Shambhu Leroux and the True Love Hearts are the best blues-rock band in Berlin. Nay, the World. More importantly than that, Shambhu Leroux is the reason you moved to Berlin.
You might not have heard of her, or seen her perform, but Shambhu Leroux is that collection of punky toilet stickers stuck on your fridge door. She’s the fading line of nightclub stamps up your forearm. She’s that first, fresh late-morning lung-full, standing on your balcony in your underwear, cigarette in hand, surveying all that’s yours.
In fact, that new palace they’re building on Museum Island? We don’t need it. Instead, let’s build a gold statue of Shambhu Leroux, and give all the left over cash to her as drug money. Why? Because with the first notes of that dirty blues riff, a cloud of roadhouse smoke envelopes you. A blue haze of danger and seductive menace. And then Shambhu appears. And that’s what we need in our lives.
Shambhu’s not the only star in her incredible band. Her guitarist, Yair Karelic, is a guitar porn dream. His licks leave my inner 15 year old crying with air-guitar envy. He’s the perfect match for Shambhu’s soul and pure power.
Last year Shambhu and Yair began a new project together, a stripped-down version of their sound using layered, precision guitar work from Yair and Shambhu’s voice front and centre; a more intimate and personal piece than the whisky swagger of the True Love Hearts.
The Shadow of Your Smile EP was released late 2016, and over the last few months Shambhu and Yair have been exhibiting their new work in small, atmospheric performances around Berlin. I was lucky enough to catch a few of these shows myself.
Picture the scene: a dark and empty stage, the crowd bristling with anticipation. Then Shambhu appears, tattoo-clad in eastern mystery. She approaches the front of the stage and solemnly bows herself to the audience as flower petals fall from her cupped hands like rosewater rain. I asked her about this pre-show ritual.
I will always do that because it’s a way for me to celebrate the stage, celebrate the people and say to whoever’s there: come and enjoy the show.
I was a dancer before, a Kathak dancer. I studied in India for a long time and this is just a little touch from the past that I am connected to. It is very important for me to do it. To celebrate, you know, more than to just be there.
There’s a real idea of bonding with people. Usually it’s tears. It’s emotion. And if people come up after the show crying (like last time there was one girl – my goodness – and I still feel her big tears on my boobs), crying for like 5 minutes, big, big baby tears and I thought to myself – we have something here.
She stuck a steaming bowl of frankly delicious soup in front of me and asked if I liked things spicy. I asked her about the French language song that appears on her new EP.
It’s Ou Sont Tous Mes Amants by Fréhel, who was the underground Edith Piaf with a real gang-like involvement in the ’30s and ’20s. A prostitute singing about prostitutes singing about heart break and things like that, like the French Billie Holiday. Well, the song makes sense to me, the kind of people I like to listen to.
I’m from France, but I am mixed race like a lot of people in France. Greek, French, Vietnamese. My mother was a kid of war from Indochina. We’re all a mix, that generation in France. The people I get along with. The white ones? I don’t… not in the south of Paris.
We talked about her partnership with Yair, and how they came to meet (apparently, they found each other through a Craigslist ad Shambhu had placed).
He knew who I was, saw the advert and was like ‘yeahhh!’. We had one rehearsal and I was very surprised at how the music was like… just passing through the body of the guy. And I thought ‘okay, there is something very special here’. He is also channelling, also in a state of meditation when playing. I thought: this is a guy who I can definitely work with and go to where I wanna go with.
With Yair it’s a trip. It’s totally divine. I never thought that it could be possible. Actually I did believe it was possible, and that’s what I’ve been looking for. That kind of relationship.
He’s someone who needs to play music every day, otherwise he gets a pain in the ass. Me too, I guess. You know me, I am always more or less depressed, but that’s the way I go through life. Our rehearsals are meditative, and afterwards we feel better.
I’ve worked with many different types of musicians, from ’60s to rockabilly, and Yair is more psychedelic… more where I stand now. It’s the drugs that I do now.
