[4 May 2009]
PopMatters Senior Editor
The beautiful, talented Ute Lemper is an ambassador and interpreter of the Great European Songbook. Listen to her sing the work of Kurt Weill and Édith Piaf, and Weimar era Berlin will come storming in to your heart and mind. She’s truly a renaissance chanteuse. She travels the world, carrying music of past and present with here wherever she goes, singing songs by the best songwriters each nation has to offer in their many languages. Lemper transports her audience as soon as she opens her mouth and lets that gorgeous voice carry us away. “Through the Argentinean tango and the American Songbook, the Yiddish songs and the Arabic songs—when I sing I pretty much sail across the world on a cultural and musical journey,” she says. Indeed, one travels through time and space, when listening to Ute Lemper.
Just before touring for her new CD, Between Yesterday and Tomorrow (her first of songs of her own composition), she replied to PopMatters 20 Questions with some surprising answers about artists and works she admires.
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Book: John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown.
This is just one of those stories where fate and human choices are mixed up with metaphysical influences. Also, the unbearable fact that man is his own worst enemy hits you hard and you just want to scream for a better turn and a better ending to the journey of this man and his family in this destined place . It’s not a modern story, but a heart-breaking, timeless story.
Life has its chapters, the good ones and the bad ones, and you never seem to know what comes next. There might be a chapter much worse after the bad one and nobody knows when a dark journey finally will turn brighter, if at all. It’s the coldness and the stubbornness in this man that haunts you and inhibits a change for the better. A tale about the absence of flexibility and belief in the good and the absence of warmth of the heart. It’s a fascinating and haunting dark novel.
Movie: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
I enjoyed the length and the slow tempo of this unusual movie very much. Usually that aspect annoys me, but here you just go with the flow of life. Even if things go backwards for Benjamin Button, and as he changes everyone else changes through the chapters of life. You separate from love, you come back together and you lose each other again to time and the world around you.
You walk that wire in your own tempo, with your own choices and knowledge and you keep walking. The happy moments when all the stars seem to be lined up are few and short, yet nourish you and your spirit until the end of your days. With this fulfillment you keep walking alone on that wire to search for your legacy or mission or to fulfill that curiosity about what this is all about.
When Benjamin Button finally was at the end of his days, confused and unconscious like a baby or like an old person with dementia, the cycle closed in whatever direction, whether you walked life with the clock or against it counter clock wise. There was something very peaceful about this journey and of course painful as all our journeys are. It’s a beautiful metaphor.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Trinity from The Matrix , and Mother Courage from Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children.
Trinity has the sensuality and depth of spirit of a hero in a broken world. She is also very sexy and a fighter to the point of self sacrifice. Still.. she’s just a movie character.
Mother Courage, the title role of this haunting Brecht play, is of course the ultimate survivor in times of war, destruction and death. She pulls the wagon of life with her bare and bleeding hands from one place to another to save her children, yet she sees them die. It’s the ultimate tale about the senselessness of war.
3. The greatest album, ever?
Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.
Forever will I treasure the memories of growing up, becoming an adult, defining the world and reacting to the world through the spirit and beauty of this music. Nobody, nothing in the world was able to explain the despair and the joy of life, the passion and the tragedy like this music. There was nobody who could understand me other than these songs, these chords, this groove, this voice. It came from heaven and shows you that there was only one way to breathe through life … with this scratchy LP on the turntable every day and night.
It is of utter beauty still today. Music like this will be your best friend forever. Thank you, Stevie!
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek. I watched it every Saturday night, growing up in Germany in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It scared me to death sometimes and caused a lot of bad dreams , but I was addicted to it.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Science literature and YouTube for any great music performance.
I love to read about medical research, stem cell research, and new revelations—about anything concerning medicine. I love to read about child development, its chapters and its problems. I also love to read about neurology. My dad has neuropathy.
I also love to brainstorm on YouTube. There are so many great performances to be seen from so many great artists through the last 50 years. It’s just an incredible music library. I find it very educational and entertaining. It’s like reading biographies about artists.
I just finished the biography by Sheila Weller, Girls Like Us, about the parallel lives of Joni Mitchell, Carol King and Carly Simon. It was fun and I shared the stories day after day with my family. They kept asking: and then … What happened to Joni?.. What happened to Carly?
Now I’m reading biography about Bob Marley as we just spent time in Jamaica. Ya man.
Hermann Hesse is always literature to come back to throughout the years. Reading him is great journey inside yourself and the rephrasing of the eternal questions about life.
