Danielle de Picciotto, a nomad soul and a prolific visual artist, film maker, author and musician. Born in the army base of Ft Lewis in Tacoma, Washington, USA, where a life joyride begins. Keep reading, an almost cinematic life will unfold.
Karl Grümpe/Toneshift: Danielle, thank you very much for your time and this interview. I would like to hear your story and your personal narration about various aspects of your artistic career. Please kick this interview to begin as you please, or simply introduce yourself.
Danielle de Picciotto: Thank you for your interest. It is a pleasure to meet you.
KG: You were born nomad in Ft Lewis in Tacoma, Washington, USA. Besides the details that are intriguing, I would like to get a little deeper. What is your own interpretation of a ‘nomad’?
DdP: A nomad is somebody that does not have a home but carries it around with him/herself while traveling the world. The home that I carry around with me is my music/art. This started very early on. My father was in the US army so three months after I was born he was transferred and we moved to Denver, then to Chicago, then to DC and so forth. I changed schools because of this all the time and the only real ‘home’ I could depend on was the creativity inside of me and so I guess it became a habit.
KG: What was your urge to leave your home country and why to Berlin?
DdP: It was more of an accident. I went to visit a friend in Berlin and was amazed how safe, cheap and creative it was in the eighties. NYC in comparison was dangerous, expensive and very aggressive. In Berlin I was offered a room in my friend’s huge loft so I just stayed, not even picking up my stuff for quite some time. That was 1987 and one of my new room mates was Nick Cave’s former keyboarder Roland Wolf who had all kinds of international musicians visiting constantly so I was plunged into a heavenly world of music and art.
KG: When I hear the word ‘nomad’, the little book Overcoming Tourism by Hakim Bey comes into my mind. Any thoughts about a ‘nomad’ and a ‘tourist’. Is the one something totally difference with the other?
DdP: A tourist has a fixed home he returns to after he has visited a different city or country. A nomad takes his/her home along. Because of this a nomad is probably more careful and respectful of the places he visits because for as long as he is there they are also his home.
KG: Your bio is full with initiatives among others, the first initiative was in 1989. Together with Matthias Roeingh (aka Dr. Motte) you founded Berlin Love Parade, the renowned music festival, deeply rooted in the European festival scene. What are your thoughts about the festival now, that it is no more? What is left as a memory, as a feeling and as a practice for you?
DdP: The most important thing about how and why the Love Parade started was that we started it without a cent and that it was all about idealism. Monetary gain or profit was not in our minds at all. We were demonstrating for peace, food for the world and music, because it can fly over all walls (the Berlin Wall fell shortly after). The fact that it became so huge with 1,5 million visitors is a wonderful example of how great things can happen through positivity without having to be rich.
KG: You were the initiator of Berlin Clubart Movement back in 1992. To be honest, I do not know a thing about it, but sounds very interesting. Can you please elaborate? What was/is your personal involvement?
DdP: Berlin was incredibly creative in the early 90’s. The wall had fallen and until about 1995 the city was a playground for anybody that wanted to be creative. There were so many empty apartments, factories and churches that we would organize exhibitions, concerts or events all the time. This created a huge movement of culture everywhere, especially in the clubs. They were usually quite bare so we would have artists projecting visuals, performing, playing music, djing and building strange and wonderful furniture. So I started organizing specific exhibitions that would present these artists in other cities. The special thing about this art form was that it was made out of inexpensive material and was cheap to buy. We wanted to make art for everybody not only for a few millionaires. We wanted to make clear that art and music should not be about money – it is an expression of and for the soul. Because Berlin was so cheap we could all concentrate on only that aspect and so Berlin’s creative reputation was born.
KG: Besides a musician, you are a visual artist and a filmmaker. Can you please give us some info about your work in visual arts? What is your discipline? I have seen some amazing illustrations that are included in your latest album Deliverance. Would like to know more details.
DdP: I studied a little bit of art but quit the university because I did not like being influenced. I love complex details, colors and texture. For years I painted only with ink to become technically prolific but after a while I missed colors, the texture of canvas and paint so I experimented a lot until I ended up with the style I do now – a mixture of different layers of paint and ink. I am mostly interested in interesting characters and their stories so I do a lot of portraits.
KG: Pop Surrealism is an art movement originating in the USA, during the 70’s. The idea was to try to tear down the borders between ‘high arts’ and ‘low arts’ (tattoo, illustrations, comics books etc), between ‘pop culture’ and ‘high art culture’, between ‘fine art’ and ‘folk art’. You were involved with Pop Surrealism as I read. What is your comment about this ‘intellectual war’ between ‘high art’ and ‘low art’, if any? Is there a real gap between them and in what terms? Can mainstream be radical?
