Clara Hill, Sonar Kollektiv, Jazzanova
By John C. Tripp
Clara Hill has been a seminal figure in the urban-electronic-soul scene since her teens. A the tender age of 17 the musically inclined artist founded the acid jazz combo Superjuice with her friend Funès. The duo gained a following in Berlin’s many dance clubs, laying the foundation for Hill’s forward-leaning sound. During these years, Clara made her first steps in live music and at one of her shows, had a fortuitous meeting with DJ Alex Barck of Jazzanova. This would be one of the most important of Hill’s career. The two became friends and in 1998 he introduced her to the producers of Extended Spirit (2/6 of Jazzanova): Stefan Leisering and Axel Reinemer, who were taken aback by Hill’s soothing vocals. Leisering produced one of her first professional songs, “No Use,” which would end up on Jazzanova’s landmark “In Between” album. Good fortune seemed to match Hill’s talents and her musical output took off with a number of new projects including her group Stereoton, a band that was rooted in hip hop but played with jazz elements. Hill also collaborated on several tracks with Berlin based singer Georg Levin including his hit “(I Got) Somebody New”, that was remixed by Masters Of Work.
All the while, Hill’s voice was strenghtening and maturing as were her song writing abilities, leading to the realization of her goal to record a full length solo album. In 2004 Hill released “Restless Times, a collection of reflective songs featured over the dreamy, deep house productions of Leisering and Reinemer (known together as Extended Spirit) as well as her old friend Funès. With “Restless Times” Hill’s great soul voice caught the attention of some of the genre’s most reputable artists, including Vikter Duplaix, Atjazz, and King Britt. Hill took advantage of this internation recognition by collaborating with these artists resulting in some velvety deep soul tracks like ‘Nowhere I Can Go, with Atjazz, ‘Paper Chase’ with Vikter Duplaix and ‘Did I Do Wrong’ with King Britt.
On her second album “All I Can Provide”, released in 2006 Hill took her collaborations a step further, working with the créme of clubland´s soul and jazz knob twisters. The result is a personal and very mature album, full of great songs, sensuous moods and complex emotions. All I Can Provide furthered Hill’s vocal journeys while mirroring various musical styles like deep house and boogie, jazz ballads as well as folk oriented songs.
Fast forward to 2007 and Hill has a number of additional collaborations on her growing resume, is busy touring the world and is releasing her third full length album “Sideways” as CLARA HILL’S FOLKWAVES. For this project she crafted 10 delicious acoustic-based and folk-oriented songs highlighting perfectly her passionate and rapturous voice.
The result is a recollection of neo-folk tunes in a very calm and slightly jazzy orchestration. She also left some space for very pure guitar and strings melodies in a sensuous atmosphere and invited her friends of JAZZANOVA and EXTENDED SPIRIT, as well as singer/song writer THIEF and NATHAN AMUNDSON from RIVULETS as male singers on the album. “Sideways” is a magnificent album full of enough emotional peaks and valleys to satisfy even the most temperamental music lover. This new phase in her artistic life will please her most faithful fans and will pave the way for the Sonar Kollektiv crew in its new adventures in folk music. which will be a departure from her past collaborations and will be Hill at her most intimate and personal (thanks to Soul Seduction for this last paragraph –ed.)
Mundovibes was fortunate to catch up with her in this exclusive e-mail interview just prio to the relase of “Sideways”.
MUNDOVIBES: You have been singing and creating music since you were in your teens and at the age of 17 you founded the band Superjuice. What inspired you to create music at such a young age?
CLARA HILL: Me and a good friend of mine we were writing a lot of songs. At this time we realized this kind of music/sound was not around in Berlin. We were listening to many Berlin- live-bands but we both were not satisfied with that matter of fact that the sound we loved to listen to were hard to find in berlin. (except the sound of early jazzanova music)
Short: at this time we thought our songs where nice and brilliant and we had to play on stages…in front of a real audience.
MV: Fate seems to have been on your side, since you became friends with Jazzanova’s Alex Barck while touring. How has that first meeting with Barck and your relationship with Jazzanova directed and impacted your career?
CH: I just can say that i´m still thankful. Jazzanova was and still is a big inspiration for me. making music together with Jazzanova was a dream of mine since I´m 17 years old. And it came true when I was 21 producing NO USE with Stefan Leisering from jazzanova. I´ve learned a lot about music and making music while working with Stefan and Alex. And a positive side-effect for me was that they had many useful connections around the world.
MV: You have also had a long standing relationship with Berlin’s Sonar Kollektiv, which is one of the leading dance and soul labels. How is it to be part of this “family”
CH: It´s still a special feeling working inside of this “family”. Sonar Kollektiv is still a label which never stands still. It constantly changing and breathing. And that´s very important for me – very important and helpful for my music that grows everytime.
