Ute Lemper is a study in contrasts: her grace on stage commingles with an open and abraded rawness, whose heart seems both hardened and palpably forgiving. Beauty and Truth are flip sides of the invisible mask Ute Lemper wears.
Redemption, regret, catharsis: Love, lust, longing: Eros, desire, retreat. Lemper’s voice expresses the full spectrum of human emotions, it is both instrument and weapon. Expressing manifold tones and shades all in the same breath – oscillating between bell-like clarity, hushed whispers, and a throaty haughtiness – her voice is unmistakable: pure Ute Lemper.
Ute Lemper, it seems, has at some point purged every demon in song: hope that mingles with despair, longing that swirls in a whirlpool of regret. And sometimes, she shows us, amid the loss, Love unravels beautifully. She has, it seems, expressed all of love’s facets with her music and voice.
In the 33 seconds it takes for her to sing “Under here the water flows over my head / I can hear the little fishes under here / Whispering your most terrible name” in ‘Little Water Song’, Ute Lemper has at once seduced us, distanced us and dared us to listen.
watch complete video interview of Ute Lemper
Anaiis Nin said, “The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There’s always more mystery.” How important is the idea of mystery in your work?
I would say, it’s very much – my work is very much about magic. The magic that you cannot define or learn in an acting school or a singing college, it’s about the magic of the human story, the human story that includes all the tragedy possible, all the pain, all the disappointments, the haunting, the longing, the longing for love, the solitude, in a modern society or an ancient society,. I would say of course Love, all of that is to be described not in a scientific way but in a magical way, and with a tragedy you have obviously the counterpole, you have the happiness and the longing for happiness, and this Yin and Yang, this energy, what life is about, what songs are about, because songs have a movement, they have a crescendo they have a dramatic line, they have a conflict – with a resolution or no resolution to it – but this kind of realism of this colflicted energy is the magic of life; it’s the magic of life, and the burden of life, and it depends on whether you see th glass half full or half empty.
Mystery itself is a very interesting subject. Mystery which is searched for in Religion, in Philosophy, in knowledge also – and I would say the ultimate knowledge is the – not the understanding that being in unity of the mystery of the world and the mystery of life – that’s a spiritual dimension, which again escapes dimension of knowledge, but is something, you know, more contemplative, and that is a very interesting thing, but I don’t know whether that, that is almost too – I don’t go that far in my work, I stay with the human being in my work, because that’s what people connect to, they’re very normal people who come to my concerts, of all ages and all generations, with all different kind of common problems, and these problems I try to reflect in myself so people can connect to it. If I – it’s too esoteric to go into the questions of mystery. There I like to read books and have personal discussions.
I don’t like anything stereotype, and I like to really feel the music the way it’s meant to be, originating in each culture, and have a very diverse instrument. That’s what I like.
How did you come to discover such a sweeping range of tones and emotions in your voice?
Well, it has been a long journey. You know, it hasn’t been – you know my voice – I would say my concept of voice and the vocal instrument as a tool has changed very much over the years. There were so many chapters, in the beginning it was a tool – you know, a very powerful tool, to, you know, blast the energy, and it had had very little pianissimos. And then over the years I started to, you know, enjoy the pianissimos a lot more than the fortissimos, and then you study different cultures of music which is each time a different exercise of the instrument: of course you know the German song has a bit of a rough attack on the voice, the French which has a bit more romantic and impressionist use of the instrument, then the Tango Argentino which has a very passionate, almost a combination of the expressionist and impressionist.
Then there is the world of Jazz which I love very much, over the years you start to develop like a freedom with your voice and a range or a feeling for improvisation and more in contact with creative musicians I think that have inspired me over the last ten to fifteen years to be more experimental with my voice, and also I have to say over the years that the range of the voice increases dramatically I would say. I started out as a teenager maybe with, you know, a maximum of two octaves and would say that I go far beyond three octaves now, because its just what the voice – it goes much lower with the age, but it also goes higher with the craft, with the technique, so you add on both ends. And then you can, uh, I would say as long as you don’t hurt your voice you can develop it, go the opposite way.
