Pitchfork über BM
Toiling for almost a decade on Gudrun Gut's Monika imprint, singer, pianist, and producer Barbara Morgenstern has continually evolved her sound, from the bleepy indie electronica of her early days to a more confident brand of techno pop in recent years. Despite her progress, it wasn't until 2006's quasi-breakout single "The Operator" that folks outside her hometown scene in Berlin began to take notice. During those years as electro-pop's underappreciated shapeshifter, she gradually began to focus more on her own unique vocals, and now they serve as the central component (alongside the piano) of her current material. Morgenstern's fifth solo album, BM (her initials, naturally), is the artist's most personal yet, and finds her further shedding the digital elements of her previous records.
While her present tracks could fairly be described as avant-pop (think newcomer Lia Ices or Björk, even), Morgenstern is undoubtedly an electronic musician at heart. Even mostly organic numbers like album opener "Driving My Car" follow the build-and-release configuration so distinct to techno. In this song and others, instruments introduce themselves progressively at staggered intervals before congregating at a chorus or a stirring coda. "Reich und Berühmt" ("Rich and Famous") shares this quality, its stiff drums and treated guitars joining together with Morgenstern's emotive coos during an anthemic chorus section. These complex arrangements add distinctiveness to BM but also a hint of inaccessibility; the record sometimes feels difficult to penetrate.
That's not to say that BM is any less accomplished than past triumphs Nichts Muss or The Grass Is Always Greener, even if it's far less immediate. Morgenstern is more ambitious here and stingier with moments of melodic sweetness; as such, there's nothing as instantly compelling or hooky as "The Operator" on this album. "Morbus Basedow" probably comes closest, with its aggressive beat pattern that brings to mind the wallop of 2006's extraterrestrial banger "Get UR Fleece On" from Glasgow-based producer Izu. Outside of this lone club moment, though, BM is principally concerned with drawing emotion and intimacy from its circuitous instrumentals and technically intricate vocal pop.
In aesthetic terms, the record feels crafted with wintertime night drives in mind; its coloring and textures are classically (and unmistakably) German. Haunting and guitar driven, "Come to Berlin" utilizes Low-era Bowie/Eno arrangements to appraise her currently fashionable city. When Morgenstern asks her audience, "Isn't Berlin the place to be?" there's more than a touch of sarcasm in her query. At times the personal becomes political, and on "Camouflage", a darkly romantic duet with Robert Wyatt that took form over mail correspondence, the singer offers a skeptical stance on spirituality. Over a spooky, piano-based backdrop, she intertwines her vocals with Wyatt's to argue, "Belief is just a camouflage for fear." Combined with BM's chilly sonic underpinnings, the lyrical content of these tracks might imply a coldness or detachment, but Morgenstern's desire here to examine both internal and social conflicts (not to mention the urgency of her singing and piano playing) suggest that she's as engaged as ever.
BM's difficult instrumental pieces are no less adventurous than its electro- and piano-pop moments and contribute to the album's tendency, at times, to feel unnecessarily heady. Asymmetrical and vocal-less, "My Velocity" layers crashing piano noises with screeching guitars overtop an insistent digital drumbeat. It's the sort of conceptual number that fascinates me on first listen and then instantly dives into the never-listen-again section of my brain. Songs like this and others such as "Hustefuchs" that seek to frighten and confound make for an effort that swaps a good portion of its approachability for creative advancement. That's a trade-off that close followers of indie and electronic music are inclined to celebrate, even though (or perhaps because) it will scare away most of the general public. But BM is an album that even daring listeners will need to sit with for four, five listens before getting comfortable. In an age of vast, immediate file sharing and countless other options such as, I dunno, Chinese Democracy, it may not get its due.
SF Bay Guardian über BM
It's so nice to have a record come out during the time of year it most sounds like. The latest from Barbara Morgenstern finds her moving further away from her electro/techno beginnings toward focused, elegant songwriting filled with frosty melodies and lush piano. Her voice sounds more assured than ever on this record made for long winter walks, ones buoyed by the simple pleasure of seeing your breath turn into clouds. Morgenstern has tapped into the gentle strength and somber beauty of recent outings by PJ Harvey and Marianne Faithfull, and like her German comrades, the Notwist, she has found a great balance in melding electronics and more traditional instrumentation with crisp and classy results.
xlr8r über BM
On BM, Barbara Morgenstern continues her decade-long electro-acoustic flirtation with synth-infused organ, piano, and guitar. However, unlike past explorations, BM finds the German producer knee-deep in the bold sounds of a Bechstein grand piano, which even appears unaccompanied in the cleverly titled "Für Luise." On most tracks, however, Morgenstern highlights the versatility of her favorite instrument by layering its alternately disturbed and delightful chords against psychedelic or agitated guitar, understated buzzing or tickled wind chime synths, sweeping strings, and the soft, backseat percussion of Arne Gosh. The tonally dark rhythm piano on "Reich & Berühmt" complements Morgenstern’s buoyant-but-breathy vocals. Meanwhile, those longing for the complicated, twinkling synth ornamentation of Morgenstern’s past will find it combined with gritty, industrial garage-tech on "Morbus Basedow."
