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Stern Lecture: An Interview with Barbara Morgenstern

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Dusted's Trent Wolbe chats with Barbara Morgenstern, whose new album, The Grass is Always Greener, is out now.

Stern Lecture: An Interview with Barbara Morgenstern

Interviewed 6/24/2006 after a show at Tonic in New York.

TW: Tell me how you got started touring with John Darnielle [of Mountain Goats].

BM: Actually he asked me. He’s a fan of my music so he asked if I wanted to play the west coast with him. There was also a connection between our booking agents and promoters.

TW: Had you heard his stuff before?

BM: Barely. I mean I knew him, I knew that [Mountain Goats] existed, I heard it at a friend’s, but I wasn’t into the music really. Sorry for that!

TW: But it worked out – you said earlier that the crowds on the west coast were mostly the Mountain Goats crowd and they ended up seeing you as a bonus.

BM: It was like that. They were really into it, I sold a lot of CDs. I thought for me it was a great success. I wanna come back soon to continue somehow, and not to be forgotten again.

TW: When was the last time you were here for shows?

BM: 2003.

TW: And who were you touring with?

BM: With Maximillian Hecker. That was the only other time when I came here.

TW: And that was sponsored by Goethe Institute?

BM: Yes.

TW: Why did they sponsor you for that?

BM: They just asked me! I mean you can’t promote the Goethe institute. They ask the people they want to.

TW: Did they have some sort of expectations for the tour?

BM: No, that’s what we thought at the beginning, that we’d have to fulfill some kind of behavior or something, but they said OK, we ask you for the music, you do the music, that’s it. And if you don’t wanna go out to eat with the people, and if you don’t want to represent something then stay in. And that was a big pleasure to know that they said before, OK, do what you want, be as you are. We ask you for music, play concerts, that’s it. No pressure.

TW: Did you have a drummer, or play alone?

BM: I had a band, but not this drummer [on tour now]. This drummer cancelled 6 weeks before, which was really a pity, more for him than for me. I asked a friend, I had a guitar player with me. But I played the first month of shows alone.

TW: Do you always play with a drummer, or live instrumentation?

BM: Yes, one aspect is not to be alone on the road. I mean if you really play alone, if you’re the top act of the night like yesterday, it’s a lot to do the evening just alone. It’s possible but I think – the drummer played on the record as well, he’s really integrated into the new songs, and I like to play with him. And I think live, it’s more vivid. We can interact, we can have fun together, we can do some improvisations. And I played with a drummer before and he did some keyboards for us too. So it was not just a drummer. He did eDrums. For the album, I did all the stuff in my studio, then went to Hamburg for 4 days to record the drums. After that I went back and cut the drums, put everything in shape, arranged the stuff, went to the studio, mixed it.

TW: Before, you had production help from Robert Lippok…

BM: I mean it’s not really production help, it’s like OK, I want the people. I do everything myself just to prepare the record and then I go to the studio to do the sound. And that’s it. Because I think, OK, my studio is not good enough, so it’s a problem if you have the bass frequencies a certain way, but in the end it’s good to have another person with a distant view on my sound. That’s what I did with Stefan Betke [aka Pole] too. We wanted to do more but it didn’t work out. He doesn’t have the time. But for this record I decided, ok, I’ll do everything myself, I’ll record everything – so I moved to Hamburg, I recorded the drums, I cut them, I know how the sound is going – I’ve been going to the studio of a friend of mine from Tarwater. He’s got a studio and we mixed the album in 3 days. That only means setup, mixing, and sorting out the frequencies – that’s it. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to have any sort of stress in the end. It’s only like, OK, too much bass, or the piano is not clear enough, things like that.

TW: Do you think that this record [The Grass is Always Greener] sounds a lot different than the stuff you did with Stefan Betke or Robert Lippok?

BM: With Robert it’s exactly the same procedure, we work at my studio and then go to Bern to Tarwater’s studio to mix it. With Stefan Betke, I did the album and I was really satisfied with it and my sound is warm somehow. I like low-mids, and so I like this sort of sound. It can be a bit dirty. Stefan, Pole, is really a frequency artist somehow. He really likes to have a clean sound and he wants to play that up. I had the album ready and he wanted to make something like a real electronic album, all of it. He had a new sound system and so he said, ok, do you like this? We had a lot of fights in the studio because I was not satisfied with it and then I was so upset I didn’t do the album at home. My friends, my boyfriend, they all said the album was destroyed. And I was really really upset at first. Stefan and me we are friends, so I thought OK, I want to keep the friendship and I want to have a good album and I don’t want to mix everything again. Let’s find new people, go again through the whole process. Then I went to the studio because Stefan ran out of time, and I did some remixing and I changed some stuff. That’s how it was. It was not that good of an experience to let other people work on my sound. I like to work with other people, with Robert it’s really 50/50. But if it’s my stuff and people come from another view and that doesn’t fit, then it can be stressful. So I thought ok, from now on I want to keep everything in my hands. With the Tarwater guy I know he’s really excellent, we like each other, he’s very respectful of what I do.