MV: Jazzanova have played a big role in shaping a new urban sound, much like producers of previous eras. What impact do you feel that they have had on the music you create?
CH: As I already said before, they influenced and inspired me. I also wanted to make music which is modern, fresh and at the same time timeless. Sometimes they were like teachers for me…cause in my opinion they already did so many experiences.
MV: Your first full length record “Restless Times” was produced by Extended Spirit and Funes. How did this recording come together? What concepts and experiences influenced its songs?
CH: To record a solo album, was my first goal. This special morning in 2001 I felt that “now” is the right time to make an album. To make my dream come true i chose those producers with whom i had already worked earlier. Jazzanova /Extended Spirit and friends of mine. The concept was to make fresh, contemporary but timeless songs…with many choirs within. Sounds simple but we wanted to create deep music, deep electronic — sometimes “rough” sounds — in combination with a “soft” and sweet-soulvoice.
Jazzanova’s Alexander Barck. Photo by Fabien Vouillon.
Five tracks from “Restless Times” I produced and arranged with three friends (i.e. Funès, with whom I already worked and with Stereoton´s drummer and DJ). The remaining seven tunes of the album were written, recorded and produced with Stefan Leisering and Axel Reinemer from Jazzanova, 2002-2004.
MV: “Restless Times” introduced your talents to an international audience. Were you surprised by the reaction to it?
CH: Yes, I was surprised! I never expected such a kind of good feedback. That was the reason why i was inspired to make a second album. the feedback was a kind of new impulse.
MV: The follow-up to “Restless Times”, “All I Can Provide” features collaborations with a number of leading producers. Why did you choose to do it this way, as opposed to working with just one team?
CH: First i had the idea to make a kind of compilation-album inviting different producers to work with me. (Like Ursula Rucker does before) Cause I wanted to make new musical experiences. I was curious how it would be to work with other producers from the scene.
It was a great challenge getting all these very good musicians together and bring them all on one album. Had no idea how it would be to work with so many different people. But it worked! Because all the producers I have invited and worked with speak the same “musical language”!
MV: With two full length records behind you, you are firmly established as an artist. How do you feel about your career at this point?
CH: I feel accepted but I´m not satisfied…I can´t stop making music. cant stop expressing myself that way. I believe I have to make more experiences to gain more range of my musical languages. That is why I had to make a new album…my third album…coming out in September. After working two years on “all I can provide” I had to make something fresh. it was the right time for a change.
MV: Love and relationships are major themes in your music. What is it about these subjects that inspires you?
CH: Past and present main influence is the feeling of the “unfulfilled yearning” of love. Love or relationships or friendships are themes within the most intense feelings. Intensive feelings: in positive or negative ways. Love includes hate and happiness, mourning and pain. Love includes everything. Open topic. And I like to write about that.
MV: How do your songs form and take shape?
CH: Mostly I got the instrumental-sketches at first. If the sketch is good it inspires me to write a melody or voice-harmonies…and with the melody the words are coming. Then I write a story around the words. Later I do the vocal arrangements by myself…most of the time. i have to be in a special calm atmosphere/mood. “the write moment” has to be particular which challenge me to catch the special feeling inside.
MV: Your voice adds a lot of warmth and feeling to the music, which is mainly electronic. It is kind of like the soul in the machine. How do you feel about the juxtaposition of a human voice and electronic music?
CH: I like the combination of warmness and coldness. I prefer to work with contrasts. I like the warm sound of soul (not only a soul-voice. It also can be a typical soul instrument, for instance a Rhodes-piano) in combination with the cold and strange sound of electronic sounds. Sometimes it can be very interesting if you combine a clean warm voice with dirty cold sounds. That is what makes a song so colorful and fresh.
MV: How have you grown as an artist over the years? how has your vocal style evolved?
CH: I think now I can be more relaxed because i´ve learned so many things. And I can imagine that you can hear that in my voice. Now I can trust myself more and more ´cause I know what is good for me and my music.
MV: Would you ever want to work in a more traditional “band” setting with live instrumentation?
CH: That´s what I already do! Since I have my new “all I can provide band” I´m working with live instruments. And for my forthcoming album I also chose live instrumentations to translate my musical concept behind that album. We have a drummer, a lot of guitars, bass, keys and sampler/ laptop beside some electronic sounds.
MV: How does your “live” performance differ from producing music in the studio?
