Art Bergmann: Iconoclast

There are two words Art Bergmann often sees applied to him that he wishes writers would stop using.

“I hate the term ‘punk veteran’ – it’s anathema to me,” says the musician. “And I’m trying to get the word ‘icon’ changed to ‘iconoclast.’”

Still, it’s hard not to have respect for the longtime singer’s contributions to the Canadian music scene. In the 1970s, Bergmann led the Vancouver-based punk group Young Canadians before launching a solo career in the 1980s. Now 63, he lives just outside Airdrie and is about to release his first full-length album of new material in 20 years, The Apostate.

“I wanted to write … not the overproduced stuff, but just great songs with spirit, delivery and great harmonies”

“I’d had ideas for the album after a couple of decades of doing some serious reading, finding out why we are the way we are, and it’s my response to living in Alberta – I’ve been here about 10 years now,” says Bergmann. “I wanted to use myths and the idea that people talk about heritage and our [heritage] in the West is about 150 years … it’s my response to all that: politics, ancient ideas, fundamentalism … why we don’t get rid of some ideas that just linger on way past their due date.”

After recording an album of acoustic remakes of past songs in 1999, Bergmann hooked up with the Weewerk label in 2014 to release a four-song mini-album called Songs for the Underclass. This led to some performances and, he says, “for a laugh” he entered a song contest through Calgary Folk Fest at the Ship & Anchor, where he played one of his new songs, Your Cold Appraising Eye.

“I won and got $1,500, so I ran into the studio and recorded demos for the new album … that was a nice kick in the bum,” Bergmann says.

Inspiration for the new songs came from several directions. The Greatest Story Never Told, for example, was inspired by a poem his wife wrote 25 years ago. On another track, the epic 12-minute Pioneers, he says that he wanted to go for “an almost spaghetti western kind of slow feel, to tell a story of the brutal conquering of the West, as I saw it.

“I like to think beyond genre. I try to write songs and give the song the delivery it deserves – or doesn’t, as the case may be,” he adds. “I wanted to write … not the overproduced stuff, but just great songs with spirit, delivery and great harmonies.”

Bergmann also looks internationally for his inspiration. “The song Mirage is inspired by the Tauric bands of Western Sahara,” he says. “I strive for happy accidents in picking what musicians I [use]. On Mirage, I asked (guitarist) Paul Rigby the day before if he played any of that Tauric stuff and he said no … the next morning, he was playing it! He said he remembered playing in an African band in Calgary when he was growing up.”

Bergmann lives in a modest house on land near Airdrie. He moved out here, he says, because his wife’s granddaughter lives in Sylvan Lake and “we came out here to watch her grow up.”

And now, Bergmann is getting ready to tour for the first time since the mid-1990s, performing in centres such as Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto and hopefully with some dates locally, as well.

His advice to up-and-coming musicians: “Get someone you trust to tell you if your stuff is good or not. I played a lot of crap when I was learning – but it was fun.”

The Apostate is now available in digital form from iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon and Google, with the CD version out May 13.

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