But all in all, I would say that French definitely is the most sensual language, I really love to sing in French. It has just a beautiful music within itself, and just a beautiful way to create the word, it just stays in the mask, in the skull, the tone is really, sits in a very nice place.
The worst always for me was to be in a Broadway production. To be in a production where I have to sing eight times a week the same show, the same songs in the same technique, and it locked my up, and I wasn’t free as a musical artist anymore, and after I got out of these shows, you know, I almost had each time a little nodule developing, because it was just too much stress to sing all the time, to sing through colds, through throat infections, through fever, through all of that, and so, it took me almost a year each time to actually free myself from that pressure and develop an instrument again that could be bendable in all different directions, and that’s what I like nowadays, I don’t like anything stereotype, and I like to really feel the music the way it’s meant to be, originating in each culture, and have a very diverse instrument. That’s what I like.
Would you say that the English and the German language, would you say that they each have the same potential for expressing emotions through language and song?
Well they have a different color expressing the emotion. The German language is very rich, and I love singing in German. It’s always very real to me because I’m so connected to the truth of the word, because it’s my maternal language that I definitely feel a strong identity with and I definitely feel a strong connection to the word when I sing in German.
In English you can bullshit around a little bit more, often the lyrics are superficial, they don’t go as deep, and they don’t have all the multiple satirical dimensions that the German has, but yet, you know, very strong of course – there are great adaptations of the Kurt Weil songs, you know. I actually like to sing ‘The Pirate Jenny in English, and use actually the language of the audience to really connect to them, and to use the joke and the provocation of the home language of the country.
I’m not a romantic performer, who sings operetta songs. I love the reality aspect of the performance.
But all in all, I would say that French definitely is the most sensual language, I really love to sing in French. It has just a beautiful music within itself, and just a beautiful way to create the word, it just stays in the mask, in the skull, the tone is really, sits in a very nice place. It sits a lot more open with the German, a little bit more throaty. And with the English, it sits – the English just obeys to the music, which is not a good thing, because it loses importance.
But then the Spanish, recently I really fell – I sing all the Astor Piazzolla songs in Spanish, in the Argentinian Spanish, in the very specific accent of Buenes Aires, and I have to say I just love that it has such a bite and a zest and a fire to it, and a sensuality too, it’s interesting, you know, all of that is interesting, and I feel like a world citizen, I tour so much in all these different countries, including South America, that, you know, I love to bring my German expressionism to all of these repertoires, and I would say, whenever I sing, there’s always a little piece of Berlin in everything.
My next question has to do with exactly that – that you express a comfort and a fluency in German, English, French, Spanish. Which language do you feel has the most potential to express what you consider is your fullest range of emotions, I guess that you connect with in the most powerful way.
In a theatrical way, all of them, I love all of them. But in a personal way, like my last album, Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, with all my own music and lyrics, it’s all in English, because English is my day-to-day language, it’s my language of reality right now. I speak English with my kids, my life runs in English, even though it’s not my first language, yet, it is very much a comfort zone, and the lyrics are very truthful, certainly, if they come from my own pen, because obviously they have a personal content. You know, this new show I was writing the music for the Bukowski lyrics, all the Bukowski poetry, I feel a strong connection to that. It really depends on what lyric it is in English, like the Bukowski – it’s very rough the lyrics – and very crude and, you know, down to the bone, and in that context I really love expressing whatever emotion and situation is described in the songs, it comes straight from the gut, there’s no vanity, no search for beauty, even, in a perfectionist style. It is a rather very rough approach, also in the technique of singing I would say. And I love that also.
And that leads me to my next question, which is, how much intersection is there between your personal experience and the artistic territory that you’ve traveled – Would you say that you’re a very different person…
…than the personas that I play on stage?
Well, I don’t need to be that dramatic in real life, you know, thank God! It would be very exhausting! I save the drama really for the stage, I think, you know, it’s just… You know, I don’t like to go to parties, to dress up and be a socialite. I like a very simple life, and very simple qualities of life, and, yes, on stage it’s fun to dress up and look glamorous, have a beautiful gown and do the makeup and the hair and get out there and be some kind of almost slightly elevated persona, it’s elevated, I like it. It’s aesthetic to me, it has a certain sense of beauty, which I don’t cultivate really in my personal life that much, I just don’t feel I need to, I don’t need to do it for my husband, you know, thank God! He doesn’t ask me to walk around in stilettos like this.
