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Saudia Young, From Dark Cabaret to Rockabilly Noir

By Victoria Linchong . May 11, 2017

Her voice is like drinking a tumbler of whisky neat: scorching and seething, with a growl that cuts right through you. Since coming to Berlin ten years ago, Saudia Young has been torching up jazz and rock clubs throughout Germany.

One part Billie Holiday, one part Big Mama Thornton, she’s sass and class in one powerhouse package. More than that – she has a deep down connection to what Sidney Bechet, the great New Orleans saxophone pioneer, called “the long, long song that started back there” whether she’s singing jazz standards or her bluesy take on rock ‘n roll that she’s dubbed Rockabilly Noir. This Saturday, May 13, you can find her at the Bassy Club performing for Hoochie Koo. I had lunch with my NYC soul sister to dish about Berlin, New York, and doing the things that matter.

Saudia Young at Das Hotel. Photo by Alexander Fusco.

What made you come to Berlin?
A really hot German guy. I was like, Oh my god, are they all like that?! That’s only half a joke. There was a romance but the guy never met me once I came over to these shores. Well…there was a fifteen year age difference and he became conservative once he came back to his homeland. And also, I heard so much rumbling about Berlin being a place for creatives. Not only could people come here to create but it would be easier for them to live. So that was why I came. To do my thing.

But you were coming from New York…
I’m a New York girl. I grew up in Tribeca.

I love how you’re the Lower West Side and I’m the Lower East. But I mean, New York is a city of creatives…
It is… but I’m of a certain age, born in the ‘60s, and I think I grew up when it was the best. My parents were part of the Bohemian Village scene. This bi-racial couple – black actor man and white artist woman – and everyone was friends with each other. Like, they knew the Clancys, they knew Bob Dylan, supposedly my godfather was James Baldwin… Everyone knew each other in this circle of creatives.

And then even when I was a teenager, it still was fresh and new. Some people refer to New York as this dangerous place. I don’t remember it as dangerous. I heard Cindy Sherman used to walk around in costume because she was so scared of New Yorkers and I’m like, what? I mean, yeah, you go to like, the south south corner of the south South Bronx, but even there, they’re just people. I mean, what the fuck? So I don’t get that whole image of ‘70s and ‘80s New York, Oh my god, it was a horror show! I had a ball.

I caught the tail end of that too. That time period when there was no hierarchy, no boundaries, no borders, everyone mixed together.
Totally. Homeboys and socialites at the same party. It was a beautiful time.

And Berlin sort of feels like that. It has a little piece of that.
It has but… when people say, Oh isn’t Berlin like New York in the ‘70s? I’m like, no. It’s its own thing. I mean, I wish I would’ve been here when Iggy Pop and Bowie and Nick Cave were hanging out, because that was a fertile time. But it still wasn’t New York. It was its own thing.

What do you think makes it different: Berlin and New York?
Well, I mean, it’s German. And of course, Germany has this huge history. The Weimar era, World War II, DDR…all that has an impact on the city. And the history of this city, too, you know, people were coming here to avoid joining the armed forces. And there’s East versus West and the wall came down and this illusion of, Now democracy is here! There’s a whole bunch of disillusioned East Germans. It’s not this candy-coloured, Oh let’s just come from all over the world and invade Berlin and its our city and it’s so cute, right? There’s a whole fucking history here, man, layers and layers and layers, and there are still veterans of that history living here.

You do feel the ghosts here a lot. The ghosts of World War II particularly.
And also, you know, there’s definitely huge reactions to gentrification. It’s not including a lot of people. Where are the old people? I never see old people here. Where the fuck are they? What are they doing with the old people?

Saudia Young in 2007. Photo by Paul Sunday.

So you had a dark cabaret band…
When I first came, I was really into the Weimar era and really into cabaret and I wanted to be the black Marlene Dietrich. I started doing gigs and writing songs and going in that direction and mixing Tom Waits and Kurt Weill and it went really well. We started to produce a couple of little CDs but it just felt a little bit bound. For some reason, the Blues were calling me.

