Josh Berwanger was a member of the highly revered Lawrence, Kansas, band The Anniversary, which issued a series of enduring albums and EPs between 1997 and 2003.
When that group came to an abrupt end in 2004, Berwanger formed The Only Children. That band, he notes, never really broke up but, for one reason or another, stalled.
After that, Berwanger married, moved to Canada, had a child and coached young women in high school basketball.
After a seven-year hiatus from making music, he slowly returned to writing and recording.
His most recent album, Watching A Garden Die, focuses on some of the changes he's undergone in recent years. Now divorced, Berwanger found himself contemplating aging, anxiety, loneliness and more on the songs that populate the new album. At times reminiscent of the late Harry Nilsson and Tom Petty, Berwanger's songs retain their author's individual sensibilities, filled with hints of humor and heartbreak.
Berwanger recently spoke with KMUW from his Kansas City-area home.
My sense is that your last few albums have been part of an evolution, that you're moving in a mildly different direction.
Definitely. Some bands can make two records that sound the same. I have a hard time doing that. I'm always listening to different music, being influenced by different things. This one is different than the last three. It's definitely more personal and a lot slower. There's more orchestration, pedal steel and so forth.
Do you hear those layers when you're writing or do you sort of stumble into that during production?
For the most part, I do a really horrible demo of the song and then listen to it over and over until it's time to record it. I make a chart of what I hear and what needs to go in. Sometimes it's fun to experiment: "Let's try a rain stick!"
I've never done a rain stick.
There's always time. It could be in your future.
I would use one if it fits! All rain stick and cowbell? It could be an instrumental.
There you go!
[Laughs.] Next record. Totally different sound!
You mentioned that this record is more personal. I hear intimations of getting older, life-changing, loneliness. Is that what you felt was coming out in the songs?
I turned 40 last year and started writing [the album] right around then. My dad turned 70. [That had an influence as did] where I was in life. Who I am in life. Stopping and saying, "What am I doing? Can I make some changes?" Mental health, who you are as a person. I hear people say, "I don't want to do that. It makes me totally anxious. I'm depressed. I'm just going to stay here."
I was feeling that way, too, and I said, "I have to go talk to someone and get on something." That making that step is really hard for some people. But once you do it it's worth it.
That's where the title of the album came from: I was literally and figuratively watching my garden die. It was what I was doing to myself at the time. With a garden you plan what you're going to do with it, you take care of it. The next year can be a rebirth or you can just watch it die. I had a relationship that I thought was going somewhere and then one day it was totally over. I was blindsided.
I wasn't sure that I was going to release this album. It was tough to get through a song. I was cringing. It was all about the last year of my life. A friend of mine said, "Talking about stuff like this can help someone going through a rough time."
I read that you're writing all the time, that you stay in the practice of writing.
Besides those seven years of coaching basketball. I try to write one thing a day. If it's a 15 second part of a full song. I try to pick up the guitar, sit outside. Or I drive somewhere, come up with a melody, pick up my guitar and play it into my phone. There's so much you can do in a day, whether it's art related or whatever. It's unbelievable to me that anyone would ever say, "I'm bored. There's nothing to do here." I say, "There's so much to do, especially nowadays."
I tend to be the same way. A friend of mine asked me recently, "How do you stay inspired?" But I don't think of it like that. It's not about inspiration. It's just what I do.
Exactly. Then, when you are inspired, it's that much better. You get more excited about getting down to the craft.
The Anniversary reunited in 2016. My understanding is that it was something that needed to happen.
I feel like it was the right time and place. We had a short lifespan and ended on very awful terms. When Adrianne [Verhoeven, keyboards, vocals] showed up she hadn't seen Janko [Christian Jankowski, drums] or Jim [James David, bass] in seven or eight years. It's crazy to think about that because there was a time where we were together every single day. At one point we all lived in the same house.
Then it was just done. We weren't really talking to each other.
But we did the reunion, had a good reception. It was good closure. We're not going to record new material. That was that. It was fun seeing everyone for a short period of time.
You're a parent. Has that impacted the amount of touring that you do? Or is it something where you say, "It doesn't make sense to drive to South Dakota to play for 30 people."
My ex-wife is also a musician. It works out. We have a good relationship. We have a good support system. My parents live in Overland Park. With the last record, I didn't even do a release show. I spent a year-and-a-half not playing live. But when you're playing Cincinnati and there are six other bands playing that night, you end up playing for 30 people and you're, like, "OK. Is this worth it? And you're 40? Are we sleeping on the floor tonight? What are we doing here?"
Josh Berwanger will perform at Ellis Street Moto on Friday, June 28, to celebrate the release of Watching A Garden Die. Those who attend can make a $15 dollar donation and receive a CD copy of the album while $20 buys admission and a vinyl edition.