Of course my daily brain food is the lecture of the New York Times and when I’m in Europe, the Herald Tribune.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
My three kids. They are the best and greatest thing I am living.
My husband is my best friend, teacher and he challenges me.
My band for being my musical challenge and my continuous contact with excellence.
OK, the Laurence Olivier Award and the American Theater award, both for my performance as Velma in Chicago.
The Molière award for my role as Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
And so on bla bla… but a lot of low profile work was highly inspiring, too.
Definitely my self-penned new album Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, and the project I am working on right now which is setting the poems of Charles Bukowski into music.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
Being an ambassador and interpreter of the Great European Songbook, from Kurt Vial to Édith Piaf to Ute Lemper. I guess I’m living in this niche of music between yesterday and tomorrow. Kt is not a commercial place to be, but it is a precious and important place.
I can see in my concerts that my shows unite the people from 20 to 80 years old and bring them into the same room and spirit for two hours. When I travel—from Greece to Moscow, from Warsaw to Oslo, from Rome to Madrid, from Sydney to Auckland, from Hong Kong to London, from Toronto to New York City and to Buenos Aires to Mexico and back to Germany—I find myself extremely lucky and thankful to be in a position where so many people from all over the world come to hear this music. I am a messenger to them. I bring them back in time, I bring long forgotten times back into today. It works both ways.
The songs of the Weimar Republic are the songs written by the composers that were exiled soon after 1933, as the Nazis came to power. The music was political satire, but it was also new popular music to entertain and educate people.
The chansons (French music of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance) represent the most beautiful piece of existentialistic poetry and literature. Through the Argentinean tango and the American songbook, the Yiddish songs and the Arabic songs – when I sing I pretty much sail across the world on a cultural and musical journey.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
I love to listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Miles Davis, Jacques Brel, Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra.
There is an endless lesson in every song they wrote and played or sang. I am just a little pupil on the way.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd; Al Jarreau’s “Spain”; The Metropolis triptych by Otto Dix, any Gustav Klimt painting and; Dan Brown’s The Da Vinchi Code.
10. Your hidden talents…?
I was always obsessed with painting. In my Berlin years I painted large canvases in oil (two meters by two meters). They’re expressionistic studies of people in situations. I enjoyed this process of the brushwork, listening to music and not speaking with anyone. It’s a silent but intensely creative work, seeing the canvases come to life through angles and colors, faces and bodies… I was definitely in trance when I painted.
Nowadays I paint in acrylic as the oil and turpentine is too toxic around the kids. I paint much less than I used to, as I don’t have the time. Writing music takes the time slot for painting for a while. I exhibited the paintings a few times, in Berlin, Hamburg, Paris and in New York.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Be yourself in the essence, don’t pretend. Open your heart for all intuition. Follow your gut feeling.
Make choices / do what you really do best and what makes you the happiest. Learn to say no. Set priorities. Don’t do everything people ask you to do.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
Our house in the country, it’s our haven. It’s in the middle of the country surrounded by the woods and mountains. I love it.
It’s good to get away from Manhattan when we can. But after a while I’m always happy to be back in the crazy city.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
In Levis and in Armani.
I down dress in my everyday life—jeans and a T-shirt to run around in—picking up and dropping off kids and playing with them on the playgrounds on the Upper West Side.
On stage I dress up and I am very comfortable transforming into a stylish and sexy lady.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Al Jarreau and Bobby McFerrin to speak about their music and lives. They are just so talented and have inspired me greatly with their freedom in using their instrument. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. I think this couple is very cool. Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. I’m a tennis fan and had met Steffie several times during the years in Germany. Maybe for dessert I’ll get a tennis lesson.
The Clintons. Wow. Hillary is great woman of knowledge and intelligence. It would be an honor to dine with her.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I’d like to go 50 years forward to see what world my kids are living in. I am, of course, very worried about the world they will encounter, politically, ecologically…
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Spa vacation. I love massages. I never get enough of them.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Sex and love. Good wine with dinner. Laughter and kisses with the children.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Both city and country, as I live. Besides that Barcelona, Florence and the Greek islands would be nice, too,
Photo by ©Fran Janik
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
To Obama: Stick to your ideas, to your visions, don’t let the political machine deviate and compromise this too much and put you down through endless attacks and criticism. It looks like he is standing up straight and strong with his ideas.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Getting ready to tour my new album Between Yesterday and Tomorrow with my musicians. This is my most personal work as I wrote the words and the music.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/72619-ute-lemper/