Sessions: Matraca Berg

Written by June 28th, 2011 at 8:57 am

Matraca Berg, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, co-wrote her first no. 1 hit at age 18 with “Faking Love.” Her songs have been cut by Dusty Springfield, Dixie Chicks, Linda Rondstadt, and Grace Potter and Kenny Chesney, who recently scored a hit with “You and Tequila.” Her new album, The Dreaming Fields, is her first LP in 14 years.

Recorded and mixed by Josh Smith and Logan Matheny. Video shot and edited by Joseph LeMay.

Racing The Angels –Matraca Berg

Oh Cumberland –Matraca Berg

You And Tequila –Matraca Berg

The Dreaming Fields is your first record in 14 years.

Yeah, I had a brief country career at sort of a major label machine. I was on a label called Rising Tide, and it folded in the middle of my second single. I was just thinking, “Whenever I try to make a record, something happens to the label” [laughs]. So, I wanted to chill for a little while and figure out what I really wanted, if I was going to make a record again.

Because of the way the landscape’s changed, as far as indie labels and major labels, it was kind of confusing to me. I just wanted to stay home and write songs. I was going into the studio all this time. Some of the tracks on the record are seven years old. So, I was just toolin’ around in the studio figuring out what I wanted to do. There was also family to take care of, and life just kind of chips away. The next thing I knew, all that time had passed. It was kind of a shock. What happened? I thought it was more like five years.

And, being a songwriter, I would write and record demos for other people. Every two or three demos, there would be one that would just stand out — the musicians would be over the moon happy, so I would just take that one and set it over to the side. A lot of these songs involved the same musicians, and so it started sounding like a record. So, I thought, “Well, I’ve got enough to put another record out.” I was happy with what I was producing. I felt I had a little more focus, and then it all happened.

You co-wrote the track “Racing The Angels” with Gretchen Peters and Suzy Bogguss.

Yes. We have a little girl group in the UK that kind of started out as a lark, as something fun to do. We’ve been doing it every couple years for several years now. We’re playing Glastonbury this year, so it’s become this thing. We made a little EP to sell on the road, and we went off to our own little camp in Sewanee, wrote a bunch of songs and recorded in the living room. “Racing The Angels” was one of those songs.

Did you all pitch in with lyrics and melody?

Yeah. Somebody would be cooking, somebody would be playing the guitar, somebody would be poking at the fire, and we just kind of did it. Like with “Racing The Angels,” I was sitting on the couch playing guitar. Gretchen and I were sitting in there, and Suzy was making soup.

We had kind of struggled for two days, trying out our songs and nothing felt right, and we were afraid we weren’t going to write anything on this trip. We were just going to drink wine and that would be it. So, Gretchen and I started clicking on this song, and Suzy was making soup or something, and she walked in with her spoon in her hand and said, “That’s it!” After we ate, we sat down and finished it.

You play harmonica on that song. Are you self-taught?

You can’t tell, can you? [laughs] Yes.

It’s true, you don’t see a lot of female singer-songwriters playing the harmonica.

No, no. You know, I’m not a very great guitar player. At Writer’s nights or shows, if I had a song that had a long open spot that needed a little opening somewhere musically, I just thought I would try the harmonica. I’m pretty bad now, but I was really bad then. But, I put the rack on, had a writer’s night and just kind of faked my way through it. The people loved it! They went crazy! The people like bad harmonica. They don’t care. They just love the harmonica with a rack [laughs]. If I was ever doing a writer’s night with other guys, there would always be the one to say, “nice rack,” or “I like your rack.” Yeah, so it was good for a joke too.

And you said you use a special lipstick when you play?

Right, it’s Revlon ColorStay [laughs].

People are going to want to know that. Tell us about the song “You and Tequila.” That’s an awesome song.

You know, I wrote that years ago with Deana Carter. She was making a record on RCA and trying to get some songs written for it. We came up with that. This is sad, but Harlan Howard had died two days before, and Harlan was like an uncle to me. I was not taking it well. They had a video montage at the memorial of people sharing Harlan stories, and Harlan bought me my first shot of tequila when I was about 18. So, later on at the after party (we all went to Tootsie’s [laughs]), his kids kept buying me a shot. They wanted to do a shot of tequila with me in honor of their dad, and I hadn’t drank a shot of tequila in years. So, I got pretty sick. Two days later I was writing with Deana, and I still felt pretty terrible. I told her that story, and we got to talking about Harlan and tequila. You know, I just said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but tequila makes me crazy.’ There is something there, and boom! We wrote it in 20 minutes.

Did you come up with that phrase, “one is one too many, one more is never enough?”

You know, I don’t know. I called a friend of mine who is in AA and asked him where I had heard this before, and he couldn’t tell me.

It’s a good one.

Thanks! Well, I thought it was too good for me to think of. That’s why I called this guy. Did I hear this somewhere else?

When did you write “Oh Cumberland?”

A long time ago. That must have been 10 years ago. There were two levels of what I drew from with that song. I wrote it with Gary Harrison, by the way, who is freakin’ amazing. I had a friend who had moved to LA, who is from Tennessee like me, and when she would call me, she sounded so lonely. I could just hear it, “Yeah, everything’s great. I’m making connections.” It just didn’t seem like a fit to me. She’s still there, and I still feel that way. But, that’s just me. Also, I made a pop record in LA, talk about wrong fit. It was just not the right kind of record. I was staying at a friend’s place in Santa Monica and driving to the valley to make this record. I was caught in this terrible traffic jam. It was the San Diego Freeway, and that was before we had those kind of traffic jams here in Nashville. [Nashville] was still a pretty small town. I had stumbled onto this program called City Billy on public radio, and they played Merle Haggard’s “Big City.” It came on, and I started crying. I was boo-hooing. That moment was a big change for me, so I wrote that song.

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