inhabit it.”

Berninger has recently spent a lot of his life looking at the world from other people’s perspectives. The National’s eighth album, 2019’s ‘I Am Easy To Find’, relayed the narrative arc of a young woman transitioning through life, his wife and collaborator Carin Desser’s lyrics sung by a cast including Bowie’s bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, indie rock star Sharon Van Etten and more. He and the band have also been working on songs for characters to sing in a TV musical adaptation of the 1897 play Cyrano De Bergerac by Edmond Rostand (which will star Game Of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage, no less).

“That’s another challenge – to write for someone else and know that you’ll never sing it,” he says. “When you sing a song, you inhabit it in the way that an actor does with a scene. Christopher Walken and Nicole Kidman are going to play a character very differently. Writing for Peter Dinklage or a voice inside Alicia Vikander’s head – those are fun mental flip-flops and inversions.”

Inspired by this, he sent Jones a couple of his own that didn’t fit with anything else he’d been working on. The muse took hold, they invited over some friends to contribute and after two weeks last July they’d recorded 12 originals as well as nine covers. “Booker made it all feel connected,” Berninger says of the man behind the desk. “He made all these orphan songs feel like the same family with the same DNA. He knows how to make it all fit – the hooks, but also the emotional blurry area.”

‘Serpentine Prison’ drips with The National’s dewey-eyed emotion, but with a more humble, personal, simple and intimate feel. There’s a timelessness here that would suit the crackle of vinyl. There’s the quiet yearning of ‘Distant Axis’, on which Berninger sings the pain of softly drifting apart (“I feel like I’m as far as I can get from you”), the Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave-indebted lullaby ‘Take Me Out Of Town’ and the album’s centrepiece ‘One More Second’, which again sees Berninger calling on his songwriting heroes to capture the right feeling.

“There isn’t a single person I know who hasn’t been debilitated by sadness”

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“I was really listening to ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ by Prince, Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ and Olivia Newton John’s ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’,” he says of the inspiration behind the recent single. “There are a million songs that are synonymous with that last–minute desperation – begging for another chance at love. Dolly Parton wrote ‘I Will Always Love You’ when leaving Porter Wagoner’s [the country star with whom she had a close relationship] TV show. If he could have written a song to keep her around, maybe it would have sounded a little like ‘One More Second’.”

Elsewhere on the album there’s the dark but breezy Americana of ‘Love So Little’, written with Berninger’s long-time collaborator Mike Brewer; the orchestral ‘All For Nothing’ featuring his EL VY bandmate Brent Knopf; and the feather-light ‘Silver Springs, which boasts a classy guest vocal from Gail Ann Dorsey. “Gail just makes it so much more universal and brings such a regal gravitas,” says Berninger. “She sounds like a queen or a king when she sings.”

And did he ask her for any Bowie tales or approval of his ‘Let’s Dance’ cover?

“When you ask her about David, you almost can’t express the love she feels,” says Berninger. “Gail is an artist on her own, but who had an opportunity to join David Bowie. She was there as support, but he surrounded himself with very loving people. They were very warm and people he could learn from – not just musically but personally. She said he was very, very private, but so joyous, loving and kind. She talked about how being on stage with him made you feel warmer and more connected to everything afterwards.”

The most striking track, though, has to be ‘Oh Dearie’, an acoustic song that perfectly captures the profound but all too common fatigue of being weighed down by the blues. “Paralysis has me,” Berninger pines. “How do people do it? / I can not see through it”.

“That song is about depression, and acknowledging that you can reach people deep inside those places” Berninger says. “I go in and out of phases of exhaustion, dejection and despair, but not in the way that some people do. You can get so lost inside the weight of all of it.

“It’s a song about respecting depression and the people that have it. My brother goes through phases. There isn’t a single person I know who hasn’t been debilitated by sadness, sometimes their whole lives or sometimes in phases. It’s a real thing that everyone should be conscious of and look for in their friends.”

Would it be fair to say, then, that these songs are to his friends or from their point of view?

