Pittsfield native Ben Talmi writes a love letter to his hometown on his new album ‘Berkshires’ | Berkshire landscapes

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Pittsfield native Ben Talmi’s latest album is filled with songs reflecting his childhood in the Berkshires.

PITTSFIELD — Ben Talmi’s memories of growing up in the Berkshires run through his childhood — playing truth or dare on field trips; bring a flashlight to a friend’s house; basement parties; elaborate high school pranks that don’t work and maybe weren’t so funny to begin with; being the only kid who didn’t know the lyrics to the Smiths’ songs.

Of coming from a family of performers and nurturing your own dreams of becoming a musician, the pain and heartache of realizing you haven’t mastered the violin, and the magic of sitting next to your dad in Tanglewood at moment when Seiji Ozawa raises the wand.

All of these are snapshots and thumbnails from Talmi’s new album, “Berkshire”, on which the singer, songwriter and producer reflects on where he comes from. They’re songs about a place, who shaped it and made it what it is, but also about community and hard work and things that seem to stay forever, and what doesn’t.

This comes out most clearly in “Ralph & Mary,” a song about his grandparents who owned the beloved restaurant, the Sugar Bowl, on North Street, for more than 40 years.

“When I’m with you, it feels like taking over the world,” he sings, putting words in his grandparents’ mouths as he celebrates the life they built, while maybe giving each other a pep talk along the way.

For Brooklyn, NY-based Talmi, who works as a record producer, commercial composer and string arranger for indie rock bands, his new album “Berkshires” is all about trying to evoke the story of how he got to where he now finds himself. .

“I had this strong desire to do my best literal storytelling,” he said. “Where you could just hear the lyrics and see the movie in your head.”

This album was his pandemic project, the result of having just a guitar, a quiet apartment, and plenty of time. “The future was so unclear, I think everyone’s mind naturally drifted to the past,” he said. “I finally had all the time in the world to write songs, and it came very naturally.”


Ben Talmi’s latest album, “Berkshires”, features a commissioned oil painting of his grandparents.

Each of the songs feels like an album of specific memories from its time – like a half-baked plan to paint a “Rock and Roll High School” sign at Pittsfield High, or parties in the basements of friends’ houses. Some are decidedly darker, like seeing someone shoot heroin for the first time.

But the moral heart of the story, the decidedly nostalgic and warmly remembered center, are Ralph and Mary Giannone. They ran the Sugar Bowl on North and Melville streets from 1957 until Ralph died in 2000, and it was famous as something of a community center. Where people on lunch break from downtown offices or coming from their shifts at GE could eat together, where you could stop before a game at the YMCA or bring your date after a movie to the Capitol Theater.

To capture what the place means, Talmi found painter Richard Gunn on the internet and asked him to paint, in oils, an album cover in the style of Norman Rockwell – a nod to his deep Berkshire roots – from photos sent by Talmi, including their Basset, Rags.

This restaurant was a point of stability in the world where it would eventually grow. Ralph and Mary’s daughter, Mary, went to Julliard to study dance and met her husband, Akiva Talmi, there. They finally decided to return to Pittsfield where they started the Moscow Balleta traveling ballet company.

Ben’s older brother, Dan Talmi, is a production manager at the Moscow Ballet and remembers the restaurant when they were growing up: how hot the water was while they did the dishes or how bad the French toast was. Well. Dan said the family grew up in the arts. “That’s exactly what our family did,” he said. “It permeated everything.”

He said he had heard the new album and noted that Ben had opted for a quieter sound and a slightly different vibe than previous ones. “It definitely looks like Ben, but with different skin.”

All the songs root for the region to begin to emerge as a character in its own right. A remarkable feat for a place so clearly delineated by people from elsewhere who have a very narrow idea of ​​it. Telling a fuller story is part of what Ben said he wanted to do.

“I’m always happy to tell people where I come from,” said Ben Talmi. “That they understand this incredible community that thrives in the fine arts, but is also in the middle of the forest and has a legacy of starting big industry and needs to find a new identity for itself.”

That feeling of perseverance and honest reassessment comes back again and again. In the track “Couldn’t Cut It on the Violin”, Talmi describes realizing he just wasn’t going to play the violin as well as he wanted. “That’s a miracle,” he sings resignedly.

“I remember the decision not to do it anymore was so heavy for me,” he said. “Even to this day, I wish I had continued to do so.”

After graduating from Pittsfield High, Talmi went to Berklee College of Music where he studied contemporary songwriting and production, although he describes himself as “just a guitar geek”. He then landed in Brooklyn and played and toured with a variety of indie rock bands over the years.

Now that he’s 32 and has reached a point of success, there’s an introspection to the fears and worries he’s had along the way. In “You’ll Get Yours In Time”, he appears to berate himself for not enjoying the trip. “I say to my young days, slow down my child / Every fear is on your mind.”

When the pandemic hit, he had time to write the songs in his apartment, carefully trying not to disturb his neighbors. He did the actual recording at an Airbnb in the Hudson Valley, “just letting go of the creativity that’s happening in the moment.” He finished it at his studio, Greylock Records, with the help of drummer Dan Drohan and an assembly of string players he’s worked with over the years.

The songwriting is very different from his previous albums, with the words coming out almost in a light voice that sounds very personal. He said he listened to a lot of classic folk singers at the time – Nick Drake, Paul Simon and Sufjan Stevens.

A particular challenge was balancing the personal and specific details with something a listener could project themselves into. Which can be a challenge when it comes to describing finding some peace and clarity in Canoe Meadows, or starting a song with the line “Now the whole world is heading to Koussevitzky’s shed”. But he said he was confident that good faith and following his own muse would pay off. After all, he likes the Beach Boys without ever having surfed. “It’s about writing what’s true for you, and whether the world connects to it well, but if not, keep going.”

It’s this work that keeps him going, and all the other things he does that make him a working artist. There’s the studio he runs, which looks after a number of indie rock acts. He also does string arrangements for bands like Wild Nothing, the Manchester Orchestra and Sky Ferreira.

And he does a lot of commercial composition, which involves working with clients to create, say, a hip-hop-style jingle for a commercial or an orchestral arrangement for a love scene in a movie. “You have to be a chameleon, you have to adapt to whatever is thrown at you,” he said. “You have to jump into any style of writing and sound on demand.”

It’s all part of the job, and Talmi seems happy to have the opportunity to reflect on his own work. He was especially remembered by all the people who helped – Jay Fruet of Woods Brothers music in Pittsfield who taught him the guitar over the years. And Ron Lively, the manager of his high school jazz band, and Jeff Link, the bassist who gave him a crash course in music theory before he left for college. And perhaps most importantly, he mentioned Vivian Murray Caputo, a longtime music teacher at Berkshire Country Day School who, with a few well-timed encouraging words, helped get him on the right track.

“[This album] comes from a place of complete love and looks back fondly on everyone I grew up with,” he said. “For me, it’s the most famous place in the world.”

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