Aquarius Records über BM
Sometimes a record just comes at the perfect time. It was one of the first truly crisp and cold days we've experienced this winter here in San Francisco and Barbara Morgenstern's new record landed at aQ offering up songs that were just made to be heard during the colder months of the year. With a live band by her side and her great piano playing mixed with subtle electronics, this is an album filled with driving strength and such a strong and shining elegance. Kind of like if The Notwist and PJ Harvey or Marianne Faithfull got to collaborate, pop songs that are so smartly arranged but don't waste time trying to show you how smart they are. Morgenstern's not afraid to unleash her pop sensibility and does it with a piercing determination creating the kind of record that doesn't give in to easy emotions or one sided perspective. It's fitting that she alternates between English and German vocals. A record that you can listen to when you're sad or happy, determined or in a rut. It makes you want to put on your heaviest and sharpest looking pea coat and take to the icy streets watching your breath become clouds and taking in the simple pleasures, just soaking up your surroundings.
Morgenstern also covers Robert Wyatt's "Camouflage" and Wyatt sings with her as apparently he's a big fan of her work. They both display that rare elegance that's hard to find in modern music without it feeling too forced or saccharine. Morgenstern has come a long way from her techno beginnings and we're so excited to enjoy that evolution. While this is turning out to be one of our favorite records for the cold and rainy days that lie ahead we're pretty sure this will be a record we keep near us at all times, rain or shine.
Barbara Morgenstern’s BM begins like an installation of waywardly nostalgic Tori Amos; in "Driving My Car" language is the only separation. In fact, if the Music Genome Project made a project out of BM’s fifth full-length solo album, it might turn up, in addition to Amos, uniquely strange powerhouses like Bjork, re-pioneers of acoustic like Spoon, and the dark melodies of Germany’s own Ute Lemper, to name a few. BM has outdone herself in this latest iteration, with wildly seductive pieces that pleasantly shock the hum-drum pulse of electronic by mixing innovative synth amidst a traditional keyboard backdrop.
BM brings a range of emotions; the album’s intro, "Driving My Car", is reminiscent of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet romance, sharing optimism with "Monokultur", while "Jarkata" and the darkly introspective outro "Hustefuchs" reveal a more pessimistic side to its beauty. The melancholy of "My Velocity" segues to the more electro-pop infused revving engine of "Morbus Basedow." "Fur Luise" is more eccentric and nostalgic, and following its lead are the album’s highlight tracks: "Hochhaus", perhaps most similar to Tori Amos’ brand of fragile-meets-poetic, and "Camouflage", an ethereal duet with the avant-garde English musician Robert Wyatt, founding member of the influential Canterbury scene band Soft Machine.
Musical artists like Barbara Morgenstern show that genres of music past need not die, but instead can be infused with new musical forms to create, to expand the senses; not since the French duo CocoRosie have we seen so much inspiration laid out in musical epitaph.
On BM, Barbara Morgenstern takes us on a more personal journey than ever before. It’s been said that even daring listeners would need to hear the album four or more times to feel comfortable with its scaled-down digital elements. I would disagree; the multi-layered tracks of BM suggest that by reaching out to a more open audience, Morgenstern takes the chance that pristine musical prowess still exists. And given the current direction of the Berlin music underground, I would bet someone is listening.
Barbara Morgenstern: The Wanderer
The living room has always been an integral facet of Barbara Morgenstern's aesthetic, both literally and figuratively. The Berlin-based electronic singer-songwriter-producer–known for her hushed and huddled organ tones and crisply sequenced wisps–emerged as part of the mid-'90s DIY Wohnzimmer ("living room") movement, where artists hosted informal concerts throughout the diffused squats of the former East Berlin. Fueled by this communal experience–a bonding moment for Germany's culturally disconnected post-WWII generation–Morgenstern produced plaintive, digitally dappled pop with room to emit and emote.
"I came from a small town in the Rhein-Ruhr [industrial belt] to Berlin, which was then also full of rotten buildings," says Morgenstern by phone from the increasingly gentrified German capitol. "Here we had illegal clubs and cafés where people would meet [and] struggle together for identity."
