Jesse R. Berlin is at the Russian baths and has just dropped acid. Spa day meets psychedelic trip could describe Berlin’s whole m.o. — it’s hard to be sure what’s real, but it feels really, really good. The goofy, somewhat specious backstory detailed on his Bandcamp page places his origins in Texas, helming ill-fated blues bands or making embarrassing solo records that “pre-dated chillwave,” but these are stories that barely check out. The only thing we know for sure is that Berlin’s been born again with the release of Glitter Lung, an explosive collection of heartfelt songs with idiosyncratic, glam-rock aspirations. The record debuted in August, and after a week-long tour on the West Coast, Berlin’s finally bringing it home to his current hometown of Brooklyn when he pops in to East Williamsburg puppetry theater Standard Toykraft for an album release and “career retrospective” on September 11.
By Glitter Lung’s third track, over swirling synths and a canned organ beat, Berlin gets candid about feeling fear. “I tell you I’m not scared, but I’m frightened through and through. I’ve never really been prepared for you,” he sings. It’s a great anthem for potential audience members to adopt going into this event, because there’s pretty much no way to anticipate what might happen at this show. “There are gonna be snacks,” Berlin promises. “I’m thinking Raisinets and Cheetos. Who doesn’t love Raisinets?” Just don’t bring your own booze; Standard Toykraft does actually have a bar.
Also, be ready to lavish Berlin with attention. “I love adoration,” he says when asked if he’s excited about the show. “It’s always thrilling to have an event that’s just about praising yourself and, like, indulging one’s own narcissism, so of course I’m looking forward to that.” In fact, Berlin’s performance requires a certain type of awareness and interaction — there’s no room for a passive audience. Berlin says his music is “antagonistic and suave at the same time, or at least that’s the goal.” He adds, “However you’re willing to engage with it, it can respond to that, which is something I’m really proud of. A lot of music only really works if you engage with it in a specific way. I think if you’re looking for humor, then there’s a lot of humor, and I think that if you’re looking for something beyond humor it can deliver on that level as well.”
But what is Glitter Lung, exactly? The title of the record, Berlin explains, comes from “a made-up disease that drag queens and elementary school teachers joke about getting, where you inhale so much glitter that it slices up your lungs and kills you. I think it’s a pretty central concept to the whole operation.” There are certainly some abrasive moments; to listen to these songs feels like grappling directly with a demanding, outsize personality. His honest, emotionally awkward lyrics might make someone laugh, or make someone else cry, but Berlin gives as much as he demands, creating the sort of record Daft Punk might if they had only iPhones to compose songs on, which, by the way, is how Berlin created his masterpiece.
“I did make the record with iPhone apps,” he admits. “If you walked into the room while I was recording it would just look like I was dicking around on my phone.” His favorite is iBone, a slide-trombone app. “It’s hilarious. And it’s like, boom, slide trombone on everything — easy,” Berlin says. Ease was a big part of using apps to create whatever sounds he wanted on the record. “That was a major instigating factor,” he says. “If you see what young kids are doing when they’re engaging with music, they’re not starting garage bands. They’re not picking up drum sets or buying $800 amplifiers. They’re fucking around with a free app on a touchscreen. It seems to me like the most contemporary and representative kind of creativity, and it feels really liberating and great to do, in the same way that I imagine getting into sampling in the Eighties or Nineties felt. Suddenly everything is at your fingertips.”
There’s a deliberately campy vibe to the record, which might remind some listeners of outsider artists like Daniel Johnston or Ariel Pink. But it’s not just quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake; for Berlin, these genres offer a way to take the “pity” out of “pity party,” allowing him to sing about his deepest fears and darkest emotions in a way that shifts the focus from his inner sadness to his outward persona. And that persona is almost always wearing a bright pink jumpsuit.
“When you are making earnest music and you go out and perform it amongst other people doing the same kind of thing, it really, really gets grating watching everybody shitting their feelings all over you without any kind of entryway or any way to engage with it on any level other than pity,” Berlin explains. “I didn’t want to receive pity anymore. Or demand pity. Disco and glam has been in the background for me the whole time. Emotionally, they’re just as naked. Especially a lot of these disco singles that are just one-offs by an artist you’ve never heard of. The artist doesn’t even really matter. There’s all these kind of masks and barriers and shields and then at the core of it there’s somebody singing very powerfully about heartbreak or loss or fear. I think you can talk about pain without wanting pity. Pity is not really constructive. I wanted to do something constructive.”
Part of that restlessness comes from needing something to do while in the throes of insomnia, so making music late at night ended up being a great outlet for Berlin. Being alone in the early morning hours during his creative process imbued Glitter Lung with a startling emptiness. “There’s so much music in the culture about being up all night, as in a party thing, or as a sadness and depression thing, and it was not either of those for me, it’s just what it was,” he says of his insomnia. “I think there’s kind of an eeriness to walking around Rite-Aid at three in the morning. Maybe more than, like, having some kind of dark night of the soul or being at Studio 54 or whatever. There’s something more solitary about it.”
Berlin knows he’s a weirdo, but he’s come to terms with it, and sees it as something that’s allowed him to realize his vision for Glitter Lung. “I think it’s good to be [weird],” he says. “If anything, I’m just getting weirder and weirder. I mean, when I was twelve, it was pretty difficult. If I was [still] struggling with it, this whole record wouldn’t exist. I’m pretty comfortable with it at this point. I’m just doing my thing.” If his retrospective attracts people who can relate and have agreed to let their freak flags fly, there will be no better way to spend a Friday than dancing away the demons alongside them.
Jesse R. Berlin celebrates the release of Glitter Lung at Standard Toykraft on September 11. For a mixtape that embraces all of the influences that played a huge part in the creation of Glitter Lung, listen below.