“Often when I’m writing, I’m writing songs that I wish someone else would sing to me – be it Nina Simone or the people I love,” says Berninger. “Most of my songs are love songs to myself or that champion me. They’re cheerleading songs for my own soul. I’m writing things that I suspect Carin would like to say to me. You know, ‘I hope my daughter understands me’l ‘My mother will know this is about her’. They’re not just about me; they’re about the people that made me… me.”

“‘Folklore’ is my favourite Taylor Swift record! Of course it is”

You’ll get more of a glimpse into what makes Berninger tick in the upcoming sequel to he and his filmmaker brother Tom’s 2014 documentary about their relationship and The National, Mistaken For Strangers, as well as a TV sitcom adaptation. Beyond that, he’s planning a solo tour (which he wants to look like “a cosmic disco in the garden of Eden”) and of course The National will be hitting the road and returning to the studio when Covid is over and the band have finished off their respective side projects.

Drummer Bryan Devendorf just dropped his own debut solo album, as well as releasing another record with his melancholic other band LNZNDRF with brother Scott, who also plays bass in The National. Meanwhile, guitarist Bryce Dessner continues his sideline as a classical maestro, and his brother, Aaron Dessner, also a guitarist in the main band, has kept a less-than-low profile by co-writing and co-producing much of Taylor Swift’s lockdown album ‘Folklore’. The acclaimed record explores sonic territory similar to that – you guessed it – The National.

“‘Folklore’ is my favourite Taylor Swift record! Of course it is,” Berninger laughs. “I love the music and she does things melodically that I’ve never done. She just knows how to throw a melody and words together in such an infectious way. Combining Aaron’s deep blue sea music with her hooks is just incredible. That record is like a rollercoaster that’s not too fast and not too scary – but a great ride.”

The National's Matt Berninger. Credit: Chantal Anderson
The National’s Matt Berninger. Credit: Chantal Anderson

Swift has become an outspoken political force lately, denouncing Donald Trump on Twitter (“We will vote you out in November,” she promised him). While The National have played rallies and had photo ops with Barack Obama, Berninger is adamant that his music remains a vehicle for humanity and connection, rather than being a blunt political tool. “Even though we’re thought of as a political band, we’re all politically-motivated and engaged, but I always say that the politics is in the empathy,” he says. “A good love song is always going to be more political and connect us more than an ‘issues’ song.”

Not that there’s a lack of issues to go around right now. When quizzed on his hopes for the Presidential election in election in November, Berninger says he’s “optimistic” but still eager for America to continue to “pull back the curtain” on “the chronic sickness of sexism and racism in America along with the patriarchal hierarchy, the capitalism, the fact that the Catholic Church is a corporation and Mark Zuckerburg is a one-man Big Tobacco”.

Of Trump’s Presidency, he says, “Americans chose a horror movie,” before drawing on a common Back To The Future comparison. “They chose Biff to be President – but not just Biff; they chose white supremacist fascist Biff. I have an uncle who supported him and said, ‘I just wanted him to shake things up!’ Everyone wants to go into the fun house to see what it’s like, and it’s awful – especially when you see the actual damage and the pain. Then you see where it’s coming from and it’s real. This racism, this fear. Americans have so many guns because we have so much fear: protect the nest.”

“With Trump’s presidency, Americans chose a horror movie”

After a fiery diatribe about how “capitalism and the industrial revolution have been very dangerous experiments”, the battle against addiction to prescription drugs, how to fix mental health among the homeless, the evils of the social media’s “terror bubbles” and the “fear soup” created by rolling news, he concludes: “It’s easy to just give up on everything, because we’re not going to fix all this stuff – but you can fix one tiny thing. Any one person can save another person. We have the means to help, to feed, to shelter, to keep everyone safe.

“Nobody’s coming for your guns, your daughters or your land. We don’t need to protect stuff; we just need to protect each other, our minds and our hearts – and we’re not doing that.”

As he sang on The National’s 2005 track ‘Baby We’ll Be Fine’: “All you gotta do is be brave and be kind”. “There’s no such thing as fearlessness,” Berninger says today. “Anyone who’s fearless isn’t connected to reality. Bravery is taking all your fear and leaping in with it. Fear tumbles down, and bravery is the thing that makes you run up towards it and to the other side.”

– Matt Berninger’s ‘Serpentine Prison’ is released on October 16

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