So as my first venture here as a new resident of Berlin, I got myself down to Privatclub on the very trendy if somewhat under-lit Skalitzer Straße. My mission was to see and interview US-born folk-country singer Ian Fisher, who through his stints living in both Vienna and Berlin has carved out quite the fan base here in Germany.
I arrived ‘on time’ only to the find the place quiet, maybe German rules on punctuality don’t extend to music. In any case, opening the evening was ‘The Alma Church Choir’, the moniker of Berlin-based singer/songwriter/guitarist Andreas Laudwein, on stage with an accompanying synth and saxophone player. Laudwein took stage dressed in Johnny-Cash-esque black apparel (albeit with a conspicuous floral design on his shirt) and launched humbly into his set of floaty chord progressions and ambitious instrumentation. The haunting, spell-binding effect that the band was trying to achieve was interesting, even if two of the songs sounded suspiciously like Stairway to Heaven. The sincerity was undoubtedly there, but music of that nature requires certain situational conditions in order to achieve it’s maximum introspective and atmospheric effect. The primary one being having a quiet and respectful audience. Despite the thin smattering of gently swaying bodies stood politely in front of the stage, any attempt at truly sucking the crowd in was thwarted by the din of dozens of merrily drinking and socialising punters around the bar.
Ian Fisher and The Present took stage around 10pm, for which the many scattered attendees in the club quickly solidified into a proper audience on the club floor. The outfit consists of Fisher and his compadre Ryan Carpenter who delivered a set of their brand of folk-country music. I must say I’m immediately pre-disposed against singer-songwriters – in my hometown of London they are a dime a dozen, spouting disposable acoustic trite lacking in any enduring or particularly distinguishing quality. Fisher is different, with well-written songs, an inherently stirring voice and an ear-catching country ‘twang’ to his chord progressions. The technical talent of the pair should not be understated, exhibited in the intricate fingerpicking of songs such as ‘Why do I go’ and Carpenter’s innate ability to sprinkle ‘lead’ guitar parts exactly when and where they are needed. As an avid country fan, the inclusion of covers like ‘Rocky Top’ pushed certain buttons for me, not least as an expat sometimes sharing similar yearnings for home best expressed in music. The duo’s dynamic stage presence was as personable as the music itself, sharing jokes and banter between songs or tune-ups. Fisher clearly knows to cater his music to his adopted city, and substituting the line ‘was man nicht verstehen kann’ into the chorus of his (first) encore was unexpected and rapturously received. The musicality and obvious close companionship of the duo has been refined and tested through a vigorous trans-continental touring schedule. They could perform anywhere in the world and the set would be just as slick, charming and musically faultless as it was this evening – of that I’m sure.
I caught up with the guys after the show at Kirk’s bar down the road to find out more about their background and reasons for coming to Germany.
NV: Coming from the Mississippi Delta area, with it’s huge musical heritage in regard to the rise of the Blues, do you feel that growing up in that environment influenced the way that you write music?
Fisher: I’m not coming so much from a blues tradition, blues and country are very closely intertwined at the roots. Technically yes, but less of the blues roots and more of the country and bluegrass roots.
NV: Would you say the climate of the area itself, being dry and barren lends itself to creativity?
Fisher: Where I come from is actually pretty lush for three-quarters of the year. Maybe it’s more barren in a cultural sense. When you grow up in a small town, regardless of whether it’s in England or Germany or in the United States it’s a small town mentality and you have to make your own fun. There was a lot to draw from, I spent a lot of time with my grandpa working on the farm. When you have someone like that in your life it gives you a lot of stories, it gives you a lot of depth. You hear these stories and the idea of ‘barrenness’ takes on a whole new dimension, becoming a more romantic thing. It’s not so much about where you’re from but what the people have made of it. I don’t feel that I’m a Southern Gentleman or anything, but I think the time I spent growing up there definitely influenced the way I see the world when it comes to being honest with people and having a low threshold for bullshit.
Carpenter: But he also likes to give a lot of bullshit too *laughs*
NV: The country influence in your music is pretty apparent, who would you cite as idols?
Fisher: My influence when it comes to country music doesn’t necessarily come from Woody Guthrie or Hank Williams, it comes from 90’s country pop like Garth Brooks. That was the first concert I ever went to.
Ryan: Ian dreams of performing country music in really tight pants and a way oversized button-up shirt.
Fisher: *smiles* The type of country that influenced my perception of music when I was younger was the pop-country of the 90’s, not the old school stuff. It took me a decade to delve into the older, more spiritual country music. That older music was really influenced by something that was real as opposed to the 90’s sh*t which was more commercial. It’s that ‘real’ country music that I really love. When I listen to someone like Hank Williams I really feel the longing and the searching for something. That’s what I want to convey in my music.
NV: Recently there’s been a somewhat commercial resurgence in country music, not necessarily with artists like Taylor Swift but with artists like Mumford & Sons who won ‘Album of the Year’ at the Grammies this year alongside picking up a BRIT award. They emphasise a brand of earnest country-influenced music. How do you feel about that?
I feel like all the groups that gain popularity aren’t necessarily original. Look at bands like The Beatles who synthesised things that were happening around them. I think Mumford & Sons were really smart about what they did but they didn’t come up with anything. They didn’t come up with the idea of wearing suspenders or growing a f**king beard. Even their music is a just a synthesis of things that are already going on, they’re not the inventors. They had good timing, good promotion and knew what to do at the right time, and more power to them.
But that’s opened the market for artists like you on an international scale. With you being very much an international artist does their success resonate with you?
I think it might make our potential audience a little bit larger, but to a certain extent it can pidgeon-hole you. Sometimes it’s frustrating to play music like we do and have people compare it to something it’s not. It’s great that they’ve achieved this success and are spearheading this movement. We could definitely ride on the coat-tails to an extent and that’s great, but I feel no personal connection to that sort of music.
So you moved from Missouri to Vienna in 2008, went back to the U.S in 2009 then came back to Berlin in 2010 before leaving to start touring full-time. What draws you to the German speaking part of Europe, Berlin in particular?
The original reason that I left the U.S was because I was getting discontented with what was happening there. I was completely psychologically drowned and projecting all my personal issues onto political issues and thinking that moving somewhere would solve these problems. When I came to Europe things were better initially before I realised everywhere’s the same.
I’m from St Genevieve, Missouri. There were millions of Germans in the Midwest and that hugely influenced Midwestern American Culture. Where I’m from the majority of people have German roots and you can still feel it. There is still some type of relation between Southern German culture and rural St Genevieve culture. Now in retrospect I see lots of similarities between Germany and what I grew up with in the U.S. The cleanliness, the order, the emphasis on being on time. That’s what I come from. I’m fascinated by the history of Germany and Austria, it holds so many parallels to what I experienced being an American coming from a hegemonic line of what was once an empire.
Would you ever consider writing a song in German?
I don’t feel it would be too honest right now. Maybe if I stayed here for a few more decades.
Do you think the German language itself lends itself to the sort of music you do?
I think it could, but I feel English has somewhat of an advantage in the sense that the verb’s aren’t conjugated in the same way as German is. I feel German has a pattern that can become cliché quite quickly, but in English each verb is it’s own word. I think that because of that, for me it makes English just a little bit more interesting. If I was to write a song in German I think I would probably get quite frustrated by the fact I would have to end all the songs in an ‘en’ sound.
Article by Neelesh Vasistha