BACK STAGE WEST
April 6, 2000
Ute Lemper gives her work a contemporary twist that doesn't seem such a departure after all.
by Rob Kendt
It's easy to get a retro kick from the statuesque German chanteuse Ute Lemper, who's made a career singing the songs of Brecht and Weill and has overtly invoked the models of Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf (with the album Illusions). But the throwback angle doesn't exactly fit: Her voice has always had as much Broadway belt as smoky drama, as much pop as cabaret.
Which is why her current career move is so inevitable it seems almost overdue: Her new Decca record, Punishing Kiss, features her renditions of songs by such contemporary artists as Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Philip Glass; she'll perform selections from it, as well as songs by Weill to celebrate his centennial, at UCLA's Royce Hall this Friday, Apr. 7.
The resulting album, recorded with a glam rock band called the Divine Comedy, is a stunning collection of uneasy listening music; soaring in lightly accented English, Lemper's voice sounds like it's found its true metier somewhere between Shirley Bassey and David Bowie.
"I'm inspired by the repertoire of the Weimar Republic and its political, social storytelling," said Lemper recently of her career, which has also encompassed film (Robert Altman's Ready to Wear) and Broadway stage (Chicago). And, she felt, so are the songwriters with whom she hooked up for Punishing Kiss: "The characters of the songs are loners, lovers, drunks, whores, sailors-there are such parallels to Brecht. These artists all knew what I did, knew my recordings. If they didn't feel close to that tradition, or attracted to that, I don't think they would have contributed."
The album includes a new song by Cave, "Little Water Song," which has a spareness and simplicity Lemper compared to Brecht and Weill's "Salomon Song"; three newish songs by Costello, whose lyrics she called "much more situational—more twisted, more psychological, more French"; a song Waits intended for his 1999 album Mule Variations but which didn't belong, fittingly titled "The Part You Threw Away," as well as a song Waits barely remembered he'd written, "Purple Avenue"; "Streets of Berlin," which Glass wrote for the film Bent; three songs written by Divine Comedy, and a harrowing 10-minute trip-out by English avant-gardist Scott Walker called "Scope J."
More than just a pop record, though, Kiss gives invigorating new life to the notion of cabaret-or rather Kabarett, the pointedly satirical Weimar variety that was stamped out along with a whole culture by the Third Reich.
"It's very powerful to use that in concerts," she said of this Weimar-style cabaret, as distinct from the posh supper-club variety more prevalent in the U.S. "It's very contemporary, laid out straight from the heart, dealing with corruption and injustice. It's not giving a historical lesson-it's making it valuable today."
But can that spirit of Kabarett only survive in an edgy, crossover rock context? What about the theatre, for which the Punishing Kiss songwriters have barely written, if at all?
"This material exists in a very dark area," Lemper said. "And Broadway is a big, commercial arena. It's Disneyland. There are only a few productions that are daring, that go beyond these limits. And sometimes in musical theatre, it's not about the personalities of the performers but about their craft-the performers are not like activists or characters, like these pop/rock performers are."
For her part, Lemper is a character with an unapologetically strong personality, and her outspokenness about the politics in her native Germany has made her unpopular there. The feeling is mutual.
"I don't want to live there," said Lemper, warming to a familiar theme. "It's strange to be looked at as a German, because I feel so little German. They want to forget about history: On top of the old Hitler bunkers, they're building a Deutsche Bank. It's so insensitive.
"And my children will not even believe there was a wall dividing the city," marveled Lemper, who lived in Berlin before the fall of the Wall in 1989, and now lives in New York with her two children by actor/comic David Tabatsky. "They should have left the Wall up there as a symbol of what happened. But it's all about greed and power."
She recalled performing on the stage of Brecht's theatre, the Berliner Ensemble, in a special concert series just after the fall of the Wall.
"We stood on wooden planks which had been put in the theatre in the '50s, when Brecht ran it," she said. "You could see where they'd been chopped up and nailed through. It was so magical to be on that stage." If Brecht were alive to see the Berlin of today, Lemper said, "He'd think it was Mahagonny," referring to the self-made materialist metropolis of Brecht and Weill's opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
We won't ask what he'd say about contemporary Los Angeles.
Ute Lemper and her band will perform at UCLA's Royce Hall, Apr. 7 at 8 p.m. (310) 825-2101 or (213) 365-3500.