Life & Culture

‘I always seek joy, so happy songs just spill out of me’

Former Immanuel head boy and Oxford graduate Bertie Green gave up a job in the City to write music, and this week he releases a series of singles. Elisa Bray meets him


Bertie Green didn’t pay much attention when his music was slammed by a critic as being “too happy”. That joyful sound, which courses through the singer-songwriter’s songs, was shaped by lively Shabbat dinners with his large family.

Although Bertie started learning classical piano and cello at the age of six, it was his mother’s penchant for getting him up on the chair to sing on Friday nights that provided his earliest and most formative musical training. “From a very young age I was taught to sing for my supper,” he says with a smile. “It was a very hectic, lively Shabbat table, filled with joy.”

Family occasions — involving his three sisters and multiple nieces and nephews, the oldest of whom are only a couple of years younger than him — have always been noisy and busy as they share jokes and stories, and sing together.

And his parents were always hosting. “Those environments were definitely a breeding ground for me as the entertainer and the musician,” he says. “Entertaining and connecting with people has always been a big part of my identity.”

What he gained from those get-togethers is the sense of a “collective experience and connection through music”. And that joyousness was bolstered by the campfire sing-a-longs he attended with youth movement Bnei Akiva in his teens.

“I end up writing happy songs,” the 25-year-old shrugs over Zoom, pointing out that three of the four singles that he is releasing, from 25 January, are just that. “It’s just what comes out of me. I love joy, I love comedy. As much as I can in my music and my life, I seek things that bring joy.”

Take the first exuberant single Weekend Lovers, an open-hearted song inspired by a night out at a party when he spontaneously invited a Deliveroo driver to join his friends. Bertie’s passion for entertaining extends to the accompanying witty and captivating videos he has made with his friend Joshua Rocker since they were at school together.

He released his first single under the name Ben Izak while he was still at school. Called Wildest Dreams, it was produced by Aaron Horn at his veteran producer father Trevor’s Sarm Music Village studios in Ladbroke Grove, London.

Bertie is “super excited” about his musical development since then, and has recently been honing his craft with live performances. Last year, he toured extensively, playing a total of 70 shows at venues including Glastonbury, the Roundhouse and Ronnie Scott’s. In December he performed at Limmud to rapturous applause.

“The early songs are unabashedly joyful,” he explains. “And as I’ve developed and grown as a person, the artistry has become more mature, and reflected on my journey. It’s difficult to be honest in art, but I think the songs have become better reflections of me.”

It didn’t take long for Bertie to graduate from performing at the Shabbat table to weddings. At five, he joined the Lauderdale Road Synagogue choir as the boy soprano, and one of his earliest memories of simcha-singing was at Bevis Marks Synagogue (he was so little that he couldn’t understand why he wasn’t invited to the party that followed).

A guitar-strumming uncle who loved Van Morrison always played at family gatherings, but Bertie’s main inspiration for taking up the instrument and teaching himself, aged 14, was a pretty girl on summer camp. “We were talking and it was going great and then a chap comes in with a guitar, and bang, she’s over there and they’re all singing.” He thought, “I’ve got to learn.” “The way that everyone was singing around the campfire together, connecting and having a great time, I thought it’s such a powerful, lovely thing.”

Cliff Richard’s The Young Ones was the first song he learnt on guitar, and soon after, once he had mastered a few chords, the songwriting started. “It was a very instinctive feeling. Once I had the guitar unlocked, it brought together a process I’d been on in my youth.”

His musical journey continued throughout his schooling at Immanuel College, where he was head boy, but came to a halt when he went to Oxford where he read English. He describes his time there as “commercial, corporate”, and not very conducive to creativity at all.

“I wanted to be a musician since I was 14…” he sighs. “I found the studying all-encompassing and intense. It didn’t give me much space to really eke out what I wanted to do. It was like doing a nine-to-five job and then some, and I just got caught up in this tumble dryer of doing exams. I lost my way in it all, and suffered quite badly with anxiety. I wasn’t looking after myself properly or respecting myself.”

His anxiety continued during his degree and followed him to his first job in City where he worked in finance and where he was very unhappy. “I’d wake up every morning and think, God, I hate this job, it really isn’t me. Am I going to be doing this when I’m 40? If they’re paying me more, I’m still going to hate it. I was fighting a battle every day.”

And the battle was so demanding that he was only able to write songs at the end of very long working days, sometimes at 11 o’clock at night. But he found the time because music was his solace. So much a solace that he slowly came to the realisation that he had to honour his life-long dream of being a musician, spending his life doing something that he actually enjoyed. However, quitting his well-paid job was terrifying. “I was very scared. I used to wake up at two or three in the morning terrified, because I’d jumped into the unknown.”

Overcoming that anxiety is the subject of his song Alien and Bertie found that the more he played it live and the more he wrote other songs, the more vindicated he felt about quitting finance for music.

“I needed to really be in the music, to really be in, if you like, what I love doing.” But his new path has been hard work, not least because he does all his own marketing. “I’m probably working even harder now than I did when I was in the City, and ​with more uncertainty, and certainly with less pay. But I am enjoying it. I love songwriting and I love performing and connecting with people.”

Now based in Brighton, Bertie married his long-term girlfriend, a doctor, last year. Smiling, he points to the baby picture (of my son) on the wall behind me. Is he feeling broody, I wonder. “I’m going on some tours before I have children, but I love little ones,” he says. “My overarching dream is to be able to feed and support a family from my music. The feeling I get when I play with people is so special.”

Weekend Lovers is out now.

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