|ROCKWiRED iNTERViEWS MiCHEL ACKERMANN
LiFE MUSiC AND EVERYTHiNGBerlin-based piano man MICHEL ACKERMANN has got a song for you. In a musical age where the romance is gone, ACKERMANN proudly presents his debut EP ‘KITE’. If his STING-influenced brand of jazz pop observations of love and life seem a bit seasoned, they are. ACKERMANN grew up with the classics an I don’t mean THE DOORS, JIMI HENDRIX and LED ZEPPELIN but rather MOZART, SCHUBERT and BEETHOVEN. Given his ear for classical music and his rigorous classical training, the chap would’ve been a shoe-in for any orchestra until a mysterious jazz piano player presented himself and rocked ACKERMANN’s world – as much as jazz can rock. “I heard a strange pianist, looking like a robber, who played jazz chords and that was a revelation for me.” admits ACKERMANN “In Germany's boondocks, where I lived in the early eighties, Jazz was still something weird. It was not part of any music lessons at school and there were no radio stations playing this music. How could I know it? And it struck me like a bolt of lightning when those kind of harmonies and phrasings came to my ears.”
MiCHEL ACKERMANN TALKS TO ROCKWiRED
ABOUT HiS DEBUT EP KiTE
SUCCESSFULLY MARRYiNG JAZZ WiTH CLASSiCAL SOUNDS
AND THE SiMPLE THiNGS iN LiFE
iNTERViEWED BY BRiAN LUSH
ROCKWIRED conducted it’s first ever e-mail interview with MICHEL ACKERMANN. Here is how it went.
KITE is a wonderful EP! Now that it is out there for people to hear, how do you feel about the finished product?
Thank you! I am proud of these 4 songs, because I know some parts of the music are really good, better than I dared to dream when I started. This is only a first step of a journey. I had no idea that it would be such an adventure. I opened up a new universe for my own musicianship and that is the most important thing. I had gone through years without a feeling of what I wanted to express in music or what kind of music really attracted me. So, this EP gives me a feeling like, “Wow! There's something which gives me a sense of where I belong as a musician.”
Is the release of KITE a hint of a LP looming on the horizon?
Definitely. KITE was originally outlined to be a full CD, but I eventually decided to publish the EP as a first step. I even recorded ten songs, but I was not satisfied with three of them. Furthermore I was a little bit too optimistic concerning two other tunes. I had believed I could use lyrics by a famous artist, writing new music on these lyrics and then ask if I would be allowed to publish them. But no matter how often I would ask or write letters to the music publishing house, they wouldn't give me no answer.
Growing up, what kind of music spoke to you?
Mostly classical music. My father had hundreds of LPs with MOZART, BEETHOVEN, and BACH. He used to listen to them every evening, so classical music was my lullaby. I am not sure if it always led me to good dreams, because I was kind of scared by some sounds, especially Beethoven's symphonies. I often felt bothered and I still get an uneasy feeling when the timpani sounds or trumpets crashed in my ears. So this impact has a certain ambivalence. Nevertheless I am thankful for it.
Is your family musical as well? There are some professional musicians among my grandparents' generation. A cousin of my grandma was a famous pianist in post-war Germany. His name is EDUARD ERDMANN and he has been a remarkable composer as well. But my parents just mentioned him, nothing more. I don't know why. Later, when I was a student at the conservatory I played a SCHUBERT SONATA for my professor. And she said..." you play this piece like EDUARD ERDMANN. Do you know him?" I said "Yes, he's a relative of mine, but I never heard him playing." She was stunned as was I and my status at the conservatory had been saved.
What artists made an impression on you in the beginning?
I think I was captured by THE POLICE and STING. The way he used his voice impressed me. He screamed more then he sung but nevertheless he was really singing. It was a beautiful experience for my ears, but there were other experiences, too. I heard a strange pianist, looking like a robber, who played jazz chords and that was a revelation for me. In Germany's boondocks, where I lived in the early eighties, Jazz was still something weird. It was not part of any music lessons at school and there were no radio stations playing this music. How could I know it? And it struck me like a bolt of lightning when those kind of harmonies and phrasings came to my ears.
Talk about receiving piano lessons from VIRGINIA ZIMBERLIN.
I realize more and more that she is the one who saved my musical connection to classics. She didn’t approach music as a prima donna. She produced sounds instead of distracting her listeners by turning her playing into a virtuosic 'circus'. She showed tremendous poise when she was performing. Moreover she was a fabulous character, too...... A few years ago, I got the news that she is in the GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS, because she performed at the age of ten at the CARNEGIE HALL.
At what point did songwriting begin for you?
I had founded my first band at the age of fourteen and we needed songs.
Talk about studying composition with WOLFGANG RIHM.
