By all rights, Z Berg should have a much higher profile than she does. She worked with Mark Ronson. She’s extremely well connected (she’s besties with Phantom Planet singer Alex Greenwald). Hell, she even had nepotism on her side (her father is producer Tony Berg). Combine that with her songwriting chops and drop-dead gorgeousness, the fact that she hasn’t caught a break yet is baffling.

Then again, even Z will admit that she’s never quite been with the times. Release Me, the Ronson-produced second album from her band the Like, is a straight-up ‘60s girl group record. For Life, the album she recorded with Greenwald and friends under the name Phases, is super-catchy synth pop with a strong ‘80s bend to it. And for her solo debut, Get Z to a Nunnery, she’s made…a chamber pop record, drenched with strings and designed for afternoons indoors during a blizzard. Which she’s releasing in July.

Popdose did a Zoom chat with Berg to discuss the new record, and Berg proceeded to drop references like a Gen Xer (or even a Boomer) trapped in the body of a Millennial. And then there’s the reveal about who’s in her grandparents’ home movies.

Good morning.

Good morning, indeed. One of the charming side effects of this new reality we live in is that my body no longer understands time.

Time doesn’t matter anymore.

It’s so crazy, though, because I’ll wake up at like eight o’clock in the morning, do a full day of work, and then I’ll be up until seven o’clock the next morning for no reason. And then I’ll sleep until 2 PM and then it’s just like, you never know what you’re going to get. So…

I gotta tell you, I haven’t been this well rested in years. I feel great.

[Laughs] Oh, man. Are you working entirely from home?

Yeah.

And where are you?

I’m in Columbus, Ohio.

Have you been outside? Is it still…there? Is anything still there?

It is still there. And sadly, I seem to be encountering more and more people who just decided that they were bored with [the Covid-19 pandemic] and it’s over.

Oh, man. Yeah. I can’t, I’ve been really heavy quarantining for like four and a half months. I still have only left the house a few times.

I go to the grocery store. And I actually gave blood today. That’s probably the most outdoorsy thing I’ve done in three months.

I used to go on evening runs where I’ll run through the night, avoiding people. It’s like a human Frogger game.

Before I start, I have to tell you a story. My daughter, she’s about two at the time  — she’s 11 now – and we’re sitting at dinner, and she said she wanted to hear the Chicken Change Song, and my wife and I are looking at each other going, “What on earth is she talking about?” And then about 30 seconds later, it hit me that she was talking about [the Like’s song] “He’s Not a Boy.”

Oh, my god.

(Singing) “He’s not a boy that chicken change.” And from then on, it’s been the Chicken Change Song. I still don’t think they know the [song’s actual] title.

It’s officially called the Chicken Change Song [now]. No one can change my mind. That is so cute it hurts my heart. It’s so perfect. [Laughs]

I’ve actually got a video of her at that age singing it. I should go find it, send it to your publicist.

Please do. Send it to me, I wanna see that. That’s wonderful. Chicken change. He’s not a boy that chicken change!

What a two-year-old thing to say.

Yeah, it’s just perfect. God, that’s funny.

The first time I saw you, you were 20 years old and opening for Muse, which for most people would probably have been a really big deal but you had already been recording for five years at that point.

I’ve done everything backwards, you know? Like, I’ve done all of the crazy things no one ever gets to do first, and then, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been like, I need to learn how to, like, cook, or drive. I didn’t learn how to drive until I was 25 years old. [Laughs]

In Ohio, you kind of have to learn pretty quickly, or you’re not going to get anywhere.

Well, I’m from L.A., so it’s exactly the same. But somehow I just managed to convince everyone to cart me around.

The new record’s gorgeous, and it’s one of those things that reminds me that I still haven’t heard enough music, because it’s a genre that I’m not well steeped in. And it’s also such a radical departure from what you’ve done before. I was wondering what inspired the shift.

 

You know what’s funny is my records, if you listen to each one of them in a row in chronological order, you’re like, “What on earth, young lady?” [Laughs] But there’s very much a through line of my perspective and my songwriting, but sonically, it is really all over the place. But this record is the [closest] to the music that I have always loved and always listened to. The records that really inspired this, like Chelsea Girl by Nico. I assume you’re familiar with that.

