If modern indie-rock has a reigning poet-bard, it’d be Matt Berninger. The frontman and songwriter of Brooklyn-based band The National, Berninger writes heady, gorgeously twisty lyrics, steeped in shades of regret, yearning, and passion, and peppered with off-kilter imagery that stings in its emotional precision. With his band nominated for a Grammy for its latest album, Trouble Will Find Me, we bombarded Berninger with a bunch of questions about art, life, and fatherhood.
The National has been showered with critical praise, you’ve got a devoted following and a stellar list of achievements, but this is the first time the band has been nominated for a Grammy. Is there a different kind of validation in throwing your hats into the mainstream-awards ring?
For whatever reason, it always seemed to me like the Grammys existed in a different musical world than the one we were in. I guess that changed somehow when Bon Iver and Arcade Fire won Grammys—they are definitely from our world. Do I care about being nominated for a Grammy? Yes. We want as many people as possible to hear our music and this helps. But that’s all.
Is there any one nominee in your category you’d feel okay about losing to?
I’d have no problem losing to any of the other nominees. I’m a fan. We’ve done shows and toured with all of them except for NIN. They’re all great, but I’d most like to be beaten by NIN.
I remember being surprised, early on, by the gender diversity of the crowds at your shows. There’s something about the songs you write that connects with women on a profound level. Why do you think your music has such feminine appeal?
I’d like to think it’s my muscles. I don’t know if women are drawn to us because of our feminine side or our masculine side. I wish I knew what it was and I wish I’d had more of it in high school.
You write quite beautifully—and vulnerably—about female characters in your songs. Can you provide any insight into the portraits you paint on Trouble Will Find Me?
Every time I’ve tried to talk about specific lyrics, I feel like I ruin them a little. The truth is, there really aren’t any clever hidden meanings or interpretations. Lyrics for me are approximations of meaning and thoughts and feelings. The blurriness of them feels closer to the truth for me than any clear narrative or idea. I’m aware of how pretentious that sounds, but I think about songs very differently than I think about poetry or short stories. The music tells half the story, and outside of that context, I think the lyrics fall apart.
Do you have any thoughts on writing sensitively about and for women in general?
I write mostly about myself. Also, I’m not sure women would want songs to be written sensitively for them. Maybe in a card or letter, but not so much in songs.
Has becoming the father of a daughter made you rethink any of the things you’ve written in the past?
Not really. I’ve written some bitter and weird things about women in the past and probably will again. Most of that stuff is all really directed inward. And we’re talking about the expression of feelings, not opinions. I think it’s a bad idea to repress the ugly, weird, and sometimes bad thoughts. Also, not all my bad thoughts are about women—a fair share of them are about men. I have lots of nice thoughts, too!
Do you think there’s a shift in the way you write about women since having a kid?
I don’t know. The way I write about everything is probably always shifting. I don’t think I soften anything now that I have a kid. I think kids understand the concept of artistic expression more than we give them credit for. She’s also seen me perform onstage, which I was worried about. I lose my shit and flail around like a gorilla, but she totally got it. She thought it was funny. She’s a massive Spongebob fan, so I think she sees some of him in what I do.
Has your songwriting in general changed since you became a father? Have there been any pragmatic shifts in your process, or your philosophy, or your ideology?
I think those things are always shifting so it’s hard to say how much of it is because of fatherhood. Trouble Will Find Me has a lot of songs that address mortality in different ways and I do think becoming a father had some influence on that. I never thought too much about death or afterlife before having a kid, but it triggered something in me. Mostly, how happy I am to be alive. It also helped me clarify my ideas about existence and non-existence. I’m a secular humanist: I think it’s just us here. No one else is pulling the strings and we don’t go anywhere other than back into the soil when we die. But everyone and everything we’ve had an effect on in our lives does go on. That’s our afterlife; that’s our heaven or hell. I hope I leave more heaven around than hell when I go.
Does your daughter, Isla, like any songs that just drive you bananas?
Her favourite song is Cat Stevens’ “Wild World.” So I’m pretty lucky for now.
Is there any song or moment or project or verse or lyric that stands out as your proudest artistic achievement?
I think the lyrics of “Hard To Find” are really good. And I stole all the best lines in that from my wife.
Celebrating the music industry’s most accomplished artists, the 56th Annual GRAMMY Awards® will air live on Sunday, Jan. 26, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on City. Tune into GRAMMYS.ca for more information!