Backed by a luscious, smooth guitar, singer/songwriter Ron Bernard croons with emotion and sizzle in “It’s Impossible.” His classy and classic interpretations of the Great American Songbook on his new CD “Timeless” make for a sweet, romantic experience. Unique phrasing and expert of the light touch, Bernard has an approach not only informed by his emotional IQ but a professional linguist’s understanding of communication (he is a Doctor of Applied Linguistics).
When did you realize you wanted to be a singer?
I always knew I had an artistic vein. Writing, acting, singing, dancing or simply walking down the street.
Having been raised in what could be termed a disadvantaged background by illiterate parents, I don’t have any cute family stories about playing any instrument. Food was scarce. Hunger was a frequent companion.
My cute story would be about pretending to be eating chicken when in fact it was frogs’ legs. But I do remember an old radio. I don’t quite remember the particulars of its origins.
I listened the likes of Billie Holiday, Shirley Bassey, Georgia Brown (aka Lily Klot), Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis and Joni Mitchell among others. Chaka Khan’s rendition of “Got to Be There” would shoot me to the sky then, and still does today. I knew from the very start I had something to be developed.
I knew I had something to communicate through my voice from the very beginning. I don’t remember anything I wanted to do in my childhood other than sing and be left alone; perhaps with my dreams. The dreams I was not allowed to share. And I was too young to have a plan. So I dreamed.
What was your first public performance like?
It was in fifth grade in a reading class. There was a passage about some folklore account of an explorer’s expedition. No one knew it had been originally a shanty, similar to “Shenandoah” which has developed several different sets of lyrics. I volunteered to sing it and from the second line onward I knew I had an audience.
What was the most useful element of your formal music education?
My classical studies at the music conservatoires and performing in church choirs complemented each other. Having degrees in liberal arts gives me a different perspective, even to understand the people I perform to. There is so much in history and literature that can only add to one’s knowledge on how to deliver a song.
What is the most valuable thing you have learned through experience about the music industry?
Music has evolved and is evolving with new technologies, and one needs to learn how to make it work for her/himself.
What do you appreciate the most about the Great American Songbook – the sentiments in the lyrics or the melodies?
The simple answer is BOTH. In some cases, the lyrics are complemented by the melody and vice versa. And of course, there are cases in which both the melody and lyrics stand on their own.
Having had the education to sing in various languages, understanding not only the semantics of it all, but just as importantly, perceiving the contrasts of sound colors from one language to the other, puts the singer in the position to view the melody from a different perspective.
For instance, my rendition of “Te Llevo Bajo Mi Piel” (the Spanish version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”) required me to re-imagine the song in terms of its feel, which I then went back and applied to my rendition of the original in English. It required me to think how the two languages and their respective cultures would absorb the melody and deliver the words. It becomes a school.
Another example is the song “Black Orpheus,” which I have recorded in five languages. The French and Portuguese versions are here on the album “Timeless.” And so is the Spanish version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
How would you characterize your voice and what you infuse into each song?
I take a Truman Capote and a William Wordsworth’s approach to my writing and singing. I know it may sound funny, but it works for me: I do not do it for myself. I do it for the listener. I try as much as possible to get closer to my listener without imposing on them or making them uncomfortable. No trespassing.
My job as a singer-songwriter is to produce something that penetrates easily and comfortably into the listener’s ears, and trigger something from within.
The crucial part is to be able to make myself understood, even if I am singing in a language unknown to the listeners. The pathos, the colors infused into each vowel, the stresses of each note, the hesitations… the complete interpretation of the piece seems to be clearly perceived by the listener.
I have been told on numerous occasions that I caress their soul and that even though they do not speak English, they are able to understand me.
This brings to mind the song “It’s Impossible,” also on “Timeless” and originally “Somos Novios” in Spanish. During the recording of it, even though the engineers did not speak Spanish, both of them expressed their preference for the Spanish version after I recorded both versions. One of them said the vowels are deeper and the intensity of the sounds was more attractive. There was a sense of closeness. I am not sure. Each song here (the English and Spanish versions) is a different experience, though they are the very same melody, only different languages.
How have your doctorate studies in linguistics informed your music career?
Any education is bound to have a positive impact. Ignorance is the culprit all the time. The higher the level of education one achieves, the more aware one is of other possibilities; meaning, the exploration of new ways of doing things.
Let’s take, for instance, the construction and deconstruction of a line or a sentence, where syntax is bound to help semantics and vice-versa. Bring this knowledge to the context of a song. One should then be able to see how the words have different weights hierarchically in the construction of the meaning of a song. To make it even more interesting, observe how Johnny Mathis or Perry Como sing that line. Or simply compare a female to a male rendition of that line. Then find your own.
