By Amanda Nordqvist
Born into a world of music, it’s no surprise that young German/Bulgarian composer Lisa Morgenstern is already well on her way of making quite the name for herself. With her second full length-album released earlier this year, she showcased a gloriously fearless voice, paired with intricate experimental electronica and emotive piano instrumentals. Chameleon was recorded in collaboration with Argentinean producer and cellist Sebastian Plano, and contains multitudes of Morgenstern’s phenomenal talent in composing and utilizing several worlds of musical undertones; her outstanding range, both vocally and in regards of genre, tells of even greater things to come.
Morgenstern is currently on tour throughout Europe, but was generous enough to take some of her time to answer a few questions about her back story, her process and her latest album.
So music was always a big part of your life, from your parents’ musician background and your love of the ballet – was there a pivotal moment where you decided to start composing as well? Do you think you would still be writing music if your future in ballet hadn’t been cut short?
I had regular piano lessons before I went to school. For many years I had a wonderful but strict teacher who expected me to practice a lot and with discipline. I liked that, but for me it was very soon like a kind of rest or break from the classical repertoire to write little melodies for myself. Secretly I arranged music for piano from pop songs to metal – just what I liked the most. That was simply a kind of natural balance.
In any case, I can still remember small excerpts that I wrote when I was 8 or 9. That also lasted throughout the time when I had fully promised myself to the ballet, but I never expected to share it with any kind of audience one day. It was always a kind of therapy: something with which I could switch off all thinking and about which I could relieve feelings. So yes, I think, even if I were still a dancer today, I would still spend a lot of time at the piano or singing. It's just something I really feel the need for at least myself.
Could you describe your creating process for me?
With Chameleon the process of creating my music has changed in large parts. Especially since the world of synthesizers was added. Before that, almost everything took place at the piano and I had a good time messing around with samples. At some point I realized that either my sample library wasn't very good or it wasn't necessarily my talent. I've learned all these things to a certain extent and know how to do all this using a computer, but this album was supposed to be created independently of these possibilities. I wanted to avoid having a computer on stage at all costs, and besides, I just didn't find all the editing and time-wasting in any DAW software inspiring anymore.
At some point I had a problem with my right hand and the doctor had prescribed a three-month piano break. Afterwards it turned out to be complete medical nonsense - but it caused me to turn to these strange creatures in the studio, which didn't have any keys, only pretty knobs and cables. Before, I always thought arrogantly that synthesizers were plastic keyboards for people who couldn't really play the piano. Well, I've been taught a better lesson.
When I write on the piano, I write very heady and I never want to go a too obvious route – I prefer the more complicated way. These analog electronic worlds have limited me and tempted me to just feel and flow and record improvised one-takes. I also found it an inspiring challenge not to use a single beat on this album and still build pulsating rhythms just from interlaced melodies.
When it comes to singing, this is the most natural and easy way. I usually write lyrics somewhere on the way when I can't reach an instrument anyway. The best moments are when already written lyrics find their way to new music and suddenly it just clicks.
What can you tell me about your move to Berlin? How has the city affected your music?
Before Berlin I worked two years in a recording studio in Hannover. I don't know if the city was too boring or the work just too much - but I would leave the studio only in order to sleep. There came a time when I almost always looked at the piano through the studios window and the work of recording bands became too repetitive. I needed a cut. Berlin called for me. Or I cried for Berlin. I knew that there were musicians there who could make me grow, who would inspire me. And it was almost too easy to get in touch with the right people.
Today, people I previously adored as a fan have become good friends. Besides, you can celebrate a wonderful hermit existence in Berlin. You can find peace and silence in the middle of the hustle and bustle. It is strange and simply wonderful. I am one of those people who still love Berlin even after 5 years.
What or who is your biggest inspiration when composing? Do your Bulgarian and German roots affect your music?
In my childhood I was very intensively in contact with classical music because both my parents play as classical musicians in orchestras. Not least through piano lessons and much more through ballet. From Tchaikovsky to Stravinsky and above all "Romeo and Juliet" by Prokofiev – ballet music is almost a religion for me. At the piano, too, I wished from an early age for the more melancholic, emotionally profound pieces. Often the teacher gave me the choice and it was always clear what I would choose. Mozart was almost a punishment if I could play Debussy or Chopin. I don't know why.
