Photo by: Dragon Photography
New Orleans has always been known for its rich musical history and its host of talented musicians, but this next artist from The City truly has something special. He is a man that wears many hats, from Vocal Coaching to university professor, to Television Show Contestant and performer. He seems to have done it all. We are honored to have had the pleasure to interview him about his life and his journey in music. Check out our interview with Berkley the Artist.
SFND MAG: Mr. Berkley, we want to first thank you for interviewing with So FN Dope Magazine. We are definitely glad to have you. How have you been? BERKLEY: I’m happy to share this time with you all. What a year! It’s like a warp-zone or something! But, it seems like we’ve made it over into a new world and I’m glad I made it! Crazy times though. SFND MAG: We’ve seen and heard of you on the West Coast, but one of our founders, Corey Norwood, said he went to high school with you. So you’re from New Orleans? Guess I’m supposed to ask you what ward you from?…[LAUGHS] BERKLEY: Yes, Corey and I went to McDonogh #35 Sr. High School in New Orleans. We are from a very proud heritage. Our high school was the first public African American High School in New Orleans. Our school motto was “ A choice; not an echo.” As you can see, I’m still devoted to the excellence we were taught! It was there that I began to really grow as an artist and young person with high hopes and big dreams. I’ve never wanted anything regular. I’m from a part of town called Gentilly. It’s the 8TH ward. SFND MAG: How was it growing up in such a musically complex city? What I mean by complex is, New Orleans is well known for Jazz as well as Bounce Music, two totally different ends of the spectrum. How has the music of your city shaped you into the artist you have become or has it? BERKLEY: New Orleans’ music is only complex when experiencing it from the outside. For us, it’s all the same music. Jazz, Bounce, Brass, Second Line, Gospel, R&B and even Classical. The thing that is complex is who is making it; enjoying it a certain type of New Orleans people sing and play jazz versus the ones that do second line music. I grew up in a very musical family. My dad’s side of the family were working musicians, choir directors, organists and singers. My grandmother played piano for our church and had the best soprano voice you’ve ever heard. Like Sarah Vaughn and Sarah Jordan Powell. My father’s voice and way of performing shaped a lot of my musical taste. He is what we call in the classical world a Basso Profundo. I sat behind him in our choir stand every Sunday watching the people respond to his preaching and singing. Learning. Growing. On my mother’s side there was a different type of refinement. Disciplined and finely dressed performances were praised and encouraged. My mother saw to it that I was reared in piano lessons, children’s choirs and play rehearsals. We’d watch Star Search together on Saturday nights and enjoy the red carpets before award shows. For me, there was no complexity at all. Just goals. SFND MAG: Berkley your sound is so eclectic and refreshing with heavy gospel undertones. Aside from your father, who are your musical influences? BERKLEY: Whenever I sing there is one person who constantly appears in my heart. Whitney Houston. It was the “God” feeling in her voice and the approach of her notes, phrases and mannerisms that invigorated me. Growing up in a strict home, I used to sneak and listen to her music. Tevin Campbell and Alanis Morrissette. Then I’d also be harmonizing with my brother and sister to Phantom of the Opera and Fiddler on the Roof. Our home was extremely musical! When my mother enrolled me in the New Orleans Children’s Choir, I was the only black boy in the choir at that time. I felt the pressure to be amazing; which personally think is good for some children. At one point, my mom said to me “If you’re going to be a musician you have to be great at every part of it.” That stuck in my head and I wanted to make her proud and impress my father. So, I took it very seriously. I studied at Dillard University for undergrad and learned all that I could about my instrument. If there was some sound or style that I couldn’t replicate, I’d become obsessed in learning it. Secretly, I always had a sense of needing to know more! I’m sort of a nerd in that way. I’ll watch documentaries about an artist so I can pinpoint where their style was birthed. Then I’ll feel as if I really knew the artist and what they were really going through. It gave me a sense of connection to someone great. Someone that overcame something terrible. I needed that feeling. One day, I believe people will study me too. I honestly do. SFND MAG: Speaking of gospel you were in the top 10 of BET’S Sunday Best some years back, how was that experience and what did you learn during that process? BERKLEY: