Experimental Kitchen

Talking sex, politics and sauerkraut with Ute Lemper

We don't have a lot of Germans in this paper. We like the Germans, though. We even like the name German. And we really like hot Germans with names like Ute (Ooo-Tah). So when we got to speak with German cabaret star Ute Lemper, we tried not to dummschwallen (talk out of our ass). But we weren't always successful, which rather reminds us of the 19th century French performance "fartiste," Le Petomane, who excelled at that sort of thing.

OC Weekly: I've heard that Germans don't have a sense of humor. Ute Lemper: That's my whole shtick! That I'm basically self-ironic, and I'm using the clichés that exist in the world among the countries—the Americans against the French, the French against the Portuguese, the Spanish against the Italians. The biggest and most imposing cliché is about the Germans—the authoritarian female and the harsh accent. That's all part of my shtick because I'm not that at all. But I made a conscious decision against that. It's quite easy for Germans to underdevelop a sense of humor. Knock, knock . . .

Who's there?

Interrupting cow.

Interrupting cow . . .

Mooo! . . . Hello? [laughs] My son told me that joke in the car two days ago! Okay, you passed the test. Back to the clichés . . .

Yes. It's a form of identity to despise the other and give yourself the justice to be what you are inside your own cliché. It's bread for the media. In Europe, there's so much smack and trash and mudslinging from one country to the other it's a sport, basically. It's very ridiculous and dangerous, really, because these clichés stay in young people's minds, and they take it in quite easily. It breeds hostility. That's why I like living in New York better than any place in Europe. Everyone here is from everywhere. Everyone has an accent and is a foreigner, and all these stereotypes don't mean anything because New York is so beyond clichés.

I read a quote attributed to you in which you said that you didn't like Germany and thought it was full of "stupid, ugly people."

That's a stupid exaggeration—I would have never said that. I was very critical of my own background—with the way I grew up—and I did not find my surroundings open or tolerant enough. My spirit couldn't run free. I was uptight in that place, and I found a vaster freedom abroad.

What do you get from singing the songs made famous by strong German women like Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya?

I've formed my style in the expressionist kitchen of the Weimar Republic—inside 1920s Berlin when art was really political and tried to attack the establishment and it was very spicy and sexually driven. It was breaking down all the taboos of homosexuality, emancipation, the justice system, abortion—all of these issues were approached. It was a lush game of eroticism at the same time. For me, it was a great repertoire to live in, in my own language, and it formed my style. There's a little piece of Berlin in everything I sing. I'm not a sentimental performer; I am a realist performer—eroticizing about the anti-hero. Mama Dietrich was the femme fatale, the loner, the island, and she'd bring horror to the man—that was her shtick. Lotte Lenya came from the school of Brecht, a much more intellectual approach, and she was his perfect character because she wasn't beautiful and she didn't have a great voice. She was kind of a loser, but then again, she had this great directness and honesty. They were both pretty opposite from where they came from and where they ended up. Dietrich became imprisoned in her own myth, and Lenya just got crazier and crazier.

You've also sung with Pink Floyd, Nick Cave and Elvis Costello, and you've starred in bit roles in films like Peter Greenaway'sProspero's Books. And you starred in the European production ofCabaret and the West End production ofChicago. But you were also in that goddamnedCats.

That was very long ago! It was a very bad thing to start out in. I had just come from acting school and felt I wanted to go into theater, and there I was, a cat onstage for eight shows a week for a whole year, two and a half hours of dancing my butt off. I'm not made for that. I need to reinvent myself every night. It was the hard lesson of "American marketing theater." I really suffered under it. If I had continued like that—show after show—I don't think I would be in this business anymore. I would rather have become a construction worker—or worked for Lufthansa!

What are you into now?

I was very excited with my last album [But One Day], in which I wrote some of my own music. I am completely involved in that now, just writing my own words and music. Being continuously creative. I want the next album to be entirely my own stuff. I find it very satisfying. It's much more poetic and political.

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