As musicians, we yearn to create, whether it’s through composing, crafting an individual sound or flipping a beloved piece on its head to make something that’s never been heard before. We long to breathe life into new ideas and to share stories that have not yet been told. In doing so, we create something that speaks to our shared experience, something that helps make sense of our world. But sometimes our educational institutions can muddle the realm of creation and recreation, preparing students to replicate that which already exists rather than foster personal creativity.
re/CREATE, an interview series from 21CM, provides a glimpse into the minds of musicians who create sounds unique to their own voice while celebrating the artists and traditions that have most influenced them. Join 21CM and host Joe Brent each month as we celebrate some of the most innovative musicians of our day, who pay homage to the traditions they love while creating music from the heart.
In this episode, Brent interviews songwriter and performer Akie Bermiss, whose love for singer-songwriters started when he took up the piano. Joni Mitchell has been a particularly strong influence, and here Bermiss reimagines Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” as a ballad for singer and piano.
How did Joni enter your life? Do you remember your first experience?
I’m sure I don’t remember the first time I heard her. But I started doing music late – I was 18. I was going to do computer science – I was going to be the computer guy for forever. There was a lot of time in my teenage years when my parents’ record collection was in the periphery of [me] coding all day. Joni Mitchell, John Coltrane, all that stuff.
When I got to college, I started playing piano as an instrument for composing, and then I was singing. I started looking at artists who played piano and sang, and different ways of writing. So Joni became – well, “Both Sides Now” wasn’t the record that hit me. It was “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” – that weird 70s era where I was like, “This is amazing.” That made me go into this deep dive. There was probably a year where it was Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits every day.
Both of whom are songwriters I associate with simple forms, but complexity within that form.
Exactly. There’s a lot to discover. You listen again. Even [Joni Mitchell] does her songs over later, either stripped down or extremely fleshed out. You get this new understanding of the content and the subtext that was there in these songs that were such simple, elegant compositions to start with.
I loved, in your rendition, how you were able to use her way of structuring a song so that these sorts of harmonic complexities feel seamless. You’re able to make it still sound like something you yourself would have written.
For the last four or five years I’ve been trying to find a Joni tune I can bring into my set. For some tunes, she’s such an idiosyncratic singer. I can’t sing and not sound like I’m doing a Joni Mitchell impression. Or I could go a totally different avenue. This one took a couple listens. I listened to cover versions, I played with the piano. Just a lot of experimentation until [I found] a place where her original composition and my own voice meld.
And it’s a universal lyric. It’s such a striking and obvious thing, but the reduction, the concentration of that emotion is so powerful.
Are there other artists working today that you could say the same thing about?
One person I really enjoy is Emily King. She’s got the same kind of thing going on: a very particular voice, and she writes these songs that instantly speak to the listener. There’s musical complexity in there, but even as a musician you don’t instantly go, “Oh, that chord!” You just listen to the song move. And then when you go in and analyze or play along, you go, “Oh man, listen to how this scale is up against this chord progression.”
Akie, thank you. Always a pleasure.
Can’t get enough of Akie Bermiss? You can check out his latest EP, “#Basedonatruestory,” here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.