CH: As I said before, I tried to mirror the width of the full productions. that’s the reason I founded this band with a drummer, bass,synthesizer +rhodes, laptop and for the new band plus a guitar. if you do a performance with a band you have more energy. that´s what I found out again…(it´s like in the past when I had my own band.) Beside of that I´m also performing my live-pa set with a DJ.
MV: Collaboration plays a big part in your music. What makes collaborating interesting for you?
CH: When I was 17years old I always worked with one person. That was OK but I had to make steps into the future. In my opinion it is good to work with many musicians to make many experiences and get new inspirations.(sure, it depends on with whom you work!) It can be a special phase in your life. And making experiences means you can develop yourself and get more structure and character. But for the last album I just worked with a small team to keep the intimate and creative athmosphere of the music.
MV: What is it like to live in Berlin right now? How does the city influence and inspire you?
CH: I just can say that berlin is a very creative town. In the part of Berlin where I live you can find many artist, musicians and students. That´s a very inspiring atmosphere. It makes me feel free. But when i´m writing my songs I have to be alone and it has to be very quite.
MV: There is a great intimacy in your vocal style which ranges from soothing to vulnerable. Do you sense this as you are writing and performing?
CH: No, not really. Cause sometimes I don’t want to sing in a smooth and intimate way. But it seems to be a kind of “trademark”…but i never influence it.
MV: Trends in music all constantly changes and there is always a “new” sound. How do you keep up with this ever evolving state of music?
CH: As I said, I try to keep up with that…but try to keep my own style…no matter if it fits to what is hip or not. But I think it is important tobe well informed. It is good to know what most of the people are listen to…it´s a kind of orientation.
MV: There is a cosmic side to your music, with the spacey sounds such as those heard in “For Your Love”. Is there a connection with jazz from the 60s and 70s here?
CH: Sure there is. My music comes from listening to soul-jazz music from the 70s, jazz folk pop from the 60s and boogie and house tunes from the 80s/90s. These directions you can find in my music.
MV: What do you think of some of the new folk sounds that are coming out now? Is this inspiring to you?
CH: Yes it was…but before the sound came out. When i was 16years old i was listening to grunge music and a lot of guitar music. Today i go back to these roots. I rediscovered the guitar music for me. That´s the reason I wrote the last album: clara hill´s folkways: sideways which is a musical sideproject.
MV: How do you want your listeners to react to your music? How do you see them connecting with it?
CH: For me it´s always important to see: how music is moving people. I would like people to be open for my music. I would like to see people are listening to my music when they are outside, travelling, sitting in the car (because of the special mood) or dancing and also when they are at home, when they are quite, deep and relaxed.
…and then the hidden tracks will wake them up.
MV: What are the challenges of creating your music, both with your vocals and working with music that is very complex?
CH: My biggest challenge is to break new musical grounds. The thing is, not to stop that process and keep the passion. And i always want to touch souls with my sound of music. which is the combination of my voice, words and production.
MV: What are the challenges in fitting your voice and lyrics to a producer’s music? How do you improvise in this context?
CH: I´m mostly co-produce my songs. which means i always say what sounds i would like to have and which directions i want to go. So there is no need to improvise in this context.
MV: The majority of your songs would are slow to mid-tempo. Is this where you feel your music works best?
CH: I don’t know. On “restless times” the focus was on mid-tempo songs. On “All I can provide” I wanted to sing on more clubby and boogie tunes. I just can say that I prefer to work on different musical styles. Otherwise it would get boring for me, probably. I don’t want to define my style…when i´m writing music I just want to reflect the current phase of my life.
MV: Who are some of your inspirations today?
CH: Musical inspirations: these days i´m listening to Nick Drake, Linda Perhacs, Beck, Beatles and Rolling Stones again
MV: Are you frustrated by the lack of exposure to bigger audiences for your music?
CH: I´m not frustrated. I already played for 30 and 1000 people. And “Rome wasn´t built in a day”…
MV: What are your feelings on the U.S. audience, which is huge but exactly in tune with what is going on in Europe?
CH: This march was the first time when i played for U.S audience. I really enjoyed it. In Miami the people were singing “NO USE” together with me…nice! I´m looking forward to play more concerts in the states. I hope there will be a small U.S tour with the forthcoming album.
MV: There will be a new full length soon. What can we expect? Are you collaborating with any one you can tell us about?
CH: As I said before…for the new album i didn´t make big collaborations. Cause this time I wanted to keep this personal and intimate feeling. For this album i wrote 8 songs. You will listen to 10 folk-songs including electronic sounds and natural guitar songs…songs which are direct and pure. I knew exactly how to create the sound for this album. I worked with marc mac and extended spirit and sung with rivulets and sascha Gottschalk from Thief. A small team and friends I know for a long time.