I know of Nico, but I haven’t listened to a ton of her.

I’m gonna make you a playlist after this. [Laughs]

I would love that.

But that Nico record, you know, so after the after the Velvet Underground stuff, she made this solo record, and it It’s just electric guitar, finger picking, and these remarkable string charts. And an amazing side note about that, actually, is that she made the record, and the producers put the strings and the woodwinds on it without her permission. And when she heard it, she sobbed, and didn’t want to put the record out. But she was fucking wrong. It’s a masterpiece. [Laughs] And she never forgave them, but it’s the most… you’ve probably heard “These Days,” the Nico song. It’s in so many movies. [Sings] “I’ve been out walking. I don’t do too much talking these days…”

Sure.

It’s in Wes Anderson movies and shit. And I remember hearing that when I was 10 years old, and I just was like, “Well, this is music, and there is no other music, and this is the only music that matters.” [Laughs] And [there were] a lot of things that I grew up grew up listening to and I’ve never really had the occasion to make this genre, because I’ve always been in a band, and the other part of it, too, is that I’ve been in a band since I was 15 years old, and I’ve always written music for a band. And when I started writing this record was actually…I sang on the Bright Eyes record Cassadaga, and during that time, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings were opening up for Bright Eyes, and my drummer and I came out, we met them all on tour, and it created this really beautiful moment in time where we would have these parties that were just song circle parties. Everyone there was a really gifted writer and these really interesting people. And we would just, you know, sit around and everyone would play a song in a circle, and we had like an eclipse fam once. We’d go around the circle, and then go outside and see what the moon is doing, and go around the circle again.

Nice.

And because of that, it was the first time I ever had to consider writing a song that I could just play alone, utterly self-contained to try and impress these brilliant songwriters that I was so enamored of, and so looked up to. And that was kind of the genesis of these songs coming into existence. I just had to have a song that I could sit and play a circle with a bunch of musicians, and have no band, and make it work. So 10 years ago, I started writing these songs. These songs basically expand my entire twenties.

I knew that some of these had come out in previous years, but I didn’t know it stretched that long.

Yeah, demos have come out of certain things, but the earliest song on this record, I wrote when I was 20, “Calm Before the Storm.” And then the latest one, I think, probably “Time Flies,” I wrote a couple of years ago. So it’s interesting, it spans a decade of my life. Which is a trip.

If I worked at your label, I would be sending this record to every single soundtrack supervisor. I could find, because I know someone somewhere is cutting a scene and one of your songs is perfect for it.

I appreciate that. Yeah, that’s the thing we gotta to get on right now, because, you know, I, I’ve kind of said while I was making this record that it I want it to – and I think it does – feel like the soundtrack to the movie that never existed. And I’m I am so influenced by great scores by great composers like Andre Previn and Angelo Badalamenti, more so than by whatever the hell it is that my peers are listening to. [Laughs] I’m like, “I know what the kids like: Andre Previn and Shakespeare puns.” I’m so sorry.

The one thing that stood out to me on the record were your vocals, because I feel like you took a much different approach than you normally do. It seems a lot more pensive, restrained. Is that fair to say?

Um, I think so. Yeah, I mean, yeah, I mean, I’ve been joking that this record is like ASMR pocket symphonies. [Laughs] There really is a real closeness to it. And there are moments that are sort of sweeping but the intention of this is to be very personal, and to be very raw, and it’s funny, my voice does have quite a range, and I’m sure it’s funny when you hear me speak. Listen to Release Me by the Like where I sound like Michael Jackson or Diana Ross. It’s all so high, like a little cartoon, and then you hear me talk, and it is, [deepens voice] “Hello. It is us, the Like. 1-2-3-4 [much higher pitch] Eeeeeee!” [Laughs] But, yeah, I think it’s a lifelong journey to, I don’t know, to see both what your voice can do and what your voice actually is. And I feel like this is the closest approximation to me of what my voice really is. And also, if this is what my speaking voice sounds like now, can you imagine what I’m going to sound like in 15 years? Like Cathy Moriarty, it’s really going to be wild. [Laughs] Or like Marianne Faithfull now.

