I spoke Ute Lemper, the modern queen – some would say goddess! – of cabaret, on the eve of her 2013 Australian tour…
John Shand: How did the Pablo Nerua project come about?
Ute Lemper: After having done this Bukowsky project, where I set the Bukowsky poetry to music I was looking for something else in the European tradition, more in a chanson tradition, with an alliance to the South American spirit. and I was reading Borges and Neruda, but the political works are very wordy. And then I had this little tiny pink book, and it was Love Poems by Pablo Neruda. and I said, “I’m not going to do love poems. It’s too kitsch. Forget it.” I didn’t even read it. And then on a plane I had a look through it and I thought, “Oh my God, this is great,” because they’re full of life, full of agony, full this complicated existence of love that is so hard to understand. And I suddenly saw like Jacques Brel lived there. There was movement and beautiful rhythm in the language and the words and the phrasing. And they were compact and short and perfect to put into music. And I thought it was somehow in my life at a time where I felt it would be a very nice thing to dedicate the love poems to life and love and everything you ever get to happen in this journey we take. And I thought it was perfect.
So then the work started, and I immediately had melodic lines and structure and chord changes. It just came very quickly, like a puzzle, upon me. And then the challenging moment was to decide which language to go with. Because this book I had was Spanish on the left and the right page was English. So I started actually with English, but then I thought, “No, hold on.” I did sing in Spanish before. I sang the Astor Piazzolla songs in Spanish, and I said, “I’m going to challenge myself and do this in the original language.” And the adaptations were very good, so it was very easy to transpose the music into a little bit of a different music for the original Spanish, and then after five or six months I had 11 or 12 songs, and we tried to mount it on stage, and I did 50% then in the original Spanish and the other half in French and English adaptations.
JS: And were they your translations in French?
UL: No, no, no, I wouldn’t dare. They’re the official, registered adaptations by poets for the French and for the English. These are the ones that are in the books and on the internet.
JS: How did you decided which ones would be in which language?
UL: It was an intuitive decision. For the ones that felt very tango-esque and had a very South American spirit with guitars – and I already envisioned the arrangements while I was working with them – I kept them in the Spanish. The ones I took a little bit over into this great melodic chord sequences from the French world – very melancholic songs – I kept them in French. The very transparent songs, too, because I’m so connected to the language and wanted to have the really heart-broken ones in French. And then the ones where I chose a bit of a bluesier music with a bit of jazz element, a bit more of a gusto approach, I took those English translations. But it was rather intuitive.
JS: So were you seeking to adhere to particular musical styles in advance, or is it a matter of you just responding to the poetry line by line?
UL: It is very conceptual. There are a lot of different moods in the evening and in the recording, as you will hear. Everything I love to do on stage I really try to put in this project. In a concert evening where I would sing Piaf and Brel and Bertolt Brecht and Weill – and so my usual concert program – I really try to bring that into this project. Because I wanted it to be first of all a recording project, but also a great performance project. The music is very sophisticated. It has a great transparency to it for emotional context, but also has great musical explosions with guitars and rhythm and fun moments. It also leaves room, at least in the live version, for improvisation with the musicians, and back and forth, and then I extend the part in the live version further on from the recordings. So it’s a really fun project. We’ve performed it a few times now in Europe. For me I wouldn’t even need the concert’s second half of the “best of”, because I have everything in there, already. It is already the “best of”, it has so much heart, and so much temperament and tempers. It has it all, this Neruda program. But then again for the fans I do a brief second half with the famous songs I sing for the last 20 years.
JS: Are you interested in Neruda’s political activism as well as the love poetry? Especially in the context of a world that seems to be sliding to the right, someone like Neruda becomes a bit of beacon, doesn’t he?
UL: Yes, very much. I mean, growing up in Germany in the ’60s and ’70s we didn’t – Eastern Europe was very familiar with his poetry, and I remember I was speaking about it with my friends of my generation, but who grew up in the East, said, “Oh my God, yes, we read Neruda at school.” He was very much used like Brecht, actually, in the communist context. Of course for Neruda communism wasn’t like it existed in the Soviet Union and East Germany, as a structured, in itself corrupt, oppressive system. He just wanted to get away from the dictatorship in his country, which was a fascist dictatorship, and as an alternative, of course, was believing in a much more humane society based on communist/socialist ideas. So as well as Brecht he was misused in those countries as being a communist writer, but he certainly wouldn’t have appreciated the societies they way they existed in the East. Neither would Brecht, who died early in ’56.
But, yes, his poetry was an outcry against this oppression, and the belief in humanity, and that there is a possibility to create a humane society. I can’t even imagine how it must have been – those countries in South America, especially Chile – to live in a context like this. Later with Pinochet was even worse. But now you might have heard that Neruda was exhumed because it is talked about that he might have been poisoned by Pinochet. He died right after coming back to the country after the coup d’etat.
JS: Do you see him as illuminating love in fresh ways, given thousands of years of love poetry that exists in the canon? Do you see something different in his approach to writing about love?
