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Claudia Brucken - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 8 / 12 / 2014

Claudia Brucken - Interview


John Clarkson speaks to former Propaganda singer Claudia Brücken about her third solo album ‘Where Else...’, the first which she has written on the guitar

The front cover photograph of Claudia Brücken‘s third and latest solo album ‘Where Else...’, which was taken by the infamous Dutch photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn, shows the German chanteuse, an acoustic guitar strapped to her shoulder, standing in an otherwise empty London street, staring pensively at the camera. In itself the photo is not particularly unusual, at one level a conventional album shot. Yet Brücken‘s lengthy career has until now been almost exclusively based in electronica and with synthesizers, and Corbijn’s striking photograph pinpoints the album’s intent. ‘Where Else...’,which is a guitar album, is for Brücken a remarkable change of direction. Claudia Brücken first came to the attention of music audiences in 1984 as one of the two singers in the Dusseldorf-formed synth pop group, Propaganda. The group, which was signed to Trevor Horn’s legendary ZTT label at the same time as the bestselling Frankie Goes To Hollywood, had a Top 30 hit with their Horn-produced debut single, ‘Dr Mabuse’. They then went on the following year in 1985 to release another two singles, ‘Duel’ and ‘p: Machinery’, and also their Top 20 debut album, ‘A Secret Wish’, all of which were produced by Stephen Lipson, who was Horn’s deputy producer at ZTT. Propaganda broke up in some acrimony in early 1986 when its other three members Susanne Freytag (vocals), Ralf Dörper (keyboards) and Michael Mertens (percussion), unhappy with the deal which they had signed, all decided to leave the label, while Brücken, who was married at the time to former ‘NME’ journalist and ZTT’s publicist and ‘”Minister of Information” Paul Morley, chose to stay on. Claudia Brücken then formed Act with Scottish electronic musician Thomas Leer with whom she put out a solitary album on ZTT, ‘Laughter, Tears and Rage’, which was produced by both Horn and Lipson, in 1988. The duo, however, split up shortly after its release, and Brücken moved to Island Records with whom she recorded her debut solo album, ‘Love: And a Million Other Things’, in 1991, most of the songs for which she co-wrote with a Liverpool-based songwriter, the late John Uriel. After briefly trying to reignite Propaganda unsuccessfully with Freytag and Mertens in 1998, Brücken’s next album, ‘Another Language’, did not emerge until 2005. A collaboratiion with her former ZTT label mate, the classically-trained Andrew Poppy, it was a collection largely of covers set to the piano. In 2007 Onetwo, a duo which she had formed with her then partner, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark keyboardist Paul Humphreys, also released their debut album, ‘Instead’. Both of these albums came out on Brücken’s own label There (There). The last few years have been prolific years for Brücken. In 2011 she put out ‘Combined’ on Salvo, a retrospective which featured songs from all of her albums as well as several unreleased tracks. Her second solo album, ‘The Lost Are Found’, which was produced by New Order/Erasure producer Stephen Hague, came out in late 2012 on There (There), and was a collection of “lost songs” by artists including the Pet Shop Boys, Julee Cruise , the Bee Gees and the Band. ‘Where Else…’, which has been released on Cherry Red with the exception of a cover of Nick Drake’s ‘Day is Done’, is, in contrast, entirely self-composed, and incorporates together various genres and styles including blues, rock, folk, country and some electronica. It is a collaboration with co-writer and producer, John Owen Williams, who has worked with the Housemartins, the Proclaimers, Blancmange and Petula Clark, and, with its ten songs composed originally on the guitar, was written and recorded in early 2014 in Williams’s studio in North London. In our second interview with her, Pennyblackmusic spoke to Claudia Brucken about this new direction. PB: You have released three albums if you include ‘Combined’ in three years. Why has there been this sudden burst of creativity? There was a long period from 1991 and until 2007 when you didn’t release an album at all. CB: In the early 1990s I became pregnant and had a child. I brought up my daughter Maddy by myself, so for a long time I was busy being a single parent. I did occasional things and studio recordings, mainly making guest appearances on other people's records. I wasn’t really focused though, but now I am really focused. I think have got a lot of things to say again. You have surges sometimes, and then you just have to ride on the moment. PB: Each one of your albums since you left Propaganda has involved a fairly intense songwriting process, usually with one other songwriter or producer in particular. Could you conceive of recording an album on your own now and perhaps producing it yourself? CB: Well, maybe I could, but the question is would I really want to because I really welcome other people’s input. I like what they bring to the pot. On ‘Where Else…’, as I was working with the guitar and writing all the songs on the guitar, it would have probably taken me three years to get there by myself. John Williams, however, had such expertise, and I learnt so much from him that we wrote and recorded it in four months. I really welcome having that