Feature Interview: Acclaimed Singer-Songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill

With Reissues of Two of Her Most Iconic Works, Berryhill Comes Full Circle

By Michelle Nati 

Singer-songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill is about to embark on a new chapter in her life. Two of her most well-known and critically acclaimed albums, Garage Orchestra and Straight Outta Marysville, are being reissued on Omnivore Recordings in August 2019. At the same time, she’s about to become an empty nester. 

Her son, Alexander, will soon head off to college, which is something Cindy Lee’s been preparing for much of this past year. “He’s going to UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering. These past few months have been all about making sure he’s on a track. I didn’t get that kind of coddling when I was growing up—we all need a little of it. 

Photo by Stevo Rood, 2018

Cindy Lee had been out of the spotlight for several years, and it was only with the release of The Adventurist (also on Omnivore) in 2017 that she returned. She had taken time off to take care of her husband, rock critic, author, and Crawdaddy founder Paul Williams, who received a traumatic brain injury while riding his bike in 1995, two years before they married. The accident led to early-onset dementia, which started to manifest in the early 2000s. By 2009, Williams was moved to an assisted living facility where he remained until his death in 2013. 

In the decade through to Williams’ final days, Cindy Lee had put her musical ambitions on hold to be his caretaker and raise Alexander. “There was a long period where I hadn’t recorded,” she said. “Making The Adventurist was a real concerted effort. It’s a focused record, and it was a way to conceptualize my feelings for my husband being ill and dying.”

Funded via Kickstarter, The Adventurist took about five years to write and otherwise pull together. It features critically acclaimed musical collaborators including Syd Straw, DJ Bonebrake of X, and David J Carpenter of Dead Rock West, among others. Two musicians, cellist Renata Bratt and percussionist Randy Hoffman, played on both Garage Orchestra and The Adventurist, further tying the two records together, physically as well as symbolically. 

Despite its darker themes and moments, The Adventurist is filled with hopeful song which honor her life, her good times with—and love of—Williams. It was through writing it and recalling their years together that she decided to rerelease Garage Orchestra, which initially came out in 1994. 

As it is with Garage Orchestra, the songs on The Adventurist aren’t straightforward, guitar-driven, rock songs. They are augmented with orchestration by way of strings, horns, and various percussion instruments including a water heater cover and a dishwasher. Without Garage Orchestra, The Adventurist would not have likely existed—at least not in the same way—nor would the two creations have been so closely intertwined. She discovered how connected they were when she was promoting The Adventurist. “I realized that Garage Orchestra was created at the beginning of mine and Paul’s relationship,” she says. “When I would talk to interviewers, I would tell them, “You have to look at these two records as bookends.'”

Cindy Lee Berryhill started her career as a member of the anti-folk movement of the 1980s, which had it roots in the punk genre of the mid-1970s and the protest movement of the decade before. “Some friends and I were part of the scene in New York. We were all scrappy, guitar playing musicians that were pretty deeply influenced by punk rock,” she said, as she referred to anti-folk peers Michelle Shocked, The Washington Squares, and a very young Beck Hansen, who later told her she was a big influence on his sound.  

Cindy Lee was first signed by Rhino and her debut record, Who’s Gonna Save The World, was released in 1987. It quickly became  a college radio staple and she and her band hit the road for a year and a half to promote it. Her sophomore effort, Naked Movie Star, produced by Lenny Kaye (of the Patti Smith group) followed in 1989. Both records were critically acclaimed, but Cindy Lee’s path was not as direct. She dropped out of sight after a tumultuous relationship and break up. She left New York and headed West to start her life over. She found inspiration in a chance meeting with Williams while on a date with someone else. 

Cindy Lee and Paul Williams were first introduced at a Bob Dylan show in Los Angeles in 1992.  They immediately clicked on both creative and romantic fronts. She says, “Paul was extremely supportive of the new vision I had for what I wanted to do with my music.”

Despite her guitar-driven, anti-folk roots, what she wanted to do with her music was create lush, orchestral arrangements, and Paul was right behind her every step of the way. “I took a leap of faith by building this thing I had been hearing in my head. I call him my ‘vision carrier’ because he so believed in my vision of being able to put Garage Orchestra together.”

Released during the height of the grunge era, Garage Orchestra was ambitious in scope with additional instrumentation from brass, strings, woodwinds, and percussion instruments. It retained its decidedly folk vive, but had Pet Sounds influenced pop sensibilities. It was critically acclaimed upon release—Rolling Stone magazine, among other outlets, gave it a four-star review. However, one entity that didn’t quite understand what she was doing was her label at the time, Cargo Music.

Cargo was a San Diego label, and—like most mid-size cities and indie labels at the time—was vying to be the next Seattle  in terms of finding the genre to resonate with the masses like grunge did. Cindy Lee’s experimental album, as lauded as it was, was sandwiched in between releases from Rocket from the Crypt and Blink 182 (then teens and known only as Blink). Cargo just didn’t know how to promote Garage Orchestra

“They (the label) used their in-house press person. He did the best he could do, but no one knew what to do with my music,” she said. “One of the guys that worked at the label once told me, ‘Wow, man! It (Garage Orchestra) sounds like Christmas music. He said that because it wasn’t grungy—Cargo was used to promoting bands with distorted guitars. I was going for a clean break, I wanted to do something different. The label wasn’t sure what to do with it.”

Garage Orchestra is now getting a second chance courtesy of Omnivore, and Cindy Lee is delighted. When The Adventurist came out, several of her friends told her that they wanted to see the album and its 1996 follow up, Straight Outta Marysvilleyes, that’s an homage to N.W.A.—reissued. Their wishes are now Omnivore’s command. “I posed the idea to (co-owner of Omnivore) Cheryl Palweski, who ended up wanting me to do Straight Outta Marysville too.” 

Photo by Henry Diltz, 1996

Straight Outta Marysville continues much in the same vein as Garage Orchestra—with its inventive pop songs and experimental instrumentation. It too, was released to critical acclaim and, as with Garage Orchestra, it suffered the same fate as its predecessor. 

This month, both releases will be out on the same day. Garage Orchestra now features its ten original tracks, with nine bonus tracks and new packaging with photos directly from Cindy Lee’s archives and new liner notes. Straight Outta Marysville has six previously unissued bonus tracks added to the original fourteen, with more unseen photos and new liner notes from Cindy Lee, as well. 

Timing is everything, and with the release of The Adventurist and the reissues, and Alexander off to college, Cindy Lee is setting her sights on music once again. “I have a few things that I’m working on now. I’ve got new songs … and I’ve written songs that were never recorded, so I’ll revisit those too,” she says. She’ll head out on the road, likely after September 2019. 

Photo by Joe Murray, 2017

If you’re interested in picking up Garage Orchestra, Straight Outta Marysville or The Adventurist, visit omnivorerecordings.com or cindyleeberryhill.com for dates of future shows, merch and more. 

All photographs are the property of Cindy Lee Berryhill and used with permission.

Michelle Nati was in the entertainment industry for several years before before becoming a writer and editor for oddities site Oddee.com. She has also written for The Farmers’ Almanac, Complex Media, Time Out, Ranker, Women.com, and is also a ghostwriter for non-fiction publisher, Best Seller Publishing. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Benny and volunteers with various animal rescue groups in her spare time.