Q&A: Barbara Morgernstern

Laura Harker chats with one of Berlin’s most cherished electro-pop maestros… 

Barbara Morgenstern’s unpretentious ‘girl-next-door’ look belies her position as one of the most consistent figures in Berlin’s indie music firmament. The musician and producer has been a stalwart of the scene for almost two decades, and in that time has worked with many big names including To Rococo Rot’s Robert Lippok and dub-techno producer Pole.

Morgenstern’s musical career has gradually developed from the dots-and-dashes electro of 1999’s Vermona Et6-1 to the more melodic structures of her later work. After a recent three-year radio silence—spent largely with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt choir—she has returned with a new record, Doppelstern, an album which features Berlin favourites Gudrun Gut and T. Raumschmiere among the many collaborators.

Though known for singing in both German and English (since 2012’s Sweet Silence), Doppelstern is her first work to switch between both languages, an unusual move she puts down to a lack of German amongst some of her collaborators on the record. The record offers a Morgenstern-esque mix of electronica and indie pop melodies filtered through hazy, even nebulous dreamscapes.

Image by Andreas Schlegel

What does the new album tell us about where you are currently at as a musician and artist?

I was very curious about what would happen if I worked with so many different musicians. Diving into so many different setups, working with so many different musicians, was a very exciting challenge. It was the next step to make a new experiences in music and to develop: music for me is a long, never-ending search for something new.

Was there a concept behind the record?

The concept of the Doppelstern album was that there was no concept. Nothing was prepared, and we wanted to take the moment and see what we could do together. What are we interested in right now? What’s the common denominator? These were the ideas we were most interested in. It was also just the thrill to work with musicians who I like and adore. The list of musicians, with whom I would love to work became longer and longer and, as I’m not a big fan of postponed ideas, it was time to let it happen. Doppelstern became an album with eleven spaces for songs; each song is a world of its own.

It’s your first album for three years: what’s been happening in the meantime?

Choir, choir, choir! I’m head of the Chor der Kulturen der Welt at the House of World Cultures and we’ve been quite busy performing at exhibitions, like Berlin Atonal, with electronic music pioneer Hans-Joachim-Roedelius. Right now I’m developing a piece with Ari Benjamin Meyers, (an American contemporary composer) and Hauschka for the choir. I love this kind of work, because it’s conceptual and offers a lot of possibilities in music. The choir feature partly on Doppelstern as well as in the last song, Den kommenden Morgen with Jacaszek. Besides that I worked with the great ‘theatre directors team’ Rimini Protokoll and composed and directed music for two productions. And my family needs me from time to time.

Your last album (Sweet Silence) was all in English. Previous albums have been in German. What is the reason that you switch between languages?

On Doppelstern the languages are mixed, because some of the partners are native English speakers (Corey Dargel and Richard Davis). I did mix the languages a few times before, for example my biggest ‘hit’ The Operator and there’s also a duet with Robert Wyatt (Camouflage) on my album bm from 2008, which is in English, because Robert Wyatt is English. I like the pop appeal of English. The hooks sound much better than in German, but the most important reason for my full English album was that it’s much easier from the vocal point of view to sing in English. But of course I’m missing many many undertones writing in English, because German is my mother tongue, so I switch back to German.

Is the title a reference to the album’s many duets, or does it have a broader meaning (for example a bilingual reference)?

Double stars are an astronomical phenomena—two stars related to each other in terms of gravity. A very common phenomena in space. Justus Köhncke, one of the collaborators, came up with the title and it’s more then perfect—double and Morgenstern (morningstar) combined.

The track Come To Berlin seems to be a tongue-in-cheek attack on gentrification in the city. Is this something that negatively affects your life here in the city?

Sure, rents are exploding!

You’ve been living in the city for a long time and no doubt seen more changes than most: what have been the most major for you personally? 

The demolition of the Palast der Republik and the rebuilding of the old palace—ridiculous! Of course, many clubs disappeared through the years: Berlin Tokio, WmF, Maria am Ostbahnhof…but many new spaces opened up like the now internationally-known Berghain. This is the normal change of a vivid city, I would say.

You must have many fond memories of not just clubs but people, neighbourhoods and times from the 1990s…

That’s such a long story and there are so many things to mention since 1994. In the ’90s I went to Kunst and Technik, Berlin Tokio, Der leiseste Club der Welt, WMF. Maria am Postbahnhof (later am Ostbahnhof) was my homebase. I lived in Friedrichshain for a long time, but then we moved to Mitte because of my boyfriend’s workspace. Since I love walking I can highly recommend taking a walk along the Mauerweg and experiencing the city that way.

Some hidden places I love include the Veterinary Campus of the Humboldt University between Chauseestraße and Hannoverschestraße in Mitte. When I do my tax report I go there to feel a bit more comfortable. It’s a wonderful old space with many old trees and great animal sculptures on the walls. The old abandoned military airport in Schönwalde, north of Berlin, directly besides Hennigsdorf is another favourite hidden place, as is Schokoladen—the best venue for independent, well-selected music. The House of World Cultures has been one of my very favourite places in Berlin, even long before I worked there

For clubs and parties I like Berghain, Kraftwerk (above Tresor) and the House of World Cultures (because my choir is based there), ausland, Roter Salon at the Volksbühne and Schokoladen.

Are there any ways in which the city or scene has developed in a positive way?

Yes, the most positive side is all the foreigners coming to Berlin. I recently worked with the keyboard artist Adi Gelbart from Tel Aviv and the American composer Ari Benjamin Meyers, all these people moved to Berlin for a good reason: we always praise the open atmosphere of the city, especially in the music scene. I know it’s different in London or New York, so that’s highly positive about Berlin.

You have worked with people like Schneider and Robert Lippok, which suggests some of the old 90s scene is still active. Would you consider that to be true and how has it changed or evolved since those days?

Sure, we’re all very active. Most of us moved to more abstract projects (Schneider TM, Julia Kent), some are working in the field of arts (Robert Lippok, Gudrun Gut) and theatre (myself, Corey Dargel, Julia Kent). We started to become producers and hold lectures. Club life is taken over naturally by the next generation, which means change, of course.

Image from Wikicommons

You’ve collaborated with many musicians from such different genres of music over the years (Robert Wyatt, T Raumschmiere). Is there anything particular you look for in a potential collaborator?

There has to be a musical connection, the same approach to music and of course it has to work personally. Robert Wyatt for example was more than a dream come true, he’s one of my very favourite musician. I worked with the gorgeous trombone player Annie Whitehead and got to know Robert through her. I’ve known and worked with some of the other collaborators for years now and some I did not know before but liked the music; for example Richard Davis, Coppe, Jacaszek, Corey Dargel.

Finally, which kiez or district do you live in and can you give us any tips on your favourite hangouts or places to go?

I live in Mitte. For great fast food, head to Yarok, a Syrian Restaurant.