It’s hot as hell in much of the United States, with temperatures rising as high as 128 degrees in Death Valley. Most of the country is in its fifth month of COVID-19 quarantine. Businesses are shuttering left and right, and beaches are left empty, with nary a sun-soaked child in sight. Enter Z Berg’s first full-length solo album Get Z to a Nunnery, a twisted journey into a dark, cold Russian tundra. The album artwork features LA native Z Berg holding herself, fur pulled up around her face, hair pinned up like a character straight out of Doctor Zhivago, eyes staring straight at the camera as if to say, “What did you expect?”
The album has been ten years in the making, a thematic and sonic shift from Berg’s earlier work with bands The Like, JJAMZ, and Phases. It’s a deeply personal record, documenting a decade of “hedonism, drugs, eating disorders, blacking out and cheating on your boyfriend” says Berg. It falls in line with Berg’s historic willingness to experiment; with each musical project, she’s donned an alternate persona, easily transitioning from garage rock girl group (The Like) to new wave pop darling (Phases). All the incarnations have been pure Z, with the accompanying videos increasingly plotted out and designed by the singer herself. It’s why the path to Get Z to a Nunnery feels linear, despite careening valleys and close-calls along the way.
Z Berg spoke to us from her parents’ home, where she’s been quarantining for the last five months. She has quite a sense of humor about the last bit of history we’ve all been living. “I was really into quar for the first two months,” she says with an ominous chuckle. “I’ve had a lifelong obsession/fear of plagues. I’ve been waiting for this moment since I was a child.” She describes her childhood as an education in classic rock; as the daughter of former Geffen Records A&R rep/record producer Tony Berg, Z’s backyard held a music studio where X, Squeeze, and Johnny Rotten regularly recorded. “Music was not a rebellion against my parents,” Berg says, describing the mixtapes her dad made her as a kid: Why Dylan Is Dylan, Why the Stones are the Stones, Why Bowie is Bowie, and so on.
It was a different set of mixtapes altogether that influenced The Like’s first album. Berg’s first boyfriend introduced her to My Bloody Valentine, The Sundays, and other “shoe-gazey music” that helped Berg define The Like’s style. The band was fresh, remarkably poised and confident despite their young ages: Berg was just 15 at the time, as was Charlotte Froom (bass/vocals); drummer Tennessee Thomas was 16. “The press narrative was that we were these three little fucking daddy’s girls and we were too pretty to be playing music,” Berg remembers. “A lot of inherently sexist narratives that surrounded us were really hurtful – and made people not trust us.” Behind the scenes, though, the bandmates held the reigns on both music and aesthetic, casting their music video directors, curating costume pieces, and ultimately laying the foundation for Berg’s solo work.
Berg wrote “Calm Before the Storm,” the oldest song on Get Z to a Nunnery, when she was twenty; around that time, her Phases bandmate (and drummer for Bright Eyes) Jason Boesel introduced her to Conor Oberst; Berg ended up singing on Bright Eyes’ 2007 record Cassadaga, which also featured Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. Berg described the group hosting parties that also acted as song circles, which Berg saw as something of a challenge; she remembers thinking “I have to go to a party and play a song that is self-contained and impress these motherfuckers.”
“Time Flies,” a single Berg released in 2018, seems to commemorate this time period and its ensuing creative burst. “To dance around in just our bones/We stopped our hearts, we sold our souls/We didn’t fear the things we didn’t know/But love, not sin, destroys Eden/If I knew now what I knew then/I’d do it just the same, I’d fall again,” Berg sings sweetly. Though it’s laced with bittersweet nostalgia, the album emerges happily in the present, where Berg continues to take full advantage of the connections she’s made. The album features a Who’s Who list of Los Angeles talent, including Ryan Ross (Panic at the Disco, The Young Veins), Phoebe Bridgers, and Blake Mills. Even with multiple featured guests, it remains a cohesive album. It’s remarkable that, despite the time warp, with featured musicians popping in and out, the album feels whole. It’s a testament to Berg’s continued growth as a musician that while the pieces floated, she was always putting them together in her mind.
Nico’s Chelsea Girl, with its moody strings and melancholy outlook, was a huge inspiration, as was Berg’s favorite Russian author, Dostoevsky. With such seemingly disparate reference points, the music doesn’t evoke a specific era; at times it feels like it popped onto Spotify from an alternative universe where women still dress in high-necked black ballgowns, their skirts making angels in the frosty snow.
Berg is the first to admit that she grew up fast, which likely contributed to the album’s blurry-around-the-edges feel. “My memory is truly terrible. I just don’t remember anything that happens in my life,” she says. “Trapping these memories in songs is the only way that I can keep a hold on things that have happened in my life. And I conveniently get to write them being much more beautiful than they actually were.” Ghostly kaleidoloop samples, sentimental strings and pristine piano render her gauzy recollections in surprisingly refined baroque-pop brushstrokes, but somehow, it isn’t hard to imagine synth-heavy remixed versions, either.
Berg is already hard at work on a new album and is pretty confident she’ll release it before the end of the year. In the meantime, she compiled a visual component for Get Z to a Nunnery using clips from films that are out of copyright, adding yet another cinematic layer to the project. Summer 2020 might seem like an odd time of year to drop this album – its penultimate track is even a Christmas song. But to Berg, the timing couldn’t have mattered less, given the state of the world. “We have become so untethered from time in any traditional sense; it feels like we have come unglued. The elasticity of time this year is just staggering,” she says. “I pushed [the album release] back a couple times for various reasons – it was supposed to come out much earlier. And then I just kind of realized: If it comes out in summer who cares? Summer doesn’t exist. None of this is real anymore. And everything feels like a hundred years of everlasting winter so let’s just give it a go!”
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