summertime is no time to kick back and relax for Sandra Bernhard.
The practically unstoppable out comedian, actress, singer, writer, performer and all-around bad-ass is about to release her latest album, “Whatever It Takes,” an ambitious collection of songs fusing rock ’n’ roll, world music and Bernhard’s unmistakable voice.
Bernhard said that Modern English guitarist Ted Mason, who co-wrote and produced the project, specifically wanted her to handle vocals.
“I think he had something like this in mind before he even met me,” she said. “He approached me because he wanted my input. Obviously, I have a strong political and cultural point of view, and he wanted me to be the kind of person who gave my input to complement his vision. So he gets what we have: the idea of bringing in such eclectic musicians and giving a kind of world vibe.”
And what a vibe it is. “Whatever It Takes” incorporates strings arrangements, African percussion, Algerian folk music, Rwandan dance and hymns and Brazilian samba, all to create a sound far removed for the processed and synthesized rock and pop music out there today.
Bernhard said she was pleased to be a part of such a live-sounding recording, adding she didn’t think there was anything synthesized. “[Mason] brought in great string musicians. Obviously, the sitar was live and the drums. It’s reflective of like when I do my show and how I like it to sound. I’m not into the endless hidden voices and things coming out of left field that don’t sound like a person. I’m just really tired of that whole vibe. I was much more influenced growing up by more pared-down rock and folk music and jazz, which is more organic.”
Bernhard added that she hopes she will soon get to perform with some of the talented musicians that helped record the album, as she didn’t get to work with them face to face during the making of it.
“[Mason] went into the studio without me and did the tracks,” she said. “I knew he was using these people and there was a mutual excitement that they got to work with somebody who was outspoken and different, even though I didn’t get to meet everybody. I’m sure at some point, if we get to perform this and it takes off, we’ll all get to work together in a live environment. These days nothing can ever be, until it comes out and people respond to it. You never know. I always hold the best-case scenario in my heart and my mind, so we’ll just wait and see.”
Anyone who has seen Bernhard perform at any point during the course of her more than 30 years on stage and television knows she appreciates a wide range of musical styles. Still, that didn’t prepare us for the floodgate of musical influences she recently unleashed.
“It’s very eclectic,” she said. “Growing up, I listened to everything, from Broadway musicals … when I was really little, I loved Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand. We lived in Michigan and I grew up listening to Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin on the AM radio. The whole R&B/black music scene was always a huge influence. I mean, without it we wouldn’t have music in this country. That’s just the bottom line. I was a huge fan of Carole King and Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell — all the early women of rock ’n’ roll. Of course later there was Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders, Marianne Faithful and Dusty Springfield. Burt Bacharach was a big influence on my whole life — just his lyrics and the whole bold vibe of his music. One of my brothers was a jazz aficionado so he listened to a lot of Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk, all the classic great jazz musicians. There was Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin — I could go on and on. But those were some of the early influences on my music. Of course, there was the Stones, which I loved, and The Beatles.”
The influence of the Fab Four looms large on “Whatever It Takes.”
“Ted is very influenced by The Beatles,” she said. “When he would come and play stuff for me that he went off to create musically, there was a lot of that. But I think he incorporated it in a nice way without it being too dead-on. There’s that underlying feeling of being on a journey that the Beatles beautifully created.”
“Whatever It Takes” isn’t just global in its sound. Bernhard, who is know to have a strong opinion or two ... every second of every day, said she wanted the lyrics on the album to carry a global message as well.
“We created the album in the last year of the Bush administration and we really wanted it to reflect the oppressive feeling that created, not only in America but around the world,” she said. “We perceived the world the way the world perceived us. We wanted it to be sort of a liberation, of course never dreaming that Obama would win. He wasn’t even in the eye of the storm when we put this together. It was oddly prophetic. Maybe when you put out the word musically and artistically, it draws in the right energy globally.”
She added that the messages in her lyrics are no more or less political than what she works into her comedy or one-woman shows.
“My work has always been very personal,” she said. “Whatever is going on politically and culturally, I’m one of those people who absorbs it and puts it out in my work in an interesting way. I try never to be didactic or hit people over the head with it. I think I’m a perennial and people come to me in a shamanistic sort of way depending on my take on it. We all look to artists and other musicians to interpret the times. The good ones are always able to get into the zeitgeist and make it a little more palatable to people. I hope I’m one of those artists as well.”
One thing is for sure: Bernhard has learned under some of the greats. She got her start in comedy in the late 1970s working with Paul Mooney and Richard Pryor, two godfathers of modern comedy. Bernhard said it was amazing to work with two legends, especially since one of them is still alive and at the top of his game.
“Mooney is still performing,” she said. “To me, he’s the one who takes the most risks of anybody. He’s always totally put himself out there and never bought into the system. He’s my hero. He discovered me and has been my mentor for almost 30 years. I always put Mooney at the highest place of comedy and social commentary. He wrote for everybody and he’s always been the person to study and emulate. There are other good people, but Mooney is the one who’s unheralded and deserves the most praise for continuing to be on the edge, ballsy and unrelenting.”
Bernhard said more comedians should be on the edge and not apologizing for the controversial things they say.
“It’s supposed to refract what’s going on in the culture,” she said about comedy. “It’s not always comfortable, but the world we live in is far from comfortable. The politicians have gone over the line and they’ve put the world in jeopardy. Most of them are ill-equipped to be in the position they’re in and I’m going to apologize to them? I elected them and I pay the taxes. I think when you threaten someone’s life or wish someone harm, that’s something nobody should ever wish on anybody. But when people like Bush and Cheney want to throw young kids into a useless war, somebody has got to stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right.’”
On top of readying her new album for the public, Bernhard is keeping busy this year and currently working on a few television projects.
“I have a lot of television plans,” she said. “I’ve just written a project for me, and Rip Torn to play my father. Hopefully in October we’re going to go out to L.A. and pitch it to a bunch of different networks. It’s a funny, edgy, gritty piece. People are developing things that they want me to be in, but it’s a process. Along the way there’s a lot of different steps to take. I’m constantly going up for things. Nobody gets handed too much these days. You have to audition and go in.”
Bernhard also is keeping up with 20th-anniversary performances of her popular comedy/music show, “Without You I’m Nothing,” which made its recorded debut in 1987 and its film debut in 1990. Bernhard said many of the show’s current audiences are seeing it live for the first time.
“At least 60 percent of the audience every night is someone who was too young when I first came out,” she said. “It’s hard to tell for sure. Of course, people have been able to see the film so they have some exposure to it. It’s always nice to get the next generation. I’ve freshened it up, the material that introduces it. The connectors throughout are contemporary pieces and I think the original pieces are contemporary too. Everybody can relate to it.”
New-millennium nostalgia for classic pop songs means Bernhard’s shows will have some added meaning for the audience.
“The further you get away from a time and music, you get excited because it reminds them of where they’ve been and the historical value of it,” she said. “People always appreciate it when you come back and do something. All the great singers, people want to hear their hits again and again.”
“Whatever It Takes” hits the shelves Aug. 25. For more information on Sandra Bernhard, visit www.sandrabernhard.com.