Ute Lemper, the German-born cabaret singer extraordinaire, is also a recording artist, songwriter, Olivier Award-winning actor, painter, and citizen of the world. Like many of her projects, her new album The 9 Secrets, which comes out Feb. 12 on Steinway & Sons, reflects her international soul and peripatetic outlook. She crafted its songs around passages from the novel Manuscript Found in Accra by bestselling Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, and was kind enough to speak with us this week about the album, her creative process, and even the blizzard that struck her adopted hometown of New York City last weekend.
Lemper calls Coelho’s novel “a gift to the world.” I asked her about the genesis of the project and, more generally, about how, in her shows and on her albums, including Forever: The Love Poems of Pablo Neruda (reviewed here), she takes in and takes on musical traditions from all over the world, using her uniquely liquid, protean voice and sensibility to create work unlike anyone else’s.
Ute Lemper and her band will be presenting the music from The 9 Secrets in concert in the coming months, including a show at Symphony Space in New York City on May 13.
Thank you for taking some time to speak to Blogcritics.
I’m happy to speak about this album, it’s obviously very important to me. I’m happy to talk about the story of this.
What was it about this novel in particular that inspired you to write an album’s worth of songs?
The nature of this book is really that it’s a non-religious Bible for every day. It’s a little handbook that opens up a door to a bit of a deeper and more profound understanding of the complications that we have in our lives. It looks in the various chapters at these conflicts that we have, it looks at matters of love, it looks at success, it looks at words and communication, it looks at the vices we have and the virtues we have, the demons we have, the addictions we have, intuition, enthusiasm, the capability of change and the unstoppable constant evolution that life goes through day to day.
I was reading it at a time when I was sort of confused and needed to find some center of peace. I’m always a fan of Paolo Coelho’s books, I have to say. Every one you read has a journey that you take. The journey doesn’t really give you the answers, the answer lies in the journey…but this one was a different book, not really a novel, a book of wisdom.
How did you choose the passages to set to music? Was that a challenge?
I was in Sao Paolo in Brazil at the time performing my Pablo Neruda song cycle, and I was in contact with a Brazilian journalist and said I was reading this fantastic book by Coelho and he said, “Oh, Paolo Coelho is an old friend of mine!” The next day I had an email from Paolo Coelho, and we started speaking via email just about everything, about life and fun and music and work.
And I suggested after a while to take the best extracts, the beautiful pearls of sentences, out of the book and poeticize them a little bit so they would possibly be able to be put into music. And he said go ahead! I of course checked back with him and he approved the selections and said, go ahead, I want you to write this music and have fun with it.
The text comes from prose broken into lines, not poetry and not traditional song lyrics. Do you find special challenges, or freedoms – or both – in composing music to prose or free verse?
It is definitely true that it’s not the standard poetic line to be put into music and doesn’t have the simplicity of a pop song. But that’s of course not the world I come from. I would say every Brecht line that Kurt Weill has put into music is also kind of challenging. He was not an easy writer either and not a poetic writer at all – you know, he didn’t like rhyme! So it’s meant to be a little bit roughening up the music actually, so that made the listener really listen to the words and give the words a certain importance.
With Pablo Neruda, yes it was quite difficult, because his sentences are very very long! [laughs] At least you have to breathe in a phrase somewhere, so you have to structure over various melodic lines [the] breathing spaces and spaces to rest the melody. That was actually quite a challenge, and it was easier in the English adaptation or French, harder probably in the Spanish original.
With Paolo Coelho the sentences themselves are very short, and breathe, and I really never thought, Oh, this is too much text to put into music…it was a very striking on-the-point phrase and little line of wisdom, compact, and not too hard at all to find a melodic context. And the harmonic context came along with it of course. It just happened pretty naturally.
It feels like the kind of thing an artist makes sound easy and the listener wouldn’t know how difficult it might have been.
