Any attempt to describe Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Geoff Berner invariably ends up sounding like it was composed using a fridge-magnet poetry set made up of discarded Canada Council grant applications. Political Klezmer-punk troubadour? Jewish-Canadian firebrand poet? Incendiary accordion-toting folkie? Oh dear. This October, the task became even more difficult, with the release of Festival Man, Berner's first novel. Detailing the exploits of morally compromised music promoter Campbell Ouinette, Festival Man is ostensibly fiction, but contains no small amount of truth about the Canadian music industry.
On the phone from Toronto, Berner says he doesn't mind how he's labelled, as long as people don't confuse him with his novel's protagonist. "He's kind of not a great guy," he says. "He doesn't reflect my opinions." This warning is repeated again in the novel's preface, something Berner says came from initial readings of the book as thinly veiled autobiography. "I'm maintaining that it's totally fiction," he asserts.
The UBC creative writing program grad is being slightly coy here: though the antihero of Festival Man is a self-aggrandizing lowlife given the epithet "Skid Mark," Ouinette and Berner share biographical elements, musical taste and a knack for cutting insight. Add to that the fact that many of the supporting characters in Festival Man bear striking resemblance to real-life musicians, and it's easy to start asking who they are based on.
"I've thought about that long and hard and crafted a carefully worded statement on that," says Berner. "No comment."
For those whose thirst for real-life musicians must be sated, Berner has put together a new album of his songs covered by a coterie of his musician pals, including Carolyn Mark, Corb Lund and Rae Spoon. Berner admits the record was conceived partly just as a hook to draw attention to his novel.
Was he taking a page from his self-promoting protagonist, then, or is his protagonist at least a little autobiographical? "Well, that's a no-win question for me," he says. "If I say I don't like to self-promote then I'm being falsely modest. But if I say I do, then I'm a raging egotist."
The answer hardly seems to matter---those are just another two adjectives to mount onto Berner at one's leisure. "Entertaining" is another sure to come up this Friday, both at his Company House show and his reading and book-signing the next day, at Atlantic News starting at 1pm.
Geoff Berner w/Ray of Dawn
Friday, November 15 at 8:30pm
The Company House, 2202 Gottingen Street
Saturday, November 16 at 1pm
Atlantic News, 5560 Morris Street
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