BRATTLEBORO—Singer and songwriter Damaris Bernhard doesn’t want to call her upcoming show on March 25 at the Hooker Dunham Theater in Brattleboro a farewell concert, even though that is exactly what it is.
“You see I have done so many farewell concerts that people will be saying, ’There she goes again,’” Bernhard confesses, going on to admit that this isn’t the first time she has proclaimed she was moving: “In the past, I never stayed away for good.”
Even if she already has practically given more farewell performances than Sarah Bernhardt, Bernhard — who bills herself simply as “Damaris” when she performs — nonetheless has good reason to believe that she really won’t be returning to Vermont this time.
“I have been taking care of an elderly parent, which is the main reason I continually returned to the area,” she says. “My mother passed this summer, so I lost the major tie I had keeping me here.”
The truth is, Bernhard has another place where she longs to return.
At home out west
On and off for many years, Bernhard has also made a home for herself in Bisbee, Ariz., an old mining town about seven miles from the Mexican border.
“With a population of less than 6,000, Bisbee is a community of artists,” Bernhard says. “The town is not on the way to anywhere. It may not be located in most beautiful part of Arizona, but the town is gorgeous. Unfortunately, it has become a bit touristy in that last 10 years, but not enough to ruin its charm. With its sun and weather, it is a most creative place for me, where I play a lot of music and dance, my two main artistic expressions.”
Bernhard hasn’t found a lot of time for her art lately. For the past decade, she has emphasized another role for herself: that of a spiritual counselor.
Bernhard writes at her website, damarisbernhard.com, that her “dedicated path began over 20 years ago, delivering me to the formal call of ministry in 2004. As a Minister and InterSpiritual Counselor my commitment is to provide confidential and compassionate spiritual support to all who seek it, regardless of religious affiliation, economic status, age, race, gender, or sexual orientation.”
Bernhard explained to The Commons that when she “came back east from Bisbee in 2004,” it was to New York City, where she attended a seminary.
A current member of Spiritual Directors International, Bernhard graduated and was ordained as an Interfaith Minister by One Spirit Interfaith Seminary, a two-year Interfaith Seminary program. Following ordination, she completed a two-year postgraduate program at One Spirit Learning Alliance, receiving certification in Interspiritual Counseling.
Interfaith/Interspirituality, as she writes, “is not denomination specific, seeking instead to engage at the level of our shared essential spirituality. Drawing on the accumulated wisdom and experience of the many religions, spiritual philosophies, and cultures of the world, boundaries begin to recede, thus lessening the perception of separation and accentuating our shared humanity.”
Bernhard says, “I never wanted to be any kind of congregational minister, but the focus for me for many years, and in fact still, has been spiritual counseling.”
She writes that Spiritual Counseling is “an ancient contemplative practice common to many faith traditions. The intent of which is to explore and engage in a living partnership with God, as you experience God, and to notice the presence of the Divine in one’s daily life.”
A spiritual connection
Bernhard emphasizes that her work “is not denomination-specific but rather seeks to draw on the wisdom and practices from many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions.”
But if the truth be known, the two sides of Bernhard’s life aren’t so disparate. In fact, she believes that her music also has been directly influenced by her spiritual path.
“Music is a universal language and I hope that what I do will make people feel less alone, and feel more connection to themselves and others,” she says. “Ultimately, my music is about the intense experience of connection within oneself and to each other.”
Bernhard feels that words are a very important part of her music.
“I write about the experience of being alive,” she says. “I do not write ballads, but rather what it’s like to be me. People tell me that what I sing touches them. They can relate to the stories I sing. People cry, laugh, and identity with what I sing about. But none of this is too deadly serious. My music is filled with humor.”
With her Hooker Dunham concert as the transition, Bernhard intends to revitalize her music career when she moves back to Bisbee. “There is a strong music community there, and I am excited about performing more,” she says. “People are expecting me.”
In concert, Bernhard performs only her own work.
An acoustic musician, Bernhard plays the guitar and harmonium. She also plays clawhammer banjo, a varied banjo playing style and a common component of American old-time music, a style of Appalachian Mountain music quite different from bluegrass. She mastered this style when she joined a group of musicians who would gather on Sundays to play old-time music and drink beer.
“I guess I would characterize my music as contemporary folk, although the styles of my songs can range from blues to jazz and folk,” she says. “I was greatly influenced by Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly when I was young, and other people who has a big impact on me are Bonnie Raitt, Leo Kottke, Stevie Wonder, Laura Nyro, and Rickie Lee Jones, whom I adore.”
Generally, she composes the words and music to her songs at the same time.
“I do not craft songs in any traditional sense,” she explains. “In a way, I feel I can’t take credit for my music. It seems to come right through me. For instance, I wanted to create a song for the end of my last concert about that specific feeling of being not alone. Suddenly the song just fell out. It was there.”
Bernhard is humbled by the process of songwriting. “I believe it to be a true honor to be a musician,” she says.
Even if recently her music has taken a backseat to her spiritual counseling, Bernhard has still been writing songs. “In the songs I wrote this last decade, I have been exploring a different part of myself.”
At the Hooker-Dunham concert, Bernhard will play this work as well as compositions that are 15 or 20 years old. She says with a laugh, “I haven’t played some of this music for so long that I have had to relearn my own work for this concert.”