Voice Notes: How Matt Berninger developed his brooding baritone
Voice Notes is a new column where we ask artists how they developed their vocal approach.
An open-mic night in San Francisco in 1995 sealed Matt Berninger’s fate. The National singer, then midway through a graphic design internship, had never sung in front of a crowd. But with future bandmate Scott Devendorf on guitar, he belted out Irene Cara’s “Flashdance... What a Feeling.”
“At the end of it, I leaned my head back and poured a glass of water over my face like I was in Flashdance. It was so stupid,” recalls Berninger, 49, laughing. Those familiar with the National’s brand of brooding, ornate indie rock might see the through line. Over the past 19 years, Berninger’s theatrics have become a staple of the band’s live show, much the same way his emotionally wrought lyrics and hypnotic baritone have become a calling card for their music.
This month, the singer will add another branch to his band’s growing tree of side projects with the release of his forthcoming solo debut, Serpentine Prison, a sparkling and introspective collection of songs producer by the legendary Booker T. Jones and filled out by a laundry list of current and former National associates. Though Berninger claims he never set out to make a solo project, Serpentine Prison (out Oct. 16) plays out like a logical next step for a frontman who’s spent the past five years in full collaboration mode.
“I felt like I had just made three massive concept albums,” says Berninger, “so this collection of stuff has no concept. It’s just me writing. I’m sure there is some connective tissue, but if someone asks me what the theme of the record is, I think it’s just being burned out.”
It’s a fitting premise for our times — and for a singer who, nearly two decades into his career, admits he’s only recently gotten comfortable performing. Reflecting back, Berninger tells the story of his road to rock & roll stardom more like a tale of music fandom, propelled by a string of happy accidents and chance encounters that began back when he was an altar boy in his hometown of Cincinnati.
“I went to church a lot and sang bad Catholic pop songs — ‘And he will bare you on the breath of dawn,’ that kind of stuff,” says Berninger. “There were all these singers around me, and I wasn't a very good singer, but I sang anyway.”
Berninger credits his older sister with first introducing him to music beyond his parents’ small record collection – bands like the Smiths, U2, Thompson Twins, and A-ha. “I remember hearing Violent Femmes and thinking they sounded like a bunch of guys drunk somewhere behind their parent's house, singing these weird, f--ked up songs about sex and drinking. It was amazing," he says. "But I didn't actually consider singing for any kind of purpose — other than singing along to records — until I was late in college.”
After a brief stint as a pre-med student at Miami University in Ohio, Berninger began studying design at the University of Cincinnati, where he met Devendorf and longtime National collaborator Mike Brewer, who together infiltrated the local music scene. “We were seeing tons of shows,” Berninger recalls, “driving to Dayton to see the Breeders and Guided By Voices and Braniac and Afghan Whigs and Tiger Lilies. Our band Nancy really didn't start until the end of that five-year period, but we became best friends during that time, and Mike and Scott were the ones who really pushed me to sing.”
Post-graduation, Berninger and Devendorf moved to New York to take design jobs and quickly found themselves in the middle of a burgeoning rock scene. “I worked just up the street from the Mercury Lounge,” Berninger says. “There was this triangle of venues so we’d leave work and go out to shows, seeing the Strokes and Interpol and TV on the Radio and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.” The National formed not long after, with Devendorf’s brother Bryan, and twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner rounding out the lineup.
In those early days, Berninger remembers the band’s drive to get better being fueled, at least in part, by the groups breaking out around them. “We were hungry for all of it,” he says. “Interpol practiced next to us and we would hear them and just say, ‘Holy s--t those guys are good.’” Still, he says, he never really compared himself to his peers as a singer. “When you’re trying to ride a bike you’re not looking at the other guys riding bikes – you’re just trying not to hit a tree.”
As the National's fanbase grew, Berninger's intensity as a performer started gaining traction. “When I was on stage I used to mumble, but that was sort of the character. I was clenched up, smoking a cigarette in one hand and holding a glass of wine in the other. I couldn’t open my eyes. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. Everything was tight and contained, even the melodies, because the singing was reflecting the way I was feeling."
Over time, though, Berninger says he began “climbing around more on the melody branches,” fueled in part by studying artists he’d long admired, like Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits. “It’s only been in the past five or six years that I’ve started to pay attention, to cover more songs, and to try to figure out ways to use my voice,” he says. “Melody, just like every instrument, is an emotional thing. I don’t think of it as a technical thing.”
As a vocalist with no formal musical training, it’s an axiom that seems to have followed Berninger through his career, whether in his creative partnerships with writing partner and wife Carin Besser, his bandmates, his fellow musicians, or his fans. “It takes a long time to feel at home in anything you do, but I do feel at home on stage now,” he says. “I think it’s a weird combination of becoming a better singer, having more confidence in my art, and starting to open my eyes more. Looking out and seeing how people are just their sloppy selves crying to the s--t I wrote when I was being my sloppy self, I’m like, ‘Hey, why am I worried about doing this right?’"