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.
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.

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.

AAJ: To record in Africa with African musicians, was this a concept that you had wished to explore for some time?

LS: I was involved in Indian music, and the great thing about jazz is that you can integrate all of these influences and enrich your music. It happened because I was invited to play the Festival in the Desert in Mali, which was a festival I always wanted to play because it's so romantic and I met African musicians there that ended up on the record.

We performed together, I asked them to sit in with me and we just really clicked. Bassekou [Kouyate] is sort of the historian of west African n'goni, which is the ancestor of the guitar, and he has recorded with people like Taj Mahal, who shares my opinion that when you go there, and play with them there, you really find the roots of what you're doing, so it was very easy to play with them and it was just loads of fun.


I returned just by accident and started recording because at the time Salif Keita had created this program with UNICEF for young African recording engineers, who would get a chance to record with European engineers and then go to Europe to continue the training. I met the engineer in the hotel and they were looking to give these kids an experience with just a regular artist. You know, throw them in at the deep end and see if they swim. They asked me if I would come and volunteer for this project.

But the recordings came out so good that I kept them and made an EP Alu Maye (LSR, 2007) out of them. I continued to record here in New York with the tracks I'd brought back, but at the time I didn't know if that was anything we could use, except to inspire to create projects like that. It's a fantastic opportunity for all these very talented young people in Africa and I've always wanted to do something good with the music and not just perform.

That's how I met Salif. It was his program, and he called me to thank me for being part of it. It wasn't such an effort because they were amazing talents because they learn to do everything with nothing. They can take a Mac apart and put it back together and it works! It was fascinating to be with them, and so inspiring. I ended up using one of those engineers for the final project because we worked so well together. His name is Abu Cisse.

AAJ: The playing on Africa is beautiful but for me a real star is the singer Ami Sacko. Is she a recording star in her own right?

LS: A big, big star. She's Bassekou's wife, so she came and sang with us at the festival and we developed a friendship, and we were kind of writing songs together. She would make up her own words or say in her language what I was saying in English, so that people could understand what I was talking about. I actually went to Paris to write with her, and I later on I recorded on her record and we did her videos together.

AAJ: Your own guitar playing, and I'm thinking of a track like "Simbo," speaks the local lingo, and I think that's also true to an extent of your singing, and it seems very effortless. I wonder how much of that ability to sing or play in an authentic-sounding African or Indian style, which you've also done, is down to hard work?

LS: It's hard work, but when you love it it's not so hard. I've always loved African guitar and it just slips into jazz and rock and pop so well and I've tried to learn how to do it. It was so clear, like trying to play jazz in Munich, that it's hard to play African music when you're not in Africa.

I kept returning to just learn the scene, and learn the rhythmic intricacies that are just tremendous, on the spot, because it's best when you play with African percussionists and African rhythm sections and you find how they feel these rhythms, how they nail all these rhythms that are going on simultaneously. I really went more to study; the record is more of a by-product of my interest in this music.

LeniAAJ: Bassekou Kouyate plays beautifully on Africa, is he a big star in Mali?

LS: Oh, he's a big, big star, the biggest n'goni star in west Africa right now.

AAJ: Africa also marked some of the final recordings of the great saxophonist Michael Brecker, it must have been quite an emotional record to make in more ways than one.

LS: Yes it was. He was one person who encouraged me to do these things, because it was a little bit of a crazy undertaking but he just thought it was the best idea and he was very involved. He insisted on playing on the EP Alu Maye, and we worked on the following tracks together in Paris. He had some requests on what he would like to play. I was heartbroken when he died in the middle of the project. We did a tribute to him, but he was meant to play on many more tracks but unfortunately he died before we could record them.

AAJ: Plenty of men have gone to Africa to record with local musicians but I can't think of too many women; you must have broken a few molds and a few stereotypes while you were there, how did people react to this white woman wielding an electric guitar?

LS: Well I really have to thank Salif because he doesn't fit in anywhere, he loved having other people not fit in and he got a big kick out of it. They were pleased that I was so interested in their music. The women were the ones who really went crazy when they saw a woman trade solos with a man. They were my biggest supporters and, since their social situation is quite difficult, it was a joy for them to see somebody not fit into a stereotype, and do well.

There were many funny episodes of me trying to be respectful to the Moslem tradition. Even at the first festival in the desert I was given a traditional robe with the notion that I should please wear it and not walk around like a westerner, and the first thing that happened was that I stepped on the damn thing and got completely entangled in it!

But it was a great experience as a woman to be able to stand for something in a nice way, because the guys like it when you play well and sing nice love songs to them. They don't quite know what to make of it. Africans are very loose; if it grooves it's okay.

AAJ: It took a couple of years and half a dozen trips to Mali to make this record. Did it ever become a grind to go back and forwards?

LeniLS: Not at all. African people are so warm and welcoming and there hospitality is legendary. I feel like it's a part of my family over there now and I actually have two godchildren there now, and it's just a joy. It was a joy from beginning to end.

The part that becomes tedious is that there's malaria and typhoid fever and you have to have a bunch of vaccinations when you go [laughs]. You are covered in mosquito repellent and you have to be careful about what you eat and all of that but that's really minor. Actually, I have more trouble at home here, picking up a cold from the terrible weather we have here, but in Africa I do very well.

