Photo by Olga Baczynska
The Swiss-born daughter of a diplomat, Sophie Hunger (nee Émilie Jeanne-Sophie Welti) grew up in the UK, Germany and Switzerland, becoming a superstar in her native country only to find herself choosing a more rarified pathway.
She’s toured with Tuareg-Berber desert blues purveyors (and Exberliner faves) Tinariwen, staged a one-woman show about Bob Dylan in Paris, and her most recent album, The Danger of Light (Two Gentlemen) was produced by Adam Samuels, better known for his work with LA bohemians such as Warpaint and John Frusciante than European chanteuses. Hunger strikes Berlin this month with five concerts at five different venues – from Charlottenburg to Neukölln – starting on Mon, Feb 18.
So when you play your pentagon of Berlin shows, what can we expect?
Well, first of all, I’m gonna play all the new songs. It’s also gonna be with a different setup: we have a new musician who plays Rhodes and some synthesizers, which is a new sound in the band. But he also plays the flugelhorn and he sings very well. I can really promise that it’s gonna be a completely new show. We toured with the old show for almost two years, changing small things, but this is a totally new chapter!
You sing in Swiss German, French, English and German. Do you have different personas corresponding with the different languages?
The funny thing is, there was a journalist that had a theory on this. He said, “Whenever you sing in Swiss German, it’s very intimate and very personal and very close, and when you sing in German, there is always some kind of picture or formula that you try to follow. And when you sing in English, it can be all kinds of things.” And I thought, “Hmmm, clever guy! He might be right!” But after all, I don’t know. It just happens.
Were you trying to achieve something specific with your new record?
I never have anything specific in mind. I try to learn, basically. I just wanted to make sure that I am still moving and that I am still on my way; that is very important to me. You know, some people think of your career as being like a glass full of water and every time you make a record you have less of it in your glass and at some point you’re out of songs. I don’t believe in that at all. But, of course, sometimes you’re scared that the refill might come to an end. That’s really scary, but so far it hasn’t happened and every time I make a record I wanna make sure that I keep moving and that I do new things and find new places and new people. I am not this kind of visionary person. I just want to play and have things happen and move.
You’ve said that the producer of this record challenged and provoked you to do something different.
Well, I have such a wonderful band that I never really thought of going somewhere else or playing with different musicians, ‘cause there was no reason. And Adam said, “Let’s just do one session with them and then try something else. I want to see you in a different place, where you don’t know anything about the other musicians and you don’t know what your position is with it.” Then we ended up in LA with some of his people, like (guitarist) Josh Klinghoffer (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), (drummer) Stephen Nistor (who works with Danger Mouse) and (pianist) Nate Walcott (of Bright Eyes) and that totally worked. For me, it was surprising and kind of a hint to what I need to do in the future. It’s really something that helps me.
Did you play that amazing guitar solo on “Heharun” or is that Josh?
Oh yeah, it’s my favorite moment in the record. You know, we recorded live and Josh is the type of musician who never plays the same thing twice, so on the first take the bass wasn’t in line or a drum fill wasn’t right, so we had to do it again, and I was always like, “Oh no, but Josh’s solo was so amazing!” So we did another one and he came up with something totally new, but just equally amazing. That was actually the moment where he impressed me the most, to be able to start from scratch every time with no hint of repetition, and every time it was just genius and we cried having to let go of those takes.
How was your experience touring the US with Tinariwen?
It brought me back to the very beginning. Not so much as musicians but as individuals. They are so close to very fundamental questions, just because they are Tuareg. They spend their lives either in combat or in slavery or in exile. So we are talking about very profound questions and spending time with them makes you forget about the small things and everything becomes very basic.
Sounds similar to touring.
Touring America is very tough. You spend, like, eight, nine hours driving and you can’t really stop because you have to get to the next place and the country is so huge: you just have to drive, drive, drive. And then you play in places you never heard of before, and they have never heard of you before and you’re a white piece of paper. Nothing’s helping you out. That month was very important for me. I rediscovered certain feelings that I had, when I started to play, that I hadn’t had in a little while, being in such a comfortable position, at least in France, Germany and Switzerland. Those feelings were actually the starting point for the new record.
Well, starting from zero. People having heard nothing about you, not even paying attention to you and all you have is the moment, your hands, your voice, your body and the instrument. And that is a very important exercise that is essential to our profession. To find that focus again. There are no references and nothing you can depend on. You have to fully concentrate to invent everything from scratch.
And the actual shows themselves?
There was one moment half a year ago with Tinariwen. We played at the House of Blues in New Orleans and you go into the backstage and the walls are just covered with the names of the bands that have played there, and next to the names you can tick off how many times they played there. So you have the Neville Brothers, who played there, like, 35 times, and then you have the Black Keys and they only played there twice. And I was standing there thinking, “I am gonna play here tonight and its such a bloody honour. Whatever happened in my life that made me be here, it was a good thing!”
SOPHIE HUNGER | Feb 18 (Quasimodo), 19 (Babylon), 20 (Lido), 21 (Heimathafen Neukölln), 23 (Festsaal Kreuzberg), check sophiehunger.com for more info