One might wonder what this baloney is all about since the listeners are not likely to be aware of all this. But I assure that the listeners are able to perceive a good rendition. Otherwise, South Carolina would not celebrate Eartha Kitt Day on January 17th.
Do you feel that music is its own language, literally speaking?
Yes, I do.
I think a rhythm, a melody, a beat on its own is a language. It makes you do things, it makes you think, it makes you move, it makes you cry, it makes you smile. Therefore, communication is taking place.
Major and minor chords have different colors and moods that can affect someone in different ways. As Cole Porter wrote, “But how strange the change from major to minor.”
I see music as a universal element, that in conjunction with language and the culture attached to each language, creates a whole. My followers often tell me how my rendition of a song has communicated to them without understanding the language.
Who are your favorite collaborators?
I don’t really have a favorite collaborator. I appreciate all people I have worked with, most especially their willingness to let me bend the melody and create something that has my fingerprint on it.
Now, if you mean songwriters at large, Cole Porter is a favorite; and Rodgers and Hart, Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht, the Gershwin brothers, etc.
Prefer a small and intimate club or a large festival or concert hall?
I don’t envision myself in front of an audience where I can’t look in their faces as I perform. I would prefer a small and intimate venue, perhaps a theater, where people go to enjoy the artist and his act.
I would happily do large festivals and concert halls. I just think that the repertoire would have to be tailored for the two different occasions. For instance, the tracks on my album “Timeless” would most definitely suit a small venue. However, for a larger venue I would choose more upbeat songs.
Your upcoming CD: what it’s all about?
I believe “Timeless” is timeless in the sense that the songs and themes are ageless and very current, as romance lives on in everyone, in one form or another. Love will always be the answer.
Also the fact that the songs in the album have been interpreted by the giants of the greatest era for singers like Johnny Mathis, Shirley Bassey and Perry Como, among others.
But given the current trend in music, I see “Timeless” as a soothing antidote to the heart and soul, a trigger to daydreaming, putting the mundane worries to one side. I am a romantic, charmed by delicate sounds and loving words, and very passionate about languages. And this album came about from a longing to create music that communicates the intangible to the soul, a touch I hope my listeners will feel when they savor each note and each word, even if in a language unknown to them.
A feeling of tranquillity during the turbulent crises the world has been going through, bringing freshness to the emotions, and repose.
Favorite tracks on the album?
I’d say “It’s impossible.” I have also recorded the original in Spanish, which I will release at some point as a single. I find shelter for my emotions in this song. But that can be said for all songs in the album, and especially how the five songs are somehow connected by the common theme of romance and love.
Having said that, I am incredibly proud of my original “It’s Not Over.” I believe both melody and lyrics keep with the theme and complement the album as a whole.
Plans for the rest of 2018 to expand your reach?
My focus is on the releases of EPs and singles. I’ve been working with musicians from different parts of the world and building a catalogue. I like to be accompanied by trios, which is good because this is what I can afford at the moment. But I am also working with solo musicians, where I am accompanied only by piano or guitar. The plan is to take my music to a broader audience.
I am working on another release, a project of piano and vocals only, that is, again, romantic and very intimate. I am hoping to communicate the depth and intimacy of the songs to my listeners. I have had the pleasure to collaborate with musicians around the world, as the four pianists accompanying me in this project are from New York City, Venezuela, Barcelona, and Kiev. I am looking forward to this release.
After that release, I will start planning a tour of Europe for late 2019.
Most challenging part about being an artist today?
To make a living out of my own art. To make a living out of my singing and writing. In short, to make a living! Music is undervalued in this day of streaming.
Technology that has brought the evil of streaming has also given us the ability to reach audiences globally, to allow musicians to collaborate globally. I have collaborated with musicians in Rio de Janeiro, Venezuela, New York City, Barcelona, and Kiev. Likewise, I have had the benefit of using sound engineers in Rio for mixing and mastering. And I’ve communicated with supporters from across the globe: Santiago, Toronto, New York, Edinburgh, Lisbon, Bucharest, Istanbul and St. Petersburg.
However, while technology has brought down barriers to making and publishing music, it has also resulted in a flood of very mediocre music that would not have seen the light of day. The competition for audience and venues is stiff. Where are the music police!
Most important piece of advice you would impart to up-and-comers?
Learn your craft well and bring your passion and your own voice to it. However, it’s up to you to make it happen. Have a Plan B.
Music may be an important part of your life but it may not keep body and soul together. I don’t recommend going hungry!
For more information, visit www.ronbernard.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Ron Bernard.
© Debbie Burke 2018