Name: Judith Holofernes
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Judith Holofernes's "Ich wär so gern gut", the title track to the movie "Es ist nur eine Phase, Hase", featuring, among others, Christoph Maria Herbst und Christiane Paul, is out now.
The influence that Judith Holofernes had on the German rock- and independent music scene can hardly be over estimated. Before her band Wir Sind Helden (also featuring congenial songwriting parner Jean-Michel Tourette, husband and producer Pola Roy as well as drummer Mark Tavassol) burst onto the scene with their breakout hit “Die Reklamation”, most German releases felt burdened by stiff and wooden arrangements, appearing either overly serious or overly silly. Wir sind Helden meanwhile defined an instantly recognisable alternative, fusing tongue-in-cheek rock anthemics with chanson sexiness, instantly catchy pop flavours with smart lyrics. They were more punk than punk, in a way – rebelious but not afraid to show their fragility, too.
Their 2003 debut and its follow-up Von Hier an Blind (which featured their arguably biggest hit (“Nur ein Wort”) have stood the test of time as German rock classics. After the more spiky and synthetic Soundso and the conversely atmospheric, acoustic and dreamy Bring Mich nach Hause, WSH disbanded, leaving a gaping hole. Holofernes's solo career came to the rescue, turning her into a household name far beyond her actual fanbase.
Despite a status that would have made most of her peers envious, however, she grew increasingly dissatisfied. If the music business was a game, she explained, she had refined her skills but become loath to play. As Dany Ocean put it: "The house always wins. Play long enough, you never change the stakes, the house takes you." And so, Holofernes withdrew from the public eye and stressful release schedules imposed on her by record companies, choosing to offer her work through Patreon to a group of dedicated supporters.
Rather than putting the breaks on her creativity, the loss of pressure has served to reinvigorate it, allowing her to publish new pieces at her own pace and without having to heed the expectations of shareholders. Some may see the decision as a step back or even as career suicide. For anyone with open ears, it's a defiantly courageous return to that one thing that, in what can sometimes seem like a mythical past, is capable
If you enjoyed this interview with Judith Holofernes, visit her official homepage for everything you ever wanted to know about her. For recent updates, check her profiles on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I tend to write about everything that I think about long enough, most of the songs I write make my friends go “Ah, finally”, because they´ve heard me ruminating about the song´s theme for a long time before I got it down.
This one for example made my friends laugh out loud when I first played it for them, as it´s about women – me! - taking on too much responsibility and I end up telling myself to just drop the world from my shoulders and let it roll like a boccia ball:
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
When it comes to music I often have a very distinct feeling about what the song is going to be, but it´s like a color or a scent before I get started. The rest is kind of me trying not the get it wrong. I absolutely feel whether I´m getting there or not.
For this one I was walking home one cold Berlin winter night, and I was thinking: “unrepairable teenage heartbreak, sky reflected in winter water, need to lie down from the pain” and then I started writing until I had it:
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
I feel like I need to stay in a sort of mindset, read a lot, follow inspiration a lot, feed my brain a lot of things that delight it. I have noticed that so much of my work comes from that place of “Art is awesome! Let´s make some!”, so now when I read or listen to music or even listen to podcasts I call it work.
A lot of the more “socially conscious” (oh man) songs come from me having pet peeves and listening to hours and hours of Ted talks and podcasts on a topic, or googling weird stuff for nights on end. Like this one which is a love song for an “Analog Punk,” which had me researching retro games and lingo for weeks:
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I actually made a pretty crazy set up for myself. I have a standing desk, but I am standing on a tiny trampoline, standing, not jumping, while I write. I noticed that my best creative mode is when I´m in motion, even when I´m at my desk.
I also write a lot in my head while I´m walking in the woods or the park, but often I´m kind of careless and don´t write stuff down. But then I think a good song shouldn´t be too hard to remember, right? This one I wrote on one single walk without writing anything down, and I came home with a finished lyric. This is Mandy Patinkin (of Homeland Fame)´s version, my pride and joy!
