If omens are real, if the universe can speak to people through events, it would appear that some pretty powerful forces wanted Z Berg to get the hell out of Los Angeles in 2013.
Her band, JJAMZ, was on the verge of calling it a day, wrapping up its tour behind its debut, “Suicide Pact.” One of the members, James Valentine (one of the Js of the name, which was an acronym of the band’s five members), would be heading back to his “day job” as guitarist for Maroon 5. Someone broke into her house. Someone else – or who knows, maybe the same criminal? - stole her car. A lifelong Angelino, Berg was ready to flee the southland and head to Nashville.
“I had a move date,” she says. “I had one foot out the door. It was a weird time. … I truly said, ‘alright universe, if you want me to stay, you better give me a really good reason, otherwise I’m going to go and totally start over.’”
The universe spoke again, in the form of fellow JJAMZ member Alex Greenwald and a cascade of synths. A set of his bedroom recordings convinced Berg to stay, and turned into a new album, a new name – Phases – and a new sound.
“There was a little pow-wow between the three of us that was like, ‘how do we get Z to stay?’,” according to guitarist Michael Runion. “’Let’s play her this music.’”
Listening to the music that Z Berg has created in the decade since her first band, The Like, released its debut album “Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking,” it’s easy to see her as an artist floating from form to form, following the universe’s instructions. The Like’s first album sounded like the midway point between Veruca Salt and Velocity Girl, while the introduction of Mark Ronson behind the boards gave the band’s follow-up, “Release Me,” a polished ‘60s vibe, with a healthy dose of the Kinks to boot. The first JJAMZ record sounded like the sum of the bands parts: Some Rilo Kiley, some Phantom Planet, some The Like. And Berg’s solo material, which mostly lives on Soundcloud and other Internet platforms, would have made her transition to Nashville-based singer/songwriter fairly seamless.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 15,” Berg says. “When you start that early, you’re bound to go through a lot of different changes and styles, and particularly if you’re one with as eclectic a sensibility as I have you’re going to want to test your foot in all different types of waters.”
The daughter of a music industry Swiss Army knife – Tony Berg has been everything from a session musician to an A&R executive in a career of almost 40 years – Z grew up with access to a record collection of which a pre-streaming music teenager could only dream: Dylan and the Stones, sure, but also ‘60s girl groups, soul records and, her first album purchase, Tupac Shakur’s greatest hits. That sort of immersion in the history of pop music can be educational, but it can also make one feel out of place in today.
“I have, for as long as I have been playing music, wished that I lived in a different time,” she says. “I grew up listening to only ‘60s music – basically only the Beatles until I was ten years old. And I’ve always had that in the back of my mind as what I wanted to be doing.”
Instead, the other three remaining members of JJAMZ brought her into 2015. Greenwald had sequestered himself to create something new and came back with what would be the next iteration of the band’s sound: Consistently upbeat, dance-floor electro-pop a celebratory shot of sunshine in a cloud-obsessed music industry.
“Alex introduced us to all the music he was producing, and it didn’t sound like the JJAMZ record, which was great because I think we all needed something different,” Runion said. “It was a totally new experience for all of us – ‘We’re making dance music? I’ve never made music that makes people want to dance before!’”
“For Life,” the debut album, sounds little like music that the group’s members have ever produced, whether from Jason Boesel’s time as drummer for Rilo Kiley, Greenwald’s days as lead singer of Phantom Planet or any of Runion’s work in solo projects or bands like The Chances. Lead single “I’m in Love With My Life” bounces through the space versus would normally occupy to get straight to its sugar-rush of a hook, while “Betty Blue” is a song in search of a beach party. Even a ballad like “Spark” contains a lightness, like the last slow dance at a prom in a John Hughes movie.
“I feel like this kind of music has always been a big part of the interior of my mind,” Boesel says. “That early Madonna stuff, or Chic or Earth, Wind and Fire … a lot of that music has been some of my favorite music I’ve ever heard. I was definitely at a point where I didn’t want to rock anymore. It didn’t feel right to rock. I want to groove.”
The transformation from lines like “Darling don’t leave, save me” on JJAMZ’s “Poolside” to the nearly-incessant optimism of Phases may be most easily seen in the band’s lead singer. Berg seems to have found a palette from which to express what she calls her “annoyingly positive” personality. On stage, even as she and her bandmates translate Phases songs to live performances for the first time, there appears to be an ease and joy in her demeanor.
“I’ve spent my whole career making mostly morose music,” she admits. “And it was pretty novel and exciting for all of us to think that we could make music that sounds the way we feel when we hang out together. These are my best friends. And I love them, and I love making music and I love being alive. It feels like you’re not supposed to talk about that when you’re making music, but it turns out that you can.”
And Nashville? Maybe it was out of Berg’s hands.
“I think it would have been great, and I would have figured out a different kind of happy, a different path,” she says. “But I could not be happier that this is the one I chose. Or was chosen for me.”