Sam Richards 

Barbara Morgenstern: ‘German lyrics are still a bit exotic’

Sam Richards: Following our history of German pop and guide to the country's music, we talk to electronic singer-songwriter Barbara Morgenstern about the language of pop and the ever-changing Berlin scene
  
  

Barbara Morgenstern is a singer and composer who has released six albums and numerous EPs of wry electronic pop since 1999, mostly on the Berlin-based label Monika Enterprise. After moving to Berlin from the Westphalian city of Hagen in 1994, she cut her teeth on the emerging wohnzimmer scene, playing in living rooms and temporary bars in lieu of permanent venues. She has collaborated with many of the leading lights of Berlin's electronic scene, including Stefan Betke – aka Pole – and Stefan Schneider and Robert Lippok of To Rococo Rot. Her latest album, Sweet Silence, is her first to be sung exclusively in English. It's also her best record to date.

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Guten Tag Barbara. Why did you decide to only sing in English on your latest album?

Honestly, to make the lyrics more accessible to a wider audience. In the last few years, I have been asked many times if I have translations of my lyrics, so I did them, but of course that's not the same. Then I did a performance based on poems by Afghan women, and all these women write in English. Through this project, I began to speak English again and tried to write English lyrics. After singing in German for a long period, it's still easier and more fun for me to sing in English. I wanted to make a pop album and that's why I decided to give it a try.

Do you feel that pop music, being an Anglophone invention, sounds better sung in English?

Yes. English is the pop language. All of the most popular German bands sing in English, or otherwise they are known for making instrumental or electronic music. German lyrics are still a bit exotic, maybe.

Is it frustrating that you feel you have to sing in a foreign language to get your music heard by a wider audience, or even to make it work from a musical point of view?

No, because the lyrics are a big part of my music, and I prefer that more people can understand them. I don't feel resentful because English has become an everyday thing for almost everybody I know. For example, my boyfriend is a designer and he's working with a guy from Hungary, and they communicate in English. I have a choir here in Berlin with people from Korea and Israel, and we speak in English. It is the international communication language. So for me, it's natural to use English in my lyrics.

Sweet Silence was produced by Marco Haas aka T Raumschmiere, known for rabble-rousing punk techno anthems lsuch as Monstertrucker. He doesn't seem like an obvious fit for your music – why did you choose him?

We've been friends for years through a family connection and I thought he would be appropriate for this album because I wanted to go in the club direction. He has a fresh and somewhat pushy sound but more importantly he's just a big music lover and so much fun to work with. I did worry that my songs were way too soft for Marco, but he got really into the details of my music and we came up with something new together. He went really on my trip and that was a great experience. It's the not the easiest part of the process for me to give away control, but in the end I think it's helpful to let someone else in. We played live together, too.

Has he joined your band?

It was just for the record release show here in Berlin. Marco played bass on three songs, and another guy called Marc Resier from Rechenzentrum was singing. For the other shows, I will go on tour with a singer called Tonia Reeh and she's an excellent keyboard player as well. I'm really looking forward to this because I've never done my songs on stage with another singer before.

You've collaborated with some interesting people over the years, including, on your previous album, Robert Wyatt …

That was a dream come true. I adore him for his music, and to find a letter in the post from Robert Wyatt, that was more than I can dream of.

What do you look for in a collaborator?

Someone who can step out of their own circle and who pushes you in directions you couldn't go yourself. When I do my own records I usually work alone in my studio, and so collaborations are a chance to open my mind to new experiences.

Was it because of the emerging music and arts scene of the early 90s that you were originally drawn you to Berlin?

Yeah, totally. I went there with friends I met in Hamburg and we decided it was the only place to go to make music. And the dreams we had came true for us. The music scene was very open – there was a warm welcome. In the early 90s it was really a wonderful time here in Berlin, because there were all these illegal parties and lots of places to play. Everything was self-made and it was a vivid scene. I met Pole and Thomas Fehlmann and To Rococo Rot and we became a musical family.

Did meeting those musicians influence your adoption of an electronic sound?

That was more to do with the situation. I started playing in living rooms so I got used to playing with reduced equipment. The first songs I did were based on computer drum sounds plus an organ. I loved this minimalistic way of working, it was so easy – you start a beat, you play the organ, that's the song. From there, I synchronised an Atari with a tape machine, and then I came to the Mac. I was always creating my own sound world. I found it boring to have a band with drums, bass, guitar. Also the club scene was huge here, with all the spaces such as Tresor and Berghain. It was very nice and we were all influenced by it.

How has Berlin changed over the last 20 years?

It's changed a lot. All the illegal bars have closed and maybe it's become a bit more posh. Cities get renovated and you have gentrification, so every five years there's a big movement from one part of the city to the next. But still Berlin is special. All the musicians are coming here and there's still a lot happening. There is a lot of space and it's still cheap to live. Of course, some clubs are closing down but new ones are opening up.

There's a track on your last album, Come to Berlin, which is scathing about gentrification …

Yes, because you are sad about past times, but on the other hand you know it's natural. I'm always thinking about the changing city and what is my part in this movement, so that's why I wrote that song.

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So you're not necessarily bemoaning the fact that loads of international hipsters have moved to Berlin, outnumbering the artistic community who made it such a cool destination in the first place?

Well, sometimes you are on the streets and you think nobody is speaking German any more! But that's part of the attraction of Berlin. If you go to New York, there are a lot of foreigners there as well. It's nice that interesting people come here. What I find more frustrating is that parts of Berlin are starting to look like other cities – the same shops, the same areas. I hope this globalisation doesn't happen too much to Berlin.

Have you seen or heard any exciting new music in Berlin recently?

I can really recommend Tonia Reeh, the girl I'm working with for the live shows. She's really outstanding. Then there's a band called Lonski & Classen, just a guitar player and a drummer. I saw a show of theirs recently and it was really nice. Also there is a band called Gebrüder Teichmann. They went to Kabul to collaborate with local musicians, which was quite difficult, but they made an interesting documentation evening from it.

Tell us about the choir you mentioned earlier …

I've been doing it since 2007. It's based at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which is the building that looks like a sea shell, next to the government building. They invite groups from Asia or South America or Africa to play in Berlin. The last project we did was with a band from Colombia called the Meridian Brothers. Before that, we improvised with Harmonia, the electronic pioneers. And also we did a project with an artist who was doing a memorial work about the closing of one of the Berlin airports. As a choir, we performed the take-off and the landing of a Boeing. I wrote it like a real music script and now other choirs can sing it as well. The choir is like a playground for me where I can get a chance to try out different things I'm not doing as a solo artist.