Much has been made of the Great American Songbook, with artists as diverse as the sublime Ella Fitzgerald and the odious Rod Stewart filling multiple albums with the output of such tunesmiths as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter. Less has been said about its European counterpart, perhaps because the great songs of Europe don’t share a common tongue. They do, however, share a common sensibility—or so says Ute Lemper, who’s recently recorded a selection of her favourites in the company of her touring partners, pianist and clarinetist Stefan Malzew and the Vogler Quartet.
“We just made the album two weeks ago in Germany, and there’s a fantastic chemistry with the string quartet,” enthuses the singer, speaking to the Straight from her home in New York City. “I just love the sound of the string quartet: it just puts you in this world of Ravel and Debussy. There’s a fine, filigreed, impressionistic sound to Stefan’s arrangements, too.”
Just about the only thing Lemper doesn’t like about her new disc is its title: Paris Days, Berlin Nights.
“This is a title that was chosen by the record company somehow, or by my agent,” she says with a laugh. “I would say a more truthful title would be Songs Between Love and War, or Songs Between Night and Day.”
Lemper’s Europe, she explains, goes beyond the two cultural capitals name-checked in the title of her new disc and concert program. Yes, Kurt Weill, Edith Piaf, Hans Eisler, and Jacques Brel will be well represented, but her songbook also extends to the Polish-born Israeli chanteuse Chava Alberstein, and even to Argentina’s late master of tango nuevo, Astor Piazzolla. Their shared gift, Lemper says, was the ability to “express beautiful emotions in the middle of rather desperate times”.
Lemper’s own times have been rather more tranquil. Born in Münster in 1963, she came of age during a time when the more creative aspects of German culture were being rediscovered after years of neglect.
“A new era started at this time,” she says of the 1980s. “Not necessarily a unified Germany, but the last horrible chapter of the war which the Nazis had started, and the Cold War that followed.…So I think it was time to look back, in a more positive way, to what was this crazy revolutionary time before the Nazis shattered it.”
Her contribution was to help popularize the cabaret songs of Weill and his librettist, the highly political playwright and cultural theorist Bertolt Brecht. Although she made her recording debut on the soundtrack for the German production of Cats, her first solo effort, 1987’s Ute Lemper Singt Kurt Weill, drew on a fascination with Weimar culture that continues to this day.
Despite her personal and artistic identification with that period, however, Lemper does not think that Europe is experiencing a similar lull before a world war–size storm.
“Nothing is the same,” she says, somewhat reassuringly. “We are so much further ahead today in our understanding of human rights and liberties, and understanding also the corruption inside the economic system, the free-market system and all of that. We know what we are dealing with, and how we’re being manipulated by these structures of banks and politics and all of that.”
Optimistic though that may sound, Lemper quickly admits that other areas may not be so lucky.
“The explosives are somewhere else—in the Middle East and the countries that are just forming democracy for the first time, like Germany during the Weimar time,” she explains. “They’ve got new colleges, new rights for women, new freedoms of expression, and yet they have another big enemy to fight: the religious extreme, of course, which could be compared to the Nazi party.”
The rise of theocracy is a concern even in her adopted country, Lemper allows—although not a particularly big one, for now.
“I’m looking out at the beautiful blue sky here in New York, and I just love this place,” she says. “It’s so open! But I guess I don’t see the veil that lies over a lot of the rest of the country.”
The singer may be feeling particularly expansive because living in the U.S. has given her a chance to work on another project—one that should be considerably more controversial than her celebration of European song.
“I just finished this beautiful project on the poetry of Charles Bukowski,” she reveals. “We had performances here in New York, and I’m just making a DVD out of them now. It’s a very avant-garde project: I made a journey through his poetry and composed music to 15 of his poems. So it’s a totally different project—definitely more subversive, but I love it! To crawl inside these songs and these words is a wonderful project for me.”
Given their shared interest in the rough poetry of working-class existence, not to mention Bukowski’s German heritage, it’s debatable whether there’s really much of a gap between the alcoholic mailman and such cosmopolitan Europeans as Brecht and Weill. If there is, though, Lemper is perfectly placed to bridge it.
“I’m a world citizen, and I’m inspired by many different traditions and cultures and music,” she says. “But it all comes back to me, and to the way I interpret the songs and the poems and the music. That’s really a personal interpretation—but there is a little piece of Berlin in everything I do.”
Ute Lemper plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday (March 24).