Essence Goldman Is Changing Lives Through the Power of Music

Essence Goldman sings “Unusual Boy” to Bernie Dalton in this Tiny Desk Concerts video (From a video by Ari Gold)

Essence Goldman, whose family has roots in San Francisco that pre-date the Gold Rush, was having a hard time processing her parents’ divorce. But then her father gave her a gift that would change everything: a Walkman and a notebook.

“I was pretty distraught about the divorce and my dad gave me a notebook he called the ‘book of feelings’ and told me to write what I was feeling and give it a place to live on those pages — so I did,” Goldman says. “I felt a bit lighter when I did it and that was, I think without realizing it, when I first started writing lyrics.”

Goldman grew into a talented musician and songwriter, but success would elude her: she was signed with and then eventually dropped from three major labels, leaving her unsure about her career. She turned to vocal coaching in 2004. “I started teaching just to support myself, and I loved it,” Goldman says. “At first it felt like failure, but it actually became life-defining.”

The realization that she was on the right path began when student Bernie Dalton — a surfer and single father who, at age 46, decided to finally take his music seriously — started driving all the way from Santa Cruz for vocal lessons. In only two months Dalton had begun to make huge strides in his technique, when he inexplicably lost his voice. Not sure what was going on, Goldman and Dalton shifted the lessons to songwriting and lyrics, but then more troubling symptoms began to appear: difficulty swallowing, weight loss, drooling. It took a year but ultimately Dalton was diagnosed with ALS.

“We had become pretty good friends and when he was diagnosed, I was one of the first people he told,” she says. “I also helped him tell his daughter, which was heartbreaking.” She asked Dalton what he wanted to do with his remaining time and he was very clear: make an album.

Goldman asked how that was going to be possible since he couldn’t speak, sing or play guitar anymore.  Dalton’s answer was simple. “I want you to become my voice. I want you to put melody and music to my words,” he said. Goldman told him she had no idea how to do that for somebody else and Dalton responded, “Nice try. I want to make a record.”

Goldman put the recording of her own album on hold and asked the musicians she was collaborating with to instead direct their focus to bringing Dalton’s music to life. Guitarist and producer Roger Rocha, multi-instrumentalist Daniel Berkman and producer David Simon-Baker gathered with Goldman to compose, record and form the band Bernie and the Believers to make the album happen. Donations for the project and for Dalton’s heath care (he didn’t have insurance at the time) poured in from all over the world.

With the world watching — the band’s video for “Unusual Boy,” featuring Dalton’s lyrics, was played on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts (and later reprised live on the program) and was a topic on All Songs Considered, all in 2018 — Goldman made Dalton’s dream a reality and learned something about herself in the process.

“I would have to say that Bernie taught me how to sing. Which is crazy, because I was the singing teacher. All he had to do was look at me when I was singing the songs that we wrote together,” Goldman says. “I was singing for him. I channeled him and he came through me and I sang in a way I never had before. I sang like my life depended on it, because his life depended on it.”

For Dalton, who passed away in May 2019, the album, called Connection, meant everything. “He said that it was the best thing he had ever done in his life,” Goldman remembers. “And that the people who he worked with on the record were the best friends he’d ever had.”

Goldman is gearing up to finally release her own album, Father’s Daughter, this fall and has also started a nonprofit in San Anselmo in partnership with Marin Link called Believe Music Heals that will make music healing programs available to those experiencing hardship and distress as well as those with chronic and terminal illness. But Dalton is never far from her mind and she is working with John Legend and his Get Lifted team on a feature film about Dalton’s life and how his experience forever changed the student and his teacher.

Essence Goldan sitting in a field with a guitar
Essence Goldman (Photo by Laura Kudriski)