In reunited Germany's hedonistic state–a byproduct of decaying authority in the wake of reunification–Morgenstern also found a romantic industrialism that fueled her collaborative spirit, resulting in albums and installations with Stefan Betke (Pole), Thomas Fehlmann (The Orb/Readymade), and Stefan Schneider and Robert Lippok (both To Rococo Rot), among others. Morgenstern's frictionless approach to glitch-pop–soft-focus productions designed for the hearth rather than cavernous concert halls–was best summed up by her 2003 album Nichts Muss (Monika), whose title roughly translates to "nothing forced."
Morgenstern's fourth full-length, The Grass Is Always Greener, finds her returning to her living room piano, having experienced far vaster living and breathing room following a year-long Goethe Institut-sponsored world tour alongside Maximillian Hecker.
"I saw Germany in a different light and that our life is so high-standard compared to India, Indonesia," says Morgenstern. "Making music is really a luxury; there they just care about living. I really came to value certain rights we have at home. Situations could change so quickly, be both happy and sad, and this is in the album."
Cultural identity has long played a prominent role in Morgenstern's music. She and her peers of the '90s electronische musik wave–Mouse on Mars, Ellen Allien, Michael Mayer, Gudrun Gut–subtly imbue their music with a melancholy inherited (along with a conflicting sense of pride and guilt) as children of post-war Germany. Having once fielded the frustrations of an unsure industry, she observes that the new wave of German artists benefit from increased self-assurance, an attitude reflected in the country's new national campaign, "Du bist Deutschland" ("You Are Germany").
While her techno contemporaries' most Teutonic quality is often their sense of rhythm, Morgenstern delivers sincere, honeyed melodies in her native language. But she's also an emissary of a greater pop tradition, peppering her songs with English phrasing, as on The Grass Is Always Greener's atypically uptempo first single, "The Operator." "English sounds really nice in a song that is really poppy, like when I say 'Take me, take me, I like [the band] a-ha," laughs Morgenstern.
As experienced by this writer in Germany early 2003, Morgenstern strikes a far cheekier pose live than on record, while always vibing off of the audience. And far from her days being satisfied playing friends' living rooms, Morgenstern has now traveled extensively, from jungle-overrun Buddhist temples to technology-oversaturated clubs. Along the way she came to realize that the grass is not always greener, and returned to Berlin with a heightened appreciation of "rotten" eddies, and secret hideaways and stomping grounds. She applies a newly ascetic, less cluttered aesthetic to The Grass..., which is less a series of tightly sequenced pirouettes than a selection of panoramic snapshots.
"Solo shows never had enough tension, and I was fed up of the organ and wanted to play the songs on a piano," says Morgenstern. "I've always wanted to play a song from beginning to end. I wanted the ability to improvise, and not think so much about what could and could not be done with programming beats. I had been thinking previously in small patterns and sometimes it kills dynamics, so I wanted to feel more just the song with a drummer."
Indeed, The Grass Is Always Greener sees less use of the organ (almost a crime, considering "organ" is almost central to Morgenstern), and introduces splashier percussion and crinkly detailing.
Some titles encapsulate particular settings, such as "Unser Mann Aus Hollywood" ("Our Man from Hollywood"), "Juist" (an island off northern Germany), "Die Japanische Schranke" ("The Japanese Gate"), and Mailand (Milan). Others personify a more universal ardor, including "Das Schone Einheitsbild" (somewhere between "The Beautiful Image" and "Uniformity"), "Alles Was Lebt Bewegt Sich" ("Everything that Lives Moves"), and "Ein Paar Sekunden" ("A Few Seconds"). The overall mood–familiar to fans of Lali Puna, Joni Mitchell, New Order, and Björk–is one of hopeful longing for places of residence and resonance.
"I had gone so many places," says Morgenstern, "and I wanted my songs to do so also, but always return with me to where I feel most creative, most at home."
Barbara Morgenstern Picks the Most Interesting Stops on Her World Tour.
Mumbai: The people, the food, the colors, the smell, and the nature were completely exciting. A one-hour walk on the street was filled with thousands of impressions, after which we were completely exhausted. I've never experienced a society more different to ours. Although it's so poor, the atmosphere is friendly and peaceful.
Peking: We had the chance to go to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. It was very cold and fresh and the old Chinese architecture's wideness and its space really impressed me. While playing, the people stand really close to the stage. Body contact in everyday life is really usual, which I'm not used to–it sometimes made me aggressive. You feel the economic progress and the growth everywhere.
Tel Aviv: I've never been to Israel before and as a German, you are full of fear [of] how people will treat you. I experienced that it was not a problem to be German; people [want to interact with you] to work on the history. The city is amazing; it's very [similar] to Berlin but empty because of bomb threats. It was interesting to listen to people of my age talking about the conflict between Israel and Palestine and I really enjoyed the beach, the concert, and the atmosphere.