Apparently Michael Jackson’s speaking voice was low, too.

Oh yeah, I’ve heard that. Yeah, it’s interesting. I think that this singing on my record feels the closest to my voice, you know, in real life, that it has ever been before, but I think also it is a pensive record. It is a record of great loss and existential dread. And I think, you know, the performances rather reflect that.

I hope it’s all right to say this, but “Into the Night” had me thinking of “Mary Poppins.”

You know what, that is so funny. My ex-boyfriend said the same thing. And he would mercilessly mock me about it.

It’s not a putdown.

I mean, only just because you know if you’re in a relationship, you must constantly mock each other. {Pause] Or if you’re in a relationship with me. [Laughs] Earnestness is the devil in my house.

There’s the pull quote, right there.

[Laughs] There’s a lot of this record that, I listened to it, and I’m like, “Am I writing a musical? Who writes like this?” Yeah, there’s shit where I’m like, “Are you writing something from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’? [Laughs] Who is this record for?” But yeah, I think there is a bit of that where it’s this kind of strange, sometimes dramatic, but small neoclassical thing. It’s definitely a strange one.

I was reading the description of the new single (“To Forget You”) and you were talking about trying to write a song in the moment, as opposed to after the fact, and you had me thinking about something I’ve never thought to ask anyone before, which is: have you ever written a song simply to purge some dark or toxic emotion out of your system, with no intention of revisiting it ever again?

That’s a good question. You know, I don’t think so. [Pauses] I’ve written some angry, toxic songs, but I don’t really get angry. It’s a very difficult thing when you’re in a relationship with me, because the angrier you get, the calmer I get. And I sort of turn on my NPR voice. I’m like, [super smooth tone] “Well, I’m sorry that you feel that way. We have to have a real discussion about it.” And then they’re like, “I hope you die.” [Laughs] It’s really bad, yeah. But I generally go straight from something hurting me to just being in pain and sadness, instead of the step of anger. So there are very few moments where I’m sitting and I’m writing and I’m just like, “Fuck you, guy!” [Laughs] And maybe it’s my arrogance, or maybe I just am attached to all my all my song babies, but I never really write something and then go, “You’re cast out.” I’m sort of like, “I love you, my little child. I must nurture you.”

That’s what made me think of it. I can’t imagine putting that much effort into writing and recording something and then just being done with it, but I’ve heard interviews with people like k.d. lang and Natalie Merchant, and they’ve talked about how the drive that was behind the entire Ingenue album for k.d., or certain songs like “Hateful Hate” from Natalie Merchant, they’re like, “I just don’t feel that anymore.”

Hmm. For me, I have such a bad memory, like a crazy bad memory. I remember about 9% of my life. This has actually been a funny feature of quarantine, is that people keep popping up and reminding me of these crazy things that happened with me involved. And I’ll be like, “I remember that now.” And it’s fun, because it was like these are memories that are like the wildest things they’ve ever done. For me, it was a Wednesday. [Laughs] My songs, I think, are, are the only things that keep me grounded in my memories. I listen to any of these songs, and I can be right back there and doesn’t matter if I feel that way. Or if I’ll ever feel that way again. But for a moment, I can just step right back into it, and remember that place in my life. And I think that’s been this invaluable resource for me, to just be able to exist as a human being when I can’t remember what I did yesterday.

I can’t imagine what it must like to be a person who has a great memory. What’s funny is that my memory for fiction is incredible. I do a really great TV series recap. And my facial recognition for anything on a screen, like I’ll be watching a TV show, I’ll see an extra in the background. It’d be like, “Oh, he was in episode two, season 14 of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’.” [My friends] will be like, “But you can’t remember my mother, that I’ve introduced you to 17 times? Like, really, is this where your brain power is going?” And the problem is, yes, this is where the brain power’s going. It’s all going to fiction.

