Born in 1971 in Hagen (Germany), a small town near Düsseldorf, Barbara Morgenstern’s “affair” with music started quite precociously. She began taking jazz-piano lessons as a young girl and, after spending some time in Hamburg, in 1994 she moved to Berlin, where, after some musical projects and in few years, she would become one of the most influential and active musicians from the German electronic music scene.
Her name is linked with two things: one is Monika Enterprise, the Berlin based record-label run by Gudrun Gut (a fundamental figure of the Berlin scene since the very early 80’s), where she releases her records. The second, and most important, is her sound: a very personal mix of electronics with a pop attitude that often oscillates between the melancholic and the optimistic mood, all inmersed in a beautiful layer of harmonies, both vocal and instrumental. Besides her own releases, she is also well-known for her collaborations with prestigious musicians. One of her most frequent companion is Robert Lippok (To Rococo Rot), also member of the Monika crew, with whom she released an EP and the splendid LP Tesri in 2005. But she also is part of project called September Collective, where along Stefan Schneider (Mapstation, To Rococo Rot, Kreidler) and Paul Wirkus, they work on the improvisation field. They released an eponymus album in the label Geographic in 2004 and next month, in May, their second album All the birds were anarchist will be released at Mosz Records.
Barbara’s life is the one of a musician, always open to an exchange of ideas and travelling from one end to the world to the other, playing live sets and discovering new places and stimulus than then she filters through her unique point of view. Barbara agreed kindly to be interview by Self Selector after her return from New Zealand, where she spent the month of March invited by the Goethe Institut and the Institut Français to play live set and compose with the French musician Fred Avril.
Barbara’s releases at Monika Enterprise: Vermona ET 6-1 (1998), Fjorden (2000), Nichts Muss (2003) and The Grass is Always Greener (2006).
What infatuated you first, composing or singing? How did your “love story” with music started and when did you know that music was going to be your way of living?
I started composing songs at the age of 16 . I was a singer in a pop band called “The Lovesongs” (what a creative name!) and took jazz-piano lessons. My dream was to become a jazz piano-player, but I failed because I’m really not keen on rehearsing tunes and scales. But I learned a lot concerning harmonies and since then, I started to get familiar with the jazz idea of improvisation as a way to compose songs.
Many musicians in electronic music tend to compose instrumental songs or feature someone else singing, but you do both. What comes first when you are composing, a vocal melody or musical base?
Mostly the musical base, because I’m such a big fan of looking for uncommon harmony structures.
You work in several projects: your own, your collaborations with Robert Lippok and September Collective. What is your approach, your input, to each of them?
With Robert Lippok we compose together, which means the composition is divided in two halfs and the final output becomes the quintessence of Robert and me. September Collective is based on improvisation. There my part is looking for good melodies and harmonies, playing piano and organ. I just came back from New Zealand where I was invited to compose with the French musician Fred Avril. With him I composed songs, wrote lyrics together and sang a lot, which was new to me after all that instrumental work. So collaborations always open up a new musical side of me.
Tesri (2005), her joint album with Robert Lippok and the Aus Heiteren Himmel single, one of her most famous songs.
You form part of the Berlin scene but, because of the sound of your music, as well as for your usual musical partners, it reminds me more of the Düsseldorf scene. Is there still a difference between both cities? What city you consider more interesting in musical terms?
Berlin is much bigger and so is the music scene, which does not mean, that it’s necessarily more interesting. In Düsseldorf are still a lot of things happening (Kreidler, Mapstation… etc.), but I would consider Berlin more interesting, because people from everywhere are constatly moving here, so we have musicians from all over the world and a few more good places to listen to interesting music.
You are one of the most fundamental artists on Monika Enterprise, run by the fantastic Gudrun Gut. How is your relationship with such an historical figure of the Berlin scene and why was Monika your label of choice to develop your musical career?
