Music & clubs

Getting out of her orbit: Barbara Morgenstern

The experimental electronic musician and Wohnzimmerszene founder is a Berlinerin seeing the post-Mauerfall Berlin of the 1990s morph into something new. See her alongside Julia Kent at Roter Salon on Mar 7.

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Photo by Viktor Richardsson

Electronic musician and choir leader Barbara Morgenstern goes binary at the Roter Salon. 

When Morgenstern arrived in Berlin in 1994, the city was still in a state of post-Wall flux. Feeding off this energy, she seized the moment and, together with host Joe Tabu and other like-minded artists, kicked off the Wohnzimmerszene (living room scene) with its largely improvised concerts and parties. Malaria! co-founder Gudrun Gut was impressed and signed Morgenstern to her label Monika Enterprise. In the past two decades, she has dashed across the genre spectrum from synth-pop to experimental to choral (as the leader of HKW’s Chor der Kulturen der Welt).

On Monday, March 7 at the Roter Salon, she teams up with cellist Julia Kent, one of the collaborators on last year’s seventh studio album Doppelstern, for a one-off concert extravaganza.

Why name your album after a binary star?

It was the perfect metaphor for my album. Two stars bound together by gravitation, circling around each other periodically. Energy from one star is transmitted to the other, one is feeding from the other. You’re in this cosmos, just the two of you, and every song is a world in itself. The name was Justus Köhncke’s idea, with whom I recorded the first song. Some said it was too obvious, but it just fit.

You’ll perform at Roter Salon with one of your ‘stars’.

I met Julia in New York while I was touring. I worked with her on my fifth album, bm [Monika Enterprise, 2008], and then we played a gig together in America. Somehow our paths continued to cross. Unfortunately, we didn’t actually meet to record the song on my album. So I’m very much looking forward to our gig, because now we can get together and rehearse. We’ll develop a few songs just for the concert. She’ll play her set, I’ll play mine and in between, we’ll play together.

You started as a solo artist, but collaborations have been popping up more and more on your CV.

As a solo artist, the motivational curve was slightly going downwards. My solo thing happened because I was tired of working in a band structure, compromising and organising, like in a relationship. But at a certain point, it was always the same routine, I was orbiting myself. Of course, you connect to the audience, but it’s something you do by yourself. These days, I don’t have the urge to withdraw from the world so much. Working with a choir, for instance, is exciting because you can work on a grand theatrical level, and it’s not just about me. Only producing electro pop became too one-dimensional.

Who are your role models?

In my hometown, Hagen, the jazz and free jazz scenes were buzzing. I also had a good piano teacher with jazz roots. That triggered everything. Then came Fred Frith, the New York improv scene and Laurie Anderson, who had a massive impact on me. Bartók’s Children’s Pieces are unbelievable because he includes unexpected changes which sound unfamiliar, but they do have a certain pop factor. I love harmonies; that’s my thing: geile Harmonien. It’s my ambition to surprise with unexpected harmonies that make sense in the end. I can create those with a choir, at an organ or piano, and when I collaborate. It’s the tonal search that interests me.

Do you find it difficult to explain who you are as an artist?

Absolutely. Peoplefind it difficult to pigeonhole me. The older I get, the more difficult it is. Back then, I was the woman at the organ with frail beats and strange songs. Then I moved on. But honestly, it’s not so difficult to explain. I see myself as a composer. Sure, I’m the director of a choir, I make pop music, I experiment, but first and foremost, I’m a composer. The question is rather: can people get used to artists who draw from many genres, or is there a need to put them in boxes?

How do you remember Berlin when you started the Wohnzimmerszene in the mid-1990s?

Very romantically. In 1994, after the Wall had come down, I moved here with the “Wohnzimmer-Clique”. Everything was falling apart, open spaces everywhere. I felt like the world was ours – and it truly was. People opened bars in their own apartments. There were so many illegal clubs, like Berlintokyo and Der Eimer. It was a big ‘post-Wall hurrah’; it just fit. We went out all the time, mingled with the same crowd, it was all give-and-take. Everyone was bent on doing stuff, looking for the next club to open. It was all word-of-mouth and very adventurous.

Today, every Berlin generation suspiciously eyes the next. Gudrun Gut, who was active in the 1980s music scene, supported you in the 1990s. Why did it work then?

Gudrun experienced Berlin when the Wall was still up and everyone was here – Bowie, Neubauten. It must have been a constant buzz if you were part of these circles. Eventually, this movement ran dry, and if the Wall hadn’t fallen, who knows what might have happened with Berlin’s music scene. But then the entire East opened up with all these empty houses to squat, its own off -scene and artists like To Rococo Rot or Tarwater, and it all came together. Gudrun was in a position to say, eve- rything’s so different, aber auch geil. Today, we’re deprived of this destructive element, and that gets to people.

Sweet Silence (2012) remains your only album in English. How come?

With my English album, I was on a Moderat trip. I mean, what a pop appeal. I wanted to get there, too. [Laughs] English as the languageof pop seemed to be just right. You can do different things with your voice, and it actually helped me to improve vocally in hindsight.

A lot of people were upset about it – even internationally. I wanted my international fans to understand my lyrics, but then the reaction was like, “Dear God, why English?” To my fans, it felt like I had given up my individuality, I had betrayed an ideal. I was totally surprised. In retrospect, I find it really fascinating.

Could you hide behind the English language?

One song on my English album deals with the death of a friend. I wouldn’t have done this in German. It would’ve been too close. When I started singing in German, I thought I sounded like Schlager. Then [Blumfeld frontman] Jochen Distelmeyer showed everyone how it’s done. It was on point. Whenever I listened to Blumfeld, I thought I was listening to the truth.

At the moment, whiny men in their thirties, like Mark Forster and Andreas Bourani, are trending.

It’s a mix of all this indie stuff plus Dieter Bohlen and Voice of Germany, all in one, trying to find our big pop star. We don’t have a long-lasting German pop tradition. Maybe it’ll slowly emerge. But at the moment, it’s all spearheaded by that “Atemlos” woman, Helene Fischer. In comparison to Deichkind or Romano, it’s just lazy songwriting. 

JULIA KENT & BARBARA MORGENSTERN Mon, Mar 7, 20:00 | Roter Salon, Rosa- Luxemburg-Platz, Mitte, U-Bhf Rosa- Luxemburg-Platz