Carolyn Berk has grown up largely in public since her beginnings as an acoustic-based singer-songwriter more than a decade ago. Although soft-spoken, the frontwoman for the Portland, Ore.-based band Lovers hasn't been shy about documenting her desires, joys and heartaches in song since her debut album, Star Lit Sunken Ship, in 2002.
But she still doesn't think she's an expert musician. "I've always been a songwriter and not much of a player. I play simply to write the songs," Berk said on the phone last week while recovering from jet lag after a recent European tour.
Lovers, who have played Tucson several times, will return to town for a gig Sunday, Dec. 15, at Solar Culture Gallery.
In addition to documenting Berk's personal journeys, the seven Lovers albums—the most recent being this year's A Friend in the World—have traced her musical evolution.
She says that she was somewhat more naive when she began than she is now.
"For the first album, I see now that I was really innocent there. The first album was a lot about my family of origin, and since then I have met a lot more different types of people, and the music has reflected a larger view of the world. As I've gotten older, I've gotten more self-aware, and can see that each new song and each new album is part of a larger body of work.
"I guess you could say in the beginning, the work was much more introspective and self-interested, and now I look outward toward the rest of the world more."
Lovers began as a vehicle for Berk's songwriting. For the first five albums and eight or so years, the band consisted of Berk and a shifting roster of personnel. Sometimes, she played most of the instruments herself—such was the case with her remarkable 2009 album, I Am the West, which appears to track the course of one complete romantic relationship.
And although Berk still begins writing songs with simply her acoustic guitar, during her career the Lovers sound has opened up, first experimenting with chamber pop and then fully embracing elements of electronic music.
These days, Lovers feature a seamless and beguiling combination of acoustic and electronic instruments. Some critics have labeled the band as being part of the trend known as folktronica. Berk says she prefers a different term.
"In a way, electro-folk may be nicer. I think we technically fit into both genres. We are very rooted in folk music and are still big fans of folk music, but obviously the songs are oriented more in an electronic context now."
The dynamic of the band changed again in 2010, when Berk teamed with producer/sound artist Kerby Ferris (also a member of the band Lavender Mirror) and producer-percussionist Emily Kingan. The trio made the album Dark Light that year and have remained together for the new album.
Although Dark Light was an admirable attempt at melding genres, A Friend in the World is a brilliant, fully engaged, mostly electronic recording. The songs on it successfully explore a variety of styles and palettes within the realm of electronica: trance-, dream- and synth-pop.
It's no accident, either. This record shows the band achieving the goals and targets its members collectively set for themselves, Berk says.
"We consciously talked about what's influencing us and what we were loving at the time, and what feels really good to us. There's the funny thing people say about how you can only have so much conscious control over what you do in a creative setting, but we did sort of know in advance what we wanted to do with this album."
And Berk's songs have simply gotten better. An amazing lyricist, she is able to find rich poetry in every tune of A Friend in the World—from the opener "Tiger Square" through "The Modern Art Museum of the Modern Kiss Goodbye" to "James Baldwin and the Diagonal Trance."
She, however, has never studied songwriting or creative writing.
"I think I can admit that I didn't love school. Sometimes now I think I'd like it more if I could go back, appreciate it more. But at the time, the whole school thing didn't interest me."
From a young age, however, Berk noticed her own tendency toward storytelling. "As a kid I would notice myself thinking in the third person, and writing about what I was experiencing, already finding stories in the way life happened."
Meeting and collaborating with Ferris and Kingan has marked more than simply a musical partnership. Lovers are fueled, according to the band's press releases, by "sisterly love."
"It's been a really special friendship connection with both Kerby and Emily, and it has helped me in a personal growth way," she says. "I really like them both as people and as artists."
Although it might be argued that Lovers have achieved the status of indie darlings, Berk still considers the group "an underground band." An underground band with digital global reach, perhaps.
"The Internet also has changed everything, absolutely," she says. It makes it easier to book tours or make other arrangements, connect with fans and sell albums. Lovers enjoy the grass-roots connections of building and exploring community.
Lovers don't employ a manager or a booking agent—they still do it all themselves. "Of course, we have a record label that put out our last two albums, but working without some of the support systems of the music industry in some ways is limiting."
Booking your own gigs can be challenging and make things unpredictable while on tours. "Where we play varies so much, it's unbelievable," Berk says. "In Europe, we played in nightclubs for 200 people, and the next night we'd play for a handful of people in a community museum."
Ultimately, the DIY method is emotionally rewarding for Lovers, Berk says. "It's been inspiring and heartening how powerful the network of musicians and people we all work with is."