DdP: I was very enthusiastic when Pop Surrealism appeared on the art horizon. I completely agree with the philosophy that art should not be defined purely by academic standards. I also believe that the price of a painting does not really mean anything. All of these efforts only narrow down the freedom that art and expression should have and were installed by the industry to make a profit. On the other hand it takes more than just technique to be a good artist. The message, the ideas, the freshness are all important. Mainstream is something I have problems with because it is usually industrially manipulated to suit the tastes for many to again be able to make a huge profit. It is rare that something from the underground becomes mainstream and keeps its integrity. Usually artists have to bow to so many restrictions when they work mainstream that not much of a personal raw depth is really possible.
KG: The term ‘movement’ can be observed either in the sociopolitical history or in the arts. Is there any relation between these two fields? What about politics in arts, political art and the question about art introducing such radical ideas in societies, which can change them or at least try to.
DdP: I believe that now a days artists have the responsibility to speak about what is happening around them. I get very impatient with people that only sing about love stories or sex. As an artist we are supposed to be the up-keepers of integrity and as this characteristic is not very popular in politics at the moment we are the ones that must keep it alive, together with compassion, kindness, truthfulness and honesty. Words have power and not only politicians can use them. We can use them in a positive manner to remind people of the things we used to dream and believe in.
KG: Can ‘high art’ and ‘low art’, academia and underground, be merged? Where consumerism or trends/hypes go into the equation?
DdP: I think Nick Cave is a good example of how that can actually work. It is quite amazing what he has been doing. Einstürzende Neubauten as well. They have been performing in classical concert halls for the last years now. So these two bands are examples of how the underground can become academic or even mainstream without anybody expecting it and the impressive thing is that both have done it without giving up their integrity. Maybe that is the key. If you do it long enough and stay true to your original intentions and are a very talented artist then it is possible to merge both.
KG: ‘Culture industry’ is a term coined by critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. They proposed that popular culture is akin to a factory producing standardized cultural goods, like films, radio programmes, magazines, etc., that are used to manipulate mass society into passivity. Consumption of the easy pleasures of popular culture, made available by the mass communications media, renders people docile and content, no matter how difficult their economic circumstances. The inherent danger of the culture industry is the cultivation of false psychological needs that can only be met and satisfied by the products of capitalism; thus Adorno and Horkheimer especially perceived mass-produced culture as dangerous to the more technically and intellectually difficult ‘high arts’. Do you acknowledge a ‘culture industry’, the way these two critical theorists described it?
DdP: I am completely convinced that our societies are being manipulated by the industry. After giving up my home in Berlin in 2010 and everything in it I realized how little I missed most of the things I gave up and realized that I could be perfectly happy without all the stuff. That was a pretty mind-blowing revelation. Because of not being part of the game I suddenly could see how everything in our lives is about industries making people addicted to certain needs and then making money off of it. It encases our lives like a spider web.The funny thing is that this power structure could easily be destroyed by making ourselves independent of all the superfluous stuff they are telling us that we need.. The only thing that really matters in life are things that do not cost money. Friendship, moral support, kindness, understanding, love.
KG: In 2009 you have curated Feedback exhibition by inviting six influential artists from around the world to exhibit together with you in Haus Schwarzenberg, Berlin, Germany. Furthermore, you have asked seven distinguished musicians to interpret the work of each artist respectively and create a ‘soundtrack’ to a select image. These interpretations were presented over headphones adjacent to the corresponding picture. As the artists and musicians had no contact during the process, the interaction takes place between the music and the artwork as a form of Feedback. Can you please share your own perspective regarding Feedback? Your own story, thoughts and conclusion.
DdP: I thought it would be interesting to treat a painting or photo like a movie and give it a soundtrack. I also like what happens when two art forms get worked on individually and then put together in the end – it always makes a magical third reality visible. The effect was wonderful. To be able to listen to the complete music on the headphones next to the works of art, people would take much more time looking at the paintings and a fourth vision was created in their heads. So it was a very layered exhibition.
KG: Are there any more curatorial works that you like to mention?
DdP: I always enjoyed curating exhibitions and live projects because I love working together with people. The exchange and unexpected results is always a beautiful learning process which I have learned from tremendously. I also think that there are many artists that do not receive the attention they should be so for a long time I tried to make it possible. I had a Gallery for two years in which I exhibited 200 artists and also organised one huge event per year for almost 15 years but at one point I had to admit that it was taking too much time off from my own work and that in order to be professional I would need to concentrate more on that.