Shambhu’s dark blues gospel blues pits angels against devils and confronts sadness with pure power, the power of her voice and her own inner strength. I asked her about these two themes. What are these angels and devils?
It’s not in a Christian way. It’s metaphor – my demons, my hopes, what keeps me alive. Because there must have been some kind of angel who kept me alive in this planet. And I also want to believe this. I don’t want to believe in Christianity, for sure not, but I’ve always loved the gospel. The gospel without the religion, without the church.
I feel my angels and demons maybe harder than other people – my good and bad moods are very strong. I get very happy and very excited, and I get very dark. I feel there’s actually something around me, you know? It’s not just coming out of me. Some moods, I just can’t explain. So yeah, that’s mostly what I’m talking about. I also invite people to confront their own demons.
Sadness and power – is there a connection? Does Shambhu need her sadness to be powerful?
Oh definitely. I like to think that I will transform the energy. You know, that’s not a put-on. There’s a before show, an after show, then drinks… but after all that I am visiting places where I don’t want to go. It can be heavy.
But the big question in my mind is: are the True Love Hearts still alive?
Oh sure! They are still going, but less. I am not playing very much with them here. My new show is more satisfying for me. People can hear my voice. You know, bands can be a lot of trouble. So it’s nice if I can keep it so that we’re not getting into trouble with each other. Keeping everyone happy. It’s difficult, it’s a lot of energy.
I’ve worked with different generations of True Love Hearts. Some of them never connected with their inner True Love Heart, some of them went really deep into themselves thinking about it and some just never got it.
Musicians are mostly freaks – socially very awkward and really hide in their work. Now that I’m 43, I understand things differently, that it takes understanding and compassion to know how to deal with a musician. Why Yair and I have such an understanding is because emotionally, we really connect. He’s not just a guy doing a performance. And, for me, I need that. I need to be appreciated by my guys because, if not, I’m a fucking bitch.
Shambhu’s status as a Berlin icon is secure, but I wondered if she could see herself being happy anywhere else.
Anything is possible after Berlin. I am having a hard time to like it here, especially these last few years, but I am trying to fall in love with it again. But it’s difficult – I am burnt out.
It was paradise before, but that’s no longer the case. There’s a sense of reality here now. For many years, we were an island. I know there’s still loads of party here, but there’s also a reality that we can’t escape anymore.
Something changed in Berghain, for example. The party changed from being participants to beings voyeurs. Everything went to the other side. People were just coming to stare, craving something different. “Oh, guys fist-fucking on a bar. Whaaaaaat?” The EasyJet Freakshow, coming there, shitting all over the place, taking personal liberty and doing really the worst thing you can with it.
Another thing that is new for me Berlin is being harassed on the street . I don’t get it – what do they think? That I’m just going to fuck them now, on the tram? The street has always been a masculine territory, and when you’re a woman (especially a gorgeous one), you feel that you’re bad, you’re a prim. You don’t feel that there’s equality there.
I liked living in Hermannplatz at the beginning because you had some kind of humanity here. Fucked up people, people really struggling with life, and it felt good to see that – that we’re not just living in that bubble of ecstasy (even though it’s nice to be there).
In those days, nobody would say anything about what you wore. Being a woman who fucks guys it’s okay – she’s not a slut, she’s just someone who is in charge of her sexuality. And now you see judgement everywhere.
That makes me sad because that’s not the spirit of Berlin. We were privileged for a long time, but never take anything for granted. The rights of being a woman and wearing whatever you want, it’s all being jeopardised. We have to fight because this right can be taken away from us. And yeah, I like to wear make up. And most of the time I won’t wear lipstick to the supermarket, because I’ll have a guy ask me if I “have time?” Do I have time? I’m there with my shopping bags! I have this… je ne sais quoi, prostitute from Bombay thing I guess.
Shambhu Leroux. BERLIN (still) LOVES YOU.
You can listen to The Shadow of Your Smile EP in its entirety (and buy it, goddamnit!) on Shambhu’s Bandcamp page. And don’t miss her live.
Photographs by Antonio Castello.