Well, I know why. Because I was homesick. I was missing America. I was missing black America, missing roots America, working-class America, Jewish America, and missing the language. So one idea was to start a Shakespearean theatre company, which was like, good luck with that. And the other was through roots music. You’re immediately jumping onto that highway, spiritually and emotionally, when you’re listening and performing that music. And so that’s why I made the change in 2014.

Relatively recently! And you just put out an album.
Our 7” vinyl with two covers – Lust for Life and The Wobble – will be released mid-June. I wanted it for the Hoochie Koo but it’s not easy self-producing! I did the Indiegogo and the hustling and selling t-shirts. You name it, I’m doing it. But I’m really grateful. Lars Vegas produced it. The sound is amazing. It’s actually something I’m proud about.

It’s funny how Berlin forces you to be creative. To do what you want to do. That’s the thing, I’ve found Berlin to have the space for creative people. For everyone. I also find the space very lonely. I’ve struggled with loneliness and depression and anxiety. That’s the dark side of the cabaret. But yeah, I think this is one of the few places on earth right now where you can come up with an idea and execute it.

What you said about missing roots music, that to me is what’s lonely here. In New York, everybody is so mixed and on top of one another.
And New Yorkers. Everyone’s a fucking New Yorker. No matter wherever you come from, everybody’s like, “I’m a fucking New Yawkah.” Whether you’re Vanderbilt or a Puerto Rican sneaker designer.

I think it’s so weird that there’s still that idea that you can only be German if you’re a white German.
Really weird for the people who are German and not white.

Turkish people couldn’t get citizenship here until 1990.
I wonder when it was for Vietnamese or Africans.

Even now, if you are Turkish-German and born in Berlin, you can only be a dual citizen until you’re 23. Then you have to choose whether you’re German or Turkish.
That’s so fucked up. That’s so Romeo and Juliet. The whole border thing is fucked up. But you know, the other thing that attracted me to Berlin is that they’re so political. I mean, there’s an active Left. Like Take-it-to-the-Streets active, like Punch-a-Nazi active. The Left has their own newspapers and political party. The fact that the working class have a real voice here was really attractive.

Yeah, I love how they have a spoof political party here.
Well, we have a spoof political party! It’s called the Republicans.

Photo by Lars Wegas.

I guess what I most miss about New York, is the depth of thinking that a lot performers here don’t have. So their idea of anything that’s subversive is just extreme shock.
Let’s make it seem like we poop on each other! But if you spoke German, I think you would find the intellectual depth of artist that you’re seeking. That’s the problem of us not speaking fluent German. Because the history of Germany is intellectualism and progressivism.

Well, the Nazis mowed that pretty close to the ground…
Yeah, but it emerged again, for sure. There were other artists…

…in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you’re right… Fassbinder and Heiner Müller
And Einstut..shen…Noi…

I can’t pronounce them either!
You’ll spellcheck that! And Atari Teenage Riot… they were like really anti-fascist and they did the 200-and-something beats per minute like crazy pre-electronica. There are a lot of anti-fascist bands and theater and writers. So there are all these jewels. We just don’t know because of our language issues. But I think you’re right. I don’t know what to do about battling people who are just entertaining for entertainment’s sake and don’t really give a shit about what the hell is going on in the world. Or what is impact of what they are doing.

Well, we’re from New York. We have a sensibility that no one else in the world has. Because you’re put on a platform in New York and it really matters what you say. It really matters what you do. It really matters what your work is about.
And it matters to create something of quality, even if it’s completely abstract. That you’re not just making something throwaway. I’m not into the throwaway concept that a lot of people have. Oh, it’s just a joke! We’re just joking. We’re just rich kids fooling around. What, really? We don’t have time for this. I’d rather stay home and watch Netflix.

But I think there’s jewels in this town and we just have to keep building the connections and the community. Don’t waste your time working with people that you don’t want to work with. Laurie Anderson said in this great interview that artists don’t have to be political, you just have to do your work. What she means is that you don’t have to do a PSA. Just doing good work is a political statement. Quality work at this time of throwing away and bullshit and mediocrity, that’s nourishing the soul of the planet.

Saudia Young is singing this Saturday, May 13, at the Hoochie Koo. Find out more on their website or facebook event page. More about Saudia Young is on her website.

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