BOY's Valeska Steiner: I'm glad we make music in English
Photo by Inga Seevers
The folk-pop act BOY is a couple of musically curious souls based in Germany who are in the midst of their polite onslaught on the United States for the first time. Valeska Steiner and Sonja Glass met years ago at a music camp, and the friendship that prevailed over the years has yielded Mutual Friends. The album combines the chirpiness of Phoenix in Glass's arrangements, and the emotional pull of Feist, courtesy of Steiner's vocal acuity.
"We're especially excited about Minneapolis, because that was the first city we heard of where 'Little Numbers' were being played on the radio," Steiner says. Indeed, the piano-driven single has been a fixture on 89.3 the Current for months. "I hope people won't be annoyed [by the song] by the time we come there."
Ahead of tonight's show at Bryant Lake Bowl and Tuesday's Cedar Cultural Center concert, Steiner spoke in perfectly clipped English to Gimme Noise from her family's home in Zurich, Switzerland. "It's almost time to go to bed," she notes. This would be her the first interview of 2013, so she felt fresh to answer questions about her songwriting, a fortuitous collaboration with Phoenix drummer Thomas Hedlund, and the many languages she can speak.
BOY at Bryant Lake Bowl, 3/18/13
Gimme Noise: How much time have you spent in the United States?
Valeska Steiner: Party of my family lives in California. Last time was about five years ago. This is Sonja's first time. Going on tour in the U.S. has always been a big, big dream. We're very excited and looking forward.
The BOY Facebook page has a ton of different languages on it. How many languages do you know?
We're overwhelmed by all the different languages. I know Swiss-German, which is my first language. It's only spoken in Switzerland. German is the language that I talk to with Sonja. I speak English and French -- another language of Switzerland -- and Spanish. That's about it. Sonja speaks German and Dutch -- she learned bass guitar there -- she's learning a bit of French as well. She's eager to learn. And English.
How did you settle on singing in English?
We never discussed it. For me, as the singer of the band, English has always been the language that I sang in and that I really enjoyed listening to. I always enjoyed listening to English-speaking singers and songwriters like Susan Vega or Shawn Colvin. I'm glad we chose to make music in English. A big part of our joy is getting around and seeing the world. I'm glad there are no language barriers.
How much of the storytelling from Mutual Friends comes from your own life?
All of the songs were really inspired by things that happened to me. I'm mostly responsible for the lyrics and Sonja is more responsible for the music. The lyrics tell stories that either happened to me or to people around me, or things I observed. It's easier to tell stories that are close to your heart. People can relate to them, so you have to keep the lyrics kind of open to leave space for other people's stories as well.
A song like "Drive Darling" tells a very personal story. People who have moved away from home, or left their hometown say they can really relate to the lyrics. They mean a lot to them. It's very nice to see that. Other people can see themselves in the song.
For example, "Waitress" made me wonder if you were you a waitress.
I did like waitressing a lot. It was really nice to work at a cafe. It was at a time when we were starting to tour, and we went on some support tours with bigger German bands where we were able to play in front of big audiences. There were days when I got back from a really big show, and then went to the cafe and it was back to normal life. It was like a double life. It was two parallel worlds, and it was fun to switch between the two. Cafes are the best environment to observe people, and you have a lot of time to do it. That I sometimes miss.
Have you come across words that are impossible to express in English?
Yeah. There are some. The word for happiness is glück. Somehow it doesn't feel like it meant exactly the same thing. Glück to me feels even deeper than happiness. That's special and interesting about languages. Some words that mean the same thing, don't express exactly the same thing. I have never felt limited by the English language.
How did "Oh Boy" end up sounding so much like a Phoenix song?
Probably because we were so fortunate to get their drummer to play on the song. He definitely has a strong character on the song that you can think of a band that you already know. We were really lucky that we got them. I had met him. His name is Thomas Hedlund. I met him a few years ago. A friend's dad was supporting Phoenix in Switzerland. I went to the show when they played in Zurich. We all went out in Zurich, and I had a really nice conversation with Thomas and we kept in touch a little bit. Then, we were at the studio, Sonja and I, with our producer. We tried to play most of the instruments ourselves on the album. For the drums, we always had to ask other people. We listened to every song and decided who would fit the best. When we listened to the demo of "Oh Boy" we all had the same thought at the same time. If we had one wish in the whole world, it would be that Thomas Hedlund would play these drums. I hesitated a little, and then wrote him an e-mail. Phoenix played in Hamburg and they had one off day before then. He ended up playing four songs on the record. He's a really amazing musician, and has an unique kind of style.
What is perfect pop songwriting to you?
Pop is such a wide word. It's a big genre. It's hard to say. Phoenix is pop, but the Beatles are pop too. Can I answer it later? I would have to name a few. A song I love from Arcade Fire, called "Rebellion." I really care about lyrics, but I never really listened to the lyrics carefully. I just love the energy the song has. There's a song by Susan Vega called "Luka" where she tells a great story. It depends on the song, and what stands out in that song. It can be a melody or the energy or the story. These would be two.
So with cell phones, the premise of "Little Numbers" has become somewhat obsolete.
It's very old-fashioned. It was not so much of a conscious thought. It's even more old-fashioned because it talks about waiting for a phone call at home, which doesn't even happen anymore. Everyone has a cell phone and can just go anywhere and wait for a call. This song is about not daring to leave your apartment because someone might call you at home. It felt more urgent because of that, and having to distract yourself within your four walls. I didn't think about it. There was no plan behind it.
Are you already working on new stuff?
That's what we're doing at the moment. 2012 was a great year for playing, and we didn't spend a lot of time at home. Sonja and I are very slow songwriters. We need a lot of time to get our ideas and get inspired. We begged for two months off from playing. That's what we're doing at the moment. We feel really eager. Maybe we will have new material by the time we come to the states, hopefully. Our old material will still be new there. So that's okay. I'm glad we're not bored or annoyed by that album yet. We've been playing those songs a lot. We think of new ways to arrange them. Two of us, and our guitar player and in our band. The rest of the band is sad they can't join us but hopefully they can come back later this year.
Tonight's BOY show at Bryant Lake Bowl is sold out, but there are still tickets available for Tuesday at the Cedar Cultural Center. Click here.
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