Tokyo: We came to Tokyo with horrible jetlag and immediately went to dinner in Shibuya. This was a complete culture shock–the big crossings with hundreds of people, hundreds of people in the metro. The sounds and the lights were so massive that I felt like I was on another planet. The clash of old culture and pop culture is fascinating.
Taschkent: Taschkent is the capital of Uzbekistan, a country [caught] between the [Oriental way of life] and Communism–what a strange mixture. It is a big city that was completely destroyed by an earthquake in the '60s. The people were crazy about the music–shouting, dancing. I was dancing on the stage. It was massive!
Barbara Morgenstern's whirlwind world tour inspired themes of changes and the nature of time on her first album since 2003's Nichts Muss. Her arrangements are frequently minimalistic, yet she strikes a delicate balance between warmth and precision that indicates a maturation of her pop sensibilities.
Exposure to new cultures informs the observation of the title track, an incantation that’s more piano than electro. That balance is rectified with the addictive “The Operator,” one of the album’s singles. Beat-friendly, its chorus is alluringly bittersweet in its reflection of constant motion even as it seems a little out of place among the album’s less frenetic material. The electronics are on equal footing with her piano playing when Morgenstern slows down on “Polar” and “Das Schöne Einheitsbild,” supplementing her melodies with blips and rhythms that prevent the songs from straying completely into unadorned singer-songwriter territory.
Morgenstern does a good job of keeping things fresh with changes in mood and instrumentation. On “Juist,” a slower instrumental, she brings in distorted elements that grab noticeable attention. Likewise, on “Alles Was Lebt Bewegt Sich,” the fuzzed sounds belie the song’s pop sheen and slowly gain prominence. She returns to electronic beats on “Quality Time” and “Mailand” before closing with the melancholic “Initials B.M.” The countries she visited on tour may not reflect so much in the music itself, but appear instead in her lyrics. “Die Japanische Schranke,” for instance, refers to a squeaky railway gate she encountered in Tokyo while “Unser Mann Aus Hollywood” is a story about an unhappy dream. In addition to the songwriting itself, one of Morgenstern’s strengths is her voice, which is pleasant to hear whether singing solo or with her own backing harmonies.
A few of the tracks could stand to be shortened, but that’s only a minor complaint for such an accomplished and satisfying album.
Tiny Mix Tapes: The Grass Is Always Greener
In light of the work of Morr Music, it would appear that Germany is the place to go for electro-pop. Released on the equally notable Monika Enterprise, Barb's take on the genre is made unique by her own recurring piano ”“ real live piano that shines analogue in a sea of Broadcast synths, simple keyboard melodies and bleeps, virtual guitars, and mostly programmed drumming.
From song one, Morgenstern's piano adds a palpable tinge of elegance to her sound, complementing her warm vocal treatment of a notoriously harsh dialect. German is not the first language I would associate with mood-setting, esoterically funky electronica, but all of the elements here make that presumption a little too easy to forget. Even if you have some untold grudge against German singing, instrumentals such as the Nathan Fake-like progressive track "Die Japanische Schranke" give you no excuse for not letting the love grow inside you.
As the title would suggest, The Grass Is Always Greener makes you appreciate the small things in life on your side of the fence.
Dusted Magazine interview with BM
Stern Lecture: An Interview with Barbara Morgenstern
Interviewed 6/24/2006 after a show at Tonic in New York.
TW: Tell me how you got started touring with John Darnielle [of Mountain Goats].
BM: Actually he asked me. He’s a fan of my music so he asked if I wanted to play the west coast with him. There was also a connection between our booking agents and promoters.
TW: Had you heard his stuff before?
BM: Barely. I mean I knew him, I knew that [Mountain Goats] existed, I heard it at a friend’s, but I wasn’t into the music really. Sorry for that!
TW: But it worked out – you said earlier that the crowds on the west coast were mostly the Mountain Goats crowd and they ended up seeing you as a bonus.
BM: It was like that. They were really into it, I sold a lot of CDs. I thought for me it was a great success. I wanna come back soon to continue somehow, and not to be forgotten again.
TW: When was the last time you were here for shows?
TW: And who were you touring with?
BM: With Maximillian Hecker. That was the only other time when I came here.
TW: And that was sponsored by Goethe Institute?
TW: Why did they sponsor you for that?
BM: They just asked me! I mean you can’t promote the Goethe institute. They ask the people they want to.
TW: Did they have some sort of expectations for the tour?
BM: No, that’s what we thought at the beginning, that we’d have to fulfill some kind of behavior or something, but they said OK, we ask you for the music, you do the music, that’s it. And if you don’t wanna go out to eat with the people, and if you don’t want to represent something then stay in. And that was a big pleasure to know that they said before, OK, do what you want, be as you are. We ask you for music, play concerts, that’s it. No pressure.