There’s actually there’s a great book called “House of Sleep” by a writer named Jonathan Coe. I don’t know if you’ve ever read his writing, but he’s a wonderful, wonderful English writer that is super underrated. And there’s a character in it that that has that exact same affliction, where his memory for anything in real life is just nonexistent, but his memory or anything on the screen is photographic. It was the first time I’d ever seen that as a concept, and thought, wow, I guess other people suffer from this, what an interesting thing that is. And again, I only remember this, because it was in a fucking book. [Laughs]

I just read “Miracle Workers” by Simon Rich. That was fun.

The reading and quarantine has been such an interesting thing, because I spent the first month I finished every Murakami book that I hadn’t read, which is only, like, four or five left. [Note: we’re assuming she’s referring to Haruki Murakami.], and then I was completely illiterate for a month, and then I’ll hop back on the wagon. I can’t really make any sense of it; I just kind of have to go with it.

How did you cross paths with Ryan Ross? [Note: Ross is the former guitarist and songwriter for Panic! At the Disco. He duets with Berg on the Christmas ballad “The Bad List.”]

I met Ryan because Phantom Planet was on tour with Panic! At the Disco many, many years ago, right before the Panic split [Note: Ross and bassist Jon Walker left the band in 2009, reducing the band to a duo.] And Alex (Greenwald, Phantom Planet’s lead singer) has been one of my best friends. I met Alex when I was 13. My first show ever was opening for Phantom Planet, like their fan club show. Just so cute.

That’s adorable.

It’s truly adorable, and our first tour ever was with Phantom Planet too, so he’s been a big part of my life for a long, long time. Alex played bass on Release Me, the Like record.

I just read that.

Our original bass player (Charlotte Froom, daughter of producer Mitchell Froom) quit the week before we went to make that record, and so Alex just got on the plane with me and is like, “Babe, I gotcha.” [Laughs] And he’s such a fucking good bass player. He’s such a good musician. If you haven’t listened to the new Phantom Planet record, it’s really spectacular. It just came out [June 18]. But yeah, so I was best friends with Alex, and Alex was on tour with Panic, and I came to see Alex opening for Panic in Anaheim or some shit. It was just like “Wow, this is the wildest music and scene and I’ve never seen anything like this.” And I met Ryan, and then and then he and Alex became sort of best friends, and then Ryan started coming to parties at my house, and then we became close and then dated for a long time. And then became best friends, because that’s how I make friends. You have to date me and have some kind of a tumultuous relationship for a while, and then we can be friends. [Laughs]

So “The Bad List” is autobiographical, then.

“The Bad List” is quite autobiographical.

Okay. One of the things [I wanted] to mention about that song was, I love the way it ends, because you’ve got that final chord that’s just sitting out there waiting to drop, and it never comes.

Uh huh. [Purrs. Yes, she purrs] Yeah, that’s like pornography for me.

This is going to sound odd, but I wanted to tell you the press release that came with your album is the best one I’ve read in a really long time.

Why, thank you!

Was that all you?

Yeah. It is truly funny, I just write everything at this point. I sat and wrote my bio and my video description. My publicist is really, really wonderful, but I am such a control freak that the older I get, the more I’ve decided to do everything I possibly can myself. So I started directing my own videos in quarantine. I’ve now learned how to edit all of my own videos. I’m like, I will write my own article, let me do whatever I can. Put me in, coach! But thank you. I appreciate that because it is so funny to write basically write your own album review.

I’ve read so many of these things. And after a while, I just glaze over, like two lines in, but yours is one of the few that actually kept me engaged. 

Thank you. I appreciate that.

I have to be honest, I sometimes get mad when I think about your career, because I was convinced that the Phases album was going to take you to the next level. Alt Nation was playing you, our local modern rock station was playing [lead single “I’m in Love with My Life”]. You had Warner Brothers behind you… I thought for sure that was going to be the one.

