Simon Morrison profiles Berlin’s most intimate concert series…
The shrill ring of the green plastic telephone cuts straight through the room. I stop in the middle of tuning my guitar to stare at it, unsure of what to do. The small audience that has gathered in this Schöneberg apartment do the same. Nothing happens. For a moment, nobody knows what the appropriate response is. Stalemate. Finally, I put the pick in my pocket, silence the guitar, and answer the thing. For a wild beat or two, I consider belting out: ‘Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?’
Turns out that a friend of one of the hosts is lost and can’t find the apartment building. I call out for her and she picks her way through the slightly bemused audience, sheepishly gives her mate the directions he needs, and then I’m free to continue my set.
“Well, folks,” I say, ringing out a jaunty D major to punctuate the moment, “Welcome to Sofa Salon!”
“I think it’s on this street,” I say to my wife as we trudge along a dimly lit thoroughfare somewhere in the far reaches of Prenzlauer Berg. It’s cold, dark, snowing slightly, and we’re far from our normal stomping grounds and running slightly late. She glares at me and doesn’t bother to reply; my sense of direction is famously bad.
We shuffle along making sure to check whether the apartment building numbers run consecutively or are going odds and evens. Berlin never can seem to make up its mind in this respect.
Finally, we find the right place. We think. Maybe.
“This looks kinda fancy for a gig…” I screw up my face and peer at the well maintained and recently renovated facade of a grand Altbau.
Although it seems incongruous for a concert to be taking place behind these pristine walls in a quiet neighbourhood, stranger things frequently happen. We’ve seen shows in all kinds of places: a re-purposed swimming pool in Wedding, an industrial cellar in Gesundbrunnen, a semi-renovated factory in Friedrichshain, an erstwhile railway depot in Moabit and many other offbeat locations.
My wife assures me that, yes, we do have the right place. She punches a button and announces our presence. We are warmly greeted and soon find ourselves in a spacious apartment that is already filling up with all types of people. We are introduced to the hosts, who show us where to put our coats and shoes, and then excitedly advise us to hurry up to get a drink and find a place to sit.
“The show is about to start!”
In the age of YouTube, Spotify, DJs, and free downloads, musicians are striving to find new ways to present themselves and their music and grow their audiences. The ‘house concert’ format enables music to be performed and experienced in a different way than it is in a club or a bar. House concerts give local performers greater access to their audience and, for touring musicians, it also gives them a glimpse into how people really live in a city.
The audience has the chance to see music performed in a comfortable and intimate setting and everyone gets the opportunity to converse and mix with each other in a more relaxed manner. It shifts the barriers between the performers and the audience and creates a space where pretensions are dropped and where the unexpected can – and regularly does – happen. This is community building at a grass roots level. And it works.
House gigs themselves are nothing new. Blues musicians like John Lee Hooker or RL Burnside would regularly play ‘rent parties’ as a way of getting by and helping people make their monthly dues; the underground avant-garde and punk movements have been holding shows in houses, factories, squats, parks and anywhere else they could find for years. But the Sofa Salon concept differs slightly from these past efforts in a few interesting ways.
Firstly, the crowd is an eclectic mix of young and old, regulars and new faces, locals and travellers: you never know who you are going to meet, where they will be from, or what brought them to the show. Also, as the gigs are usually held in a cleared-out bedroom or lounge, there’s a convivial ‘dinner party’ feel to the proceedings, so they’re certainly not wild events. Typically – although not always – there is no PA, no lighting, and no amplification. You feel as if you’ve been invited over to a friend’s house for the evening and instead of playing a card game or watching a movie, you just happen to have a couple of fantastic musicians who have dropped by to sing for their supper.
It’s this intimacy that makes Sofa Salon, and house concerts in general, special. Musicians play stripped back versions of songs, audiences connect with each other and the musicians in a way that is totally different from a bar gig. The separation between performer and audience feels like a delicate membrane rather than an imposing obstacle. In these spaces, performers are able to drop their masks, to be more open and accessible, to take risks and share more of themselves than they perhaps normally would.
From personal experience, I can attest that playing a Sofa Salon is not for the faint of heart. For the audience, friends are made quickly and easily, spontaneous sing-alongs erupt, and new alliances are formed as people congregate between sets on balconies, in bedrooms, or in kitchens to share what brought them to the show, what keeps them coming back, and who they, in fact, are.