AAJ: I believe you came away from Africa with more than one honorific name.

LS: [laughs] My Africa name is Oumou and Moussa Guitar Foe. (Women Guitarist) It was fun.

AAJ: What's the story behind the name Oumou?

LS: Omou was the daughter of the prophet and Bassekou gave that name to me; as a member of his family he made me a griot, which is an African storyteller, because he said I was already a storyteller. I was very honored, but I really felt it; my function as a storyteller is to keep record of what's going on, how we feel, how our world works and put it into song. It was very fitting I thought.

AAJ: You've traveled extensively which obviously provides you with inspiration for your songwriting and you've been going to India for a number of years to study Hindustani classical vocal technique, how did you get connected to Indian music in the first place?

LS: I think John Coltrane was the one who pointed out how Indian improvisation had been going on for four thousand years and had a lot for us to learn from, so I had studied the raga form and the way of improvising. I was a great fan of Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin and then I was invited to a festival in India, which gave me the opportunity to study with a local singer, and I did that and recorded with that singer on the album Finally the Rain Has Come (LSR, 2002), with Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin as well. That kind of brought me to India and I played many festivals there and traveled there. I just love their way of singing. The way I look at singing is the way I look at playing guitar, so I chose to train my voice in that fashion.

AAJ: It must have been a real thrill to have Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin playing on that album.

LS: That was so much fun, it was fantastic.

AAJ: Has your vocal training in Hindustani classical technique had a wider influence on the way you sing in general?

LS: Yes it has. It's also influenced my guitar playing/. I didn't intend it to but I was a more prolific guitarist and I learned it on the guitar first, and it really changed my articulation and my embellishment in a way that I was thrilled [about].


It was, very, very interesting. Jeff Beck also did some studying of that Indian stuff and it's kind of related to the way modern guitar is played, not just musically, but how you play. And again it's a very emotional way of playing the guitar. The guitar is a difficult instrument to not just rattle off some fast, fabulous line, but to really make it sing like a voice. It's a metal string on a piece of wood, and to put some life into that is not an easy task. The Indian way of looking at things really helps with that.

AAJ: Can you see yourself following up Africa with an album of Indian-inspired music at all?

LS: Well, yeah, I am combining the two things. Both of them are Moslem traditions. The Mogul emperors of India were the big supporters of music there. They had court orchestras in a Moslem tradition and they have that in common with African music.

AAJ: Returning to Africa for a second, you were recently back in Africa recording the U2 song "One, with Salif Keita. What's the story behind that?

LS: Salif asked me to do it. He always wanted to sing in English and when I came back recently he asked me if I would help him to sing in English. He's very uptight about English, but I thought, "You speak English very well, why not sing it? And he asked me to put the guitars down for the track. I'm not sure what he's going to do with it but it came out fabulously. His version is wonderful.

AAJ: Your whole African adventure sounds like it was an edifying experience. Where do you think it's going to lead you to?

LS: I don't know, I don't know. I just got a call to do another African festival. Many jazz musicians go to Europe to do a lot of their playing and I guess we'll be doing a lot of our playing with African musicians, with African bands.

Leni SternAAJ: You practice Hung Ga Kung Fu, how good are you?

LS: I have a black belt. It helps when you can defend yourself like a man. I do like to take the privileges that men have, and I think with that comes the responsibility. All men know how to defend themselves and women have to find somebody that will defend them. I think it's only fair that if you don't want to live by the rules of women, if you want to live by the rules of men you have to do what men have to do.

AAJ: Might you take another change of career and take up a career as a martial arts instructor?

LS: [laughs] No, no! It's mainly for my health and for my wellbeing, and to enable me to do what I love doing which is having adventurous travel. No problems sleeping by myself in a tent in the middle of the desert surrounded by wild Tauregs. I really sleep very well, and I don't think I would if I didn't train.

AAJ: What would you like to do next?

LS: I would love to tour the world with this music. I have put together a great group of African musicians and I would love to continue touring in America, in Africa, in Europe...

Selected Discography

Leni Stern, Africa (LSR, 2007)
Leni Stern, Alu Maye (LSR, 2007)
Leni Stern, Love Comes Quietly (LSR, 2006)
Leni Stern, When Evening Falls (LSR, 2004)
Leni Stern, Finally the Rain Has Come (LSR, 2002)
Leni Stern, Kindness of Strangers (LSR, 2000)
Leni Stern, Recollection (LSR, 1998)
Leni Stern, Black Guitar (LSR, 1998)
Leni Stern, Separate Cages (LSR, 1996)
Leni Stern, Words (Lipstick Records, 1995)
Leni Stern, Like One (Lipstick Records, 1993)
Leni Stern, Ten Songs (Lipstick Records,1992)
Leni Stern, Closer to the Light (Enja Records,1990)
Leni Stern, Secrets (Enja Records,1989)
Leni stern, The Next Day (Passport,1987)
Leni Stern, Clairvoyant (Passport,1985)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Latifa Metheny

Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Leni Stern

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