This experience of being thrusted into the spotlight because of a television show was the best thing that could happen. Here’s the deal. I had no desire to be on Sunday Best. I’d watch the show and loved the singing but I just didn’t want to be seen as Gospel artist, only. I love Gospel music the most, but I was never really accepted in that circle. Either I was too “worldly, white, or weird.” I can laugh about it now, but back then those opinions really shook me because I loved the people of the church world. Everything I understood about people was shaped by this community. So when I made it on to the show and did well I was devastated when certain church wouldn’t allow me to sing at them. It was tough. I began pulling away from the church music world all together. Not because I didn’t love them. They just didn’t love me. It’s ten years later and I just started being a singer in the church again. Life is a dance and you just have to keep dancing before the rhythm strikes you just right. I’m confident and strong in myself these days, so I can handle heat when it shows up. SFND MAG: Berkley, how do you balance everything? After researching, I feel like you are a million different people… [LAUGHS] Berkley the Vocal Coach, Berkley the Musical Director, Berkley the Professor, Berkley of Water Seed, Berkley the Artist. Is it difficult for you to find a balance? BERKLEY: When I think of my family, I think of busy people. Growing up in New Orleans I witnessed people do a lot of things. You’d have several odd jobs, organizations you were a part of, types of people you’d share time with and so on. So, it comes as no new notion that I too, would be a busy man. Currently I am a professor of Pop/Commercial Music at Loyola University. Every day I walk onto this campus and into my office, I am in awe of what God can do. As a Black boy in New Orleans, I learned, very young, that St. Charles Ave. is where the rich, White people live and socialize. Many of my relatives would clean houses in this part of town only two generations ago. Can you imagine how I walk onto this majestic, red-brick campus? DIGINIFIED! Yes, I am often contracted as a musical and creative director for artists that are ready to elevate their creative production. This is actually one of my favorite parts of producing artists, including myself. For instance, the project I am working on now is coming along nicely. My sister, Margaret Anne has been writing with me and our chemistry is a blessing because we really know one another. I have a great guy named Nick Mercadel, producer, who is bringing my ideas to life in the studio and onstage as my musical director. It’s all about the energy. Believe me, that vibe will make everything natural. After achieving two Billboard charting albums together, Water Seed fired me. I was hurt because I really loved them. That’s show business. Up and downs. SFND MAG: I feel we live in a lazy society where it’s easier to copy than to create; a society where people except imitation faster than innovation. For those young artists that feel the only way they can get on is by conforming to what the musical norms are what advice would you give them? BERKLEY: This is a great question and a strong claim. I’ll do my best to address it honestly and wisely. I see today’s society as a drug. It can be used for so many different functions. The openness, data and lack of labels can be used as a corrective tool from decades of bigotry, discrimination and manipulation. However, it also lends to a lack of discipline, instant gratification and entitlement. We equally take part in this society where we are sold synthetic as natural; thereby, the art imitates our behavior. Do I enjoy this? Sometimes. We all know fast food isn’t good for us but we all like it. Sometimes. There are things about modern music and art that I really love as far as the production, the sound, the process and the culture! It reminds me that there are still new things being birthed. Artists will always look to others to find themselves until they find themself. This is what makes an artist see, hear, create and find what is not there and bring it to fruition. You are blessed if you are an artist but you are fortunate if you receive from an artist. So my advice is to just go ahead and explore. To every young artist that I come across I wish them well in their journey. There will be mistakes and failures brought upon them because of ego or even compassion but even still; go. Play. Play until it feels better. SFND MAG: You lived in L.A. for a while correct? Los Angeles can be a gift and a curse if you don’t have the proper guidance, how did you navigate LA LA LAND? BERKLEY: I did live in L.A. for seven years. Just saying it makes me feel the electricity of Hollywood. Tinseltown. My story is beautiful. My L.A. story was beautiful. Truthfully, I was led to CA by a strong spiritual