Rory MacLean meets Berge

© Berge
© Berge
On a balmy Friday night in trendy Friedrichshain, my curiosity was aroused by the sound of music. In a former locomotive repair yard beyond Revaler Strasse, a cheering audience surrounded a tiny white caravan. Inside it was Berge, a young and remarkable musical duo, performing their single Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei (The Good Years are Over). Marianne Neumann – beautiful in both voice and presentation – and her steady, laughing partner Rocco Horn – on the guitar – were being filmed live on video, their image projected across the front of the caravan.

‘This is the craziest venue I’ve ever performed in,’ laughed Neumann to camera and audience before launching into Glück, leaning against the caravan’s picture window as if to reach her fans.

Their energetic, lyrical music (think Rilo Kiley meets Jason Mraz) and thoughtful, rousing lyrics stirred me and the audience. A few days later I met Marianne and Rocco around the corner in the Dachkammer on Simon-Dach-Straße.

© Berge‘When I was a child I didn’t realise that music had to be written,’ 32-year-old Rocco told me as we sat down at a round, window table. ‘I thought it just existed, like water, like the sun. All one had to do was draw it out of the air. By learning to play an instrument I was able to bring out that which was already there.’

‘I think this is the key to our creativity, and to the way which we work,’ enthused Marianne, her blue eyes sparkling as she nodded at Rocco. She spoke with disarming sincerity, almost earnestness. ‘We try to keep ourselves as open and as fluid as possible and just let the music come in to our minds.’

Marianne and Rocco met eight years ago. She was 16 and had already been writing songs for three years, recording them on a cassette player at home for her family. He was 24, a young guitarist with long hair and a reputation with the girls. After a school concert at which he’d preformed, he drove her home and she asked him to listen to her tapes. When he heard her voice, and her lyrics, he was shaken to the core.

‘Marianne was no typical girl,’ he admitted with charming understatement, sipping on a mug of peppermint tea. ‘Plus she’s a very good singer.’

Within a few weeks they formed the Band ‘Frau Neumann’, making their debut at Aufsturz on Berlin’s Oranienburger Straße, performing a popped-up version of Marianne’s songs.

© Berge‘It was strange for the band – all of whom were in their mid-twenties – to play songs which had been written by a girl when she was twelve or thirteen,’ Rocco said with a laugh.

But Marianne and Rocco had found a magic formula, playing more than fifty concerts in their first two years, building up a loyal local following.

‘It felt good. I was young. I was in school. I was on stage every other night,’ admitted Marianne.

Yet their success and her school studies left them no time to write new material and they began to grow dissatisfied with their work.

‘We wanted to move away from straight pop music, from a product, and to make something more creative, more original; music that was more us,’ said Marianne.

Together they morphed into Berge, writing lyrics that were cryptic and challenging.

© Berge‘We didn’t want to be a band that sang lazy lyrics,’ insisted Rocco, our conversation moving easily back and forth around the table. ‘Maybe our songs would be obscure, maybe some of our fans would hate them, but we were determined not to be cheap.’

The struggle to develop a unique sound was difficult, losing them a deal with a major record company, but with their first album Keine Spur ('No Trace') they emerged as a distinct Berlin band.

‘For us, it is vital to make a connection with the audience,’ said Marianne. ‘The more we can awaken people’s emotions, the more heads and hearts will be engaged, and the more heightened their experience.’ She added with a laugh, ‘At first it’s scary. But with Rocco backing me up, I learned just to do it, and discovered that I could be freer and freer.’

Once, to win over the audience, Rocco ran his guitar through a looper, an electronic device that repeats a set phrase or tune, enabling him and Marianne to step off from the stage and walk through the crowd, singing into radio mikes, drawing all into the performance, encouraging them to dance. In the same vein, they made a two week German tour this past summer, busking for free in a new city every day, playing in small bars and cafés in the evening.

‘The intimacy of those venues produced a totally different energy,’ said Marianne. ‘You need to focus on the person directly in front of you. It’s magic for me if I can have an impact on an individual’s feelings. When that happens, then I believe we are on the right track.’

As elsewhere, survival as independent musicians is hard. Without a record deal behind them, a band must master their own recordings, arrange for the making of CDs, design their own marketing campaigns. But Berge’s commercial breakthrough looks assured by their new album Vor uns die Sinnflut, a play on words which means both 'Before the Deluge' and 'a flood of the senses'. It’s a kind of hymn to the ecology of both the individual and the planet, as well as a plea to the YouTube generation to reconnect with each other and the environment.

© Berge‘Its central focus is caring,’ said Marianne. ‘Caring for the planet, for each other’s feelings, for ourselves and our limited time. We hope it will encourage people to reflect on the gifts which we have been given.’ The album – which will be released in 2012 – includes the powerful single Glück, a word that means both luck and happiness and which, as Marianne sings, ‘is our fifth element.’

‘We want to use our music to spread constructive and positive feelings,’ said Rocco, spreading his hands on the table. ‘I always see things in terms of physics. With our music we try to move people, move emotions, move ourselves. We want to bring things to movement, to life.’

‘Which means you have to be in motion yourself,’ added Marianne, completing his thought.

I wondered about their own luck, about finding an ideal creative collaborator. ‘You know the openness, the improvisation, doesn’t work with just anyone,’ said Marianne. ‘You have to find someone who works in the same way, like Rocco. With him I can just relax and sing. He helped me to define myself.’

For Berge, a dynamic and principled Berlin duo who pair emotion and intelligence, success is not a matter of money, ego or stardom, but simply of wanting to be heard, to move people.

Rory MacLean
November 2011
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