TW: He did my favorite remix of one of your songs – “Aus Heiterem Himmel.” Your songs are very easy to listen to – I don’t speak German, so, I don’t know a lot of the lyrical content but it’s very easy on the ears and very smooth and very fun. But for your remixes it seems like you either seek out people or they seek you out and they make your work a little more challenging.

BM: What does it mean, challenging?

TW: A little more difficult to get into – not quite as poppy.

BM: You think? The Ellen Allien mix was really 4 to the floor. The Jimmy Tamborello mix – I love his remix. That was a bit difficult to get into.

TW: How do you seek people out to do remixes?

BM: Just friends. Jimmy is on Monika as well. He released an album as Figurine, another name. So I knew him, we did some shows together in Germany. Tarwater and I are good friends, Ellen Allien is a friend, and the fourth one – [Lawrence] – I loved it. So I asked him.

TW: But everyone who does remixes for you – from your earliest stuff until now –

BM: Friends as well. One was a very old friend from Blumfeld, which is a very successful band in Germany. They were never successful abroad. I don’t know why.

I think they tried to play in England but that’s it. It’s always people I know or who are somehow on the circle of friends.

TW: How much do you play when you’re at home in Berlin?

BM: 2 or 3 times a year. It’s not that much in Berlin. It makes no sense to play there often. And then I just play if people ask me or if I have a record release party or something. I played in a theatre called Folkspriner a lot, a big theatre from East German times. It’s really good and they do a lot of concerts, I play there a lot. I mean I do a tour when through Germany when the record is released, or I just go if people ask me.

TW: Who do you end up playing with when you’re in Berlin? People more on the electronic side or people like Mountain Goats?

BM: Electronic.

TW: Have you done any collaborations with people in a live sense, or do you just perform your own work live?

BM: With Robert Lippok, we did that last year completely. Then I can concentrate on my own record and I did not have to think about playing live in between. I played a lot of shows with him, and improvising with two other friends of mine, so we played some shows last year and the year before. From time to time we play together, so that’s what I do.

TW: Are you playing mostly with dance nights?

BM: Most of them are quiet. With Robert I played with high energy dance shows and with this improvisation I played just quiet shows because improvisation needs a bit of silence. And you sit and you really listen. The stuff I play, you saw yesterday, Tonic was a good reference. I play places like that most of the time.

TW: I noticed there was a whole lot more straight piano sound. Is that a result of your producing it all by yourself or is that a sound you wanted to do for a while?

BM: I mean, I did the other records as well so it’s really my work. I don’t have the feeling that. For Fjorden I asked for Robert to take part in one song. I’m doing all of the stuff, my composition, all that. So it doesn’t matter if I did that. But the reason was I really wanted to play the songs. I wanted to be able to play a whole song on the piano. I wanted to change my instrument, I wanted to move a bit away from the organ. I chose my piano at home.

TW: Are you thinking about your live act while you’re making your record?

BM: I do for sure. I played lots of live shows so I think about that for sure.

TW: Has it made it more fun for you to have the extra piano parts to play?

BM: What do you mean?

TW: I know that a lot of performers here get frustrated with just playing on a laptop.

BM: I never was a pure laptop act. I always played organ. I always played on a song, I played and I played pianos before so that’s the difference from the time before. The amount of live playing is really the same. I mean I play on every song - that’s the idea of me playing live. So that doesn’t change a lot for me feeling-wise.

TW: I feel like the single “The Operator” sounds a little bit different from the rest of the album, a little bit different from the stuff you’ve done in the past. It feels more like a single, very poppy. I don’t know anything about radio in Germany or pop music over there, do you get played on the radio over there?

BM: A bit, not that much. I had about 3 versions of the song, or 4 or 5 or so. So it’s a really long process, and I came back to this version because it fits. It was like this, it wasn’t supposed to be the single for me. For me I wanted to choose the first song. But then Gudrun [Gut] from the label said we choose [the shorter version of the song].

TW: Is there a lot of contact between you and Gudrun and other people at Monika?