TW: Did you have a drummer, or play alone?
BM: I had a band, but not this drummer [on tour now]. This drummer cancelled 6 weeks before, which was really a pity, more for him than for me. I asked a friend, I had a guitar player with me. But I played the first month of shows alone.
TW: Do you always play with a drummer, or live instrumentation?
BM: Yes, one aspect is not to be alone on the road. I mean if you really play alone, if you’re the top act of the night like yesterday, it’s a lot to do the evening just alone. It’s possible but I think – the drummer played on the record as well, he’s really integrated into the new songs, and I like to play with him. And I think live, it’s more vivid. We can interact, we can have fun together, we can do some improvisations. And I played with a drummer before and he did some keyboards for us too. So it was not just a drummer. He did eDrums. For the album, I did all the stuff in my studio, then went to Hamburg for 4 days to record the drums. After that I went back and cut the drums, put everything in shape, arranged the stuff, went to the studio, mixed it.
TW: Before, you had production help from Robert Lippok…
BM: I mean it’s not really production help, it’s like OK, I want the people. I do everything myself just to prepare the record and then I go to the studio to do the sound. And that’s it. Because I think, OK, my studio is not good enough, so it’s a problem if you have the bass frequencies a certain way, but in the end it’s good to have another person with a distant view on my sound. That’s what I did with Stefan Betke [aka Pole] too. We wanted to do more but it didn’t work out. He doesn’t have the time. But for this record I decided, ok, I’ll do everything myself, I’ll record everything – so I moved to Hamburg, I recorded the drums, I cut them, I know how the sound is going – I’ve been going to the studio of a friend of mine from Tarwater. He’s got a studio and we mixed the album in 3 days. That only means setup, mixing, and sorting out the frequencies – that’s it. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to have any sort of stress in the end. It’s only like, OK, too much bass, or the piano is not clear enough, things like that.
TW: Do you think that this record [The Grass is Always Greener] sounds a lot different than the stuff you did with Stefan Betke or Robert Lippok?
BM: With Robert it’s exactly the same procedure, we work at my studio and then go to Bern to Tarwater’s studio to mix it. With Stefan Betke, I did the album and I was really satisfied with it and my sound is warm somehow. I like low-mids, and so I like this sort of sound. It can be a bit dirty. Stefan, Pole, is really a frequency artist somehow. He really likes to have a clean sound and he wants to play that up. I had the album ready and he wanted to make something like a real electronic album, all of it. He had a new sound system and so he said, ok, do you like this? We had a lot of fights in the studio because I was not satisfied with it and then I was so upset I didn’t do the album at home. My friends, my boyfriend, they all said the album was destroyed. And I was really really upset at first. Stefan and me we are friends, so I thought OK, I want to keep the friendship and I want to have a good album and I don’t want to mix everything again. Let’s find new people, go again through the whole process. Then I went to the studio because Stefan ran out of time, and I did some remixing and I changed some stuff. That’s how it was. It was not that good of an experience to let other people work on my sound. I like to work with other people, with Robert it’s really 50/50. But if it’s my stuff and people come from another view and that doesn’t fit, then it can be stressful. So I thought ok, from now on I want to keep everything in my hands. With the Tarwater guy I know he’s really excellent, we like each other, he’s very respectful of what I do.
TW: He did my favorite remix of one of your songs – “Aus Heiterem Himmel.” Your songs are very easy to listen to – I don’t speak German, so, I don’t know a lot of the lyrical content but it’s very easy on the ears and very smooth and very fun. But for your remixes it seems like you either seek out people or they seek you out and they make your work a little more challenging.
BM: What does it mean, challenging?
TW: A little more difficult to get into – not quite as poppy.
BM: You think? The Ellen Allien mix was really 4 to the floor. The Jimmy Tamborello mix – I love his remix. That was a bit difficult to get into.
TW: How do you seek people out to do remixes?
BM: Just friends. Jimmy is on Monika as well. He released an album as Figurine, another name. So I knew him, we did some shows together in Germany. Tarwater and I are good friends, Ellen Allien is a friend, and the fourth one – [Lawrence] – I loved it. So I asked him.
TW: But everyone who does remixes for you – from your earliest stuff until now –
BM: Friends as well. One was a very old friend from Blumfeld, which is a very successful band in Germany. They were never successful abroad. I don’t know why.
I think they tried to play in England but that’s it. It’s always people I know or who are somehow on the circle of friends.
TW: How much do you play when you’re at home in Berlin?
