GROUP HUG “I can still go to a very dark place, but it’s a lot less of the time,” says Carolyn Berk (left, with Emily Kingan and Kerby Ferris). “I think that now I’ve just spent more time as a happy person and so I feel like I have different things to sing about.”
Lovers, the chamber-folk-turned-synth-pop project helmed by Boston-born Carolyn Berk, has seen plenty of critical acclaim since its first release, 2002's Starlit Sunken Ship (Orange Twin). But it turns out that, after touring that album and the two that followed, Berk's signature sound — gorgeous, heartbreaking indie folk — was getting her down.
"I definitely hit a point where I really wasn't sure what I was going to do," Berk said last month by phone from her home in Portland, Oregon. "It was hard for me to get out of my own vibe. I didn't want it to be painful for me and, therefore, painful for the audience. I got less depressed, honestly. I sort of realized: okay, if I'm going to continue to do a project — a musical project, a performance project — it's got to be something that feels really good to do. "
Enter Lovers' current incarnation. It's something of a rebirth, really: tinged dark, true — but a dance-pop outfit all the way. Featuring Emily Kingan of the Haggard on drums and Kerby Ferris on synth, the synergy of the new crew added a rabble-rousing spark to last year's Dark Light (Badman), and the result has the bedroom-recording-meets-dancing-through-the-pain feel of Kanye sampling Bon Iver. In fact, this offering, as well as Berk's turn on the pre-Ferris/Kingan 2008 release, I am the West (Pop Heart), sounds playful and even a little joyous, despite Berk's consistent motifs of romantically melancholic, sharply observed lyrics. Which means that even with the uptempo beat, you know everything isn't totally sunshine-and-roses on "No Regrets," as Berk wryly observes: "You were applying a lip-gloss shade named Dandylion when I realized I was painfully employed/As your benign, dandy-pantsed, cowardly lion/And my last little piece of pride, it was destroyed."
Berk's not flattening out life's complexity, just highlighting hope. "I can still go to a very dark place, but it's a lot less of the time," she says. "I think that now I've just spent more time as a happy person and so I feel like I have different things to sing about. Rather than just working out my tangles, I feel like I am a little bit able to shift my focus more outward."
That outward focus has created a move away from catharsis and toward something more universal, evidenced in part by Berk's decision to re-record a dancier version of "Peppermint" (from her first album) on Dark Light, in a sort of answer to her younger self. "['Peppermint'] was something like a prayer," she reflects. "I was 20 when I wrote it, and I feel like that person still lived in me, but that I could comfort that young little lamb who was writing that song a little bit: 'What you are praying for really happens.' "