Ute Lemper is one of the world’s most rated and raved-about interpretative singers, and the acknowledged expert when it comes to Brecht & Weill. She spoke to Gary Steel about her Angels Over Berlin show, and much more.
Witchdoctor – Have you ever had a situation in performance when your instrument – your voice – let you down, and do you have any fear about that?
Ute Lemper – Once your vocal chords are healthy you can do anything. It would be bad if you wouldn’t speak at all, because the muscle would just get very weak and not withstand the strong abuse through a concert, so the more you use it the better in general, but always it’s important to stop when you feel it is getting tired or you feel the slightest strain of a cold or anything that could swell up the chords. You have to know the instrument well, but right now it’s in good shape, and I could scream at my kids or at the neighbours or anyone without a problem now. Usually the worst thing is to go to a bar with a very loud noise level and you have to speak on top of it, that’s the worst thing you can do, because you stress the chords in a very unhealthy way, you just push and pressure on them with basically no technique to get over the noise level. But in general, yes of course it’s happened over the years, your vocal chords let you down when you have laryngitis and they’re directly effected by the infection, swollen up red and like two uneven sausages not being able to close properly and creating a proper vibrato. In those circumstances sometimes it’s possible with technique to trick your way through it. Sometimes you can sing through a cold and actually see it heal from day to day as the infection goes away, but yes… The worst thing I ever did was definitely being on Broadway and doing these musicals with eight shows a week for a year or two years. That is absolutely the worst and you end up with a vocal node after a year. You never get a chance to recoup or rest the voice and slowly it creeps in like a little callus and then it becomes thicker and then suddenly you have a polyp and that’s a very awful thing because it takes a long time to get rid of. That happened twice to me over 25 years and once after Chicago and once after Cabaret, the musical. And every time I say to myself I will never do these shows again. It’s just very unhealthy for the cords, then it takes a year or so to really get back to where you want to be with the instrument. It’s a very long recuperation.
W – Have you heard about Whitney Houston’s recent problems in performance?
U – Well what is wrong with her? Is she under drugs again?
W – She toured Australia and half the crowd walked out because it was all scratchy and she couldn’t hit the notes. If that ever happened to you would you cancel?
U – I wouldn’t sing, I would cancel the show. If you can’t deliver, and you can’t even do 50 percent that’s not a good thing. First of all you damage terribly the instrument even more, just scream on a broken violin, you’ll totally break it. A very dangerous thing. That’s your death sentence as a singer. You can do it once, twice maximum, but the third time I would say it’s a very bad thing. I don’t know, did she get some shots? Sometimes some cortisone shots help in a situation like this, if you have to perform, or you have to cancel. And either she had an infection, or her chords have just gone, through a lot of alcohol and drug abuse. Whatever she did, they certainly don’t stay healthy.
W – It’s interesting that some singers – for instance Marianne Faithful – have managed to sustain a career through interpretive singing with very limited vocal range, but I guess someone like Whitney relies on a certain vocal range.
U – Or Aretha Franklin’s soul voice, that’s what people want to hear her do, it’s the big beautiful voice she had on her first two albums. Yeah, the Marianne Faithful thing is a miracle, but it is what it is, it’s her vibe, and her very husky, whisky voice which makes her attractive. And everything she sings, she doesn’t need three octaves, she needs one octave, and most of it in the baritone octave of the male [laughs]. She is safe, she can speak through it. [laughs].
W – By the same token you’ve interpreted works by people like Nick Cave… people whose own vocals are pretty limited.
U – Yeah but that’s okay, as long as you create your story, your character inside your music, it doesn’t really matter how many octaves. I mean sometimes I find the acrobatic singing annoying. The wailing and non-stop up and down, it’s kind of exhausting to listen to. So of course it’s very nice to have somebody like Norah Jones who doesn’t have a big voice at all, very limited, very soft little piano voice, yet on a recording it sounds great, because it gives you a tranquility you need. But in a live performance you want to see a little more than that, and even Norah Jones could potentially get… I read today in the New York Times she was performing and the reviewer said the performance is dull, it was very low energy and muddy somehow in a live performance. So the live persona is always a little different. A long time ago I saw Sade whom I loved of course in the ‘80s with her albums, very straight vocals on the album, nothing exuberant, but then in the show, she had a totally different voice, she had a great soul voice and she improvised and went up and down and had a much stronger attacker, which was coming over very well with the audience and was very surprising.
W – You were last down in New Zealand in 2003 I believe. Do you remember much about this part of the world?
U – Unfortunately it was the last leg of the tour, and as I have the kids I always try to get back quickly, so I didn’t really see the countryside. I got sued at the customs because I forgot a quiche in my bag, they’re so strict, the customs with food import, illegal food import, and there was a quiche stuck from Australia, in my bag, and I had forgotten about it, and they sued me for 200 bucks and they almost locked me up for my little quiche! [laughs] It was terrible, they took a picture of me. It was like I get a criminal record because of the quiche in my bag. But I remember the concert was great and I remember the audience was such a wonderful vibe, so the moment of the performance I remember very well.
W – Can you explain a bit about the Angels Over Berlin show?