BM: 2 or 3 times a year. It’s not that much in Berlin. It makes no sense to play there often. And then I just play if people ask me or if I have a record release party or something. I played in a theatre called Folkspriner a lot, a big theatre from East German times. It’s really good and they do a lot of concerts, I play there a lot. I mean I do a tour when through Germany when the record is released, or I just go if people ask me.
TW: Who do you end up playing with when you’re in Berlin? People more on the electronic side or people like Mountain Goats?
TW: Have you done any collaborations with people in a live sense, or do you just perform your own work live?
BM: With Robert Lippok, we did that last year completely. Then I can concentrate on my own record and I did not have to think about playing live in between. I played a lot of shows with him, and improvising with two other friends of mine, so we played some shows last year and the year before. From time to time we play together, so that’s what I do.
TW: Are you playing mostly with dance nights?
BM: Most of them are quiet. With Robert I played with high energy dance shows and with this improvisation I played just quiet shows because improvisation needs a bit of silence. And you sit and you really listen. The stuff I play, you saw yesterday, Tonic was a good reference. I play places like that most of the time.
TW: I noticed there was a whole lot more straight piano sound. Is that a result of your producing it all by yourself or is that a sound you wanted to do for a while?
BM: I mean, I did the other records as well so it’s really my work. I don’t have the feeling that. For Fjorden I asked for Robert to take part in one song. I’m doing all of the stuff, my composition, all that. So it doesn’t matter if I did that. But the reason was I really wanted to play the songs. I wanted to be able to play a whole song on the piano. I wanted to change my instrument, I wanted to move a bit away from the organ. I chose my piano at home.
TW: Are you thinking about your live act while you’re making your record?
BM: I do for sure. I played lots of live shows so I think about that for sure.
TW: Has it made it more fun for you to have the extra piano parts to play?
BM: What do you mean?
TW: I know that a lot of performers here get frustrated with just playing on a laptop.
BM: I never was a pure laptop act. I always played organ. I always played on a song, I played and I played pianos before so that’s the difference from the time before. The amount of live playing is really the same. I mean I play on every song - that’s the idea of me playing live. So that doesn’t change a lot for me feeling-wise.
TW: I feel like the single “The Operator” sounds a little bit different from the rest of the album, a little bit different from the stuff you’ve done in the past. It feels more like a single, very poppy. I don’t know anything about radio in Germany or pop music over there, do you get played on the radio over there?
BM: A bit, not that much. I had about 3 versions of the song, or 4 or 5 or so. So it’s a really long process, and I came back to this version because it fits. It was like this, it wasn’t supposed to be the single for me. For me I wanted to choose the first song. But then Gudrun [Gut] from the label said we choose [the shorter version of the song].
TW: Is there a lot of contact between you and Gudrun and other people at Monika?
BM: Yeah for sure. Not all the time, but we see each other often.
TW: Are you doing collaborations with any of them?
BM: I want to do something with Robert again. For me it was a bit like, too many places to work on. So I wanted to go again on my own. I want to do something with James, who played yesterday as well, James Everest.
TW: Is he involved in other projects?
BM: He plays with his sister and that’s it. We met him in Minneapolis just one week ago. And it was just…he did our shows there, he was the promoter. Did you come yesterday?
TW: I came at about 10.
BM: He was the first to play. The guy with a guitar. That was him. So we met in Minneapolis and we immediately became friends, the drummer and his wife and us. We played some songs together. It was nice.
TW: You talked last night of a song about everywhere in the end booking the same to you when you were touring in different cities. Do you like the process of touring and going around and seeing new places or is it tiring and boring in the end? Do you wish you could stay at home?
BM: To leave home, it’s always hard. It’s like you have to really pull yourself out of everyday life, away from your family. It’s like, ugh! I don’t want to go. But if I’m on the road, then it’s fine. I really enjoy America too, and I was really unsure before I left, I felt, oh shit, should I really do it? And then it’s really fun. It’s half and half. When I’m home I don’t wanna go and when I’m on the road it’s pure fun. I mean it’s great to see all these cities and all these places and for me the world has really opened my horizons, and you are in the countries and you are in the places, and you can take a look and you can get an idea of what’s going on in these places. We traveled China, Uzbekistan, Japan, South Africa, South America. That was really a wide range of places to be. This is a great present I got. But on the other hand, it was really exhausting, this tour! In the end it was hard for me to go back into everyday life and start doing music again and stuff like that.
TW: What kind of crowd did you get in Uzbekistan or South Africa?
BM: It was the same, people of our age. I mean sometimes younger, and I was surprised, the concerts were crowded all over, sometimes gallery people came as well. They were invited by the Goethe Institut. But a lot of normal crowds in normal places, and we played good clubs. In Uzbekistan they went crazy! They were shouting, screaming the whole time because nobody’s coming there to play a show. It was one of the best shows I ever had.