I don’t like too much vanity in normal life either, so on stage, it’s a beautiful, it’s almost like an art form, you know, like you create a sculpture, and you – In a funny way because of all these years of dancing, in some kind of a strange way I do have a physical sensation that I can fulfill this imaginatary sculpture I created, you know, and it works, my arms, my legs, everything works that way because I have the foundation of a dancer, but I don’t need it much, you know, I don’t need it much because the singing and the storytelling is stronger, but yet the physicality with it that comes with it, the image that comes with it, I like to play around with it, but all in all, also, because I’m very extreme on stage, the feelings are extreme, there’s extreme desperation, if you have the torch songs, there’s like a strong scream, impact, a burst of energy, and vocal performance, and, you know, you definitely look for the very dark sides of stories and descriptions in life, all of that, I don’t quite need in my in personal life, but yet I love to study, this is what I’m meant, this is what I’m immersed in, I take nutrition from,. I’m not a romantic performer, who sings operetta songs. I love the reality aspect of the performance.
So I really like the most to be in my own concerts, because I can chose the repertoire I choose, I put together the songs I like, and it has a big rainbow, a big arc of diversity – You know, the German, the French, the Spanish, the Jazz, the improvisation, the comedy
Has becoming a mother deepened your imaginative landscape?
I don’t know, I’m a mother for so many years already. My oldest is seventeen, he’s going to college next year, and I’m certainly all in all a more balanced person since I became a mother. I would say that in my twenties I was crazy, I was slightly self-destructive, not that I did drugs or anything, but it was just not healthy for my soul, to be so self concerned, and always ‘Me!’ and ‘Me!’, and you know, career and audience and pressure and press and what do they think, reviews, and all of that, it was just, you know, a vicious cycle – Too much pressure, and it wasn’t about happiness in life, the one thing you have, and it goes by so fast – it wasn’t about that, you know, the worries were about profane things which really didn’t make you a happy person.
And I have to say since I have a family, I have a perspective, I enjoy my work, tremendously, maybe even more since I have a family because it’s my own thing I can escape from, and it’s my fulfillment, and it’s this special magical space where you slightly touch on mystery, but it’s this magical zone which is not quotidian, it’s not ‘normal’ like normal life, it’s something elevated, and I enjoy that, it’s slightly elevated at the same time. And then you have the very normal life, of very normal worries, that connects you strongly to the real worries of life, and so, it’s a very good thing. I constantly feed from my real life, when I go on stage, you know with all the emotes.
What was your first exposure to Jazz music?
Well, my first exposure was very early on, my Dad was a Jazz lover, and he had all the records, even being German, he was a Jazz lover. He had all the records, the LPs, in his shelf. You know, the great Jazz singers. Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Etta James, Ester Phillips, I remember all of the stuff, and you know, all of the traditional Jazz of course, Duke Ellington, he was a music lover, he loved that stuff. And when I was a teenager, I had my first bands, I had like a Big Band, a school Big Band, I was a singer in the school Big Band, and I had a Rock band, we did kind of Jazz-Rock – it was the 70’s – Joni Mitchell’s stuff, Chick Corea, and the Brecker Brothers, and then I had a little Jazz trio, with three older guys, in their fifties – they looked very old to me at the time – it’s not old to me anymore, fifty! They were doing the standards with me: “Lullaby of Birdland”, “Paper Moon”, “Blue Moon”, it was just wonderful. And they taught me these songs, and made me listen to the recordings of the great Jazz singers and we uh, and I sang, very badly!
I do think, the other day, in my country house, I found some old cassette from the 80s and I said, “Oh my goodness, what the heck was I doing!” You know, it was awful, awful! But it was all, you know, learning, learning how to control your instrument. The pitch was ok, but the rest, the style was terrible!
