Iowa-born singer-songwriter Dan Bern recently returned to Iowa to visit his mother and ended up sticking around to lend his talents to flood-relief benefits in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Little Village caught up with Bern to talk about place.
Little Village: How would you describe your experience growing up in Mount Vernon, Iowa?
Dan Bern: Well, looking back, there was a lot of time and space to kind of hack around and try lots of things. Not a lot of pressure to find one track and follow it. Mount Vernon is a small town and the school was small. You were pretty free to do a lot of things and begin finding out who you are.
LV: Did anything specific to Iowa influence your musical interests and taste?
DB: I guess probably KUNI. In the afternoons they’d play stuff that wasn’t country or hit radio, anything from Woody Guthrie to Greg Brown. So that opened up some horizons.
LV: When did you leave Iowa, and was your decision to move away made in order to pursue music?
DB: Well, I left after high school, went up to Wisconsin for college and after that I went to Chicago, started playing on the streets, open mikes every night, etc. So I guess so.
LV: Do you think living elsewhere has somehow helped you know Iowa better?
DB: In some ways; don’t you always have to go away to get some different perspective on a place? On the other hand, I don’t really feel I know Iowa terribly well. I know Mount Vernon and Cedar Rapids, and Iowa City a little bit, but not a whole lot else. I went to tennis camp in Decorah, and I got my first speeding ticket in Ottumwa. But I don’t think I could tell you where Muscatine is.
LV: What other places have you called home, and could you talk a little about each place?
DB: I lived in Chicago for about five years, then I headed to Los Angeles, where I lived a couple different times for quite a few years. I’ve lived longer in L.A. than anyplace else and am gonna do another stint pretty soon. Then I lived mostly on the road for some years, and a year or so in New York. And for the past six years I’ve lived in a small town in New Mexico, which has felt a lot like Mount Vernon in many ways. Lots of time and space. Chicago and L.A. were, for me, about seeing and hearing lots of different things, meeting creative people, writing lots of songs and trying to make a living.
LV: You’ve lived in New Mexico for about six years now. Why the move to the southwest, and how has it influenced your life and art?
DB: Well, it’s been a great place. Great weather and people, healing hot springs… you gotta go to the desert at some point in your life, right? Great place to paint, write, get healthy.
LV: Would you consider yourself an “Iowa” singer-songwriter or a musician of any other place? What do you think such a label means, if anything?
DB: Well…how about “Iowa-born”? That’s one thing that’ll never change, where you were born. I imagine being from Iowa gives you a certain sense of some things… maybe it’s not rushing around all the time, taking a moment to sit on a curb in the sun. No matter where I go, I know where I’m from. I’m glad I’m from where I am.
LV: Does returning to Iowa feel like coming home, and do you notice any changes (for better or worse) in the state?
DB: It does feel like home, in ways that surprise me. The way the grass feels when you’re barefoot. Lately I’ve spent the most time here in the summer, but the fall was always my favorite time in the Midwest, so maybe I can come around for more of that, too. Doing this show “Moving Home” in Cedar Rapids, I’ve gotten to know a whole crop of really creative folks in a very short time, and it’s been great. The flood is of course the biggest change, and it’ll be interesting (and obviously a challenge) to see what changes are wrought over the next few years.
LV: Having lived in several different places, and with countless miles of touring behind you, do you feel settled?
DB: Naw! Not at all. But I guess that’s just me.