TW: How do you think people there get into your music? Through the internet? I’m always curious as how people in South Africa or wherever end up finding out about your music.
BM: in South Africa they were just invited by the Institut. But South America was brilliant because they knew it from the Internet. And in Uzbekistan I don’t think anybody knew my music. It was like, ok, you have a crowd who’s interested in this kind of music and it’s mostly this kind of American or European-way countries, like Japan they know us. But most of the time it was new for them.
TW: It seems like Uwe Schmidt is building a big empire in Argentina, there’s a lot of music going on down there. Do you interact with him at all?
BM: No, who’s that?
TW: Atom heart.
BM: Isn’t he in Chile? Yes, he’s there for a long time. It’s a huge community of people, of musicians living in Chile. I’ve got friends who went over there and stayed for a while, a friend who lived in Berlin and is connected with Monika. I know about this but I’m not a part of it.
TW: It seems like most of your songs are based on a really simple arpeggiation that builds and builds. When you’re picking up new songs do you start with a simple chord all the time and build on it?
BM: Most of the time I’m really trying to look for something on the piano. But for the new album I really developed it on the piano and then transferred it and arranged it on the computer. So I’m just looking for good combinations like this.
TW: Were you trained at all on the piano?
BM: As a child, just normal lessons at music school.
TW: Is your family musical?
BM: My father and mother both played piano. My grandparents were very musical and they met each other through music. So there was always a lot of music around, and my father was really into music. He was very emotional with music.
TW: Do your parents and family enjoy your music now? Do they come out and see it?
BM: My father died already but he really enjoyed it, that was a big pleasure and my mother as well. I think my father enjoyed it more than my mother. They had a relationship to the music.
TW: Is there anyone right now in Berlin, or anywhere that you’re very interested in hearing what they’re coming out with now, anyone in particular that you’re looking forward to hearing?
BM: Kammerflimmer Kollektiv. Do you know them?
TW: Mmm hmm.
BM: I heard of them a long time ago, and I’m really smashed by that. This is the one that’s really I’m a fan of at the moment.
TW: What label are they on?
TW: I want to ask you a little bit about Berlin in general. Have you lived there all your life?
BM: No, I’m born in the middle part of Germany, a small town called Hagen, close to the industrial area in Germany. After school I went to Hamburg because there was some kind of course at the university for pop music, only six weeks long. I got to know all of music friends there afterwards. I lived there for a while and then I moved to Berlin.
TW: What year did you move to Berlin?
TW: Has it changed a lot since then?
BM: At the beginning the wall just fell and you’ve got lots and lots of rotten houses, and there was a lot of space for things to do. And then the government moved to Berlin and it became the capital. With this, lots of things changed. I mean the part where I started to live, it’s a really posh place now, now it’s crowded with children, mothers pushing their strollers. It’s changed a lot.
TW: Normally the same thing is happens here. But still a lot of people from the electronic music community here have been moving to Berlin. Do you feel like it’s becoming harder for artists to work there and become successful or whatever they wanna do?
BM: I don’t think so, because the music scene is really open. There’s not a lot of competition. I met the guys from To Rococo Rot, or Pole, or Thomas Fehlmann, so it’s easy to work with them. They are open-minded. It’s not like, “show me what you can do,” so that helps a lot. [pauses to get some grapes]
TW: For most of the songs last night you kind of introduced them telling everyone what the songs were about in German. Do you feel like it’s hard to understand the songs the same way without knowing the lyrics? You seemed a little concerned…
BM: Nobody can speak German in America so that’s why I say that. I don’t do that in Germany. But the lyrics have several meanings so I only say the soft part of them, but I don’t wanna explain … you can look at them from different points of view.
TW: Have you ever thought of writing translations?
BM: Yeah. I wanted to do that for James and he wanted to have me get good translations and put them on the internet so that people would know what I’m singing about.
TW: What do you normally sing about? What’s “The Operator” about?
BM: I can’t tell [you] that [laughs]. The operator is a place where all your questions will be solved. It’s about a violent relationship that has destroyed everything and then you go to the operator and you try to solve your questions. “The Grass is Always Greener” is about being out of home, being homesick, to get your power again and to see the beauty in the details. It’s mostly about seeing the beauty in the details.
TW: You said this album is about good things and bad things happening at the same time.
BM: That’s only the one song “Polar.” The album is a lot about traveling, about the world tour. You get to recognize that mostly every city center looks the same and it’s OK, of course it’s about globalization, how we, the western world and the American economy are overwhelming all the cultures. Like Asia, you find Starbucks and McDonalds everywhere and they lose their traditions, their food tradition. It’s some kind of future. For me it was checking to see the magazines in Asia and in every magazine was a western or European woman, like everyone likes that.