KG: Die Haut was the Berlin based experimental post-punk band you sung for. It would be very interesting to hear your part of the story, what you feel like sharing about this collaboration.
DdP: Die Haut was a band that would invited different singers to sing on their songs. It was fun and I enjoyed the collaboration immensely.
KG: You and your husband, Alexander Hacke (Einstürzende Neubauten). How the story started?
DdP: Alexander and I met one week after I moved to Berlin. I was living in the aforementioned huge factory loft with Nick Cave’s keyboarder Roland Wolf and so the Bad Seeds and Einstürzende Neubauten were always visiting. Alexander and I became friends quickly and have known each other since 1987. We became a couple in 2001 and married in 2006.
KG: You are a prolific artist in music as well as in film/video. The recording of the world tour of Alexander Hacke’s Sanctuary, was the first music video you directed. Is this so? You have done music videos, a multitude of documentaries, plus an animation ever since. Can you please share some details about your work as a video and filmmaker?
DdP: I enjoy working on film because it is moving pictures with sound. As I work on still pictures (drawings and paintings) and music it is fun to combine them into a movie. If I had more time I would also produce more documentaries. I always have the urge to present artists that I admire. I did one film documentary on Lary 7, one of my all time favorite artists and it was a wonderful experience but so time consuming and expensive that I can only do this once in a blue moon. I have also produced quite a few music videos for other bands which I always enjoy.
KG: Would love to hear your story about these collaborations with Alexander: Mountains Of Madness, a visual/audio performance with The Tiger Lillies, a live visual/acoustic show Ship Of Fools and the international tour in which you invited musicians from different countries to participate and finally, the five-month art residency at the Meetfactory in Prague, Czech Republic.
DdP: I have always been interested in combining unusual elements and artists. So when the Arena Club in Berlin asked Alexander and me to create a project for their anniversary we decided to ask the Tiger Lillies to collaborate on a project with us. I have always been a fan of fantasy and Alexander loves HP Lovecraft so we decided to do an adaptation for the Mountains Of Madness. It was fun because I worked on the visuals in my studio, Alexander worked on the electronic soundscapes in his studio and Tiger Lillies wrote their burlesque songs in London. Nobody knew what the other was doing. When we finally put everything together we were all a bit nervous but it fell together perfectly and it was so successful we toured with it for a couple of years. It was a huge pleasure collaborating with them.
KG: Besides the big volume of your work, you have managed to published two books as well: The Beauty of Transgression: A Berlin Memoir (Publishing Gestalten Verlag, 2010), your Berlin memoir and the graphic novel We Are Gypsies Now: A Graphic Diary (Metrolit Publishing, 2013), the chronicles of your nomadic life. Seems that both are very personal accounts, so is it valid to presume that these books are somewhat autobiographical, or some fiction is merged in?
DdP: Both books are purely autobiographical. Everything is true.
KG: Since 2012, you are doing visuals for Crime And The City Solution. Live visuals if I understood well?
DdP: During the collaboration with Crime And The City Solution I did the drawings for their homepage, designed two albums, produced four videos, a film documentary and the visuals for the live show. Simon had always dreamt of having a visual artist in his band and I was delighted to participate. I also played autoharp on the album American Twilight and was background singer for the shows. Sadly now a days touring with a large band is almost impossible because venues pay as little as possible although everything has become more expensive so the project collapsed after a year.
KG: Can you please elaborate about your career as a musician, besides your early vocal works with Space Cowboys and Die Haut? You have released seven albums, four in collaboration with Alexander Hacke, one in collaboration with the German electronic producer and dj, Sonae and two solo albums plus a 12” with Lary Seven. Any more details about your collaboration with Sonae and Lary Seven?
DdP: I started playing piano when I was five and violin when I was ten. I have always loved singing and writing lyrics so music has always been in my life. When I moved to Berlin I was quickly asked by the Space Cowboys to sing for them which I did until 1994. Sadly we had quite a bit of bad luck with a bad manager that caused us a lot of debts and ended up ruining us. The Space Cowboys were the first rock/hip hop cross over band in Berlin and it was a very interesting creative experience. After we spilt up I collaborated with many different musicians and music styles. One of the most interesting projects was with Gudrun Gut and we founded the Ocean Club together which we imagined to be a hub of music and videos. Back then I was also pretty immersed in the electronic music of Berlin because of the Love Parade which I had co founded with Dr Motte and Gudrun was emerging from the in-genial dilettante scene. We worked together for some time and released songs together. But in the end effect I was more interested in lyrics and instruments and she was more into getting into techno so we started working with other people. I tried recording my first solo album but could not find musicians that understood the sound I was trying to create and it was difficult to get money to record so I decided to concentrate more on my art until I found somebody with whom I would feel perfectly comfortable.