Gudrun and me really became good friend through all the years and she’s very important for me, because of her long-term support. She has just released her new album (“I put a record on”) and we will go on tour in the USA in September 2007, hopefully driving a nice cabriolet from town to town to rock all the public! Monika actually “chose me” and I’m really happy about it! In 1994 I was part of the so called living-room scene. We used to organize concerts in our own living rooms and it reminded Gudrun a lot of what she used to do in the 80’s, so she asked me if I would like to release an album on Monika and so it all started.
Tell me your process to make a record. What instruments and tools you usually use. Do you prefer more analogic tools and field recordings, a more organic sound, or are you infatuated by the possibilities of having “an orchestra within a computer”, programming and all that?
Actually, I didn’t use so many analog tools for the last albums, so I’m programming a lot and using virtual synthesizers. Every once in a while I record some strings, guitars or drums. But it’s true, my old east-german organ called Vermona ET 6-1 was my best companion during the last 10 years! For my last album, “The Grass Is Always Greener”, I used a lot my piano and I’m moving more and more into the direcction of analog instruments. I think the next album will be mostly based on piano, but you never know! I’m working a lot with my computer as well.
I wish I could, but I can’t understand your lyrics (as I dont speak German!). What are they usually about? Are they an important issue to you (writting another important means of expression) or you privilege the music and the words are just a way of filling in the best way the vocal melodies?
The lyrics are quite important to me. They are very personal, but I try to put my experiences on a more general level. Most of my lyrics – I hope – can work as poems as well. I try to find good formulations. Lyrics are a good way to draw a conclusion of topics that are concerning me, periods I went trough or experiences I’ve had.
To me, you are a master of mixing intimist, introverted music with a certain pop touch. Your songs are sometimes melancholic but with an optimistic essence. How would YOU define your music?
Oh, that´s hard to say! I always say (if people ask me) “I’m composing songs with German lyrics and arrange them electronically”. But I guess that is too general! My music is a bit strange and very personal, bitter-sweet is a word that fits quite well. I hope I can touch people with my music and say something in-between the lines, even music-wise, because to me that is the great power of music: It can communicate topics and emotions without words. And that is proved to me, when I see that I can reach people in foreign countries, where they do not understand German.
I read that the “The Grass Is Always Greener” is about how happy and sad moments often happen next to each other. How everythig can change completely (in both direcctions) which I think is a beautiful concept that I can relate completely to. You are already working on your new album, I think. Do you already have any sort of concept for it? When it will be released and what can we expect from it?
The next album will be based on piano, because I love to play the piano right now and I want to escape from loop-composing with the computer, which can be a huge trap. But I’m at the beginning of the album right now, so it’s hard to say what it will be like. I can only tell about the rough idea I have. Also, I was asked by the “House of World Culture” in Berlin to form a choir, which is a big, new challenge. This new task takes a lot time at the moment, so I can’t say anything about the release date yet. Hopefully it will be out next spring.
You remix songs for other artists and have yours remixed as well, what does that intercourse provides you?
It is interesting to play around with the tracks of other people. Sometimes real new things happen, and the other way round, with my own music remixed by someone else.
Where do you usually find your inspiration to compose?
I get a lot of inspiration from conversations and walks . I’m a passionate walker. And of course records and concerts inspire me a lot.
So what music do you listen to? What are your favourites musicians from now and always?
I brought back a wonderful album from New Zealand from a woman called Bachelorette, she’s doing electronic music with wonderful harmonies (www.myspace.com/bachelorettepop ). Because of the work for the choir I listened to different music styles during the last weeks, which was totally interesting and inspiring. I have listened to old soul-classics like Al Green, Nina Simone, Jimy Cliff and tons of independent music. Stina Nordenstam, Feist and Radiohead impressed me again. And I can really recommend the last album of LCD Soundsytem, fantastic dance music!
Her “music cave” in New Zealand and cover of the first September Collective album.
More info at: http://www.barbaramorgenstern.de/