Barbara Morgenstern: The Wanderer
- Words: Tony Ware
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!
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