I own a bajillion records on every format known to man, and the #1 record of them all, bar none, is a left-field, one-off smash called A secret wish by Propaganda. Executive produced by Trevor Horn (post Buggles, pre-Yes and Seal, recorded at the height of Frankie Goes to Hollywood), nothing that came before or after will ever compare to this epic, controversial and smashing synth pop masterpiece.
30 years later, I finally had the chance to connect by Skype with the group’s Claudia Brücken, a singer whose stellar subsequent work secures ample acreage on my CD wall. Before we walk through her storied career from the first recording session to her superb new album, where else… (out October 6, 2014 on Cherry Red Records — digitally in the States a day later), I’m going to reveal her most shocking secret — one you won’t see in the transcript below…
Claudia Brücken has a gorgeous smile.
Not that you’d ever know it from her countless videos and album sleeves. When she flashes those pearly whites and her eyes light up talking about everything from her music, to her beloved dog to life in London, she looks not a day over 19, more Mandy Moore than the glamorously dour ‘Frozen Faces‘ that stared back at me from her records. Claudia reveals why she keeps her sunshine under wraps on film, dishes on the possibilities of a reunion and tells us how her latest record came into the light.
POPDOSE: You don’t appear to be much for sequels; each of the projects we’re going to talk about today feature different collaborators. How did you come to work with John Williams? Editor’s Note: John “Owen” Williams, not the Star Wars guy. JOW-wow also produced this years’ stellar Beautiful South semi-reunion album, Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott’s What Have We Become.
CLAUDIA BRÜCKEN: Last October, Peter Price from WME introduced me to John Williams. He’d heard that I was looking for people to write with and he recommended us working together. So I contacted John in November, we met up and John played me a few songs that he had written. I picked up on a song called ‘Nothing good is ever easy’, I really liked the melody and the lyrics, so I thought we could try recording this one and see how we work together. I was really happy with the outcome and I found it very easy to work with John. We wound up writing and recording for four solid months; writing the songs on guitar in my living room and in his garden shed turned studio. We worked daily, 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM, six days per week. We both were quite driven and focused, by the end of that period we had the 11 songs that we wanted to be on the album.
The first song of the album is ‘I want you’, the beginning of the musical voyage of ‘where else’. I was thinking about Lou Reed a lot when John and I wrote it. The Velvet Underground were one my early influences, I was always drawn to Lou Reed’s hypnotic voice and the way he narrates, the way he’s so laid back and tells his story. I wanted to write a song in a similar vein from a narrative point of view, meaning vocal delivery. . . it’s a story set in the 70’s, a song for young lovers…
One song called ‘Time to make changes’ is a note to myself – a reminder to get active. I sing it every morning on the guitar like a mantra whilst having my first coffee. It has a South American vibe to it.
Production wise we wanted to keep the songs quite spacious and not go for the big synth sound, although on ‘Nevermind’ and ‘Letting go’ we’re heading more in that direction. It’s an album that focuses more on the voice, the melody and the storytelling, having said that some of the tracks a very multi layered and yet they don’t feel as though they are.
Will you be taking Where Else… on the road?
The first gig was last week at a venue called St. Pancras Old Church in London. It was such a beautiful, atmospheric venue and suited my songs so well. I performed with two musicians, Yul Desai on guitar and James Hallawell on synth, piano and hammond organ. We’re a three piece band , it could also be described as a drummer less synth duo with Yul, the guitarist playing along. He also switches to bass occasionally. They are wonderful musicians, who have also played on the album. We invited some people from the media to come and check us out and to introduce where else… The audience was very supportive and loving from the moment we started the set — it was a great vibe and makes me want to do it again for sure. Yul and James were amazing!
Did the playlist cover your career?
We played the new album in full, but also performed songs from my previous album the lost are found, a song called ‘Cloud 9’ which I co wrote with Martin Gore and a couple of songs from my time with Propaganda.
How did you connect with producer Stephen Hague, responsible for some of my favorite OMD, New Order and Pet Shop Boys records…
I met Stephen many moons ago at a Mute party. I told Stephen that Paul (Morley) once mentioned that the two of us ought to be working together and Stephen casually replied, ‘ok let’s do it!’. When we connected we wrote ‘Thank you’ and ‘Night School’ together. Both of these songs were released on my ‘ComBined’ album.
Yes I did. ComBined was a kind of retrospective of my work and also an album that was to mark my 30 years as a recording artist. I also wanted it to include some of my more recent work and new material to show that I’m still active as a singer and a recording artist today.