life. I was meditating and praying. Reading and writing affirmations each day too. It was then that I knew it was time to go. So, I packed up my life in three suitcases, put $300 in the bank, filled up my heart with the promises of God and flew to Los Angeles. I transformed into the man I was destined to be. There are no regrets to any of my experiences there because everything was intentional, for me. Lots of knowledge was dropped on me about the entertainment industry. I had to shed a lot things that were holding me back, such as, being afraid of success. Additionally, I was protected from crazy ass situations because I was raised with good morals. Anything can happen there. I’ve seen people become stars over night as well as those who had been in the game for decades. It can be fun and crazy at the same time but I was in a good fortune bubble so the hard times were definitely worth it. SFND MAG: We couldn’t help but notice that your name is tied to the credits of some pretty notable people Tisha Campbell being one, when we google searched y’all name together all type of Xen Lounge videos pop up! How did that friendship blossom? BERKLEY: I met Tisha Campbell in 2013. I swear this is the craziest story but it really happened this way. At the top of the year, I decided that I was going to fast throughout February. No drinks, no sex, no nothing. It was the hardest month ever. My prayer was that God would do something spectacular in my life; something I couldn’t do on my own. It was so specific. Some friends and I were going out to a club in Studio City that night and I really wanted to look good. Plus, my fast had ended that day and I was ready to party. When I opened the car door, a leopard handkerchief (that I had been looking for) fell out the car onto the ground. I stuffed it into my suit jacket’s pocket and let it plume. We finally arrived to this vibey and somewhat swanky lounge and grabbed one of the booths. Enters the legendary Tisha Campbell and she walks up to our table and says, “Hi, I’m Tisha. Welcome to Xen Lounge.” She looked at me and said, “Oh, I already know you’re a singer from that handkerchief.” The rest is history. We became good friends from that day. That was a God moment for both of us. I’ve learned a lot from her willingness to share and I’ve been able to be a loyal friend to someone that is deeply human outside of being famous.
SFND MAG: We’ve spoken to other artist from New Orleans and they’ve used the terms “crab in a barrel mentality” when it comes to support in New Orleans. Have you experienced the lack of support in your city and if so how do you handle it? BERKLEY: I feel as if New Orleans is the most special place on Earth! The people are rich like good soil. To really love and know New Orleans is a challenge. We are a group of folks that have big dreams, big hearts and big sorrow too. So, one can say that the hurt gets in the way of the blessing sometimes. Like any city, there are those who celebrate your success and inventions but equally there are folks who can’t stand it. We are no different than any place or time in the world. Maybe it’s different because New Orleans people, we don’t really hold our tongue. We speak on what we feel, and we don’t care who hears it or cares about it. I literally laughed to myself as I said that because I do it too. SFND MAG: Not to put you in a box, but I know every artist has a lane. What would you classify yourself as when speaking about genres? BERKLEY: I am an artist so any type of music that feels good and sounds good is my favorite. But for the American public, we enjoy labels on art. So, I’d constitute my sound as American Soul-Pop with a Black Gospel root. SFND MAG: We see you have a new project “The Frank Album” tell us about it? Is Never Never Land apart of this project? I love the song and video for Never Never Land by the way! BERKLEY: The Frank Album is what I’m making right now. It’s the album that I’ve decided to go back to my roots. Interestingly, as I’ve been researching my musical and artistic beginnings, I’ve found that they are incredibly vast. Gospel, R&B, Jazz and Classical music seem to be a natural part of my early years but equally, I LOVE pop music throughout the decades. At first, I wanted to narrow down a sound, but it made me feel like I was lying! So, when this album is finished you will get so much truth from me musically, lyrically and emotionally that I hope it frees the world. Frees me too. That’s all I can say about it right now. I’m not rushing it all. I’ve been finding my groove and the best group of partners to carry out this mission. There are so many types of collaborators with many perspectives of the world from race to sexuality and religion. Now, we add love to that mix, and we’ll see what the music says. I’ve been recording in new places too. That’s always a treat. This one space called Neutral Sound Studios