“People keep asking if I go into a different headspace to write a solo album,” says Matt Berninger, emitting a cackle of laughter at the idea. “I really don’t have that much headspace. I don’t have other rooms in my brain. It's all just one giant circus in there.”
The National's frontman has made a solo album, Serpentine Prison. It is beautiful work, created with veteran producer and Motown legend Booker T Jones, in which Berninger’s intricate lyrics and wracked, fragile baritone are set to dreamy melodies and grooves.
“Whenever you are dancing with a different partner with different rhythm and different steps, you have to adjust yourself and so the end result is different,” he notes. “But what I’m doing is always the same, trying to figure out what are the things that are keeping me awake at night, and what are the things that help me get out of bed in the morning. That’s all it is.”
Meanwhile, his usual co-writer and keyboard player, Aaron Dressner, has collaborated with Taylor Swift on her latest album Folklore. “Taylor’s awesome. Aaron and I have been dancing together for so long, it was fun to swap partners, try some new moves.” But Berninger is at pains to reassure fans it does not spell the end for the much-loved American alternative rock band.
“The National are like a big old barn,” he says. “The doors are blown off, and the windows are all broken, and creatures are coming in and out of it. We go and have new adventures and come back and share them. It keeps things interesting.” He gave his blessing to Dressner sharing backing tracks with Swift originally intended for the National. “Aaron and I always have a million songs cooking. We can’t resist writing together.”
Berninger also collaborates with his wife Carin Besser, a former poetry editor at the New Yorker. “Carin and I have been writing constantly together almost since we met. She started editing and giving me ideas when I got stuck on Boxer (the National’s fourth album, from 2007).”
Unusually they are both lyricists, and often pass songs back and forth between them, finishing off each other’s work. What is it like collaborating so closely with your spouse, I enquire (on behalf of married couples everywhere)? “It can be intense. It’s a bit like being in a band with four other guys for 20 years. It’s like Jaws. You get in this creative boat with these different personalities and sail off to kill the shark and save your soul.”
He laughs when he realises what that sounds like. “I’m not comparing my marriage to Jaws! It’s wonderful, it’s hilarious. I’m just so lucky to have her. I’m always trying to impress her.” Besser, however, did not work on his solo album. The couple have been writing a musical of Cyrano De Bergerac with National members Aaron and Bryce Dessner.
“We’ve written 25 songs for that, and now it's going to be a movie. I found out it’s really hard to move a narrative along in a song, especially when there’s a sword fight happening! But Carin’s good at it. I didn’t want to add to her burden. The songs for this album didn’t have any job to do other than be good songs.”
For such a serious, complex chronicler of human neuroses, Berninger can be quite goofy in conversation. He giggles at his own jokes, and constructs elaborate metaphors that sometimes just collapse in on themselves. “I think all artists want people to understand how complicated they are. In every way, in my life, I look like an average Catholic Midwestern white guy, a total normo. But I don’t feel normal, I feel like a character in a Dr Seuss book, a dog with spots that nobody understands!
“Comedians make jokes about themselves and people laugh, and they get attention. It’s like that writing songs. I think that what Sarah Silverman and Steven Colbert do is the same as what Bruce Springsteen and Bono do. You’re making fun of yourself but really you are explaining how you feel about everything.”
Berninger studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati, which is where The National formed. The band were based in New York but seven years ago Berninger moved to Venice, a leafy beach-front suburb of Los Angeles. It was whilst cycling around the neighbourhood that he spotted a twisted sewer pipe with a cage on top that inspired the phrase Serpentine Prison.
“I emailed the title to myself. I’ve got 500 emails of just titles alone. I write in a lot of different ways and sometimes I’ll just get a pattern in my head, or a line rhythm. I read a lot of Dr Seuss to my daughter (Isla, who’s 11) and the feel of those words spawned a Dr Seuss kind of pattern, rhyming prison with vision, permission, submission. And just like Dr Seuss stuff you can sneak in all these progressive, cosmic, funny, beautiful, really honest ideas inside a children’s rhyme. (‘Nationalism, another moon mission / Whatever it is, I try not to listen / Cold cynicism and blind nihilism / I need a vacation from intoxication / Tell her I’m missing in a serpentine prison.’) That’s what rhyme is supposed to do, it tricks you into listening over and over again while paying no attention.”
There is a quality of mellifluous beauty to the album, played live in the studio by virtuoso musicians, with little recourse to digital tricks or electronic effects. Yet it does not sound old fashioned. There is something about Berninger’s strange lyrics and cracked voice that is entirely contemporary. The songs worry away at the edges, addressing anxiety, insecurity, jealousy, frustration, depression and power imbalances in relationships.
“I’m always writing about insecurity, I’m always writing about fear, because the flip side to fear is love and safety and happiness and comfort and joy, and that’s in there too. Hate is the actionable version of fear. And love is bravery. People talk about fearless artists, but there’s no such thing and never has been, unless they are a psychopath. Fear is something we are all leaning up against and dealing with. So this record is about trying to observe fear, my own and others. Even my daughter’s fears, trying to get inside her head, what might she be afraid of. They might be small fears at her age that weigh more on her than global warming or fascism, but small fears can be ways to teach our children how to face the bigger challenges that they will have to fight against.”
Berninger admits to having mixed feelings about the pandemic lockdown that has brought the world and the music business to a standstill. “One side of this experience has been really good for me, but the other side is horrific. Digital streaming is not how I keep the lights on. It’s the vinyl, the touring, the merch, that’s how The National really survives. Touring is the only way to really connect with fans, but it’ll ruin anybody after a while. If you have kids and you’re a musician, it's not that much fun. So being stuck at home has given me an opportunity to get some perspective on my priorities and on my lifestyle.”
He suggests that this might be an opportunity in disguise. “Artists have to work out how to take advantage of this. Because the industry has always been stacked against the artist. We have to figure out how to game it in our favour. The trains are off the tracks. It’s time to figure out do we even want to be on that train, where are these trains going, why are they going there? Take everything off the train and figure out if you want it to even be a train.” He laughs. “Now that sounds like Dr Seuss.”
Matt Berninger: Serpentine Prison is out now on Book Records via Concord