It was suggested to me to make a live event out of it and as there were quite a lot of different artists that I had collaborated with and also because there were quite a few duets on ComBined. It became quickly evident that making a concert event out of the album would mean getting everyone together for this show. That was quite a task and took some organizing but it was also a lot of fun. We realized soon that, as it was a one off event, it would be a pity not to capture it on film.
Paul Humphreys was the musical director for the gig, he put endless hours into making it work. We had Glenn Gregory & Martyn Ware (Heaven 17) joining us on stage as well as Andy Bell (Erasure), Andrew Poppy, Susanne Freytag and Ralf Doerper. People came to see us from all across Europe, it was very special.
Speaking of one-time spectacles, since you’re lucky enough to live in London, did you see Kate Bush in concert? I noticed you sang ‘Running Up That Hill’ in the Scala show…
I really wanted to see Kate Bush, but I’m afraid I was too late; all her shows sold out in a flash.
Let’s dive into Propaganda. I own thousands of CDs and thousands more on MP3 and ‘A Secret Wish’ has been my all-time favorite for 25 years and counting.
Until preparing for this interview, I had no idea you were so young when you recorded it. How does a teenage girl go from school in Düsseldorf Germany to leading a world-renown pop band?
Susanne (Freytag) and I were in a band, the Topolinos, sort of an early Bangles playing synths, gigging around bars and clubs, which is what everyone was doing at the time. She first met up with Ralf Dörper and Andreas Thein to record a cover of Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Discipline’. That caught the attention of the NME’s Paul Morley and (the Buggles’) Trevor Horn who had just started ZTT Records. The band needed an extra musician, so they recruited Michael Mertens, and a singer, so they hired me.
Trevor produced ‘Dr. Mabuse’ before getting busy with Frankie Goes to Hollywood. That’s how Stephen Lipson was brought in to produce the full album. Stephen is a wonderful musician and producer; he has a way of bringing a performance out of you. He’s very different from Trevor — who can be a bit intimidating for a 19 year old. Stephen makes you feel comfortable whether you sing or scream. He’d say, ‘that’s crap, let’s do it again’ but in a very supportive way, which made you want to try again and give your best. As executive producer, Trevor helped a lot; he would come in every night, listen to the day’s work and bounce around ideas.
When I was in art college, I showed the Mabuse video (directed by Anton Corbijn) to my teacher after I had taken five days off to make it. She was so proud; she played it on all video channels at the school so soon everyone knew me.
‘Mabuse’ went to #7 when I was still in school; I was in A Levels at the time. I moved to London and soon after making A secret wish we went on tour with the expanded band; Derek Forbes and Brian McGee (both of Simple Minds) were added by then, it was a blast. It all happened so fast.
Did the short tour make it to North America?
I only remember playing four venues New York, Long Island, Washington and Boston. We also did a couple of shows in Montreal and Vancouver and then travelled on to Japan.
What came first, ‘Duel’, the adorable ballad at the heart of the album or its evil twin, ‘Jewel’?
Duel. Paul gets credit for Jewel; he would take punk rock vinyl into the studio give it to Stephen as ‘homework’. Stephen’s musical influences were more from bands like Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones and Paul wanted to make sure the record wouldn’t turn out too muso and reminded Stephen that the album needed to have that rawness edgy spirit that the band had, so he wanted to ensure that Stephen would capture that side of us. ‘Jewel’ was Glenn, Paul and me, going utterly mad in a tiny space in between studio doors that served as the vocal booth (laughs). There was a little window in the studio door and Stephen would look through it pulling silly faces, making stabbing gestures whilst I was shouting and screaming my head off, it was mad – I’m reliving it as we speak.
We were a bit like pop rebels in a way, we dressed and looked a certain way that said don’t mess with us. We had plenty of attitude! Smiling was verboten. Susanne and I had a lot fun projecting that image.
Paul Morley had been working a lot with Anton Corbijn at the time, whose pictures accompanied Paul’s interviews. So Anton did a lot of photography for the ZTT artists, he also did all the paintings for the album and the artwork for A secret wish.
Incidentally, Anton and Paul helped me out with the cover artwork for where else… Paul did the quotes and Anton the photography and art direction; my friend and artwork designer, Philip Marshall, put it all together.
Around the time of Mabuse, you married Paul…
Paul and I really bonded, I felt like I found a true collaborator, a kindred spirit. I liked where he was coming from, his instinct, his knowledge about music and his ability of thinking in a more abstract way. He has a very interesting way of seeing things. He wasn’t afraid of trying out new ideas, taking risks, speaking his mind. He inspired me to see things from different perspectives. We shared a passion for creating, and that still remains even though we’re no longer married. Some relationships don’t end; they just change.