has the coolest vibe. I did record Never Never Land there with a bunch of phenomenal musicians and artists. There are some pics and videos floating out there from that session. It was magic. Then we did the video and I reached out to my friend Tamika Jett, she’s the choreographer for Big Freedia, and said “I wanna dance!” We started practicing in front of the Mercedes Benz Superdome every morning to capture the energy of big rewards and big stakes. SFND MAG: You have been in the game for a while now but yet you are still so new. What should old supports anticipate and new supporters expect from Berkley “the solo artist”? BERKLEY: I’ve been preparing and practicing for my whole life as it relates to music and the arts. That’s the way I was raised. When the “Big Moment” arrives, I’ll be ready. I’m so grateful for supporters and fans who have been with me throughout the evolution of my life and the art I share. I try to be real with you all. I try to be real with myself too. This time around, you will receive a very confident and free version of Me! I know who I am, I’ve overcome some rough shit! I made it through the fire, and I know how I want to be loved now. So, the music is very fun, very sexy, very memorable. I think this is the sexiest music I’ve ever made, and it turns me on in every way. I’m not going to lie; I’m feeling myself. Unapologetically. SFND MAG: On another note, we saw that you beat COVID19 , It feels weird to say it like that but COVID has been and still is taking people out. Tell us about your experience. What were your symptoms? How did you handle the physical and emotional isolation and did it take a toll on you mentally? How has it has changed your perspective on things? BERKLEY: My joke is to say “I was in the pilot edition of COVID.” When it hit me in early March of 2020, we didn’t know much about it or how it worked. It was life changing because I almost died. For forty-two days, I spent my life inside of the house in various forms of pain and then finally freedom. It was a reformation for my life. If you’ve ever been through a life threating moment you will more than likely leave changed because you have to make a choice on how you will live if you stay alive! Lying on my bathroom floor with vomit all over me and hallucinations side by side with reality gave me a beautiful understanding that God is my only judge. From that moment of him giving me the strength to stand, get to the door for the ambulance, and be taken to the hospital; I thank Him. It was then that I knew my life doesn’t belong to anyone else’s opinions. Just mine. This is where this new sense of true self has derived from. I saw the other side and I want to finish all of my dreaming before I leave this place called Life. I want to sing. I want to love and be loved. I want to thrive! SFND MAG: Tell us a little about this book “How I Got Over… The Red Sofa”! Was it inspired from your encounter with COVID? Where can our readers find it ? BERKLEY: A friend of mine begged me to write an article for a newspaper about what my experience with Covid had been like. I was reluctant. My mom, sister and an aunt told me to do the same thing. “Journal your experiences!” I heard them say it every day. One day I just started writing my story and then I’d put it up on Facebook. Little did I know that hundreds of people were reading them and then asking for daily updates. That gave me the courage and excitement to keep writing! Eventually, I had collected enough excerpts to combine them into my book “How I Got Over; The Red Sofa.” I took the advice of Twinkie Byrd, legendary casting director, and published it on Amazon. It became a best new seller for about two weeks. I had no idea that this is how my first book would come about! Currently I’m working it into a screenplay and then I’m going to get my show on HBO! Watch and see. SFND MAG: Well Mr. Berkley things certainly seems like they have come full circle for you! What is next for you as a solo artist? BERKLEY: The circle of life is a real thing! What goes around really does come around. I believe this album and my new music is going to do very well. The music coming out of me these days is transformative and fun! I see a television show in my future and I also believe that I will land a major world tour soon. These are my goals and affirmations each day. Oh yes, I’d like Oprah and I to become friends. I have so much to share with her. I want to speak on one of her Super Soul Sundays to talk about how my life has been a miracle and hopefully inspires others to go after every dream in confidence. SFND MAG: Last question before we let you go. Can you tell us another artist you feel is So FN Dope and why? BERKLEY: One particular artist that I think you’d love to investigate is Chanel Haynes Schwartz. Let me tell you something… she inspires me! Look her up. I promise it will not disappoint you.