One of the key early figures in the '80s anti-folk movement, singer and songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill's music combines a deeply personal point of view and an edgy wit leavened with a compassion for the world around her. Berryhill was born on June 12, 1965 in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she grew up listening to the Beach Boys and a local radio station that specialized in songs from World War II. Berryhill got her first guitar at age nine; a year later she wrote her first song (a ditty about dinosaurs), and she made her first stage appearance at a talent contest when she was 11. As a teenager, Berryhill developed a taste for folk-oriented singer/songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, as well as early punk-leaning acts such as the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, the Buzzcocks, and the Sex Pistols. When she was 20, after receiving an unexpected windfall in the form of a tax refund, Berryhill bought a Greyhound bus pass that offered her unlimited transportation for a month; she set out to see America, and ended up in New York City, where she fell in with like-minded singer/songwriters Kirk Kelly and Lach.
When Berryhill was told they called their music "new folk," she replied they needed a better name, like "anti-folk," and her moniker quickly stuck. Moving back and forth between New York and California, Berryhill soon became one of the major figures on this new acoustic scene, and she struck a deal with Rhino Records, which released her debut album, Who's Gonna Save the World?, in 1987. The album received strong reviews, and in 1989 she completed her second album, Naked Movie Star, which was produced by Lenny Kaye. By 1994, Berryhill had settled in California, and began exploring more ambitious musical avenues with her album Garage Orchestra, in which she and an eclectic ensemble indulged in her fondness for Brian Wilson and Harry Partch; the more straightforward Straight Outta Marysville followed in 1996.
Berryhill had become involved in a long-term relationship with Paul Williams, the influential rock writer and founder of the magazine Crawdaddy; in 1995, Williams suffered a head injury while riding his bicycle, and by the time Berryhill released the live album Living Room 16 in 1999, Williams was beginning to show signs of early onset dementia caused by his accident. (Happily, 1999 also marked the publication of Berryhill's first novel, Memoirs of a Female Messiah.) As Berryhill devoted more time to looking after Williams (who she would later marry), she began studying the effects of head injuries on American soldiers returning from duty in Iraq, all of which informed Berryhill's 2006 album Beloved Stranger. Williams died in the spring of 2013; Berryhill performed sporadically during the final stages of Williams' illness, and following his passing, she began playing more shows, in which she presented new material, once again informed by her recent experiences. Berryhill also took part in a special tribute to Lou Reed staged at the 2014 South by Southwest Music Conference. In 2017, she returned with The Adventurist, her first album in a decade and first since the passing of her husband. ~ Mark Deming