Art Bergmann is just as sardonic and pissed off as he was in ’78 when he fronted The K-Tels/Young Canadians, and as sincere and socially aware as he was in the 1980s and ’90s when he released a string of brilliant solo albums, including 1995’s Juno-winning What Fresh Hell Is This? and 1990’s “mainstream breakthrough,” Sexual Roulette.
Bergmann’s first new full length in 18 years (following struggles with arthritis and a degenerative back problem), the blisteringly diverse and cinematic The Apostate, follows up 2014’s Songs for the Underclass EP. It also finds him re-teaming with noted Calgary producer Lorrie Matheson (Samantha Savage Smith, Rebels United) and his new label, (weewerk).
Bergmann fell into the (weewerk) fold when label owner Phil Klygo asked Great Lake Swimmers’ Tony Dekker what he wanted for his birthday in 2009. It turns out all Dekker asked for was to do a show with Bergmann, which at the time was a rarity (and still is).
“I can play a couple hours and then I cramp up, but I can play quite a while if I sit down, but I can still play,” Bergmann, 63, says over the phone from his farm in Airdrie, Alberta. “I can’t play as dexterously as I once could, but I can play my open style of rhythm that I’ve developed over the years, and I just developed it further to make it easier for myself to play.
“So we played in Toronto and I kept up a relationship with Phil,” Bergmann says. “Originally he was gonna re-release all my old stuff, like ‘Hawaii’ and all that on vinyl, but that got caught up in litigation with a man called Joe Keithley (of Sudden Death Records and punk act D.O.A.) who wouldn’t let it go at the time, but I have it back now in my ownership.”
With a little money from (weewerk), Bergmann recorded Underclass in 10 days with Matheson, a demo that wound up being released to a public that was hungry for Bergmann’s brand of sinister wit. This was quickly followed by Bergmann winning a songwriting contest in 2015, a successful PledgeMusic campaign, and a grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts.
“When we started a PledgeMusic campaign, I thought it was gonna be embarrassing,” he says with a laugh. Despite the self-deprecation, over 200 people decided to pledge money towards a new Bergmann disc. The grant was just a nice bit of icing on the cake.
“I haven’t gotten many grants to make music in my 50 years or whatever it’s been,” Bergmann says. “It’s truly remarkable.”
Putting his trust in Matheson and a cast of veteran musicians meant that fleshing out the songs he’d been crafting for years could finally be presented properly.
“It can be a joy, but making a record can be difficult at the best of times,” he says. “(Matheson is) a player, a musician, a songwriter. He’s the most empathetic person I ever coulda found. He’s there for the song. He’s a good listener, he had some good ideas of his own and away we went. He’s an incredibly hard worker, almost OCD. The guy single-handedly has recorded almost every band out here, he’s just done an amazing amount of work.”
With Bergmann’s name on the record sleeve, it’s still up to him to call the shots, though. He notes that he does this simply by surrounding himself with people who he knows “will be amazing and amaze (him) even further,” such as guitarist Paul Rigby (Neko Case, The Sadies) who flew in from Vancouver on his own dime to contribute.
“He just walked around the room and played every stringed instrument that there is,” Bergmann says. “Did you know that you use different joints of your body when you’re playing steel guitar? You use your knees and your feet and of course your fingers and your arms. You hear that on the end of ‘Pioneers’ – he’s moving through all these chords and it’s amazing. Lorrie and I just sat there gobsmacked at what he could pull off. He knows what the songs need.”
The eight songs that make up The Apostate are unique, fitting in with the classic Art Bergmann collection, while still sounding quite timeless – which he notes was not an accident.
“I wanted these songs to have absolutely no reason for anyone not to play them anywhere,” Bergmann says. “That’s why you have so many different styles. I wanted the songs to be so you couldn’t tell what era they were from, except for the lyric content, which is hopefully up to date.”
On “Cassandra,” Bergmann sings of victim blaming, an issue that is as discussed as ever in 2016.
“With the bust in the economy, life in domestic violence spikes immediately and the first people to get hit are the women and the kids, and that’s where I took it,” he says of the song. “Then someone explained to me the myth of Cassandra of Troy, she was not believed, and the reason for that was Apollo wanted to give her the power of telling the future and he thought that would get him in her pants, but she refused him, and so he put it in her mouth that no one would ever believe her.
“So the song became sort of an update of that old myth where the woman is never believed, the subject of ‘oh, what were you wearing or doing out at such-and-such a time,’ is crap, you know? I was just blown away by the whole myth thing, and how it’s been an excuse for centuries.”
The album’s epic closer, “The Legend of Bobby Bird,” tells the true life tale of a 10-year-old boy who escaped a Saskatchewan residential school in 1969. His body was identified 30 years later. It’s a story that Bergmann wanted to tell properly and with respect, so he went to Bird’s family for guidance.
“They taught me how to say ‘Cree’ in their own language, they didn’t want me to say the word ‘Cree’ as it is an English/French construct,” he notes of the detail that went into crafting the piece. “They’re still fighting to get that school recognized for compensation, for some reason it got left out of the list of schools recognized as residential schools.”
Despite the countless musicians he’s inspired with the stories he’s told over the years, the songwriter is as humble as ever, rejecting any praise we send his way about The Apostate.
“These songs aren’t gonna change the fuckin’ world, so the saying goes,” he says, laughing. “Who did that song, Cracker? Here’s another song from another folk singer.”
Visit ArtBergmann.com for more information.