Let’s see what happens. It’s always been a wish of mine to make another Propaganda album and for us to perform together again. I’m intrigued by what the outcome could be, what we would sound like and come up with after all these years. We’ve all gained so much more experience over the years, it could be amazing . . . I’m getting increasingly aware of time and I feel if you want to do things, realize dreams and ambitions do them, do them now!
Bootlegs exist of some reported reunion tracks, including an early ‘Cloud 9’ which wound up on the Onetwo record. Would Trevor Horn and Stephen Lipson have to be on board to make it a true reunion?
I always saw Stephen as part of the band and to a certain extend Paul also. Stephen’s musical signature is so splendid and Susanne’s and my vocals off set his specific sound so well. To me his presence would be integral, meaning I could not imagine another Propaganda album without him.
Part of the reason it is still such a powerful record, it keeps morphing into new shapes. I own the original version, the Wishful Thinking remix album, the Outside World version and the 25th Anniversary edition.
Have you heard the Blank & Jones remixes? They remixed Frankie, Art of Noise and Propaganda on a compilation (So80’s Presents ZTT). Trevor gave them the master tapes and they only worked with the original sounds. There have been so many remixes over the years; I love this one the most. The songs are so beautifully reinterpreted, it sounds really fresh.
Which brings us to your next act, Act, the partnership with Thomas Leer. From the cover art to the music, it sounds more like a Propaganda album than 1234, the 1990 Propaganda album made with American singer Betsi Miller. Where A secret wish was ambitious, Act’s Laughter, Tears and Rage was truly audacious.
Yes I agree it was very bold and daring; although, I wasn’t too aware of it at the time. Conceptually Thomas and I took a step back and we saw ourselves as kind of observers, commenting on the state of the times trying to capture the Zeitgeist. Thatcher’s Britain, nuclear threat, Yuppidom, the snobbery and decay and Moonlighting (the TV series), were some of the themes we were writing about. One of my favorite songs on this album is ‘Absolutely Immune’, an ironic protest, anti war song. Another one is ‘Under the Nights of Germany’, a very dark song that’s trying to address the complexity of feelings I felt at that time being German, meaning The Third Reich and everything that went with it. I loved Stephen’s production on these songs. ZTT pulled out all the stops for this record. Patrick Litchfield, the Queen’s cousin, contributed photography at Paul’s suggestion; we even hired a full orchestra for the introduction to ‘Snobbery and Decay’.
Will there ever be an Act II?
I don’t think an Act II is likely to happen. Laughter Tears & Rage was very much a reaction to that specific time in the late 80’s. Thomas and I had not been in touch for 20 years until I hooked up with him again to ask him if he’d like to perform with us at the Scala gig. Unfortunately, he was unable to make it as he had other commitments in Scotland at the time.
Editor’s note: the original album might be out of print, as is the CD version of Laughter, Tears and Rage: The Act Anthology: the comprehensive and ridiculously entertaining 51 track deluxe edition. That said, the digital version is thankfully readily available right here (in the States) and in the UK (for what can only be described as the deal of the century).
Is he still making records?
Not that I know of.
After Act and the Andrew Poppy record came Onetwo, a partnership in more ways than one with Paul Humphreys of OMD (who also produced the Scala live recording).
I always wanted to be in a project where concert work would be the priority. Around 2000, Paul asked me to join a tour in America under the name “Paul Humphreys from OMD”. We were performing OMD tunes and a few Propaganda songs also so people could make the connection to me. We’d perform ‘Duel’, ‘P Machinery’ and ‘Dr. Mabuse’. I was delighted to see that people in the States remembered these songs. I didn’t realize that the Propaganda album had made an impact over there so that was a nice surprise.
I missed out on touring in the 80’s and 90s’s, and Paul H and I wrote new material instead of being a retro act only. We made the album Instead and supported Erasure and the Human League in 2007. They were so supportive of us – great mates. Andy would be behind the curtain each night spurning me on whispering “Go Claudia Go!” Phil Oakey really respected Paul’s and my effort to try and reinvent ourselves and thanked us for being their special guests every night during their show. That was so lovely of him. It was a great experience because The Human League’s Dare is one of my favorite albums of theirs and it was a real treat to hear these tunes being performed every night. I was transported straight back to my youth!
Did the OMD reunion spell the end of Onetwo?