I’ve got a weird, weird history. It’s, yeah. I can’t really explain, not a lot of it makes sense. But yeah, I don’t know. You know, it’s strange. It’s like with that that Phases record, I just listened to it for the first time the other day, and was struck by how much it sounds like, like it honestly sounds like the last Ariana Grande a record a lot. A little more depth of the lyrics, but like, it sounds like a lot of modern, I don’t know, it’s, there’s something about my music that always feels like the timing is wrong. Yeah, the Phases thing made very little sense. That whole label was, like, absolutely behind us, and obsessed with that record and they put the one single out at alternative radio, which is perhaps not the right move. And then they said, “Never mind.” Because the music business. [Laughs]

It’s still in power rotation in our house.

Awww.

I mean, “Betty Blue,” and “Silhouette,” and ”Cooler,” and [“I’m in Love with My Life”], we play those songs all the time.

Oh, thank you. I’m so happy to hear that. Yeah, I was. I was really pleasantly surprised when I listened to it recently I was just like, “This fucking slaps!” It’s a great running record. I put it on, on my run a couple of weeks ago was like, “Wow, this is what this is for.”

Unrelated, I wanted to tell you that your father produced one of my favorite records of all time. He actually made a record that saved my life.

What record?

The Squeeze album Play.

Oh, no shit! I love that! I’ll tell him that.

Please do! 

That’s so cool. I love that band. Oh my god. You know, my dad actually just produced a record. They only have a couple singles out, but it’s a band called More that, to me, they sound like if Roy Orbison was fronting Squeeze.

You have my attention.

I know, right? I should be a music journalist, what am I doing? I love me some sound bites.

Are you going to be Neil Tennant in reverse, and start writing about music at the end? You were saying that your whole career is going backwards, right?

[Laughs] So true. But yeah, they have a couple of singles out their records coming out on Warner Brothers, actually, at some point soon. But yeah, the first time I heard them play, I was like, this sounds like Squeeze, but also Roy Orbison or like early Elvis. I don’t even understand how to put these things together, but it’s really interesting music.

I’ll keep an eye out for that. I am out of questions. I appreciate you taking the time to chat with us. Usually [now I say], “Okay, the record comes out and there’s a tour.” You’re still putting the album out in July, and then what?

I know, it’s such a strange thing. Well, you know, the interesting thing that I’ve done with this, this time in quarantine is that I’ve spent the last few months…I’ve made videos for every song on the record. I made this Paris video. The “To Forget You” video just came out right before lockdown. And then I sort of sat here with all this time was like, “What the fuck do I want to do?” [Laughs] I’ve done a lot of research on copyright laws now, because I have basically taken old films and the home movies and, you know, things like…I have these home movies from my grandparents in the ‘60s with Rod Serling from “The Twilight Zone” [who] was their best friend. And so, Rod Serling vacationing in Europe in 1965. So that’s one of the videos, and then one of the videos is the original “Night of the Living Dead.” Public Domain. Cut that into a video. “Charade,” starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, cut that into a video. Just [a] really interesting combination of things that are, strangely, public domain. And it’s going to be one long lyric video, with the lyrics like subtitles. It’s really quite exciting, and that’ll come out the day my record comes out, and then I’ll slowly release each one of the videos separately. And then I’m already kind of halfway through a second record.

Oh, my gosh.

Yeah, so my intention is to finish my second record by the end of the year, and hopefully one day, we’ll tour again and then I’ll just tour ‘em both, I guess.

Speaking of “Charade,” that’s actually one of my favorite songs on the album.

Oh, thank you. Yeah, actually the guy I was talking about, the singer of More [is] on the chorus. There’s a three-part harmony, and it’s that guy. The singer of More, Malcolm Gray and Phoebe Bridgers singing that three-part [harmony].

That’s another person I need to catch up with. Everybody’s talking about her.

Yeah, that’s the name on the street. You’ll like it.

It was a pleasure to meet you finally, after watching from afar for 15 years. I’ll find the clip of my daughter singing the Chicken Change Song.

Please, please do, I need that. [Laughs]

About the Author

David Medsker

David Medsker used to be 'with it.' But then they changed what 'it' was. Now what he's 'with' isn't 'it,' and what's 'it' seems weird and scary to him. He is available for children's parties.

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