Abby Bernstein was recently recognizes as the ‘Best New Songwriter’ by The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (which has previously given rise to superstars such as Lady Gaga and John Legend). The gifted twenty-four-year-old released her sophomore album, Talk In Tongues, in August and it is already receiving rave reviews. The Huffington Post showcased her in a video performance feature and debuted her latest video for her new single “Mary’s Son”, which has already racked up over 300,000 views. If that’s not enough to convince the world that Bernstein’s star is rising, she has worked with Adam Blackstone, former bassist of The Roots and musical director (Jay-Z, Rihanna, Demi Lovato, Joe Jonas, and Maroon 5) and in 2011 she opened for Barenaked Ladies on a major tour. I got the chance to talk to the bubbly Bernstein and she warmly opened up about her musical origins, life in a small town, and inspiration for her songs.
Though she’s a fan of Colorado, Bernstein hasn't performed there yet. “I haven’t played in Denver before,” she says. “ I've been to the surrounding areas though, just to dude ranches and stuff growing up but I haven’t played there yet.” I look forward to following up with her after she gets the opportunity to do so.
Bernstein is based out of New York and absolutely adores it. “I've been here going on seven years,” she relays. “I came here for school. I went to Barnard College, it’s part of Columbia University. I graduated in 2009 and have been here ever since. I love New York and I never want to leave. Of course I like touring and going on vacation and stuff like that but I will always love New York.”
Growing up in a small town instilled a love of the outdoors in Bernstein. “Every once and a while I need to get out to feel like I’m a part of nature,” she admits. “I grew up in the country in western Massachusetts in this tiny town so it was always my dream to leave and go to the big city for school. I knew nothing was going to happen with music in a town of five thousand people with no traffic lights. It was a great place to grow up because I got to run around in the woods and roll around in dirt and do all this country stuff, but ultimately I can’t really pursue a music career out there. I still appreciate being out in the country but for now I love New York.”
Her parents are not musicians, but performing does run in Bernstein’s genes. “My parents are music appreciators but they themselves aren't gifted singers or good at playing instruments,” she reveals. “But my grandparents were classically trained pianists and actually the reason my family immigrated to America was because my great, great-grandmother was a singer at her father’s hotel and she had lost her voice. It was way before penicillin and antibiotics and so they tried all these doctors in Europe and that wasn't working so they moved over to America to find a doctor who could fix whatever was wrong with her voice. I don’t know if she ever got better, I don’t think she ever fully recovered, so a part of me feels like I’m carrying on the tradition of helping her get her voice back. She was a singer and then she sort of passed on the torch to me, though I never met her.”
Though Bernstein’s parents may not be musical themselves, they certainly contributed to her love of the art. “My parents were hippies and went to all the great shows and I was actually named after Abbey Road, except we’re Jewish so it’s A-b-b-y versus A-b-b-e-y,” she states. “I grew up listening to all of the best music. My mom had a record player and they’d listen to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and they were also really into blues and jazz like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and all of these people. I was always a creative kid and I was always singing and making up melodies.”
So when did Bernstein shift from singing at home to singing on stage? “I always liked performing in front of my family,” she shares. “I asked my parents for voice lessons but they waited until I was eight to start me. I started with this blues gospel singer. I told my parents I wanted to sing that kind of music because that’s what I’d been listening to growing up. It was funny because I was this young eight-year-old kid who grew up singing older stuff because I liked the soul of it. I kept doing jazz for a long time in a lot of music competitions and in college did the jazz band. During this whole time I’d been writing and I was a child of the 90’s so it was weird because I had a lot of different influences. On the one hand the jazz stuff is what I grew up listening to but then I also always really loved rock and perky pop music. I was a huge No Doubt fan and Weezer and stuff like that. So when I was in school I would be singing with the jazz ensemble and I’d go out to jazz clubs in New York and I would sing mostly jazz standards and then I would throw in my own original song which was like a fusion of pop and jazz.”
After performing so many songs that belonged to other people, Bernstein decided she wanted to play her own music more regularly. “Eventually I just decided that I would rather tell my own stories because I felt like I’d sung every standard in the book,” she explains. “I felt like I’d been writing a lot of my own music and I was just growing towards liking that better, telling my own story through songs. My first album has a jazzier sound but I think over time my other influences start to seep in more. Now my jazz influence comes in really only in the way that I phrase things or in timing and rhythm. I think I have departed from that but that’s the world that I came from.”
In 2010 Bernstein released her debut album. “The first album I did was with Adam Blackstone,” she describes. “He was in The Roots and he’s now the musical director for all these great bands like Maroon 5- he was actually on the first season of The Voice as a judge. It was cool to work with someone who had so much experience leading. He was a prodigy. When he was four he was playing a million instruments in his dad’s church and he’s just someone with a huge gift. So it was amazing to be able to work with someone at that level. He really introduced me to the possibilities that can happen with transforming a song. And that also inspired me to get more into producing myself."
Bernstein’s sophomore album Talk In Tongues represents a musical departure for the artist. “My goal was to create something really organic,” she relays. “Also I feel like female singer songwriters are often pigeonholed as being serious and always writing about love and always sitting in a dark room strumming a guitar. Of course everyone, regardless of gender, is going to have that song, so I’m not against writing sad songs or love songs. But I just feel like I have other things to talk about and the music that I love listening to most of the time is fun or more of an escape. I have a lot of songs on the new album, like “Drifter” which is about this drifter woman up to no good, or even “Mary’s Son” which is about sneaking around with a professor’s son. Obviously those songs aren't literal and they don’t come from my exact autobiographical experience. You don’t necessarily have to literally experience everything that you write. I think it gets to be boring as a songwriter if you’re always just writing out of your diary. It’s limiting in a way because you can only write about your own experiences.”
With Talk In Tongues, the musician wanted to show the world the fun, lighthearted side of Abby Bernstein. “Of course there are a couple of serious moments on the record but I think overall it’s really light and positive,” she beams. “When people listen to the album I want them to sing the songs back and to remember the melodies, or listen to “Mary’s Son” and think of some loser that they dated. I want people to experience it. I think the other goal was just to branch out on my own. I did it with my band and these are guys who I've worked with for years so they know me as a songwriter. A lot of the people in my band have co-written songs with me so these are road tested songs and we knew which ones were good. I felt like instead of going to a big name producer that maybe I should work with these talented people who are producers in their own right and then also co-produce it with them and get involved in that process. Another great thing about working with them, because I've known them for years, there was an immediate comfort level with them. So when we get into the studio I don’t feel like I have to perform for them. They know how the songs go and how to get the best vocals out of me.”