It sure beats screaming into someone’s ear while a DJ disinterestedly pokes their finger at a laptop.
Sofa Salon is the brainchild of Berlin-based Australian singer/songwriter Sam Wareing aka Wasp Summer. On the cusp of her 50th house concert, I caught up with her to find out a little more about the Sofa Salon concept.
Let’s get the most obvious questions out of the way first: what brought you to Berlin and why did you decide to stay here?
I fell properly in love with Berlin when my old band relocated here in 2008 to write an album. We were, I guess, chasing Berlin’s dirty glamour, the city’s history and music history. The band didn’t survive the three months but my infatuation with the city did. I moved back permanently ten months later. I wanted to live in a non-English speaking country, in a creative, cheap and relaxed city and I wanted a forgiving environment to develop my music and start playing solo.
How long has Sofa Salon been going?
I’m now 50 shows into the Sofa Salon series which I started in Summer 2010. I’m kind of amazed and very pleased when I think about how long the series has lasted and how amazing the performers have been.
What was your initial motivation in setting up Sofa Salon? Was there a lack of decent venues for musicians in Berlin?
There’s no lack of live venues in Berlin. Well, maybe a lack of venues with good sound. I’m one of the nerds that hangs down at the front watching the band, and Berlin’s small, smoky bars are more fun for me than big cavernous clubs but, as both musician and audience, I have longed for an environment of deep attention for the music and musicians. In Summer 2010, my local Kunstverein put a call out for home-based events. I asked my housemate if we could host some afternoon shows at our house and we end ended up with a three-day festival of indie folk and spoken word featuring everyone I knew in Berlin.
Has the nature of Berlin itself played a role in your decision to start organising these shows?
Yes. I first heard about house concerts in Melbourne, but in Berlin, people have such a positive and adventurous spirit – both in offering their apartments to a bunch of random music-lovers and the magical, musical mystery tour experience of turning up to a random address for new music – that it has been entirely possible to find forty or so hosts, more than a hundred and twenty musicians and around a thousand people to watch original, new live music.
How do you think Sofa Salon differs from a normal gig in a club or bar?
The attention and the quiet. House concerts ask more from the audience and from the musicians. The audience needs (and wants) to be quieter to hear the un-amplified performance and the performer needs to be extra open to all the people sitting quietly at their feet to hear them. It creates a wonderful (and sometimes intimidating) sense of attention and connection that is hard to find in smoky bars full of chatty people. Also, everyone sits on the floor at Sofa Salon so it’s more comfortable than a normal show.
What motivates people to host the shows?
I suppose my hosts love live performance first but I think everyone likes a party with a purpose and Sofa Salons are very friendly, very civil parties. I try and match hosts with music by sending out a list of upcoming shows to my host list and, if they fall in love with a band, or if I can book someone they already love, then they can feel committed to their show. I hope I’ve created an atmosphere of trust, too. It’s pretty amazing that people let me bring thirty or forty strangers and musicians and into their house, ply them with booze and throw a little party. It’s safe and friendly and like a community, a secret club.
After 50 shows, are there any particularly memorable moments or acts that stand out for you?
Gillian Grassie showing a couple of children in the audience how to play her harp. Emperor X on his knees on the living room rug. Grand Salvo playing my living room in streaming sunlight. James Cruickshank’s extraordinary piano set. Lapingra’s mad, energetic pop-opera show. Liz Stringer’s beautiful voice. Matt Walker playing one of my favourite ever songs.
Who would be your dream act to book for a show?
So, so many acts. My wish list is a mile long. Dave Graney. Caitlin Rose. This Is The Kit. Jenny Hval. Ainslie Wills. Hans Unstern.
What future plans do you have for the Sofa Salon concept?
I’m not going to mess with the house concerts too much. They’re good as they are, but I’d very much like to do occasional special event concerts with nice, seasonal food and good wine and great music. I’d love to do more radio or podcasts featuring all the great music I find. The biggest plan though is just to keep finding amazing performers and offering them a gig in front of thirty or forty lovely Berliners.
So how do we find out who is playing, when, and where?
People can email me to be on the mailing list: berlinsofasalon [at] googlemail.com; they can check out the lineups on the Facebook page. You won’t find out where the show is until the day before and only if you’ve emailed me to reserve a place.
All photos by Kate Seabrook