TW: Would you say it’s a little bit political?
BM: Yeah, for sure. I’m satisfied with the lyrics; I try to put it in a poem – like say OK, there’s this war in another way, war in new clothing, war with a new face. And I really dislike that.
TW: What are you working on next?
BM: I think I wanna do a lot of stuff with noise and piano. That’s the idea I’ve got.
TW: Any remixes or anything coming up soon?
BM: Yeah, I did a remix for the drummer we’re playing with, it’s a German band. I’m doing some recordings with the improv group. We’ve got to finish our album.
TW: do you play any other instruments besides piano?
TW: Last time you were here did you play guitar on tour?
BM: No, it’s just, the guitars on the new album I played for myself just like basic guitar playing. When we play in Germany I play guitar for one song in the end. You remember “Teenage Kicks?” It doesn’t make sense to play this without guitar. You’ve got this – duhduhduhdudh [guitar noise]. Like I’ve got a big golden guitar. It’s a pity I can’t play that here, but it’s a baritone guitar, and it’s really big, and I don’t want to carry that here.
TW: Where’s your favorite place to play?
BM: We thought after this tour America because the crowd is so so nice. It’s a good place to play.
TW: I feel like if the album were sung in English and it was coming from here and you were playing here as well it might almost be perceived as a pop record.
BM: That’s not bad.
TW: Not at all.
BM: I mean for the next album, singing one song in English or translating the lyrics in the cover would be nice. But the lyrics are hard to understand in German as well so you really have to read them because it’s a lot of playing with words and not really clear until you really read it.
TW: Why did you choose to sing a couple of words in English on certain songs?
BM: I like these pop phrases. Like “Take me [to the operator]” … and for “Aus Heiterem Himmel,” it’s a nice idea to have one verse in German and one in English. And on the album before I had a song about Hollywood icons. And so I had to sing them in English and it was a song about “happy end,” and this expression doesn’t exist in Germany.
TW: There’s one song where you kept saying “San Francisco.”
BM: I wrote that song in San Francisco! “The Grass is Always Greener.” So I was there and I was homesick and I called my boyfriend and I was really like…I wanna go home and he said, ok, enjoy the time, enjoy the details, take a look at them. That’s what the song is about, this phone call.
Pitchfork's review of The Grass Is Always Greener
Despite one of the healthiest and most interesting bodies of work of anyone in Berlin’s electropop circuit, Barbara Morgenstern has never been a name. Even when compared against the relative successes of artists like, say, Lali Puna or The Notwist, Morgenstern has always flown under the radar, content to make thoughtful and often brilliant records destined to be namechecked by everyone from Ellen Allien to the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, but ultimately bought and heard by a pathetic few.
Seven years on, there’s new cause for hope. While The Grass Is Always Greener marks her fifth full-length album, it arrives at a time unlike any other in Berlin’s last decade. Gone, seemingly, is the rigid ideology that once stratified Berlin’s verdant electronic output into self-contained parking zones. The ensuant conflation and interbreeding of once closed gardens like Tresor house, minimal, sleaze techno, Morr Music electropop, post-IDM, neo-kraut, sound design and whatever else had its own subsection in your favorite electronic record store once upon a time has left those barriers decimated; now, everyone’s a dilettante with a clear field of vision -- greatness practically demands it.
Berlin’s increasing predilection toward formal pop structure is another development working in Morgenstern’s favor. Though she’s certainly made overtures to pop conventions on prior outings, The Grass Is Always Greener finds her working more assuredly within the form. As proof she’s thinking as much about melody as she is texture, piano features heavily this time around. Set mostly against backdrops of burbling synths and minor-key choruses, it provides Morgenstern with a clear melodic anchor and a warm counterpoint to her brittle rhythms. Its classical connotations have the added bonus of sparking off the album’s otherwise forward-looking sounds, something that serves its theme well.
For clues on that theme, we need look no further than the title track, which, despite its name, is sung primarily in German. The conceit is one of many on the record to allude to the notion of in-betweenness (culturally, spiritually, musically) that dominates throughout. Conceived while Morgenstern travelled countries as disparate as Japan and India on her Goethe-Institut-backed 2005 world tour, The Grass Is Always Greener has a wistful, almost punchdrunk quality to it, its chord progressions always hairpinning somewhere unlikely.
Also worth mentioning: the punchy and sorta sideways lead single “The Operator”, which has a whiff of Devo to it; the turbulent key changes of the gorgeous “Polar”; the simple piano balladry of “Das Schöne Einheitsbild”. But really, there’s barely a dud to be found, not even as the album takes on a busier and slightly more industrial aesthetic near the end. Confident, crafted and feminine, this is Morgenstern’s finest record yet-- let’s hope she gets the audience she deserves.