I started improvisation when I discovered harmonic context on the piano with a succession of chords, so I just improvised the text inside of these harmonic worlds and developed a melody, changed it around a hundred times, until suddenly the melody, through improvisation, lies inside this harmonic field like a perfect wave and line…
I don’t like to write things down note by note. It’s all open and can be changed until the time that you record it and even then it still can be changed [in the recording studio] if something doesn’t feel right or you want to phrase it a little differently. But because it’s my own music I can of course “master” this the way I want to! [laughs]
But of course the arrangements are an additional level of complication and of art. You have included instruments from all over the map literally. You use that to create an international flavor – or is that your goal? How do you decide to create a particular musical bed for each selection?
So I created this Middle Eastern world, North African world, Greek, Israeli, Lebanon, the old world of music, guitars that can only play in scales, instruments that are very simple, shepherd flutes that you need a different flute for a different key.
I wanted to bring this very original native world to the arrangements, but obviously it’s a journey to a whole universe of continents. My own continent [gives it] European flair, Western influences – the chord changes are rather complicated, not based on the easy scale of the Middle Eastern world, they’re based in what I like to sing!
You’ve also got the saxophone, the bandoneón…
Of course Paolo Coelho is Brazilian so there’s a bunch of bossa nova in there.
And you’ve done an Astor Piazzolla album.
Yes, Argentinian tango. There’s one song [on The 9 Secrets] that has a bit of a tango in it. I’ve worked with the bandoneón for years, Victor Villena is one of my main musicians. So I had him come in and contribute to this album. There’s also accordion, played by Gil Goldstein, who also wrote the fantastic string arrangements, himself a legend, a composer and arranger to the great jazz icons in this world. He’s also an old friend of mine and it’s a fabulous collaboration. Once he had written the string arrangements the album really took off.
And then I had this special guy who lives in the neighborhood here, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Jamshied Sharifi, also a friend of mine, and he comes from the Arabic world, he’s Egyptian, and was able to bring in these incredible musicians in New York who came in with their sitars and their qanuns and these completely old instruments I didn’t even know what they were! And they played them on the tracks wherever it fit. It was just an adventurous journey.
And the live shows are even more fun, I have to say, because it all comes together. We created the show about a half a year ago for a big festival, with projections. We have six musicians on stage, sometimes seven, and behind us is an incredible projection imagined by the filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff who won the Oscar for [directing] The Tin Drum [in 1980] and is a very old friend of mine from Germany.
He imagined this 24-hour time frame of a ruin in North Africa that he filmed, an incredible sky of stars framed inside the ruins, from midnight through the sunrise, shooting stars, sunrise, daylight, sunset through to midnight. It’s a very magical, almost like a spiritual, barely noticeable change in time, but in the show you tighten the 24 hours to one and a half hours. It’s a fantastic, cool thing in the background that we live in inside.
Most of the album is in English, but there’s some of the original Portuguese, and you sing part of the song “Solitude” in French and part of “Fire” in German. You’ve mixed languages on past albums too. Do you use different languages the same way you use instruments from different parts of the world and different traditions – to create an international flavor, or just give each song the most appropriate feel?
Paolo Coelho [has been] translated into 42 languages, he sells his books really everywhere in the world. And yes, English is not my first language so I am tempted to bring a few other languages in as much as English, my second language. [laughs] I don’t really even have a first language anymore, because I haven’t lived in Germany for so long and I have trouble sometimes finding the words! So they’re all kind of second languages to me – or all first languages. I certainly dream in English.
How many languages do you speak fluently?
Fluently really only French, German, and English, and I do speak some Italian and some Spanish, but not really completely as if they were my [own] languages. I lived many years in Paris so I am definitely fluent in French. I wanted to put a little bit of Portuguese in for Paolo, but I had to really study this with a Brazilian friend who was helping me out.
I was wondering about that, because you sound very natural.
No, no, no, it’s an illusion! [laughs] Actually I had to re-record it because the first friend I worked with was in Portugal, and then my Brazilian friend said: No, no, no, you can’t speak the Portuguese from Portugal, you have to speak the Brazilian Portuguese…it’s too dark, the Portuguese from Portugal, you have to re-record it with a slightly different accent!
But I like all the different languages. I just show them a little bit on this album. There are some pearls that here and there appear just for fun really, no terribly profound reason to it.