But I learned, and I developed sensitivity to it and then you know, the connection to Jazz got a little lost over my first jobs and the musicals, and so you get captured in that world of performing musicals, and then I got back into the Jazz really once I had a band again in the 90s with the musicians, who, all of the musicians loved Jazz, they loved Brazilian music, and that’s, you know, they feed on that inspiration, of the Brazilian Jazz scene., most of the musicians here in New York, too, and uh, that’s when I really started to, you know, venture more into the world of Jazz. And then when I started to write my own music, I definitely was very much inspired by it, too.
And something about the whole obedient aspect of the German nature that fueled me with a rage and fueled me to become an artist and also perform this music that opens this chapter, this complicated chapter.
You come from a background in Dance, and you use your body as a vehicle of expression, where gestures convey as much meaning as your words. Can you just speak a little bit about your dance background and what role movement and gesture plays in your performances?
Well I wouldn’t say that is has as much importance – it’s only an extension to the words. Definitely the word is the center, you know, the music interpretation, the vocal interpretation is the center. And the gesture or the movement or the step is an extension to it, like an adornment of it. Well, not more. And I wouldn’t like to have a choreographer at all nowadays, I wouldn’t like to be locked into any kind of movement that is from the outside put upon me. Um, so, well I mean as a teenager, as a kid, I started ballet, and then I did all the different kind of dances, the Dance Academy in Cologne, and then, the musicals.
I never wanted to be a classical dancer, and I didn’t have the tools to be a classical dancer, I didn’t have the tools. I’m far too turned in, not turned out enough, and my feet are just not great enough for it, and it wasn’t what I wanted to do, it just looked much too hard, plus I loved singing already at a young age. So, in the musicals, I could combine the three, between acting, singing and dancing, I could combine this. But I wasn’t so happy with the actual territory of musicals. It was only half satisfactory to me.
Cats, I really hated to play Cats. It was just awful to be a Cat! And to do these movements – and, you know, I came from acting school, I wanted to perform and use my words, and to be trapped as a Cat for a year, 8 shows a week, it was just … terrible!
And then I played Peter Pan and I loved that, you know, being the, always played by a woman, the little young boy who didn’t want to grow up, the spiritual, the action of it. That was fun, the music was cute. And then after that, I did a big Kurt Weil review, which was very important to me, because I learned all the different periods of Kurt Weil, the German, the French and the American period. And then I did Cabaret, musical Cabaret XXXXXXX – Sally Bolton – and that was fun because there was a part which has a depth. It was a tragical part, it didn’t have a happy ending, it was a part that included desperation, survival, sadness, and musical passion. So, it was a very good part, I loved that.
And after that, I didn’t do musicals for a while, and then I just did my own shows, and then I only did a musical again, actually, The Blue Angel in Berlin, was in between, which was ok, I didn’t like the production, and then I did Chicago! On Broadway, which was fun but very acrobatic, and nothing deep at all, and I suffered greatly, actually performing it for two years, even though, you know, it was a great, high profile job, in London and here on Broadway, the part itself is a very shallow part, it made me sad, and I couldn’t feel the fulfillment I wanted to have being on stage.
So I really like the most to be in my own concerts, because I can chose the repertoire I choose, I put together the songs I like, and it has a big rainbow, a big arc of diversity – You know, the German, the French, the Spanish, the Jazz, the improvisation, the comedy – And I can really feed from so many different repertoires, they all live in me, because I lived in so many different – I lived for so many years in Paris, in London, in Berlin, in New York which is such a diverse place. So I feel, you know, my own concerts always represent the best of my journey.
My journey is a German journey, it is based on the German repertoire, it is a dialogue that I open with this musical journey, a dialogue with the past, it’s a very complicated dialogue, about the pre-war period of the Weimar Republic, most of the composers were Jewish, most of the writers were killed by the Nazis, or thrown out of the country by the Nazis, so it is a dialogue I open with these concerts, about, really, the German past, and all those awful emotions I had about it growing up, and being a post-war generation German yet searching desperately for answers by the generations of my parents and grandparents about this Holocaust could have happened and those answers never were given.
