After a two-year recording hiatus, Bering Strait return with a second album for Universal South Records, this one produced by Grammy-winner Carl Jackson. It’s titled Pages and features six songs written or arranged by various members of the Russia-born band.
Originally a six-person group, the act has lost the day-to-day services of guitarist Ilya Toshinsky since the last album. But he does a guest turn on the new one.
“Compared to how long it took us to finish the first album — about five years — we actually did this one pretty fast,” says vocalist and keyboardist Lydia Salnikova. “It took us a while because we were not sitting at home doing nothing. We were playing shows. I also think when you put out an album, you need to feel like you have something you need to say. I guess we were just gathering material, gathering experience and writing songs.”
Salnikova adds that the band spent considerable time searching for the right producer. “Carl Jackson was definitely choice No. 1 for our record label,” she says, “because of the Grammy award he received [for producing Livin’, Lovin’, Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers]. We had worked with Carl a long time ago, when we first came to Nashville, which is really an odd coincidence. It was early on when we were really green. He was going to do something with us, but back then we weren’t ready.”
Bering Strait’s ordeal in gaining enough traction to make that first album was chronicled in the 2003 film documentary, The Ballad of Bering Strait, and related in shorter form in the band’s appearance on 60 Minutes. The band originally had a development deal with Sony Records. When that ended, they signed with Arista. Then it was on to MCA and from there to a label Gaylord Entertainment planned to open but didn’t. Finally, they landed at Universal South.
“This time it was a better marriage between producer and act,” Salnikova says of the new album. “We didn’t know what to expect from someone we’d worked with when we were so young. [It’s difficult] to really make a fair judgement on them. But we decided to go ahead and try it [with Jackson] instead of spending another three years. With the first few songs, it felt right. He always had an idea of what he wanted to hear, but, at the same time, he was willing to listen to us.”
Brent Maher, who produced the Judds, oversaw Bering Strait’s first album and co-wrote a song with one of the band members, steel guitarist Sasha Ostrovsky, for the second one. “Brent is still part of our family,” Salnikova stresses.
Pages is a fairly broad palette of musical styles, extending from the somber Russian folk song “Oy, Moroz-Moroz” to a bouncy cover of Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit, “You Make Lovin’ Fun” (which is earmarked to be the first single). Salnikova shares lead vocals on the album with guitarist Natasha Borzilova. (Drummer Alexander Arzamastsev and bassist Sergei Olkhovsky are the other members of the band.)
“We’ve been pretty lucky to get booked into performing art centers,” Salnikova reports, “where we headline. They are anywhere from 600- or 700- to 1,200-seaters. Sometimes we play festivals, sometimes we play fairs, and every once in a while, we open for somebody else [such as] Wynonna and Diamond Rio. Not that long ago, we got to open for the B-52’s, which was a very odd choice. Believe it or not, we can gather enough people for a performing arts center even though we’re not hugely successful.”
Salnikova says Toshinsky left the group last year. “I guess it’s just the nature of the beast of being in the band. You need to have a common goal, but there are so many personalities that the chances are somebody’s going to find another passion. For Ilya, it was producing. For a while he’s been producing all sorts of acts — and we’re talking rock acts, as well. Being on the road so much with us definitely took a lot of his time away from that. I guess that’s pretty much what happened. He just wanted to try it on his own, and, you know what, let the force be with him. He’s a brilliant guy.”
It’s still an open question, she says, as to whether the band will seek a replacement for Toshinsky. “We do hire an electric guitar player when we go out now, and it works fine. I think there’s still enough energy and still enough personalities on stage. Actually, sometimes you feel like there’s a little more air [because] there’s more room for everyone [to] showcase [their] individual talents. Maybe some time we’ll flirt with the notion of bringing in a permanent player.”
Salnikova admits that choosing songs to record can be difficult when so many people are involved. “As a young [act], you pretty much have to come to terms with the fact that a lot of songs you like, the label’s not going to like. And they have the final say until you sell a few million records. So you just submit your best songs. … We’d come up with something we liked and take it to the label, and they would either say yes or say no. This time, it was such a great experience because they let us have almost half of the album.”
The project includes two instrumentals, including Jerry Douglas’ “From Ankara to Izmir,” who also provides his unmistakable Dobro work on the track.
“He’s been a longtime friend of ours, Sasha in particular,” Salnikova explains. “He gave him one of the first Dobros that Sasha ever played after he came to the United States. He still has it and still plays it. Jerry has just been wonderful as a mentor [and] friend. We have played ‘From Ankara to Izmir’ for as long as I remember, practically. … We’ve played it on stage so long, it seemed liked a logical next step to record it.”
That being the case, the band asked Douglas to produce it. “It was a little bit intimidating to work with him,” Salnikova confesses, “because we’re all such big fans. He’s of such caliber that if you’re not self-conscious in his presence, there’s something wrong with you. For me personally, I came up with my solo [for the song] the day before so I would not be unprepared. I was so nervous, but it turned out to be a great experience. He was really patient and encouraging, and he seemed to enjoy what we came up with. He seemed to be pleased with how it turned out.”
As part of its album promotion, Bering Strait will perform on the debut broadcast of a new TV series, Chess MasterMinds, on July 24. The event pits Russian players against a U.S. team in a speeded-up version of the normally slow game. The band will also play Tuesday (July 12) at the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the launch of the series.