Songwriter 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.
AAJ: 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.