By Frank Beck
Home isn’t always straightforward — something we can easily put into words or come to terms with. Sometimes it’s a complicated, many-layered relationship that needs to be teased out over time. I’m drawn to the German singer-songwriter, Anna Depenbusch, because she captures this ambiguity and invites us to explore our sometimes contradictory feelings about home. I’ve translated a number of her lyrics because I think she’s one of today’s finest songwriters, and it would be a shame for English-speakers to miss out on her work. You can listen to her here as you read my English version below:
The German title of this song, “Heimat,” conjures up many associations for Depenbusch’s fellow citizens. The word translates as both home and homeland, evoking a deep feeling of belonging, a heart-felt affection for a place. Heimat is a recurring theme for Goethe and in the country’s rich Romantic literature. In the last century, it was also invoked as part of Hitler’s “blood and soil” propaganda.
But Depenbusch is of a younger generation so in this song she’s speaking about something much more immediate. At the age 24, she was beset by a feeling of suffocating negativity in her native Hamburg — one that dampened her spirit as an artist. She had started singing in that city’s nightclubs as a teenager. In her early 20s, she had performed with a number of bands but was driving a vegetable truck to make ends meet. Disillusioned, she dropped everything and went off to Iceland to write.
Here Depenbusch encountered a radically different society. “People approach each other and motivate each other, instead of hesitating and doubting,” she told Der Spiegel in 2005. “People simply say: You want to make music? Great, do it – and think about what comes out later.”
In Germany, she said, people were more likely to be self-centered and envy each other’s success.
While living in Iceland, she noticed for the first time “how stuffy it is in Hamburg, both physically and in human terms.” Yet her time away from home also made Depenbusch realize that Hamburg was part of her and she, in turn, was a reflection of her native city. “Home” was one of the first songs she wrote on her return. It is a kind of coming-of-age song, with home as its main focus. Set to a warm, jazz-inflected melody, the lyrics keep conflicting emotions of affection and resignation in suspension, so that neither one invalidates the other.
At 42, Depenbusch 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. “Heimat” was part of 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 The Mathematics of Anna Depenbusch (Die Mathemathik der Anna Depenbusch) in 2011. One of its most memorable songs was the Brecht-like “Tango” which deftly plays off a listener’s expectations. The chorus might make you think you are listening in on a conventional love fest:
But the next lines paint an alarming picture of this romance, as the need for love turns into desperation and the knowledge that things will not end well:
With Depenbusch’s next album, Summer of Paper (Sommer aus Papier), ideas about our intimate relationship with home return. In the song “Benjamin” a woman’s ex-lover starts an affair with her next door neighbor, and the sound of the two of them together drives her out of her apartment and onto her balcony for the night:
One of the things I like best about Depenbusch’s work is that she can write a soulful song like “Home” and then treat the same subject just as inventively, and in more upbeat way, as she does in “Summer of Paper.” Here home is a place of such imagination and intimacy that the warmth of this season never really ends:,
The singer’s latest album is Das Alphabet der Anne Depenbusch (2017). To promote it, she released a series of intimate performances for Germany’s Noir TV. One of the best is “The Most Beautiful Song” (Schönste Melodie).
At the moment, Depenbusch is preparing for a major tour and recording a new album. On November 4, she released the first single, “Eisvogelfrau” (Kingfisher Woman), a haunting tribute to the pioneering German physicist Emmy Noether (1882-1935). The song’s first lines are: “Come on, let her dream what she wants to/she’ll do that anyway.” You can read my translation here.