With Pablo Neruda it was different, he was a man from Chile and the arrangements…were dedicated to the Chilean world. My Spanish is not good enough to do an entire album in Spanish so I immediately started to read the adaptations in English and French and I liked them very much and I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to do some songs in the languages that I speak!
The Paolo Coelho was really based in the English. He lives in Switzerland. So I didn’t have to do any Portuguese or Brazilian homage. It was more like a choice to make it international, because really I’m a world citizen and so is he, and the philosophy of this book is meant for the entire world.
You’ve done more of your own composing in recent years. Is it different performing a show of music that you’ve written yourself?
The music is written and once it’s written and down and recorded on the paper and interpreted by the musicians, I don’t think much about that it’s my own music, I just sing it with fun and dedication. But of course I do have a lot of liberty creating it, and yes, some identification I guess, I definitely want to write what I find beautiful, so there’s not a bar in there that I don’t find beautiful [laughs]. But it’s not really theatrical music that I write [à la] Kurt Weill, it’s really more “music music.” It’s fun singing these songs, I really love the chord changes, they’re completely my cup of tea! And I enjoy the ride.
You do shows all over the world, and travel has become different in recent years because of the world situation. Do you feel any of that when you’re touring with a show?
In the last years I toured a lot and I have to tell you I’m really tired from it. I’m saying always, I’m gonna take it more easy, and actually these two months I’ve not taken a bunch of tours that were offered, just to stay home and focus on my family, and not writing something new right now, but just really having a domestic life.
But then tomorrow I’m back on the plane to Madrid, and then it’s gonna get denser and denser throughout the year unfortunately – but fortunately too, because [laughs] I have to go on the road too, I have to provide a college education and school education for all my children, and just a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, and so I definitely need to work. But I enjoy very much always the moment on stage. For me the crown of the trip is to be on stage and just enjoy this moment of incredible intensity and the depth of emotion, it’s just a wonderful thing.
But everything around it is of course tough. I don’t find it that terrible [though]…Global Entry [makes] coming to the States so much easier, it’s a fantastic little thing to have. And then I have two passports. A German passport makes it easy in Europe to travel as a European, not really that complicated.
But the sleep deprivation, I really mind that, oh my God, getting up and never getting more than three or four hours’ sleep, always interrupting your sleep, it’s so painful. I mind that more!
The quote from the lyrics that struck me the most is from the song “Change”: “And those who believe / That adventures are dangerous / I say – try routine – / That kills you more quickly.”[laughs] Yes, it was a fantastic sentence, [and] knowing Paolo Coelho it really comes completely out of his mouth. He can be so spiritual in one sentence, and then just so brief and dry and sarcastic the next sentence, that’s very much his personality.
Listen, I have kids, and kids like very much a routine life. My oldest son is 21, I’ve been living for the last 20 years bringing up children, now my smallest one is four. The routine that you try to offer them to give them everything to hold onto and to structure their life and to understand their life – for me as an artist it’s very tough to fall in these routines. I always like to have the freedom and to go with the flow, and not to make all these structured plans and hourly plans and nothing like that, but just to go with the flow and take the ride. So the routine is really bringing you away from the center of experience and adventure that life can provide.
You write that this project came to life with “an uncompromised freedom of mind.” How do you achieve that?
Yes, I mean definitely I’m not a “conform” person, can fit into anything, and I would say completely focusing on intuition. These songs obviously took me days and weeks to just play around and follow my fantasy and check it out and try it and develop it further. I have no collaborator on it, so it was really absolutely my “birth” out of my own intuition and impulse inside this complicated life that is pulling you on all ends. You’re trying to stand up and make it right for everyone and make it right for yourself at the end of the day. You only have one, so you better make your life so it feels right. But it’s not so easy! [laughs]
It’s a good thing you didn’t have to fly to Madrid out of New York last weekend.
Yes I know, but it was a fantastic weekend. We went out Saturday night around seven o’clock, it was just great! No cars in the street, and this crazy snowstorm, and next day the blue skies, that was just kind of a perfect snow weekend, it was lovely, I really enjoyed it!