Ahead of the release of her debut album, rising Berlin techno star Nene H tells us about family, identity and the power of music for self-expression.
You have an exceptionally diverse musical background, going from a classical pianist to a techno producer. Why did you make that switch?
Classical music is such a sophisticated, incredible art form and I understand the knowledge you have to have for it, and I respect the work you have to do. You practice for eight hours a day, never knowing if you’ll make it as a solo concert pianist. You might just become a music teacher, but the dedication to this music is so extreme and so nerdy.
Another thing is how it is represented. It’s like Western classical music is the best, most important music in the world. Everything else is Oriental alternatives. So, especially as a Turkish woman doing this in Europe, it’s basically like they don’t give a fuck about you. I studied this music, and I am very good at it, but at some point it doesn’t matter. There’s an elitism inside the scene that makes it hard for me to feel part of it.
What changed when you started producing electronic music?
I was in search of doing something that was really my own music. I was in Stuttgart at the time, studying composition, but it was more musique concrète and experimental stuff. Not techno, and not like the Berlin stuff at all. I hadn’t even been in a club yet. I was just discovering new tools, but then I got quite interested in it.
I came to Berlin and encountered this community club culture and wondered what the fuck I’d been doing. This is what I want to do. It’s more honest, intuitive and is getting more inclusive. It wasn’t as inclusive before, and I struggled with finding my place. But now it feels more inclusive for people like me, for people of colour. The political climate is changing.
Did you ever encounter those same boundaries in electronic music as you did in classical music?
I think I had it in the beginning, because I wanted to fit in so badly. I always wondered about the norms and the right music to play. But I broke away from it in time and, personally, I’m very free from it. Also, from outside I realised it’s changing. In the beginning, it was all about me being Turkish or a Muslim. Now, of course, this is questioned because it’s the theme of the album, but I’d usually hope people are a little bit further along than this.
Your debut album, Ali, has been a long time in the making. What drove that forward?
Three years ago, my father passed away. I worked on this album for two years and it’s only coming out now because I made and remade all the tracks. It was a very long process, because it wasn’t like the techno I’ve produced for other people. It’s not the same, because making the album has been about processing my father’s death.
While he was sick, I was going back and forth to Turkey to support my family. I’ve been in Germany for so long and the whole concept is about the duality that I experienced in that time. In Turkey, my situation is so different than in Berlin. And coping with that was very hard for me. I would look at my tattoos in Turkey and think to myself, ‘Why do I have these?’ I felt separated somehow, because you become your younger self when you return to the place you grew up. You spend so much time at home and you can’t cope with being both people. It was very hard, actually, it also taught me a lot.
Is Ali a cathartic album?
I think it has come from a place that didn’t exist before. And I think it’s somehow absurd, because my family life is so different from the work I do and who I am. We will always have open hearts, but my family basically doesn’t know much about what I do here, so they will probably never really understand me. But, I am them at the same time, and have I come to a point where I can accept that part of myself a lot more. Before that, I was just trying to fit in and be as European as possible. Now, I’m trying to be more accepting of myself.
Ali feels very delicately interwoven. It’s dedicated in some way to your father, but musically it feels almost autobiographical. Is that the case?
I’m so glad that came across. You know, my father was the person who made me, even more so than my mum. We were super close. He didn’t have the money to send me places, but he always supported me and showed me that I can do anything I like if I work for it. And this is a Muslim Turkish man from a normal family we’re talking about. That never happens. So, this is how I learned, because of him being so visionary and open. I identified myself, and my person, and it’s him. Ali is basically exactly about him, but at the same time, it’s me.
How closely intertwined is music into that identity?
I think, psychologically, without knowing, I always thought that I had to prove myself more, that I had to be able to be taken seriously. I’m living in the Western world and I’m Middle Eastern. From the beginning, when I moved to Stuttgart when I was 20, I had to prove that to myself. Even on that first flight, the first question that the police asked me was, ‘You came here to get married, right?’ No, I came here to study. I got so aggressive, I was determined to prove them wrong. From that moment on, it became part of who I am to fight for more visibility so that people can understand and respect me more
But of course, there is a genuine interest in pushing myself musically. For instance, I did a project with a Georgian choir for CTM three years ago. That was something I had planned since 2017. The first time I listened to them, I knew I wanted to create something, but I didn’t have the tools and I didn’t know how to create that music. In the end, I knew I would.
You’re on the bill for Nation of Gondwana, one of the first music festivals to return. What will that experience be like?
They just got the approval and it’s going to be a test event. Everybody is going to get PCR tests beforehand and the health ministry is going to track the outcome. In my dreams, and in my dreams for the clubs, it’s going to be this community where everybody’s taking care of each other, everybody is happy, the music is diverse and the people are diverse. This is my dream.
Nene H’s Ali is out through Incensio on July 16 / Nation of Gondwana Festival am Waldsee, July 23-25.