In 2001 Alexander Hacke and I started hanging out more. Both of us had just left very unhappy relationships and comforted each other by playing music together and we completely clicked. For the first time I had found somebody with whom I could create music I had always dreamt of and so we have been doing this ever since. I still wanted to release a solo album though so in 2014 I asked Gudrun if she would release it on her label which she was happy to do and so my solo record was finally released in 2015. We both enjoyed working together again so we started organizing Monika Werkstatt which is a collective of 12 women (including Lucrezia Dalt, Barbara Morgenstern and Sonae) – most of them electronic musicians. We released an album together and then went on a European tour, doing concerts, panels on female musicians and workshops which was really fun. I especially liked collaborating with Sonae because I love her electronic soundscapes so we decided to compose an album together which was surprisingly easy and quick. I really love our album Leise Fäden and listen to it a lot when I paint. To be honest I could compose all the time. I just love the process as much as I do performing it so after the last album I did with Alexander (Menetekel) I started working on my second solo album which has just been released by the UK label Louder Than War.
KG: I know that you are a composer and a multi-instrumentalist (violin, autoharp and harmonium) besides being a vocalist. What is your process of making music, from the initial idea to the final piece?
DdP: I work very instinctively. I have a basic sound that I always try to achieve – something mystical but rough, with harmonies but also noise. A collaboration of opposites and lots of lyrics. I also love odd instruments, so I also play the hardy gurdy, the cemence and I am always on the lookout for unusual sounds. I usually collect words and sounds before I start and then it is like creating a puzzle from many little puzzle pieces. I love working on details for a long time, the process is what I enjoy most and then suddenly it is done and I am surprised with what the result is.
KG: A collaboration you did back in 2014 was about an invitation you received, to compose and perform music for Theater Dortmund, Gernany, together with Alexander Hacke, Mick Harvey and Paul Wallfisch. Is this is the first time that you do music for theater and was this for a play? Can you please elaborate about the event and the collaboration?
DdP: Theater Dortmund asked us to compose music to Grimm’s fairy tales interpreted by the author Anne Sexton. I am a fan of her work and am known to like fairy tales so they thought I would be perfect for the female composer in the group. Alexander and I had always wanted to collaborate with Mick who is a dear friend and recommended him as the drummer which worked perfectly. It was my first time working in a theater and I absolutely loved it. I really enjoy working in groups and in the theater there is always a lot of support, it is almost like a family so that year was wonderful.
KG: Moreover, what is your way of collaborating? You have collaborated much in all these years.
DdP: As a painter, one is usually alone in the studio for months. I really like this kind of concentration but it does get lonely so music was always a possibility of collaborating with people. What I like about working with other musicians is that they will always have an unexpected idea or sound that is completely different from yours and which makes the end result interesting for all participants. It is the perfect way of learning to be open and flexible so that magical things can happen. I like being surprised, I like opening doors to new and interesting places and collaboration can make this happen. I must say that I am very picky about whom I work with because this kind of magic can only happen with exceptional musicians that do not offer cliches or standard themes.
KG: In 2016, three years after your last book was published, you were invited to do a course on interdisciplinary performance at the HFG At ZKM Center For Media Art in Karlsruhe, Germany. How did that go? Can you please share more details?
DdP: I have often been asked to do workshops or panels on art, music or Berlin culture. I enjoy doing them when I have time but the most important thing for me is working on my music or art.
KG: Deliverance is your latest music installment. An album that I have listened intensively. An album that gives me overwhelming feelings. Wonderful folkish chants, saturated with ethereal and mesmerizing music. A merge or two worlds, an intriguing contradiction, something artistically unified and filled with emotions. A feeling of deliverance is predominant. I would like to know the concept of the album, the context of the – very surreal and in the same time eerie – poems and every conceptual detail about it.
DdP: Deliverance is the result of trying to express my feelings about what is happening in our world today. I have felt quite tormented in the last years about what is happening environmentally and politically everywhere. It is very difficult to find a way in how to deal with the many things that are going wrong on our planet and as I do not want to become a bitter and desperate person I try to find alternatives. My album contains both. The desperation and the antidotes I have discovered for myself. Besides that, on a musical level, I was interested in expressing these things with sound. The piece My Secret Garden is a good example of that: the electronic sounds represent the industrial/technological world that is trying to gentrify our societies in order to make the greatest profit possible.
