A lot of really talented people like working with Michael Sackler-Berner.
People like Marshall Crenshaw, Grammy-winning producer Steve Jordan, and Billy Joel’s drummer Liberty DeVitto. They’ve all shared a studio or a stage with the New York singer-songwriter in recent years. Ask why, and they’d say Michael’s a musician’s musician—the kind of guy obsessed with vintage gear, recording live off the floor, etc. Or that he writes such amazing songs.
“I’m not a super contemporary, trend-chasing artist,” says Sackler-Berner. “I’m the guy who wonders why million dollar gear is being heard on $1.99 earbuds. It’s a drag: Nobody has a hi-fi system and I’m here making hi-fi records.”
He says it all with a good-natured laugh.
But he’s also a contemporary, a talent whose songs — evocative, personal, always memorable — certainly deserve a modern audience.
To look ahead, however, you first need to look back. Sackler-Berner’s journey began in New York City, where his Dad was a TV and film producer, his Mother an arts and social justice activist and his sister left a beat-up guitar lying around the house...one that 11-year Michael soon found himself strumming.
“I was writing some bad poetry over it,” he says. “I was too impatient to learn other people’s songs.”
He became more serious about music after high school, moving to Montreal to study music technology at McGill and forming a garage rock band called Hearts of Palm. “I was the resident folkie among the EDM techies up there,” he says. The band made some waves in Canada, even earning a spot on the multi-continent charity concert Live 8.
But his music taste was changing, and Sackler-Berner began crafting a different set of songs. Moving back to the States and now on his own, his new demos found their way to noted composer/musician David Mansfield (Bob Dylan, T Bone Burnett). “I went to him and asked, what do I do? And he heard my stuff, liked it, and said, ‘go write some bridges,’ which I thought was pretty funny for a guy who worked with Dylan.”
With Mansfield’s encouragement, Sackler-Berner flew to California to record his first solo album, simply titled MSB and featuring the likes of Jim Keltner, Reggie McBride and Val McCallum. “Four days in the studio recording live with some top L.A. cats,” he says. “It was like going to school.”
And then he kept going. Hollywood beckoned: soon, his songs were appearing regularly in shows like Sons of Anarchy and Law and Order. He acted a little, wrote songs for other singers, and landed a publishing deal with Razor & Tie. He recorded a song with his childhood friend Henry Geller and Billy Joel’s drummer Liberty DeVitto, which led to a detour. “At the end of the session, Liberty asked to be our drummer full-time! So we made a band.” That popular not-so-side project, the Slim Kings, is already two albums in and opening for ZZ Top.
But for all his success, Sackler-Berner felt himself yearning to record something more personal. “In the new stuff I was writing, I was becoming less a character, and more completely myself,” he says. And this time, his demo caught the ears of Marshall Crenshaw.
“Marshall didn’t know me from Adam, but wanted to work with me,” says Sackler-Berner. “Plus, he’s a guitar guy, like me, and it was opportunity to work with a proven songwriter.”
Crenshaw picked three new songs of Sackler-Berner’s to work on with Stewart Lerman, the Grammy-winning producer behind Boardwalk Empire and The Aviator. Additionally, another five tracks were recorded with Leo Sidran, an Oscar-winning composer/producer. “Those were a bit more aggressive: we were doing one or two takes on the vocals,” says Sackler-Berner.
In all cases, the new music features plenty of standouts. “She Loves Love” is a buoyant, poppy number, while the piano ballad “While I Was Gone” evokes a great 70s AM radio cut. A few outliers pop up along the way, especially “If It Feels Good,” which features a real spy movie/James Bond feel in its groove. “It’s also the first time I used horns,” says Sackler-Berner. “There’s a little blue-eyed soul in there. Reminds me of the songs my Dad listened to when I was a kid.”
Most importantly, the new songs represent a lyrical maturity for the singer. “They’re clear to me,” he says. “The language is clear; it’s not ambiguous teenage poetry. If it’s a song about a cheating partner or somebody not living up to their potential, it’s in there. No bullshit metaphors.” He laughs. “No ‘your love is like an ocean.’”
While he preps to tour (where he promises some unusual venues and performances tied into each new song), Sackler-Berner reflects on his good fortune, past and present.
“I’m lucky,” he adds. “I get to hang with great musicians, like Liberty or Marshall, who are monster talents. There’s no big money for them.”
“They just seem to like the songs and what I do.”