And I grew up in a Germany that was post-war Nazi Germany still, because all the Nazis went back to work, and there was a strong anti-Semitism still existing in the society, certainly in the fifties, and people did not want to face what they were, you know, bought into at the time of Hitler, and they were bought into, you know, hating the Jewish people and being imperialistic and ruling the world, and the whole sophisticated incredibly cultured nation bought into that and went for it, so, it was something that drove me so crazy as a young person, how that could have happened. And something about the whole obedient aspect of the German nature that fueled me with a rage and fueled me to become an artist and also perform this music that opens this chapter, this complicated chapter.
In much of your work, you seem to be addressing the mistakes of history both on a political and on a personal level, for instance, as with a lover who has been wronged, on that personal level. Do you see the role of the artist as having a responsibility or artist as avenger or messenger?
Well, both, you know, the artist as a messenger, it’s a medium. The artist is somebody who can transport the audience to a new dimension that confronts whatever it needs to confront, that political or historical background, situations. But also, the artist takes you into an emotional world that you can identify with as an audience, and yet, it is kind of my mission as a young German performer – well, not anymore young, but I used t be young – and definitely the post-war generation to revive this music, and for some reason I became the tool of the revival wave because Universal Music had suddenly decided in 1986 to re-record the works of Kurt Weil, which only existed those years in 1950s, very early 1950s recordings of Lotte Lenya and nothing after that, and obviously the German language was still very stigmatized all over the world, from the Hitler time.
So suddenly they had a project created by this musicologist at Universal to re-record what was called by the Nazis ‘the degenerate music’ – the music that wasn’t proper ‘Aryan’ standards to the Nazi. This was Classical music – Goldschmidt, lots of composers in the chanson area – of course, Kurt Weil, Bertolt Brecht – and they chose me, you know I was 23 at the time, to be the antagonist of this project, and to do the recordings. And then suddenly in 1987 with the first release of Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weil, this album was really initiating a whole wave of revival of the Weimer time, and the composer Kurt Weil. It was placed at all the Universities here in the states, I still have people who come to me at concerts and say to me ‘You know, in 1987, I was in college in Boston, and we studied your album.” 80% was German on the album, and through this album they studied the time, you know, the historical background. And, it was 50 weeks on the crossover charts here in 1987.
It was a very special thing, and I was very lucky to be the tool of this revival, and that opened up also a great responsibility for me to really face the past, to be able to talk about it, and sometimes to be uncomfortable in Germany, because they didn’t want me to talk too much about it, and also travel to Israel to concerts there, and live with the responsibility of being a post-war German, and talk about it, you know. And it was very important to me to sing it in the beginning to the young people of my generation, just to tell them the journey about Kurt Weil, to tell them what happened, the years of the Weimer time, the immigration, the denunciation, you know, they way they were ripped of their identities, artistic work, you know, especially in Kurt Weil’s case. His survival, first in France, his new career, surviving career, here in the States, which meant for him to totally redefine himself as a composer and adapt to the American music tradition which had nothing to do with the European one. So, it was a very interesting story to tell, and I was just very passionate about telling it.
so I just started to, it was twenty years ago, I started to teach myself how to paint, and then I got crazy about it, it was such a pleasure to fill a white canvas, you know, it takes days and days, but then you create this universe, and it’s out of nothing –
Kurt Weil’s collaboration with Playwright Bertolt Brecht led to the merging of Jazz, Folk and Pop genres. The result was a radical reinvention of the song as political message maker. Do you see the song as still having the power to convey powerful political messages today?
Well, not if you look at the charts. What we have nowadays is a very different musical aesthetic. I see my teenage kids what they listen to, I watch with them American Idol, ‘cause you know they’re following those reality shows. It is definitely a different thing. It’s interesting, I was just reading this book, a biography of Bob Dylan and of course he was, you know, even though it wasn’t his original intention to become politically involved, yet he became a protagonist to the political movement in those years with the Vietnam War. And, it’s interesting, he said he saw – whenever it was, in 1970 something – Three Penny Opera on Broadway, and the song ‘The Pirate Jenny’ totally took his socks off. And he said ‘I didn’t know people could write music like that’, tell stories in music like that, and it deeply inspired him to create a whole new generation of songs inspired by ‘The Pirate Jenny’.
