Leni Stern: Storyteller

Ian Patterson By

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I was a jazz guitarist, a blues guitarist and I really wanted to go where it all came from because I always knew that you had to be in the place and live with the people, and inhale the vibes to really get a sense of it.
Leni SternSongwriter and guitarist Leni Stern's Africa (LSR, 2007) marks a significant new chapter in a career marked by bold changes. Her fearlessness as an independent traveler, and her endless curiosity about the workings of the world which surrounds her, are reflected in her music. Her lyrics are tender, poetic and, above all, truthful.

As a singer, she has variously been described as a combination of Marlene Dietrich with the phrasing of Billie Holiday, and as a cross between Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones. Five consecutive Gibson Best Female Guitarist Awards are testimony to her distinctive playing style, elegant and emotive, and almost an extension of her voice.

After abandoning a thriving career in the theater, Stern left her native Germany and made her way to Boston's Berklee College of Music to study film scoring, and eventually found herself, to her surprise, leading a band boasting guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Paul Motian. Over the years musicians such as guitarist John McLaughlin, tablaist Zakir Hussain, saxophonist Michael Brecker, violinist Jenny Scheinman, drummer Dennis Chambers, percussionist Don Alias and songwriter/guitarist Larry John McNally have collaborated on her projects.

And just when you think you've got her pegged, she can be found rubbing shoulders and trading licks with giants of the African stage such as Salif Keita and Babaa Maal. Leni Stern, it is safe to say, is a woman with more than one string to her bow.

All About Jazz: Leni, where did you grow up?

Leni Stern: I was born in Germany and I grew up in Munich.

AAJ: What place did music have in you house in Munich when you were growing up?

LS: It was very, very important. My parents weren't musicians themselves but they were music lovers. My mother would have liked to be a singer but my grandfather didn't think that was a decent profession [laughs]. He forced her to study, so I guess in a sense I'm living her dream because I became a musician.

I have to say that in Europe music is a bigger part of education, I think, than in America, so there was a lot of music in school too. In our house there was a lot of music. I had one brother who was a drummer, one that still is a pianist, and my sister writes poetry; it was really very, very, present. The rest of them made it a hobby but my brother and I made it our life.

AAJ: And yet you followed a path into the theater; did that mean, at that stage, that you had no ambition for a musical career or did you consider it an unreachable dream?

LS: It was just a problem of making money as a female electric guitarist, because then nobody wanted to hire you. I do love acting and still love it and in the theater I had the possibility to do music hands-on because you always needed music there. I was the so-called musical director of the whole thing and I got to have a band, which was the theater band.

LeniAAJ: The theater company which you started as a teenager has been described as radical; in what way was it radical?

It was radical because it was political, in content and in form. It was very influenced by the American Living Theater. I had studied with Marcel Marceau in Paris. It was performance art and music had a huge place in it, a very big place in it.

AAJ: You gave up an already successful theatrical career to study film scoring at Berklee; what prompted that divorce from the theater and your more serious courtship of music?

LS: I couldn't do both. You find a lot of actors who have a music career on the side and I didn't really want that because my first love was music and my second love was the theater. I never meant to give up acting but it was just so hard to do everything, there weren't enough hours in the day. My acting jobs were in Europe and my musical jobs were here so running back and forth after a while just got to be too much.

So I went to Berklee to study film scoring and composition because you couldn't really study that in Munich. I had made a lot of money in a TV show so I could afford to take some time off. I was a jazz guitarist, a blues guitarist and I really wanted to go where it all came from, because I always knew that you had to be in the place and live with the people, and inhale the vibes to really get a sense of it. And here is where I met [guitarist Mike] Mr. Stern. For a while I traveled back and forth, but then I settled here in New York.

AAJ: How useful a discipline was film scoring for you?

LS: It's a great way to learn how to compose because you have to write music which has emotional content and tells a story. You know, you get a lot of money to do music which is not the norm in the music business.

AAJ: So do you think film scoring was good preparation for your development as a songwriter later on?

LS: Yes, it was. In film school you get asked to provide a certain emotion. Usually they come to you when something isn't working, when a love scene isn't romantic enough or an action scene isn't really exciting enough, and you've got to do just that. It's an excellent school for a songwriter.

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?

LS: Well, I learned what was really important to me. I found the strength that I needed to overcome it, and had from then on. It's an interesting experience when you confront your mortality. We all walk around as if we were all to live for ever. I mean, we sort of have to, but when you realize the finite nature of our existence, it messes up your head but in actuality it really helps you a lot.

AAJ: Let's talk about your new album Africa which I think marks a new chapter in your career.

LS: I think it does.


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