Z Berg
Photo by Milo Decruz

Z Berg and Friends: A Concert as Intimate as an L.A. House Party

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Musicians Phoebe Bridgers, Wendy & Lisa, Conor Oberst and Jackson Browne all have one thing in common — everyone has, essentially, opened for Z Berg.

“All my best friends are my ex-boyfriends and girlfriends,” says singer and songwriter Z Berg. “There’s very little you can do to get rid of me.”

We’re sitting on the porch at The Darkroom, an old favorite of hers, Berg relaxing with a cider and me hunched over a Guinness. It’s less than a week until the sixth edition of “Z Berg and Friends.”

Berg has put on the show twice this year, featuring a mix of famous and unknown artists. Her shows have become one of the best places in L.A. to see musicians mix-and-match on stage as acts tend to play with each other and everyone joins Berg in the night’s final set. Combine it with her dress code “themes” — “black mass” is the theme for the upcoming show on Dec. 13, and everyone is encouraged to come out wearing all black — and it’s a quasi-interactive night of performance, with plenty of singalongs.

“If we can create something that is lasting out of something that is inherently ineffable and ephemeral and does not last,” Berg says of her “Friends” shows, “there’s some kind of magic to that.”

That goal has seen her through five previous editions, including two prom-themed events and five different lineups. Legends like Wendy & Lisa (of The Revolution fame), Keith Carradine and Jackson Browne have all taken part. Other stars like Phoebe Bridgers and Alex Greenwald — Berg’s twice-bandmate and member of Phantom Planet — also take part. Panic! at the Disco co-founder Ryan Ross, who has made few appearances on record and onstage in the last several years, is a regular. All of them are a part of Berg’s circle in one way or another. Carradine, for instance, is her godfather and Wendy Melvoin produced the debut album of The Like, Berg’s first band, back in 2005.

“I think I’ve run out of friends!” she mock-exclaims. “I think I have to make new friends to make more of [the shows].”

For the Los Angeles-native, her circle of friends have been the centering throughline during her career. She started her first band at 15 and toured the world with her fellow high-school-aged bandmates in The Like. Two releases later (and a style evolution from mellow indie rock to a ’60s girl group with a sneer), the band went on hiatus. JJAMZ, her second band, formed over a drunken karaoke night with friends who were also members of Maroon 5, Rilo Kiley and Phantom Planet. It then evolved into its follow-up, the synth-pop heavy Phases.

At every stop along the way, new collaborators became friends and lovers.

“You have to have your gang,” she says. “When you’ve been doing this your whole life and you’ve been on tour for your whole life … it’s honestly the rare occasion where I date someone who doesn’t play music. It’s a weird alternate reality that you live in if this is the life you choose, as ill-advised as that may be.”

“Which it is,” she adds, talking straight to my recorder. “Don’t play music, kids.”

In person, it’s easy to see why she’s able to keep so many in her orbit. She’s quick with a joke and quicker with a laugh (even a pity one in response to a reporter’s aside). She has a kind of self-deprecating sense of humor that rarely veers into do-we-need-an-intervention territory.

“Z has a way to make you feel like you’re her favorite person on the entire planet, even just minutes after meeting her or talking to her,” says Brittany Holcomb, via email. A fan from Holly Ridge, North Carolina, she flew to Los Angeles to take part in the first Z Berg and Friends Prom, last year, and has attended every “Friends” show since.

“Z has a way to make you feel like you’re her favorite person on the entire planet, even just minutes after meeting her or talking to her.”

Z Berg fan, Brittany Holcomb

“The first time I talked to her, it was about me flying to L.A. for prom and I had told her that it was my first time going to L.A. So, she gave me a list of places I needed to see and restaurants to try. She basically created an itinerary for me and eased my anxiety completely about traveling to a new place. That’s when I realized she was different from other artists. And that I had found something pretty fucking special.”

Berg’s community of fans has meant a lot, especially as it evolved over the years. “I started playing music at 15 in an all-girl, teenaged band, and our fans were 45-year-old MOJO readers, older men,” she says, with a hint of acknowledgment about the creep factor in that. “And now, I’m elderly, and my fans are 11-17 [years old]. Now, at this stage of my life, I have the fans that I really desperately want.”

It was the necessary evil of social media, which the 33-year-old artist practically had to be forced onto by record labels, that brought her the audience she had always sought.

“I’d be on tour in the back of a van, talking to everyone and taking selfies,” she says. “It turned into this thing where people started asking me for advice about being mad at their parents or being bullied in school, and I would just respond. It turned into a thing. And after that, it grew from there, where I kept doing it on Instagram.”

“At the first Prom, there were these three girls who were the first people to fly [to L.A. to see the show]. That was the second show in 2018, and these girls were the first people in line, waiting outside … And I became close to them, and through them, they met the other people in line, and they’ve formed this whole online community that’s become this huge network of friends of people who live all around the world.”

On Friday night, at Z Berg and Friends, that separation will be practically non-existent. She’s said on social media that this might be the last for a while, though she equivocates a bit in our chat – maybe there’ll be a Prom next year and maybe it’ll take place in New York or London, where she’ll be recording with Palm Springsteen, the latest band in which she’s become a member. But for one more night, at least, her community will be all under one roof.

“[To] make these moments that are not just going to a concert, seeing a band and being separated from the artist,” she says, “[but] rather creating this concept of ephemera that leaves a mark, something that stays with you and that you’re a part of, asking people to dress up and be a part of the scene, request songs – it’s not my show. It’s everyone’s show. Even if it’s for 100 people that it matters – it matters to somebody.”

UPCOMING SHOW

Z Berg and Friends “Black Mass” with Ryan Ross, Bruce Hornsby, Brad Oberhofer, Avalon Lurks, Johnathan Rice, Joshua Radin, KERA of Kera and The Lesbians and more. Doors open at 8 p.m. $25. 

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