input from professional people. I know how to use ProTools. I know what elements it takes to write a song. I wouldn’t rule it out at some point in the future, but I find it really exciting still to have that other element involved. I think a lot of that is to do with the early training that I had, starting off with Trevor Horn when I was in Propaganda. I have always worked with a producer and I have always collaborated with people. It helps me to get to the next stage whatever that is. I am always keen to learn more, and, much as I obviously love electronic music and synth pop, I was keen to learn more again with this album. PB: Is it true that you started out by playing the guitar when you were in your teens and then largely abandoned it for the last thirty years after you discovered electronica? CB: I did. It has always been there though. I have dabbled with it before. I did with ‘Cloud 9ine’, a song that I wrote with Martin Gore from Depeche Mode, and which appears on the ‘Combined’ album. I wrote the words and the verses and some of the tune on the guitar, but my knowledge about it wasn’t as much as I wanted it to be, so I needed to have the input of someone else and Martin came and helped me finish it off. That was the first song that I wrote on guitar. PB: How aware were you of John Williams before? Did you know his previous work? CB: Not at all. That collaboration happened because I asked my live agent if he could think of someone that I could work with. I am always looking for people to work with, and he gave me John’s number last October. It took me another month then to contact him because it is strange not knowing someone and then phoning them up to see if they are interested in working with you. It is a bit like going on a blind date (Laughs). So, I called him up at last, and I went to his house where we talked about things and what we liked, and I realised that we loved lots of the same musical artists. There is just one song on the album that I haven’t written with him, which is ‘Nothing Good is Ever Easy’, the second track. He played it to me, and I said, “Why don’t I just sing it? Just to see how it sounds.” I learnt it for a day and then came back and sung it, and what you hear there is the first two takes. After we recorded it, I went back to my house and in the time it took me to get home John had finished it and he played it back to me, and I just thought it sounded so complete that I knew that I could work with him easily. From January to April we then worked Mondays to Saturdays from 11 to 5 every day. It was so intense. That wasn’t down to me. That was just John driving it. Sometimes I said, “I just can’t do it. Not another day” (Laughs), but we really kept at it. It was a really amazing experience. PB: It is the most eclectic album of your career. How quickly did it become apparent that it was going to go in all these different directions? CB: We started with ‘Moon Song’. When you decide on a tempo, you then decide on a key and it lends itself to the direction it wants to go. That song has a folk element. It has a Steely Dan or Fleetwood Mac feel. It kind of led itself to it. At the beginning I wanted to do another electronic album. The thing that I like about collaborations most is that they can lead you in completely different directions, and it ended up as a guitar album (Laughs). In the case of the Nick Drake track, ‘Day is Done’, we went through my record collection and then John’s and we realised that there was a lot of Nick Drake there in both of them. I always want to do on an album of mine one cover, and so with ‘Where Else…’ we decided to make it that song. PB: Whenever you do a cover song, and in fact ever since Propaganda did Josef K’s ‘Sorry for Laughing’ on ‘A Secret Wish’, you have never gone for the obvious. You always go for something that people won’t know as well, either something by a little known artist or if it is by someone who is better known never the singles or the hits. CB: For me there is no point. So many people have done the singles and hits already. When I did ‘The Lost Are Found’, the covers album with Stephen Hague, we chose the songs for it really carefully. We really researched that they hadn’t been done by that many people. I don’t see the point in doing a cover otherwise. I don’t want to make it like karaoke. I just want to honour it and make people aware of a wonderful song. PB: The lyrics on ‘Where Else…’ are stripped down in the sense that they tell a story or express an emotion really clearly and concisely, but without any excessive baggage. CB: Again John and I bounced off each other really amazingly well. For example with ‘I Lay All Night’, John had had this little theme in his head since he was a student. He is now 61 or 62, and he played me that little melody, and I said, “That’s gorgeous. That’s really beautiful.” He also had the line, “I lay all night/And you weren’t with me,” and that started the whole thing off and we kept bouncing off each other really. We would sit there every day and revisit the songs all the time. John would suggest a line, and I would say, “That’s no good,” and then I would suggest a line, and we might go, “Okay, that’s fine,” or maybe again reject it. It was laborious. It was really hard work, but that was how it ended up as concise as it did. We spent a lot of time as well working on the structure of the album. If we had written two or three slow songs, we would then try to write a couple of upbeat songs, or if we had done a pure love song we would try to