U – Yes, it’s a show which basically wraps up the last seven years since I haven’t been there in New Zealand and Australia. Of course there are many chapters and it’s very hard to put into one show everything I explored over those years. I will stick most of all to my root repertoire which is Kurt Weill and Brecht and original stuff from the good old Weimer Republic, but I also explore the world of Tango which I enjoyed so much over the last years, the original Argentinian Tango written by Astor Piazzolla. There will be a nice cycle of tangos by Piazzolla in Spanish, and therefore we have a wonderful bandonean player in the band, the bandoneon being the original instrument of the Tango. I’m just in love with the poetry of Haracio Ferrer and the music of Piazzolla, it’s just a very deep philosophical passionate explosion of music, it’s really fantastic. And there’s a new cycle of songs by Jaques Brel; I used to sing Brel for a while but these are all new songs, new for me to interpret, and there’s a bit of Nina Rota, the beautiful composer to the Fellini movies. I’ll sing ‘La Strada’ and ‘Amarcord’, then there is yes my own songs of course, I have recorded an album of my own songs two years ago, called Between Yesterday & Tomorrow, and this is an entire album with my own stuff, and I will bring a couple of them into my show which are very much fun, very vibey, musical and groovy, songs about my life. I think New Zealand was one of the first times I ever sang my song ‘Ghosts Of Berlin’ on stage, it was kind of an experiment. I might sing the song again in a different version.
W – Do you agree with the stereotypical idea of Brecht being the more austere, intellectual side of things and the French and Argentinian being more sensuous?
U – Yes Brecht is definitely the intellectual, the poet, the politician, the one who thinks about changing the world and revealing injustice and exploitation in the world, a hardcore intellectual I would say, with a great soul and a great emotion, and a great poet. The Argentinian is definitely very philosophical. Piazzolla was the innovator of tango, he wasn’t a traditionalist at all, he broke all the rules, to the upset of the traditionalists, and brought a whole new world of sorrow and philosophy and existentialism into the tango. Yes it’s more meaty and bloody and passionate, the French and the Argentinian, and the German is far more intellectual. But it’s also theatrical, first of all, because the characters that Brecht always created through his intellect were very passionate characters, revolutioners [sic] and whores and sailors and criminals. So definitely very earthy people, they were his creations, out of a very intellectual mind he created very earthy people.
W – I read you were doing a Bukowski project?
U – The Bukowski project we created about half a year ago for a literature festival in Milan, and it became like a theatrical project which was produced with a director on stage in Spain. We’re bringing it to the big cities and hopefully this year to the States, but first of all it’s France and Italy, and Spain. And it’s a cycle of poems, 24 poems I took out of three different books, and I put them into music, and created this journey through his life through his poetry, but in music of course. Then we decided to take an actor, an older actor, incorporating the persona of Bukowski who through the musical story actually speaks the poetry. So the music is almost like his hallucination or his muse, his imagination and he is the man in the armchair drinking and being at his typewriter creating this rather surreal world. It’s very exciting and very multimedia – there are screens on stage, very downtown, very garage, and very different to the other stuff I do.
W – And you were familiar with his work?
U – Yes I had interpreted a couple of his poems and music before, but it was just like an experiment, I never made songs out of the poems, so at some point I said to myself let’s check this out and I read through all the books and picked out some poems which had some kind of form that I would be able to put this into music, and it works. It was done very quickly, and of course I was obsessed by that, and it was a very satisfying… I love his work, and I did not chop up the poems at all, they’re original form, they’re untouched out of respect of course, and I’m very excited about it.
W – It’s a pity he’s not still around to see his reaction to it.
U – His wife is still around, I actually have some contact with her, once we have recorded the stuff I have to send it to her for approval. She’s still around, she’s taking care of his foundation.
W –I’ll just ask a question that I’m sure you’ve been asked hundreds of times before… I’m keen to know when you’re singing do you feel that you’re really inhabiting the characters of the songs, because of course so many of the songs have a kind of narrative and various characters. Do you every time feel like you’re inhabiting those characters, or…
U – It’s more like the other way around, that they’re inhabiting me. Because I’m not like in the production of the Threepenny Opera, in the costume of Jenny, representing this character throughout the story and the evening. Rather I tell my story, my explorations, through the different words of music. It’s like a fine line between all these characters inhabiting me, and I use all my goodies, all my imagination, all my keyboard of temperament, inside of me to incorporate these people, to inhabit these people. Yeah a solo concert like this is almost the other way around I think. They come inside of me but I always stay, of course, the same person but with a very different posture or voice, a different language, a different sensibility, sometimes more explosive, more expressive, exterior sometimes very impressionistic, very… um, closed up almost. Implosions and explosions and all different shapes and cultures and sensitivities.
W – Can you make people feel through your technique without you feeling?
U – Without me feeling… well I do feel. No I do definitely have to feel, if I fake it somehow you will see that, and I see it in others two. You can have a couple of moments here and there in the course of a two hour evening where you take yourself back a little bit if it’s possible just to regain strength, but I would say throughout the evening you would have to feel every inch of it. Every moment and certainly I love every moment and I have so much fun performing and enjoying the music and playing with my instrument, it’s a wonderful thing to create this journey, which is really my brain baby, I just take people through my imagination and my body of work and it’s a big responsibility and a pleasure to do this, and I definitely enjoy every bit of it. I squeeze it out like an orange, and enjoy every second of it.
* Ute Lemper played Auckland on May 17. Sorry, you missed it folks.