Ute Lemper loves writing songs inspired by poetry. A few years ago, the German-born cabaret and jazz singer created an entire project based on the poems of Charles Bukowski. Next she melded the sounds of tango with the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. In the case of Neruda, her thought process was surprisingly simple. “There was no logical decision,” she says. “I just went through [his poems] and imagined a structure. Suddenly melodies came to my head, and I went to the piano to create music. It’s like a slow puzzle.”
The result is an entire album based on Neruda’s work, with adaptations in English, French, and Spanish. “The music is extremely tender and explosive at the same time,” she says. And that’s exactly what audiences can expect at Lemper’s April 25 performance at Sixth & I, where she’ll perform songs from her latest album, Forever: the Love Poems of Pablo Neruda, as well as selections from her German repertoire.
It’s certainly not Lemper’s first time in Washington. Besides Sixth & I, she’s also performed at the Kennedy Center and the Lisner Auditorium. “I’m much more welcome in Washington than Houston,” she admits. “Washington has a very interesting, active, and sophisticated theater scene.”
Though her intense, emotional performances draw legions of fans, she knows she doesn’t have the same draw as a pop star. It doesn’t help that record sales have plummeted for just about everyone who isn’t Taylor Swift. Back in the ’90s, Lemper says, it was considered a triumph when classical artists sold a million records. Now it’s more like 100,000.
Those numbers mean it’s increasingly difficult to get financial backing from major labels. After her twenty-year run with Universal ended in 2004, Lemper has had to dig into her own pockets every time she wants to produce an album. “It’s not easy in this niche that I exist,” she admits.
Digital albums haven’t been giving artists much of a boost either. Streaming services like Songza and Spotify are generating more revenue than ever before, but that doesn’t mean musicians are sharing the bounty. “I’ve never seen a penny from digital albums,” Lemper says. “Files and files are downloaded but what comes out is such a peanut.”
Of course, there’s an upside to independence. Not being tied down to a label means Lemper has the artistic freedom to do whatever she wants. She recently finished a new project based on the work of Paulo Coelho, a conceptual project similar to her last that probably would have been a hard sell to a major label. The music, inspired by Middle Eastern sounds, is packed with Arabic guitars. “It’s a labor of love,” she says.
Ute Lemper will perform at 8 PM at Sixth & I, presented by Washington Performing Arts, on Saturday, April 25. Tickets cost $38.