Moe Better Blues

by Ian A.D. Jack, ID (Guelph, Ontario), February 12, 1998

(transcribed by Tanya Bryan)

Moe Berg is a diligent songwriter. The Pursuit of Happiness frontman takes pride in the fact that he exercises his craft as a daily ritual. After all, it's his job.

He's probably one of the few Canadian musicians who can admit that he survives as a musician, and on his own terms. We all know the truths of Canadian bands - even successful ones - having to take on part-time work, or (sigh) stepping into the advertising world to lend their services to radio jingles and beer commercials. But not Berg. Like the Toronto trader works his day in an office on Bay Street, Berg sets up offices in a rotating roster of cafes in the Annex neighbourhood of the megacity. It's in this atmosphere of coffee and bagels where he muses daily in his journal and songbook, and where he gradually composed his first solo work, Summer's Over.

"This record is pretty self-indulgent - I'll be the first to admit it, but I feel as an artist you have to be self-indulgent," confesses Berg over the phone from his apartment. "There's enough artists doing things for the wrong reasons and I just wanted to do it for its own sake."

The solo bug bit the artist about three years ago when Berg was invited back to his hometown of Edmonton to play the city's famed folk festival. "It was great because everyone who was there wasn't there to drink and meet girls. They were there to see songwriters sing their songs. I wanted to do more shows where I was just playing by myself - getting away from the spectacle of it. I always feel on a certain level the actual songs that the band plays gets lost in the whole performance aspect. People want to just hear their favourite songs. When you come to this show, most of the material will be unfamiliar. People will have to sit and listen and hear what I'm saying and see if they can get a vibe from it rather than 'Oh, I want to hear 'I'm An Adult Now' - which I will play. I don't plan on it, but people call it out and I've played it."

At this point I should clarify that Berg's first foray as a solo artist does not cast him as a modern Gordon Lightfoot. There are still traces of his guitar pop influences (The Buzzcocks, Todd Rundgren) in the album's bloodstream, as well as stabs at blues, rockabilly and the artist's more synthetic guilty pleasures, i.e. The Human League.

Agrees Berg, "It's a songwriter's record. I just started writing this material which didn't seem that it was appropriate for The Pursuit of Happiness. I don't think this record has a stylistic centre. The show seems a little more stylistically even. It wasn't my intention to make a folk record."

It was his intention to release an honest record. Explains Berg, "A lot of my writing for TPOH has been as a voyeur. This record is pretty autobiographical. The whole honesty concept was part of something I needed to explore. Honesty is the worst policy, contrary to the adage. Most people don't want you to be honest with them. I've gotten into more trouble being honest than I have lying. Even something as simple as 'how are you today?' There's only one socially acceptable answer to that: 'fine.' Anything other than 'fine' and the person will walk away literally or figuratively. So I thought, 'what the hell, I'll be honest and see what happens.' I feel I can be honest here and people will react to it some private way."

This honesty also extends to Berg's spiritual awakening. Most of us have come to stereotype Berg as a commentator of relationships, mainly of the type found in Penthouse Forum. Few would have expected songs like "Pray for Heaven" and "Why God Why?".

Berg views this issue as an important theme on both the record and his life. "It's funny, because these songs are precursors to my spiritual awakening. It was one of those things where your subconscious is smarter than you are; my transformation (happened) after I wrote those songs. It was clear that I was looking for something. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household; my family was Pentacostal. Basically the barrier between me and God has always been Christians. They were the ones that made me not want to be a spiritual person because they were the example to follow, and I didn't think they were a very good one.

I needed to find a way out of (my unhappiness). It's not so much that I've become a Christian or a Buddhist or anything, it's just that there are real truths in these ancient teachings. I've been concentrating mainly on the Bible, and the idea of 'forgive and ye shall be forgiven.' It's become a therapy technique that a lot of psychologists are using. It's transformed people's lives - the idea that what is making people heavy and angry is that you have all these grudges and these things that you can't forgive all these people. This sounds sort of new agey and it makes me puke when I start talking about it, but it's become very meaningful to me."

Berg plans to take his one man performance on the road across Canada in the summer, hopefully hitting a few folk festivals, after he has completed production on TPOH bandmate Kris Abbott's solo album. And as for the band's elusive hiatus?

"I think we are going to get together and talk about (our future together)," he concludes. "I would think we'll do another record. We're sort of on hiatus and no one's really talking about it. We'll sit down some time and talk and depending on how that conversation goes we'll either make another record or we won't."

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