But in-spite of their power and inhumanity we still have our souls which they cannot control and the beauty within ourselves and nature. We must always try to remember these things, especially when we are faced with extreme brutality or evil. They can give us enough strength to remember integrity and dignity and live accordingly. I love the saying: it does not matter what happens to you, it depends on how you react. On my last album the song I Have Love is similar – I sing that I have love in my heart and nobody can take that from me. One can always find something to love, even if it is only loving the courage in trying to achieve this.
KG: While the album begins with an electronic approach, there is a transition towards a romantically traditional path in terms of sound, as the album progresses. Additionally, in some of the tracks, you sing but you recite in others, something that gives a sense of movement and an aesthetic pluralism. Your comments?
DdP: At one point I felt that my lyrics were becoming to gloomy and sad so I tried to add a more uplifting sound to give myself some comfort. I do not consider myself an entertainer. I only express things that are very important to me, that’s it. But as I am creating art and do not want to lecture I try mixing all kinds of ingredients so that it is not too one sided. I would not necessarily consider any of my songs traditionally romantic, I think that there are too many rough edges but I did want the album to end on a hopeful note.
KG: All poems in Deliverance – and I say poems because as poems I take them – seem critical to many aspects of life, expressed as an exploding but serene whispering of caution. Words of warning to an old and dying world? An elegy about things that cannot be undone? Epilogue, redemption or – collectively – a statement?
DdP: I think we are standing on a crossroad in history momentarily. If we do not change things quickly it may be too late, not only environmentally. It is very important that we all stop waiting for others to take action. Every single one of us has to be aware of what we are doing: are we helping to solve things or causing more damage. No more excuses.
KG: What about the music? Who did what? What instruments were used besides that extraordinary violin? Where Deliverance was recorded and mixed and by whom?
DdP: I wrote all of the music and lyrics. Alexander played bass on Dark Butterfly and on Sehnsucht. I recorded Deliverance in Berlin in my studio and mixed it in Alexander’s studio. I played the violin, autoharp, keyboards and did field recordings which I then morphed electronically into new sounds. As I collaborate with so many people it was important for me that my voice could be completely my own without any external influence. Sometimes I need to connect to my inner self to be sure I am still on my personal path and doing a solo album is a good way to do this.
KG: There will be a beautiful vinyl treat for your new album. A limited edition of 150 copies on black vinyl, case bound with 24 pages of art you created during your years of traveling, plus a hand numbered and signed screen print. That must be stunning, so can you please give more details? Any other formats besides vinyl?
DdP: It contains pictures of the paintings and drawings I have done in the last year whilst recording the album. The music will only be obtainable as vinyl on Louder Than War or bandcamp or digital on the usual online platforms.
KG: Who did the cover and the design and how the art pieces were picked? Are these telling a story and/or are supplementary to the concept of the album? More details?
DdP: The drawing on the cover is mine. The album design was done by Peter Jones in Ireland. I sent him about 80 drawings and let him chose the ones he liked best.
KG: For the end. I read that you and Alexander left your apartment in Berlin and started to move around the world. Is that so? Nomad life resumed?
DdP: Alexander and I gave up our home in Berlin in 2010 because we were sick of the gentrification that was happening in Berlin. We put everything that we kept (which was very little) into a storage room and decided to discover the world more and hopefully find a place that was not as bad. As it turns out now a days this is difficult to find. We did find many positive answers to our questions though and the journey has been extremely fulfilling. We have met wonderful people all over the continents and many idealistic projects and communities that staunchly try to save culture and nature. We have become minimalists, vegan and do not drink alcohol anymore. We are trying to become independent of commercialism and do not have a car, do not use chemicals and try to use trains instead of planes as often as possible. We still have an enormous amount of fun though and do as many exciting projects as possible. Last year we rented two studios in Berlin again as we were asked to write film music for a TV series and this year Alexander is recording with Einstürzende Neubauten so we will be in Berlin a lot. Who knows what next year will bring but we will probably be touring a lot again. At one point, we are hoping to settle down again and create a little Sound Art Community Center. To do this without funds is difficult so we are still trying to find a solution in how to make it happen but we are hopeful that something will magically pop up. Miracles do happen.
KG: Thank you very much Danielle, it was a pleasure!