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Leni Stern: Storyteller

By Published: December 19, 2007

AAJ: Within a few short years of arriving at Berklee you changed course again by leaving aside film scoring to form a band which included guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Paul Motian, which is not a bad line up for starters you'd have to say. How did you rope those guys in?

LS: [laughs] Bill is actually responsible for me marrying Michael. I heard Bill play and I just asked him to be my teacher. He didn't really want to teach, it can be quite tedious, and he said that in order to really play you have to have a gig. I said, "Okay, how do I get a gig? And he said, You just go some place and you ask to get a gig. He got a little tired of my continuous questions and he said, "If you do I'll play with you, thinking I'd never get a gig, I think. But of course the first place I went, being a pretty, young European actress, the club owners said yes to anything! [laughs] so I asked for a gig and I got one.

Paul Motian had just left Keith Jarrett and was doing nothing, and he always loved to play with women...

LeniAAJ: He has good taste in people.

LS: [laughs] I was terrified. The whole thing was terrifying and quite surreal. But I was very used to being on stage and performing and to relating to an audience so it wasn't like I was a total beginner.

AAJ: What did you learn about the guitar from studying and playing with Bill Frisell?

LS: I think the most important thing was to really develop your own voice, and to really go deeply into the jazz and blues tradition, and just to play a lot. A lot of playing guitar and playing music can't really be explained all that well; when we can explain it that doesn't mean that the other person will be able to do it, so you've got to learn by doing. Bill was a very in-demand player at the time, so I had to learn the music he had to learn and I learned by accompanying him.

AAJ: What is it about Frisell that you only need to hear two notes or one chord and you know it can only be him?

LS: That's exactly what it was about him that was fascinating. When you come from acting personality is very important, and I was bored with people that all sounded the same, all sounding like Pat Metheny. So I really loved that Bill had his own voice. He had that great, great rock sound. I never saw myself playing a big, fat guitar, it would have been impersonating an American and I didn't want to, because I wasn't. I wanted to find a new sound and I really loved rock 'n' roll guitar—I loved Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page—and I didn't want to say goodbye to that sound.

AAJ: You were categorized very early on in your career as a jazz guitarist, but over the years you've defied easy labeling, and your new album Africa really isn't going to help the labelers at all, but it seems to me that you are a singer/songwriter who plays very fine guitar. How do you see yourself?

LS: I see myself as an improvising musician, and I sing so... singer/songwriter is someone that sits with an acoustic guitar in open tuning...

AAJ: I meant that as a compliment.

LS: Thank you. I love songwriting, and I love storytelling, which is why I'm so in love with Africa.

AAJ: You write all your own songs, though one songwriter whose songs you have sung is Larry John McNally. What do you like about his songs?

LS: His lyrics. He's a great, great poet and he's partially responsible for me starting to write. Initially in our collaboration he just wanted some fancy jazz chords for his beautiful songs but he ended up liking what I said, and he kept writing it down and asking me if he could use it, and that encouraged me to write my own lyrics. That's what gave me the courage to start writing songs, because I worked with one of the great American songwriters and I learned a lot about songwriting from him. I continue to be a huge fan of his music.

LeniAAJ: You set up your own record label Leni Stern Records, at about the same time you started recording vocally; from an artistic point of view that must have been very liberating, no?

LS: Yes it was. I used Hiram Bullock as producer for my first two records because he was my friend and he always insisted I should record, record, record. I didn't quite understand why at the time but I didn't want to offend him [laughs]. It was good to be fully in charge and to have control over the music because when you record for a label a lot of the time you find someone who's not really familiar with what you do, or where you want to go.

AAJ: Quite early on in your recording career, I think you'd recorded three or four albums, you were diagnosed with breast cancer; you overcame that and you've gone from strength to strength as an artist, what did you learn from that traumatic episode in your life?

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