BM: Yeah for sure. Not all the time, but we see each other often.

TW: Are you doing collaborations with any of them?

BM: I want to do something with Robert again. For me it was a bit like, too many places to work on. So I wanted to go again on my own. I want to do something with James, who played yesterday as well, James Everest.

TW: Is he involved in other projects?

BM: He plays with his sister and that’s it. We met him in Minneapolis just one week ago. And it was just…he did our shows there, he was the promoter. Did you come yesterday?

TW: I came at about 10.

BM: He was the first to play. The guy with a guitar. That was him. So we met in Minneapolis and we immediately became friends, the drummer and his wife and us. We played some songs together. It was nice.

TW: You talked last night of a song about everywhere in the end booking the same to you when you were touring in different cities. Do you like the process of touring and going around and seeing new places or is it tiring and boring in the end? Do you wish you could stay at home?

BM: To leave home, it’s always hard. It’s like you have to really pull yourself out of everyday life, away from your family. It’s like, ugh! I don’t want to go. But if I’m on the road, then it’s fine. I really enjoy America too, and I was really unsure before I left, I felt, oh shit, should I really do it? And then it’s really fun. It’s half and half. When I’m home I don’t wanna go and when I’m on the road it’s pure fun. I mean it’s great to see all these cities and all these places and for me the world has really opened my horizons, and you are in the countries and you are in the places, and you can take a look and you can get an idea of what’s going on in these places. We traveled China, Uzbekistan, Japan, South Africa, South America. That was really a wide range of places to be. This is a great present I got. But on the other hand, it was really exhausting, this tour! In the end it was hard for me to go back into everyday life and start doing music again and stuff like that.

TW: What kind of crowd did you get in Uzbekistan or South Africa?

BM: It was the same, people of our age. I mean sometimes younger, and I was surprised, the concerts were crowded all over, sometimes gallery people came as well. They were invited by the Goethe Institut. But a lot of normal crowds in normal places, and we played good clubs. In Uzbekistan they went crazy! They were shouting, screaming the whole time because nobody’s coming there to play a show. It was one of the best shows I ever had.

TW: How do you think people there get into your music? Through the internet? I’m always curious as how people in South Africa or wherever end up finding out about your music.

BM: in South Africa they were just invited by the Institut. But South America was brilliant because they knew it from the Internet. And in Uzbekistan I don’t think anybody knew my music. It was like, ok, you have a crowd who’s interested in this kind of music and it’s mostly this kind of American or European-way countries, like Japan they know us. But most of the time it was new for them.

TW: It seems like Uwe Schmidt is building a big empire in Argentina, there’s a lot of music going on down there. Do you interact with him at all?

BM: No, who’s that?

TW: Atom heart.

BM: Isn’t he in Chile? Yes, he’s there for a long time. It’s a huge community of people, of musicians living in Chile. I’ve got friends who went over there and stayed for a while, a friend who lived in Berlin and is connected with Monika. I know about this but I’m not a part of it.

TW: It seems like most of your songs are based on a really simple arpeggiation that builds and builds. When you’re picking up new songs do you start with a simple chord all the time and build on it?

BM: Most of the time I’m really trying to look for something on the piano. But for the new album I really developed it on the piano and then transferred it and arranged it on the computer. So I’m just looking for good combinations like this.

TW: Were you trained at all on the piano?

BM: As a child, just normal lessons at music school.

TW: Is your family musical?

BM: My father and mother both played piano. My grandparents were very musical and they met each other through music. So there was always a lot of music around, and my father was really into music. He was very emotional with music.

TW: Do your parents and family enjoy your music now? Do they come out and see it?

BM: My father died already but he really enjoyed it, that was a big pleasure and my mother as well. I think my father enjoyed it more than my mother. They had a relationship to the music.

TW: Is there anyone right now in Berlin, or anywhere that you’re very interested in hearing what they’re coming out with now, anyone in particular that you’re looking forward to hearing?

BM: Kammerflimmer Kollektiv. Do you know them?

TW: Mmm hmm.

BM: I heard of them a long time ago, and I’m really smashed by that. This is the one that’s really I’m a fan of at the moment.

TW: What label are they on?

BM: Staubgold.

TW: I want to ask you a little bit about Berlin in general. Have you lived there all your life?

BM: No, I’m born in the middle part of Germany, a small town called Hagen, close to the industrial area in Germany. After school I went to Hamburg because there was some kind of course at the university for pop music, only six weeks long. I got to know all of music friends there afterwards. I lived there for a while and then I moved to Berlin.

TW: What year did you move to Berlin?