They got so many concert offers, I told Paul to just go and do it. It was great that he and Andy (McClusky) were talking again. We spoke about the importance of a brand and how to make the most out of it. When they started to record again, I felt put on ice, but not resentful.
There were rumors of a new record since Paul is still very much a part of your There(There) online store …
I actually don’t think a new Onetwo album is likely to happen , I never say never as there are a few songs we have been working on but I am not planning to release them for the time being. It was time to do our own things again, and that led me to Stephen Hague. I am really fond of the album we did together, 2012’s The Lost Are Found.
The Lost Are Found
I remember playing Stephen an album I made with Andrew Poppy, (who was also signed to ZTT at the time when Propaganda were on the label) called ‘Another Language’, which was an album of other people’s songs reconstructed and distilled to one instrument plus voice only. It got Stephen thinking and one day he called me up asking if I were up to do vocals on ‘One Summer Dream’, which is the b-side of ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’. I sung it and I was very happy with the way it sounded. I played it to my daughter who liked it a lot and she said you know the two of you should make an album of songs like that together and that’s how the idea of ‘the lost are found’ came about. The title is also the last line I sing on the album, which is one of my all time favorite songs by The Band called ‘Whispering Pines’.
We soon made a list of songs that we both were fond of, we were searching for songs that were relatively unknown and which hadn’t been covered too often. The songs we picked meant a lot to us, most not too well known, from the 60’s through the 90’s (including the Pet Shop Boys and Julee Cruise). Sad songs, very melancholy — not slit your wrist sad but more in the style of the Nick Drake song found on where else… sad and uplifting at the same time.
Were the sad songs cathartic to the life changes you were experiencing at the time?
You know, you’re the first person who’s ever asked me this. I lost my dad to cancer and that was the most difficult time in my life and I was completely closed for ages. The loss I felt was so huge and I didn’t really know how to deal with it. So yes is the answer – the songs were cathartic. Stephen gently pushed me into singing again and helped me express myself again. He’s got the patience of a saint.
So what else… is up for you in the year ahead?
I am so inside where else… right now that I can’t really think that much ahead. I’m enjoying playing the new songs on guitar. Hopefully there’ll be plenty more opportunities for Yul, James and me to perform them. We’re hoping to book new shows and visit more cities.
Two albums in such a short period of time is a big achievement for me. I’d like to work with Stephen again, well both Stephens actually! That would be amazing and I’d love to keep working with John also.
I can only imagine what’s next, be it a reunion or something new.
Yes same here. I’m also curious where I’ll be going next.
It’s been lovely chatting with you Keith, thank you.
And so here we are, after all the talk and the memories, it is time to move forward. where else… marks Claudia’s new music debut with Cherry Red Records, perhaps my favorite label on the planet because they still have a passion for CDs and Vinyl and aren’t hell-bent on driving the entire market to MP3s (not that where else… isn’t available digitally, it is). Cherry Red loves musical artists, so this album is one created without boundaries and bickering about singles. Unlike the Propaganda and Act albums, this one breathes easy and takes its time, akin to Goldfrapp’s Tales of Us compared to their dancefloor-friendly Black Cherry.
Other reviewers would take all the fun out of the experience by over analyzing the lyrics or revealing every surprise in the mix. I prefer to leave this trip to the listener. If you’re new to Claudia, this is perhaps the best entry point. Her voice is flawless and the melodies are simple and lovely. Where else… are you going to hear echoes of Serge Gainsbourg here (‘I want you’), the Zombies’ ‘This Will Be Our Year’ there (‘Walk right in’) and the next chapters of her storied solo work (everything else). where else… is an elegant vocal showcase with a few uptempo tracks reminiscent of her debut album tossed in late in the game (‘Moon song’ and the dark and delicious ‘Letting go’). At the end, the album drifts away like the moon fading into dawn’s early clouds (‘Sweet sound vision’). Our rating: 4 out of 5 stars
... where else is available October 7, 2014 at worthy record stores worldwide, Amazon in the US and UK, and directly from Cherry Red Records. Find even more rarities and treasure at the Claudia Brücken and Onetwo online shop at There(there). Connect with Claudia Brücken on facebook.
Also available on Cherry Red, an expanded 2CD edition of Claudia’s first solo album, Love and a Million Other Things.
For up-to-the-minute updates on reissues and new releases by new wave and college rock artists like Claudia Brücken, be sure to stick with Popdose (of course) and also follow two of my favorite sites, Slicing Up Eyeballs and the comprehensive (all genres) album release listings and news on Pause and Play.