UL: Well, Neruda was somebody who embraced life in an absolutely hedonistic way, and he was joyful and drunk and hungry for life. He was the opposite of Jean Paul Satre, who was of the same generation, and also an existentialist, but Satre was retracted from life; deprived himself of everything in his agony of suffering. Neruda’s suffering would result him embracing life even more. His autobiography explains it very nicely. Also I read a British biography from this writer Adam Feinstein that expresses it very nicely. So I love that, and it speaks through the poetry of the last poems: they’re very juicy, very gusto, and filled with blood and love and also hating himself for being abandoned inside these feelings of love that are so uncontrollable and incomprehensible. I thought it’s very interesting the way he suffered and loved and lived through these poems, and at the same time the aspect of the spirit of nature that speaks and weeps itself through the poems. Most of it was written on the Isle Negra, that island that is outside of Chile. But also his european years. In Chile he’s very loved; he’s a national treasure, but also people are – the same that happened with Astor Piazzolla, the Argentinean composer, who is almost loved/hated in his country, because he lived so much abroad, he was inspired and collaborated with European artists through the years of exile and through his desire to reach out and get beyond this provincial art scene that he had grown up in. So people have a mixed relationship to him inside of Chile. But then again of course after he won the Nobel Prize they embraced him again.
JS: Do you see overlaps or relationships between his work and the European writers that you’ve usually been tackling, or I guess the poetry that was used with Piazzolla’s work, too?
UL: Yes, I do, definitely. I always felt with the Piazzolla – Horacio Ferrer is the poet he used – I felt very much that there is almost a Fellini-like mysticism in his work. It’s very visual, like little movies. I felt that with Jacques Brel and Jacques Prevert. I feel it very much with the French writers. After all the French had the greatest chapter of literature in music. No where else that existed the way the French had stylised this in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. There were so many fantastic writers, existentialists, people who were so connected to the word in a very sophisticated way, and the expression of life, also in a political sense. All of them always had aspects of political context and social-political context in their poetry, and they were at the same time great musicians and composers.
But the word was there first. And that’s how I feel with this song cycle. I really feel the word needs to be there, and I tried to honour it as much as possible, and the music just embellishes it. The music brings it to life and makes the emotion clear and makes the subtext clear to all of it. It was so much fun to create it, because I felt so much when I read this poetry that to put it into music was an addition to me. It was very lovely. And I feel the same thing in the concerts on stage. There are very sophisticated arrangements with violin and bandoneon and guitar, bass and piano. And I tried to really honour the Chilean background, the Argentinean background and the European context. So hopefully people will enjoy it.
JS: Given that you’ve bounced from the Bukowsky project to this one to what degree was the motivation one of your running out of other people’s repertoire that interests you as a singer, and to what degree is it the composer in you becoming a more important part of your art?
UL: I don’t know that that would be too clear. I don’t want to think too much about it, because I always work out of intuition. This Neruda project came up as something almost surprising to me. But it was right after I sang the Piazzolla already too much in my opinion. So let’s make something new, and there it was in front of me, and I was very highly inspired. I felt like I really want to start new, and it was just the right moment in my life. But with the Bukowsky I always felt like he had a German expressionist substance to it: the directness of the language, like Brecht had, and I felt very much I could get into the Bukowsky plot of living in New York, being very inspired also through the musicians I worked with. The underground culture of New York, and the directness of the music, the jazz-inspired aspects. So I could definitely bring that into the Bukowsky project. But the Neruda is a different sensitivity. It’s finer and clearer. Next year I’m going to tour the States and do the Neruda in the first half and the Bukowsky in the second half, and that will be a very interesting combination.
JS: Does the download culture conspire against things like conceiving of song cycles?
UL: Yes, of course. It’s a pity. In the ’90s we were able to make such great adventurous recordings on the classical labels. The musicologists put this music together – like the Berlin Cabaret Songs could never had been recorded nowadays, and it was such an important album that inspired a whole new wave of cabaret performers around a world. And it was Decca, Universal and Deutsche Grammophon. It was such a great time to make adventurous recordings and taking risks and there was a budget for it. Now many countries don’t even know what CDs are any more. And definitely I know I’m not to make a penny from this record, and all I did was a labour of love. I producex it myself. It cost a lot of money to make it exactly the way I wantsx it, with the beautiful string quartet and just great, great musicians. But this is what I love to do. It’s labour of love and I just wish and hope that a lot of people will get to hear it. At the end of the day I don’t care whether they will download it or stream or get it for free, as long as they get to hear it. Because that’s my gift to the audience. I just want this music to be alive and out there.
JS: You’ve sung extensively in four languages. Do you have any observations about the relative strengths and weaknesses of German, French, English and Spanish in terms of musicality or communicating ideas?
UL: I just love to sing in all of the languages. I mean the German of course is exquisite. It’s my language. It’s very strong, very thoughtful, very deep. The French is just beautiful and poetic and sensual. The English is more easy-going and not so deep, often, but it rides very well with the music, especially more jazzy music. And I just love to sing in Spanish, and I fell in love with the Piazzolla repertoire and so thank god I had lost my fear of choosing half of the poems actually in Spanish to put them into music, as I had sung in Spanish before. But I don’t speak it fluently at all. But it’s a beautiful language to sing in. And the Piazzolla repertoire I sing with the Argentinean accent, and now I have to switch a little bit to the Chilean accent with the Neruda repertoire, which is a more proper Spanish, actually. I’m still a little helpless when I go to Spain because that “th-th-th” thing is just so unusual, the way they speak their Spanish in Europe! I’m more connected to the Latin American Spanish.
JS: Is there any chance of Little Water Song featuring in the “best of” section?
UL: Now that you mention it, why not? Because I have a violin with me, it would be such a wonderful thing actually to bring that back to life. You’re totally right!