It’s a pity that nowadays really songs like this don’t quite exist anymore. You know, Brecht was – it’s not only due to Weil, he was a great composer – but really to the lyricist Bertolt Brecht who was a great Poet, who was a thinker, a philosopher, a humanist, who really was able to put into the word, in a very unpretentious way, great Political intentions, and humane intentions, very unpretentious, not intellectual, just very grounded, so anyone could connect to it, and anyone could understand it.
Sometimes I feel by the way that’s what Bukowski did, in a way, too, very unpretentious, and that’s why they didn’t want to give him the status of being actually a Poet for ever and ever. So, I’m – I love new material, obviously, it’s great always to look at the new talent and the new writers. But the genre, what Weil and Weiss created is unique and somehow it has never been redone. But you do have artists that are politically aware, and that still exists, but in a much more commercialized way.
You’re currently working on material by Charles Bukowski, and you’ve also worked on Paul Celan’s poetry. Do you read a lot of poetry? Is it something you’ve done throughout your life? What is it about poetry that you connect with in your music, do you think that that is something that you look for, that poetic element in that material that you cover?
Well, hopefully, you know, all the songs you sing are poetic. Poetic just means that they are artful, the lyrics are artful, and beautifully put together, in their rude or crude way, or in their very romantic way – whatever way they were written in – and that they express in a beautiful way your soul, and that’s poetry. So, I’m not really reading much poetry, honestly. The Paul Celan project was something, of course, with his history, being Jewish, and uh, he committed suicide, but I think his family was pretty much killed by the Nazis, so there was – his poetry was just an unbelievable – to try to express the unbearable pain he felt about being alive and about the tragedy of his family, and all of that. The poetry is so – ho do you say? – He almost couldn’t speak, it was interrupted – the poetry is interrupted, is almost expressing the impossibility of the word. The word is not being able to capture the pain he felt. So I thought it was just unbelievable to use his words, and the subtext of his words, you know, more than that, Of course, the music by Michael Nyman expressed the subtext that wasn’t even written in the words, but you could feel it and see it. That was a very interesting project, it was very deep and I enjoyed it.
Bukowski is very diferent. Because I – there’s something so unpretentious about his writing, it’s very situational, it’s like movies. The characters are very rough and raw people, and there was something about it that I took from the Brecht world, a lot of Pirate Jennys and Zurubaya Jonnys, it was in there somehow. And, never with a happy end, just like the Brecht songs, and I just connected to it.
And then with my partner, we started to, he started to make some grooves, and I said ‘Hmmm, this looks like Bukowski has to come into this’ and then it just was born. It was just one of those spur of the moment things, and once I got started, I got crazy about it. I read obviously through all of the poetry books, and took like a bunch of 50 poems that had a pulse to them, like a rhythm to them, and also had a very direct connection that I could see, you know, live in music. And then go through the different chapters of his poetry, the personal poetry, the political poetry, the poetry about the women, about aging, the poetry about his abusive childhood with his father. So, the different chapters to it. And, then it all suddenly became a very theatrical journey crossing many years of his life, and I had so much fun! It was a great, fun project.
Painting. Is also an art form that you’ve explored in depth. What is it about painting that you are able to express that you cannot express in song?
Oh, nothing! I’m a very worthless painter! I would say very much auto-didactic, and I would say, I always paint when I have a vocal problem, when I have to totally shut up for a couple of days, and not doing anything like reading books – you know, it drove me crazy – so I just started to, it was twenty years ago, I started to teach myself how to paint, and then I got crazy about it, it was such a pleasure to fill a white canvas, you know, it takes days and days, but then you create this universe, and it’s out of nothing – but it’s not reality, it’s an alter-reality, and it has different colors than reality, different shapes than reality, and it comes from somewhere, and I thought it was very magical, whatever was planted on the canvases, always people in situations.
But, you know, looking at different stages of the art of painting that, you don’t need to be like a great realistic painter nowadays to express. You can be very rough with a very rough brush stroke, and paint very fast if you want to, or paint very slow if you want to be meticulous. So, I just got into it, and I saw that something was coming out, and it was necessary to come out. It was definitely a great way to be creative, but in a totally silent and isolated way, and it was
healing my vocal chords!
Yes, wunderbar! Thank you so much ~
UDE: It was great!
Yes, it was!