As a rebellious teenager I went through all kinds of eccentric scenes with all kinds of hair colors: punk, rock, metal, gothic, ambient and last but not least the so-called neoclassic. I guess that means the rebellion is over. Which artists inspire me is hard to say. I guess the list would be either too short or too long. So I don't do that.
Since two years I have been singing with the wonderful Bulgarian Voices Berlin. I could hardly believe that I lived in this city for over three years and knew nothing about it. This is a dream come true, as I admire Bulgarian folklore choirs. It's just transcendent music. Right now we are working on a joint concert and it is a pure pleasure to write for these magical women and I can hardly wait to present what is growing up here. Come to see us on the 21st of August at the Pop-Kultur festival in Berlin.
What can you tell me about Chameleon? What were your thoughts and expectations throughout the whole process?
Besides the whole process of writing, which I described above, I knew that I wanted a producer for this album. I was running in too many directions at once and I needed someone to tame me. I had met Sebastian [Plano] by coincidence at one of his concerts in Hannover and he recognized me two years later in Berlin, whereupon we did not hesitate for long. Sebastian and his musical mindset were perfect for what I wanted to happen. Since the album was made in a time of moving, everything was recorded in different cities, studios and living rooms. And yet the result is round, flowing and organic. Maybe even because of that. It was as if someone had stirred around wildly in a lake and first a lot of stuff had to sink to the ground until the lake turned bottle-green again.
What were the biggest differences from creating your debut album back in 2013? How has the response been?
First of all, the differences were huge. The album before that was an underground gothic album. I'm still very proud of the songwriting, even though I presented the melodrama on a silver plate. But I knew that the next album would have a completely different aesthetic. Too much had changed. I had changed. And also my technical knowledge had increased drastically by working in the recording studio. I was inspired by so many new genres that I sucked up like a sponge. Chameleon can be seen as another debut. Today, I can say that my drastic changes, which have taken place over the years, may slowly come to an appropriate rest. I have found myself, found my style… But who knows. I've thought that so many times.
The feedback on Chameleon has been overwhelming so far. Especially at concerts I deliberately deal with very different audiences. I find it wonderful that people can access my music through so many different corners.
Is there any track in particular that you feel most strongly represents your style? Any track you cherish most?
I think that would be Levitation.
This is one of the few songs where the music, the vocals and the lyrics were created together. I can remember when I wrote the song that I tortured myself with this song for three days in a row. I recorded again and again about 8 minutes of one-takes with a Euro-rack full of Doepfer modules, a Wurlitzer and a reverb device. It was hypnotic and disturbing at the same time.
I slept on the floor in the studio for only a few hours at a time and didn't speak to anyone during these days. But I knew I had to do it now, otherwise something important might get lost for me. This song was also the first to be finished from the album and definitely set an aesthetic direction for the rest.
What can you tell me about your current tour? What does the future hold?
This year I have already been on tour with Ólafur Arnalds and recently with Fil Bo Riva as supporting act. Both very different and yet incredibly fulfilling experiences. I am very grateful for the chance to play such big stages, especially because in both cases - concert halls or club shows - the audience embraced me very warmly.
I have to say that touring costs me a lot of energy, but it also gives it back in an incredible amount. I've jumped over my shadow several times this year and I'm growing at every single concert. Now I have a lot of festivals ahead of me. I am very excited about them. And afterwards a couple of headline shows are coming in autumn.
If you have the chance, do yourself a favor and go see the immensely talented Lisa Morgenstern at one of the dates listed below – and in the meantime, you can stream Chameleon on Spotify.
AUG 16 Le Castrum Festival, Yverdon-les-Baines, CH
AUG 21 Pop-Kultur Berlin, Berlin DE
SEP 20 Reeperbahnfestival/Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg DE
OCT 12 The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam NL
OCT 24 Servants Jazz Quarters, London UK
OCT 25 Headrow House, Leeds UK