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"'Vermona' was the first song we wrote together," says Take Berlin's Jesse Barnes of bandmate Yvonne Ambrée. "The song focuses on the true story of a girl who is raised by her grandmother after the mother escapes to the West in the trunk of a car."
Even with the heavy subject matter, "Vemona" is still hopeful, mainly because of the existing reality of these children (the girl in the song, Ambrée herself, and countless others) grew up under communist rule.
"They were experiencing the world for the first time and since they had nothing to compare it to, the world was still a beautiful place," explains Barnes.
The "Vermona" of the title refers to an actual East German musical instrument company. Ambrée acquired a Vermona synthesizer from her grandmother, and through the song, the keyboard is personified to represent all the stories and “relics” from East Berlin. "Of course, Vermona also sounds like a woman’s name," says Barnes.
Take Berlin’s upcoming “Lionize” EP represents the first collaborative effort from these two established musical talents. For their “day jobs,” Barnes can be found playing guitar with Eli “Paperboy” Reed, Lulu Gainsbourg, and Aloe Blacc among others, and Ambrée is an in-demand 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.
In the winter of 2011, Barnes pulled a discarded cassette deck from a snowy pile of trash in Brooklyn. Nearly two years later, this impulse has proven instrumental in contributing to the course of his musical career, as just a few months after rescuing the tape deck, chance led Barnes to Ambrée for the first time. They soon formed Take Berlin and a half-dozen trips across the Atlantic later (Barnes is based in Brooklyn, Ambrée is based in Berlin), the duo has now finished the debut Take Berlin EP “Lionize,” realizing the greater fate of that discarded tape deck which was used to record all of the EP’s basic tracks.
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.
The steel the concrete
grass beneath your feet
spray-paint graffiti dreams
a picture book you´ll keep
The touch the toes
You´ll never see
a daddy´s girl
you´ll always be
la la la la
We traced a poets hand
and threw the broken pen
Red bricks soldiers eye
focus on my lies
The touch the toes
I´ll never see
Can you grow old
not knowing me
la la la la