Ute Lemper: "Being a free spirit is part of my identity"

Ute Lemper will bring a flavour of Marlene Dietrich to the Cervantes theatre in Malaga.
Ute Lemper will bring a flavour of Marlene Dietrich to the Cervantes theatre in Malaga. / LOBO ALTUNA
  • This singer and actress stood up to the "authority of the male gender" in showbusiness and forged her career against the tide of commercialism. This path brings her back to Malaga

Ute Lemper (Münster, 1963) does not just appear to be a strong woman - she really is one. When she was young she rebelled against her "uptight" German heritage and fought against the norm in the world of showbusiness. Hers is a career that has ignored trends and commercialism, where she has called the shots despite the "male authority" in the industry. Her repertoire reflects her admiration for Marlene Dietrich and composer Kurt Weill, but also includes songs by Bob Dylan and Philip Glass. As always, Lemper has one foot in the Germany of the interwar period, and the other in the New York of today, where she lives with her children, the youngest only seven. The eclectic and powerful singer is back in Malaga on 30 June to sing in the Cervantes theatre as part of the Terral festival.

You're back in Malaga with Songs from the Broken Heart. Do all the best stories come from broken hearts?

I would say that the great literature, the great philosophers, the great cultural inventions, from paintings to sculptures to novels to theatre plays to music and compositions - yes they probably come from a broken heart.

What's the link between Philip Glass, Pablo Neruda and Kurt Weill? All three appear in your work.

I would say, first of all, a broken heart. But also thoughts about society, circumstances of life... They are a reflection of the way the human takes the initiative to actually create a change either with literature or with political action.

You've said that this project is the fruit of sleepless nights. What keeps you awake at night?

(Laughs) Personally, there's a bunch of things that keep me awake - my seven-year-old kicking me in the back, or the dog barking... But obviously what I'm talking about with sleepless nights, is that at night time stands still and society stands still and noise stands still. The big, decadent city of New York that I live in stands still. It's the moment when nothing is distracting profound thought about everything. That's really when essential thought can come alive and reflect what you want to reflect. Often you don't have the time, the space and the silence to do that during the day.

We see feminist and freedom movements as something of our time, but did they exist in the Germany of the interwar period that has inspired you in your career?

The Weimar time was the most progressive time for a society that was still in a very revolutionary, new democracy that went all down the drain after the fascists took over. But the Weimar Republic was very interesting and also a very dangerous time: a time for liberation, women's movement, creative arts, architecture, journalism, politics, philosophy, music... Everything was breaking the traditional concepts and bursting into a complete new vision of beauty and aesthetics. It was a very interesting time but it lasted very briefly. I always said if Hitler hadn't shattered the Weimar Republic then probably the sixties would have happened in the forties right there in Berlin.

But now I look at the front page of the New York Times and I see the movement in Hong Kong and there's the impossible immigration situation in Mexico, we have Syria, civil wars, crime... There is so much to fight for and so much to think about and so much to be compassionate about and to have empathy for. It just breaks my heart to read and hear about that on a daily basis. Broken hearts are not from the past - they are very much from today's time and from what is happening in the world.

You've always been seen as something of a femme fatale. Is this image of a strong, independent and daring woman real?

I definitely think that I am strong and independent, that is true. I'm not someone who wants to submit to the other gender or to rules which don't seem reasonable. Yes, to be a free spirit is part of my identity. It's not part of my heritage; I wasn't born that way. I was born in the very uptight mindset of my family where I come from in Germany. I definitely broke free from all of that and fought for it and bled for it, and that is what I advertise to my children. But it's not just a playground - being a free spirit also comes with the responsibility of reflecting on the deepest context of the life we live, and it's not easy. It's maybe even harder than living a completely sheltered life where you just take over the values that you've been taught.

Is there a personal experience you could add to the #MeToo movement?

In the very beginning I certainly had some encounters where I felt 'If I don't get out of here now then I'll experience situations like rape or certainly complete discrimination from the male gender.' But I got myself out in time and the stronger I grew in the world of showbusiness, the less I encountered these situations. I very quickly levelled with the man and I spoke very much my own words. I definitely experienced the authority of the male gender in the business - there was a dominance there - but I wouldn't say that I was victim of that further on. I just had to deal with it and stand up even stronger as a female to speak my own mind, to be my own manager, to say what I wanted to do. I was able to stand up against the laws of commercialism, to do a project that is completely non-commercial, a project from the heart.

Europe and populism

As a European citizen living in New York, how do you see the crossroads Europe is at with Brexit and independence movements?

I don't like Brexit at all. I think it's ridiculous to spin the wheel of time backwards. Populism, right-wing movements and nationalism, using anti-immigration, antisemitism and anti-whatever to make them feel better, find an old identity and go back in time... all of that I very much disagree with. I would hope that people can see that a realistic society is completely multicultural and multi-religious. You have to face that.

Do you feel more of a New Yorker than a German?

I'm a European New Yorker. New York is the most European island on this side of America. I don't have an American passport and I don't identify with the American culture. I'm very happy with my European culture and I'm very happy to be a New Yorker. I needed the experience more than 20 years ago when I moved here; there was a freedom of the mind and a very progressive identity that was the very opposite of the provincialism I experienced in Europe. I can imagine moving back to Europe one day. I feel at home there, I feel at home in Berlin, I feel at home in Paris, I feel at home in London - it's all part of the mosaic of my identity.