One of my music teachers at school had given me the advice to listen to WOLFGANG RIHM's orchestra pieces and I did. They were fascinating. Like punk for orchestra, really anarchic. It was clear from now on that I had to meet this man and I wanted to be his student and that was how it came about. Casually, I saw him at the railway station. One could not overlook him, as he is very tall and burly and he has a big head and he looks like Beethoven. And I was thin (back then) and tall and I have a big head too and so I walked across the huge station concourse straight in his direction, very quickly for I didn't want to give myself a chance to change my mind and to let my shyness get the best of me. I stopped very close before him to have the surprise on my side but then, of course, I only stuttered something about a composition I urgently had to show him. But he smiled like a friendly Buddha and agreed to accept the piece via mail. So that was the beginning of a long intense relationship. Studying composition with him was a big adventure. He is one of this dwindling species of universal geniuses with a huge knowledge in all kinds of arts and literature. So it was not only about music, but very often about painters or about poets, when we talked. We ate and drank a lot. He's a Buddha who simply loves to live very well.
What disenchanted you about pursuing classical music.
I had given my musical and emotional self completely to the music that I was doing at the time which was highly abstract. I lost the ground under my feet and walked on a small path between euphoric happiness and black moods, so I had to use an emergency break to save my soul!... So that was the true turning point to get back to writing 'simpler' songs about 'simpler' things. Nothing is simple, of course!?
Describe what it was like breaking away from classical music and playing pop and jazz songs in bars?
I had to do 'normal' things, to get myself down to earth. Today I could ask “Hey what's normal in this crazy life?” But at this point of my development it seemed to be the right thing to make music just to create a background atmosphere. You won't find anything in the music business which would be a stronger contrast to being an avant garde music composer. So that was what I was looking for. The contrast had to be as strong as possible.
What inspires you to write a song?
There is something about existential loneliness that I find compelling. There is some basic feeling of being alone as a human being, which is not a negative, but then again the hope that it could be different, at least in music. And it is a search for quietness and self-reflection. I am inspired by almost everything...regarding to human interactions.
Explain the creative process? How does a song get written for you?
The 'KITE' EP had two different approaches. There were songs that were composed by finding a good melody, then looking for a groove, then trying to imagine how the whole song could sound. Here, the lyrics were not so important - actually I regarded it as a kind of challenge to have some trivial love 'discount' lyrics, which wouldn't be able to distract me from the music. The other group, they had strong lyrics and I used the text to be inspired and to let the sound of the words make the music which turned out to be much more difficult. One challenge is that I am not a native speaker of English and because of that, I work with a wonderful lyricist from England named PAUL THOMAS. He gave me a few song lyrics to choose from and it is a lot of fun to work with these lyrics. In both cases there is one crucial point: the song should be good, even if it is played only on a piano or using a guitar without any fabulous sound bites or whatever.
Tell me your thoughts on the song KITE.
I was intending to write a good pop ballad. Something very romantic...being the lonely piano player in a bar singing this song about this old human dream of learning to fly.
BACK ON THE ROAD
I love the movement of this song. It is a movement-driven song by a simple repeated piano-pattern. It is a mad song because being on the road mostly means: being away from yourself, while trying to find yourself.
I'D RATHER BE WITH YOU
Being sad about my own personal biography is also a basic theme in my life.
There is this feeling about love which shifts between loud laughter and angry cynicism.
Who all did you work with in putting this EP together?
I worked with a wonderful bass player named MAIK ANTRACK. He is a young man who is a very curious and at the same time, an easygoing character who is always trying to give his best to a project. The drums were played by SABINE ZLOTOS, an extraordinary musician, too, with a highly present and powerful way of using the sticks. I would like to mention the soundman, ANDREAS OCKERT, who is a fantastic saxophone player, too. His acute ears helped, to record this music in record time!
What sort of sounds and textures would you like to incorporate into your music in the future?
I think the musical structure will use a less classical arrangement and incorporate more complex sounds on synthesizers. I have done this on the song 'OUT OF NOWHERE' which is online in a demo-version and can be listened to on reverbnation.com... But again for me the crucial point is, that this sound bites shouldn’t replace an interesting harmonics or melodic structures.
From the time that you first played the piano up until now, what has been the biggest surprise for you?
How you can change your whole personality by changing your attitude in making music. Music can be a true and magic remedy. If you learn to really let music get deep into yourself, you will be changed completely. That is what I experienced. It took me years to change myself, due to the fact that I am a stubborn person. I am proud of that and I hope I will always be able to continue to change myself. Personal transformation never ends. To come more close to the piano-playing itself: I am surprised that nowadays I am really able to bring classic and jazz articulations into something new. It is not a fusion, by the way. Fusions put two things together and very often both are weaker than before so let's call it a productive exchange of polarities instead.
What would you like a person to come away with after they've listened to your music?
I just hope they become inspired to be creative themselves or just feel a little bit better about music and life and everything.