write something darker. It became very organic really. We worked really well together, and very quickly I learnt to trust John completely. When you collaborate with someone, it should be like that. He might say, “I want this track to be like Nile Rodgers meets George Harrison,” and I would say, “Just go for it (Laughs).” With ‘Letting Go’, he was fantasising that he had joined the Who (Laughs). I think if you trust someone to do their job they will do everything to make it as good as possible. They really want to do it right. There were hardly any things that I didn’t agree with him about. I just thought, “This man knows what he is doing.” PB: While it is a very different album from anything that you have done before, ‘Where Else...’ at one level returns to your roots. It has Paul Morley contributing some of the sleeve notes as he used to do for ZTT. CB: I asked him to come up with these little quotes that accompany the lyrics on the sleeve. I wanted to accentuate the lyrics, and said, “Can you do you something?” It is really funny because he chose to take all the quotes from the French poet Charles Baudelaire because he has the same initials as mine. PB: How aware were you of Charles Baudelaire before then? CB: I knew of him and maybe many, many moons ago I read something by him. Paul is the literate person there though. It very much came from him. PB: The other way in which you returned to your roots was by working with Anton Corbijn again. He was involved in the sleeve for ‘A Secret Wish’ and also directed the video for ‘Dr Mabuse’. CB: That was me being really cheeky because I needed a good press shot, so I went to Anton and said, “Do you need anyone who can take a decent pretty shot?” and, of course, he knew that I was hoping that he would do it and he said, “I I think I can help you “(Laughs). I have known Anton for thirty years or longer. I just decided to ask people I know because if you can’t ask your friends who can you ask. He had this shot in mind with me with the guitar, and then it turned out to be such a great press shot that I said, “Oh my God, Anton. Can I use it for my album cover?” (Laughs). After I told him what the music was about, that was the image that he had in mind. We did it in an hour because he usually visualises something and then just decides to go for it. He has done it for such a long time that he knows how to go for what he wants and to execute it really exactly. When he agreed that I could use it as the album cover, I went, “Sorry, Anton, you will know best where the writing goes in your pictures. You understand your pictures best, and where the typography and words go.” And so he did that for me too. It was really nice of him to do that. I have had this discussion with both Anton and Paul, but it is not just the sound and the music with me. It is the sound and vision. I don’t know if that old school, but for me that is a really important thing. If you see music as just a download, then I think that you miss out on so much. I want to see the whole thing. PB: You have released ‘Where Else…’ on Cherry Red. It is the first album since ‘Love: And a Million Other Things’, with the exception of ‘Combined’, which was at one level a best of, that you haven’t put out on your own label There (There). Why did you decide to release it on Cherry Red? CB: Cherry Red had already reissued ‘Love: a Million Other Things’ in 2010, and they asked if I would be interested in releasing an album through them. It had been such hard work putting out records on my own. Releasing records myself was distracting me from doing what I love doing which is making music. There is a real skill to marketing an album, and I would rather have someone else doing that job , rather than me trying to do it and having no or very little idea of how to do so. Cherry Red is such a lovely little company and there is a really great team of people there. I felt that we could really work together well. They are also an independent label, and I didn’t want to put it out through a major because even if you do get in with them they can just put it out whenever they want to. It could take two years in which case you would lose all momentum. It is remarkable to me we only started to work on this album in January, and it is already out. That is a real result for me. PB: Final question. What next? Where else for you? CB: I still have a desire to do something with Propaganda. That remains a wish. I would like us at least to all perform on stage together again. It has been so on, off, on, off. I credited everybody amongst the thanks on ‘Where Else…’, and Ralf and Susanne performed with me for a gig that I did at the Scala in London in 2011, which was filmed for my ‘This Feeling’ DVD. We are all talking again, and have all got over any of the bad feelings of the 1980s. Maybe that is a possibility. Beyond that I am not sure yet. I definitely want to do more writing on the guitar, and I would love to work with John again because we are a really good team. I would absolutely adore also to work with Stephen Hague because I rate him so much as a producer and a friend. As regards direction, I am also not sure, I would like to break out of the song format and maybe experiment a little bit. There is the blues. That really interests me. There is also jazz, but not traditional jazz, the more melodic side of it. I don’t know really yet. I have felt since I recorded this album that I could go in any of several directions. PB: Thank you.

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