Ute Lemper has just released her new CD, Between Yesterday and Tomorrow. New York audiences have two upcoming opportunities to see her: Monday June 8th she’ll be doing a sing-and-sign at Barnes and Noble and Tuesday June 9th she’ll be in concert at Le Poisson Rouge. Well-heeled Washingtonians can catch her this weekend as one of the attactions Friday, June 5th at the Washington National Opera Ball.
I first encountered Lemper’s work more than 20 years ago when Fred Lee played the Westwind track from her first Kurt Weil CD. I remember being struck by the fascinating combination of a very modern, idiosyncratic vocal against a traditional lush track. In a completely different side of her work, I saw her on Broadway in Chicago, playing Velma against Karen Ziemba’s Roxie. Lemper has become one of the most fascianting concert artists, conquering a wide range of materials, styles, and venues. (Lemper’s official bio follows at the end of the interview.)
1. Please describe a “perfect” cabaret experience that you’ve had.
I would have to describe a venue, probably. I would probably say that Joe’s Pub down here in New York is one of the most original situations to perform in. … It’s the audience that makes a cabaret experience. You have to have an audience which is ready to play, ready to go crazy with you, ready to be provoked, ready to be teased. And the Downtown New York audience at Joe’s Pub and the Public Theater is absolutely ready to do that. More than any other audiences. They’re definitely not conservative, they’re not frightened. They’re intellectuals, gays, students… Actually they’re people of all ages, but they’re very loose, very open and interested in this repertoire I’m representing – the European songbook of cabaret. So I would say Joe’s Pub is really the best of the cabaret audiences. (later) Just the whole thing that they’re there planted on these couches in front of you and putting their feet up… And it’s just like “You’re relaxed down there; I’m relaxed on stage. Let’s go for it; let’s party.”
But it doesn’t mean that it is my favorite performance situation. I actually love to be on a big stage, on a symphony stage or a large theatrical stage with at least eight hundred to a thousand people in the audience, and actually present the music in a bit more official way than in a very small cabaret situation.
2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with? Have you won yet?
Struggling with? Well, if I would struggle with a song, I probably wouldn’t want to perform it, because only if you really master the song, if you own it and fall into it and lose yourself, are you ready to perform it.
I don’t know. Songs that I would struggle with are probably a lot of musicals songs. Anything where you would have to project the voice and sing beautifully. I don’t know; I can’t do that. All I can do is interpret and take people on an emotional ride, I guess. Yes, I do have a voice on top of it, but it doesn’t mean it’s all about the voice. That I never like, if it’s all about the voice. It’s about the soul of it.
3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.” What are the keys to making the marriage work? And for the times you need to work with a somebody new, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?
First of all, I don’t have a “musical director.” I am the “musical director.”
But I do have a very committed band around me with a lot of creative input, of course. It’s a very collective situation in our band. Or with my pianist. But really, at the end of the day… I am guiding through the musical vision.
To answer the other question, to change musician is a very terrible thing because so many details you’re used to and you worked on over the years and years. To start working with somebody else is a super-big change, but of course it is possible.
The hardest chair to replace is the pianist chair, and then I’m torn in between choosing a jazz pianist or a classical pianist. Because my repertoire is so diverse that some music I need an open improvisatory-crafted pianist; and on other stuff I need a pianist who can really sight-read and play (these) complicated chords and has a more classical approach. But then on top of all of it they need to accompany a singer. That means go with my breathing. I don’t want to go with their (breathing)… but go with my breathing. That is a complicated chair to fill. It takes time.
So, you know, I’ve gone to many pianists and I love very much the guy I have now, Vana Gierig. I’ve worked with him about five years now, and definitely it took us about a year, more than a year, to really grow together, and we’re having a fantastic ride. Hopefully he’ll stay with me.
4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?
I would say that one is lucky to be a performer with music, because the music transports you right away into it. I think it’s harder to do it like an actor where you have to really create it out of nothing, inside yourself. But the music is the launching pad. You know, the chords, the glory of the melodic journey just takes you into it and helps you. No way, it’s not a struggle at all. You start a song and the first chord goes down and you’re already into this magical universe.
Just forget about the technical singing, too. You just gotta go for it. That’s why in my heart I feel I’m more a musician than I want to be an actor. You know I did both, and I combine both, but really it’s the music that takes all the restrictions off my chest and I totally let loose through the music.
5. What is the most pressing need the world of cabaret has today?
I would say to be a little more political and daring. I mean it shouldn’t be just an entertainment dessert factory to sing to the people in the old-style dame/diva way. But I think it should definitely have an edge to it, and comment and bring in what’s happening today. Not in a specific way but in an open, political way. It can be provocative and it can be criticizing and it can be outrageous, but yet it has to stay truthful. I don’t like it too much if it becomes more… if it becomes a parody, farce. For me it’s the fine line, really, between truth and play.
(Speaking of her new CD) I’m trying to go that fine line, because it’s more a contemporary CD, but with that combination of entertainment and truth and a little bit political and at the same time open about life and love. It’s the fine line between the seriousness and the play. Yeah.
+1 As an artist, you seem to be constantly growing and tackling new challenges. How do you decide what’s next?
Oh, I just let things come to me. I can’t make it up myself…. There are so many things happening in my life. It depends on the people I work with. … I am suddenly inspired.
Or here, I suddenly have a challenge that I have to perform in a poetry festival, you know, and that makes me study the entire poetry of Charles Bukowski and then I start. OK, I read the books and then I suddenly feel that there could be wonderful songs made out of this. And then I work with my partner, other musicians. It’s the collaborations, the other people, the inspirations, the day-to-day work that opens new doors and you start to walk into new places and you catch fire. And you want to make it great.
I don’t really have my future much planned out, but it’s the things I’m working on right now and those I want to do over the next year, two years, and a couple of new projects possible and dreams I want to follow up. But basically I’m living my dream, and I’m trying to stay open for… I know very well what I don’t want to do. … I don’t necessarily want to go back into a musical, a Broadway show like this. I really want to take on the more difficult projects (and it can be very difficult to be on Broadway, I don’t want to say that). But what I do want to say is the more uncommercial projects.
Ute Lemper’s Bio