BM: ‘94.

TW: Has it changed a lot since then?

BM: At the beginning the wall just fell and you’ve got lots and lots of rotten houses, and there was a lot of space for things to do. And then the government moved to Berlin and it became the capital. With this, lots of things changed. I mean the part where I started to live, it’s a really posh place now, now it’s crowded with children, mothers pushing their strollers. It’s changed a lot.

TW: Normally the same thing is happens here. But still a lot of people from the electronic music community here have been moving to Berlin. Do you feel like it’s becoming harder for artists to work there and become successful or whatever they wanna do?

BM: I don’t think so, because the music scene is really open. There’s not a lot of competition. I met the guys from To Rococo Rot, or Pole, or Thomas Fehlmann, so it’s easy to work with them. They are open-minded. It’s not like, “show me what you can do,” so that helps a lot. [pauses to get some grapes]

TW: For most of the songs last night you kind of introduced them telling everyone what the songs were about in German. Do you feel like it’s hard to understand the songs the same way without knowing the lyrics? You seemed a little concerned…

BM: Nobody can speak German in America so that’s why I say that. I don’t do that in Germany. But the lyrics have several meanings so I only say the soft part of them, but I don’t wanna explain … you can look at them from different points of view.

TW: Have you ever thought of writing translations?

BM: Yeah. I wanted to do that for James and he wanted to have me get good translations and put them on the internet so that people would know what I’m singing about.

TW: What do you normally sing about? What’s “The Operator” about?

BM: I can’t tell [you] that [laughs]. The operator is a place where all your questions will be solved. It’s about a violent relationship that has destroyed everything and then you go to the operator and you try to solve your questions. “The Grass is Always Greener” is about being out of home, being homesick, to get your power again and to see the beauty in the details. It’s mostly about seeing the beauty in the details.

TW: You said this album is about good things and bad things happening at the same time.

BM: That’s only the one song “Polar.” The album is a lot about traveling, about the world tour. You get to recognize that mostly every city center looks the same and it’s OK, of course it’s about globalization, how we, the western world and the American economy are overwhelming all the cultures. Like Asia, you find Starbucks and McDonalds everywhere and they lose their traditions, their food tradition. It’s some kind of future. For me it was checking to see the magazines in Asia and in every magazine was a western or European woman, like everyone likes that.

TW: Would you say it’s a little bit political?

BM: Yeah, for sure. I’m satisfied with the lyrics; I try to put it in a poem – like say OK, there’s this war in another way, war in new clothing, war with a new face. And I really dislike that.

TW: What are you working on next?

BM: I think I wanna do a lot of stuff with noise and piano. That’s the idea I’ve got.

TW: Any remixes or anything coming up soon?

BM: Yeah, I did a remix for the drummer we’re playing with, it’s a German band. I’m doing some recordings with the improv group. We’ve got to finish our album.

TW: do you play any other instruments besides piano?

BM: Guitar.

TW: Last time you were here did you play guitar on tour?

BM: No, it’s just, the guitars on the new album I played for myself just like basic guitar playing. When we play in Germany I play guitar for one song in the end. You remember “Teenage Kicks?” It doesn’t make sense to play this without guitar. You’ve got this – duhduhduhdudh [guitar noise]. Like I’ve got a big golden guitar. It’s a pity I can’t play that here, but it’s a baritone guitar, and it’s really big, and I don’t want to carry that here.

TW: Where’s your favorite place to play?

BM: We thought after this tour America because the crowd is so so nice. It’s a good place to play.

TW: I feel like if the album were sung in English and it was coming from here and you were playing here as well it might almost be perceived as a pop record.

BM: That’s not bad.

TW: Not at all.

BM: I mean for the next album, singing one song in English or translating the lyrics in the cover would be nice. But the lyrics are hard to understand in German as well so you really have to read them because it’s a lot of playing with words and not really clear until you really read it.

TW: Why did you choose to sing a couple of words in English on certain songs?

BM: I like these pop phrases. Like “Take me [to the operator]” … and for “Aus Heiterem Himmel,” it’s a nice idea to have one verse in German and one in English. And on the album before I had a song about Hollywood icons. And so I had to sing them in English and it was a song about “happy end,” and this expression doesn’t exist in Germany.

TW: There’s one song where you kept saying “San Francisco.”

BM: I wrote that song in San Francisco! “The Grass is Always Greener.” So I was there and I was homesick and I called my boyfriend and I was really like…I wanna go home and he said, ok, enjoy the time, enjoy the details, take a look at them. That’s what the song is about, this phone call.

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