The heart of a melancholy optimist

Why listen to a pop song in a language you don't know? For the same reasons you might listen to a French or Italian opera: to hear memorable melodies and savor the lyrics--with the help of a translation, of course.

Besides, foreign songwriters sometimes have a point-of-view you won't find at home, and Hamburg's Anna Depenbusch is a case in point. Her songs are full of surprises, and full of feeling, too - sometimes contradictory feelings. "Heimat" ("Home"), one of the first songs of hers I heard, is a prime example, somehow expressing both affection and resignation: 

I've belonged here so long,
whether I like it or not.
I've belonged here so long--
yes, I have little choice,
and it's got me,
no matter where I am.

Set to a warm, jazz-inflected melody, the lyrics keep their conflicting emotions in suspension, so that none invalidates the other. How does that play out in performance? You can watch Depenbusch perform the song on YouTube and see for yourself. At the link, I've included a translation of the lyrics.

Born in Hamburg in 1977, the songwriter describes herself as "a melancholy optimist," and that may explain the emotional cross currents that make her songs so interesting. She counts Rufus Wainwright and Edith Piaf among her influences, but the German cabaret tradition is clearly part of the mix as well.

Depenbusch starting singing in Hamburg nightclubs as a teenager. By the time she was 24, she'd performed with a number of bands but drove a vegetable truck to make ends meet. Then she dropped everything and went off to Iceland to write.

She came home with a batch of moody songs that appeared on her first CD, Ins Gesicht (In the Face), released by Rintintin in 2005. That album's success led to a contract with Sony, who issued Die Mathematik der Anna Depenbusch in 2011, followed later that year with another album, featuring "unplugged" versions of many of the same songs and video performances of some older ones.

One of the best of these is "Tango," which deftly plays off a listener's expectations. The chorus might make you think you were listening to any number of conventional love songs:

So kiss me now like never before;
sing a sweet song in my ear;
love me till the morning comes;
then fly me over the horizon.

But the next lines paint an alarming picture of this "romance," as the need for love turns into desperation and denial. The singer's delivery makes it all seem inevitable:

Bite me firmly on the neck;
rip my best dress off my back;
lick my hurt and pain away,
and break my heart in two.

Depenbusch's most recent album, the 2012 Sommer aus Papier (Summer of Paper) has a more upbeat feel, and Sony promoted it with an elaborate music video. One of the most inventive tracks is "Benjamin," about a woman who learns that the sound of her ex-lover's name coming from the next apartment can be hard to take. (See the link below.)

As I think you'll see from the clips I've posted, Depenbusch is as skillful a performer as she is a songwriter. Last summer she gave compelling performances at several music festivals in Germany, drawing from all of her recorded work.

This fall she was back in the studio, working on new material, and I'm eager to see what she comes up with. In the meantime, here's Depenbusch singing the opening verses of "Summer of Paper", a celebration of the vital role songs play in our lives, no matter what language we sing them in:

I build myself a summer
of shiny colored paper;
I set it up in winter
before the window freezes
so everyone can see it,
there inside the door.
And, for all those still in snow,
I make gloves of paper, too.

Because the feeling
burns on the skin,
just as it was
and so familiar.

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