The first time I saw her play was more than a year ago in the dark basement of Madame Claude. It was a chilly April evening and most of the audience would agree that by then we were all pretty tired of the cold and dreary months. We were lucky to be there though, as Phoebe was just what the doctor prescribed for the spring blues. Her witty, funny and cheerful lyrics brought a bit of sun to just about everyone there. Armed in only her acoustic guitar she played her awesome songs most of us could identify with in one way or another.
That was of course a year ago, but I’m happy to report Phoebe Kreutz is still going strong, currently on tour around Europe singing new and old songs to everyone’s pleasure. She’ll have one more show in Berlin before she heads back home to New York and we couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask her some questions.
Do you remember the first concert you ever played?
Yeah, it was this little cafe in Olympia, WA. I’d been writing some silly songs but not playing out at all. So some friends just booked me this show and I thought it would be a fun thing to do once. Never thought I’d still be at it however many years later. Did you play your own songs or covers? My own songs. None that I ever play anymore though. I think one was called “Cute But Smelly”.
How Would you compare the Berlin and New York music scene?
In a lot of ways they seem pretty similar. They both have really supportive communities and you can always count on running into the same people at shows and if you want to start a new band, there are people who are down for that. I think there is something about a big city that makes people cling to one another. It’s really sweet, I think- even if it can feel a little incestuous sometimes.
You’ve been coming to Berlin for quite some time now. Are you seeing a change?
Oh, sure. I only started coming here about 5 or 6 years ago, but even so, I totally see changes and that scary gentrification thing moving in. Places get closed, prices go up, it’s becoming more like New York where people struggle to pay their rent. It’s still an amazing city and it has a long way to go before it’s no fun. But the reason I loved Berlin from the start was that it reminded me of the gritty New York of my childhood. There was space for some crazy art scene and it had that feeling of freedom. It’s sad to see Berlin getting fancier, but nothing that cool stays a secret for long. I wonder where we poor artists are going to go next…Minsk probably [laughs].
What’s your favorite Berlin venue?
There are so many great venues here but Schokoladen is the one I always love to go back to. The people who work there are really sweet and the after party is always awesome. The size is just right. I really hope it survives.
Do you give advice to other singer-songwriters? What advice would it be?
Well, different things work for different people and some of my favorite songs are ones that break all the rules I have for myself. But speaking only as a lyricist, I would say that it’s good to be hard on yourself and try to find a new, interesting way to express something rather than just use the old metaphors and rhymes that we’ve all heard a million times. It’s never a good sign when you’re comparing “love” to “fitting like a glove” just because they rhyme. Then again, I like that Madonna song that does that. I guess my advice would just to be really, really awesome.
You mentioned you attend a book club in which instead of discussing literature you have to write songs. How is that working for you?
It’s a really cool project. If I’m feeling blocked, it’s a great way to get out of my own head and think about something different. I love constraints like that. If someone says “just write about anything”, that’s a really hard assignment. But if someone says, “write about Frankenstein”, you aren’t focusing on yourself so much and it frees you up. Plus, the fact that it happens every month takes the pressure off. If one song isn’t a hit, there is always next month. Is “A Bad Feeling about Anna Karenia” based on a book from the club? No, I’ve been writing songs about books for a long time. “A bad feeling..” is one of them.
How did you and Matt start playing together?
When we first starting dating and he told me he was a trumpet player, I thought that was pretty cool, but it didn’t occur to me that I’d be able to use his crazy skills for my own gain. But I totally did! Having him play on old songs breathes new life into them. And when I write new songs now I’m often thinking about what a trumpet might do in them. It’s a pretty lucky position to be in. It’s hard to imagine some songs without the trumpet. Yeah it’s true.
Is it easy to be a couple and play together?
Actually it is. We really like travelling together so touring is a great excuse to do that and make a living at the same time. Plus, I love having him on stage with me. It makes the whole evening more well-rounded, I think. And now he’s been writing more of his own songs, so I’m hoping that we’ll incorporate more of them into the set with me just singing backup.
Some of your songs are very personal. Do you find it easy to reveal so much about yourself?
You know, a lot of the songs that people think are autobiographical are actually not. A lot of songs exist more just because I thought of a joke or a line that I liked and wrote the song around that, rather than trying to write about a specific experience. Like “Disaster”, for instance, is not about one particular boy- it was more an exercise in word-play. But I certainly had done my research for that one over the years. So there’s always some truth in every song, I guess.
When I first started playing, I swore I would never write about my feelings and be one of those girls who are bearing their souls on stage- I mean, don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite songs in the world are just that- Erin Regan, Deb Talen…I love some mooshy girls. But I think I was afraid that if I did it poorly, I would just be a cliche. I’ve totally loosened up about that rule, though. I think I’ve become a better songwriter than I was then and so I feel more confident that I’ll be able write about “my feelings” in a way that won’t be sentimental and boring. At least, I hope so.
In 2010 you played at Fusion. How did that come about?
There was this nice guy named Peter. He approached us and asked if we wanted to play at this festival. I had never heard of it and we were supposed to be back in New York when it was happening. But then my friend Sibsi (Sebastian Hoffman) just happened to mention this great festival Fusion, and I thought, “Wait. I just got invited to that!” So we changed our plans and went. It was awesome. Fusion is the greatest. It’s like total anarchy but organized by Germans, so it feels super free but also super well-planned and you don’t have the usual issues that you find at most festivals, like hassle with security and all that kind of silliness.They took such good care of us and we saw so much other awesome music. It was really magical.
Go see Phoebe Kreutz perform live on the 7th of June in Multilayer Laden. She will be accompanied by Matt Colbourn on trumpet with support from Donna Stolz.
For more info on Phoebe visit her website at www.phoebekreutz.com.
Photos and Interview: Olga Baczynska