"I was in my early 20´s when I discovered Kate Bush's music at a public library in Berlin," says Yvonne Ambrée, one half of the Berlin / Brooklyn-based duo Take Berlin. "That was back when the internet didn´t provide all the music in the world for free, so I would borrow everything that interested me."
The duo, which in addition to Ambrée's hypnotic voice features the vocals and guitar of Jesse Barnez, recently put its sonic stamp on one of Ambrée's favorite Kate Bush tunes "The Fog".
"I used to listen to it on the subway watching the grey of the Berlin winter pass by," Ambrée remembers. "I always thought one day I would like to sing that song, and many years later in Brooklyn, I remembered those foggy winters and this song." Barnes wasn’t familiar with Kate Bush’s music before Ambrée suggested the cover, but he immediately connected with how important it was to his bandmate.
"When I heard it, I immediately realized that Yvonne was really influenced by Kate. The original song has alot of production, but I ended up writing an arrangment on the guitar that was more in the style of bossa nova. Maybe our arrangment is actually a tribute to Kate Bush and Joao Gilberto!"
"I guess you either love her voice or you don’t, but for me it was love at first listen," Ambrée concludes.
In the winter of 2011, musician Jesse Barnes pulled a discarded cassette deck from a snowy pile of trash in Brooklyn. “In the spring, my van died and when I cleaned it out, I kept the tape deck for some reason,” Barnes remembers. “Space is limited in Brooklyn, so keeping a tape deck that probably doesn’t work isn’t the most practical thing to do.” Nearly two years later, this impulse has proven instrumental in contributing to the course of Barnes’ musical career, as just a few months after rescuing the tape deck, while on tour with Eli “Paperboy” Reed as a member of his band The True Loves, chance led Barnes to vocalist Yvonne Ambrée for the first time.
Both were performing at the Baltic Soul Festival (Barnes with Reed and Ambrée with soul legends Gwen McCrae and Ann Sexton.) The two met backstage and though Ambrée disappeared into the crowd soon after, the pair crossed paths again a few weeks later in Glasgow, this time staying up all night, sharing stories of their lives and making plans to write and record together. Barnes and Ambrée soon formed Take Berlin and a half-dozen trips across the Atlantic later, the duo has now finished the debut Take Berlin EP “Lionize,” realizing the greater fate of that discarded tape deck.
“Yvonne and I decided to pull the tape deck out and try recording to it instead of using computers to track,” Barnes explains. “We could only get one or two takes of something before the tape would decide to slow down, but this was actually beneficial because the concept of doing countless takes and editing later was totally absent. Less choices are a good thing!” Giving new life to the trashed machine on which all of “Lionize” was recorded gives new meaning to the term “street art,” and the sparse arrangements and hazy texture of the recordings echo the happenstance by which Take Berlin came to be. These soulful, heartfelt songs couldn’t be more perfect in any other setting.
“The instrumentation so far has been as minimal as possible,” Barnes elaborates. “The composer Carlos Jobim and his lyricist Vinicius de Morais are always spinning on the turntable, so this seeps into everything that we write. We want to compose songs that stand up on their own and would be relevant 10 years from now or sound like they could have come out 20 years ago. Classic songwriting is at the heart of what we love to do.”
Indeed, the songs on “Lionize” are examples of the timeless qualities that all great songs should have. Drawing further inspiration from the writing of author Louis L’Amour and the interpretive style of Joao Gilberto, Barnes and Ambrée used acoustic guitars and a Wurlitzer as the main accompaniments to their evocative, pure vocals. The emotional and lyrical terrain of the tunes is rooted in questions that linger with mystery, often producing more questions than answers.
“‘Lionize’ is filled with these kinds of snapshots,” Ambrée confirms. The EP’s first single “Vermona” is a good example of this, telling the true and haunting story of a mother who leaves her daughter behind and escapes to West Germany in the trunk of a car. Another tune, “Kentucky,” was inspired by an intrepid alley cat that lives the life of a prince on the rooftops of Crown Heights. “Kentucky becomes much more than the backyard cat in the song of course. He becomes the center of a medieval tale,” according to Ambrée.
Barnes and Ambrée’s “day jobs” – Barnes playing guitar with Reed, Lulu Gainsbourg, and Aloe Blacc among others, and Ambrée as a backing vocalist with some of Germany’s biggest artists, and more recently with US-based acts such as Syl Johnson, Kendra Morris and Sleigh Bells – have allowed them to perform for huge audiences. With these kinds of professional experiences, it was unusually satisfying for the duo to perform their own songs to small but attentive crowds during a recent European Take Berlin tour.
“We played about a dozen shows in Germany and Switzerland in really unique spaces,” says Barnes. “These were intimate gatherings and it was perhaps the most fulfilling tour of my career. People listened intently at every show and really seemed to hear what we were doing. It made sense somehow.” Take Berlin will do the same throughout the US after the official release of “Lionize” on December 3rd. For now, new fans can listen intently to the band’s first single “Vermona,” streaming now.