This is my friend Teitur´s original version, who I kind of wrote it for:
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I have learned that the initial idea needs to be very strong, and I know that I spare myself a lot of heartache if it contains the chorus. I think the chorus should be the nucleus of a song, if it isn´t, you often end up with something that sounds fabricated and has no inner urgency or necessity.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
For me, the initial spark is almost always a piece of a lyric. Then after that it kind of goes hand in hand, side by side.
Often I will finish the lyric thinking, boy, I have to take care of the melody at some point, and then when I´m done it´s kind of already there.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I think a good lyric is often so specific it ends up touching on the universal. You kind of go straight into your own chest but come out on the other side.
My songs are often deeply personal, but I never really feel exposed, and if people ask me about that I kind of think “No, why should I be? This is us. Humans. I´m not that special.”
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Mostly I walk around with a half-written thing for a couple days or even weeks, and it keeps evolving. I really like honing stuff while I´m walking, the rhythm of the feet helps set a lyric to a melody or a groove, and it also very efficiently bypasses your inner critic, because that art of your brain is busy putting one foot in front of the other.
This one came to me on another walk, almost fully formed:
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
No, that is absolutely true. I might have a sense of what the song is going to be, its inner workings, its emotional color maybe, but it can still change a lot, and in the end I can be surprised to find out what it´s actually about.
Mostly the surprise is that I thought I was telling this big fictional story but in the end it´s about me, again.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
It has actually helped me a lot when I published my book of poetry, because now that I know poetry is my side-hustle, I find it a lot easier to let go of little fragments that don´t really belong in a song or take me to different places. A lot of stuff has ended up in poems or started off a whole new song.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
It´s kind of a dance. And yes, I feel it´s very spiritual, because you have to listen and be still and create at the same time. So you kind of do stuff from a position of limbo between doing and non-doing.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I think my impatience saves me from over-polishing stuff! I kind of have this vision, or this hunch, of what a song should sound like, which is sometimes very simple, sometimes very elaborate and even orchestral. But once I feel I've kind of hit on this original feeling I was going for, I can quite easily let it go.
With this one I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I wanted to meld my song with Beethoven´s Ode to Joy, which was in itself quite, errm, ambitious, and I knew I needed lots of singers and strings and horns and crazy shit, but then I was almost too impatient to actually record everything. Although it was great fun when we did.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
I much rather put something out there as soon as it´s finished! And I almost never have regrets. Again: I´m quite impatient and tend to move on and do the next thing.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Oooh, it´s very important, and it can drive me to tears when it doesn´t sound right, but I´ve been very lucky so far.
I have worked with Ian Davenport who is kind of my twin when it comes to musical tastes, and after that I have worked with my producer husband Pola Roy who of course knows me inside and out and can work with the crazy references I come up with, like: “This needs to sound like what that scene from “I´m not there” looks like!”
I have also learned to let go a little bit when it comes to mastering. I mean, mixing is one thing, but with mastering I try and tell myself: “In a couple months time you won´t hear the difference between these two masters.” I try and trust the great people I work with.
This is the song I wanted to sound like what that scene from “I´m not there” looks like, the one where My Morning Jacket are serenading the pretty dead girl in the middle of town square. Makes sense, no?
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Not really! I kind of always want to keep creating, it´s when I´m happiest! In the past I have often felt that the job of “being Judith Holofernes,” with promotion and interviews and television and all that, kept me from actually doing my job, which is writing. But now that I´m on Patreon I have come a lot closer to my vision of a true creator´s life, one where I am always creating. And I love it so much!
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I´ve done a lot of essay writing on Patreon over the past two years and it´s very different from writing music, so I´ve thought a lot about what form does to content.
I love working on a book, which is of course much more longform than anything I have done before. I really enjoy sticking with something for this long, and I enjoy the long arch, the planning, the patterns emerging over the course of a year. But there´s something about music that can do more than poetry or prose can, I feel, and extra layer or commentary that comes from the juxtaposition of lyric and sound. I really love that, too.
But yes, I also try and see the creative in mundane tasks, and funnily enough I´ve felt that my whole everyday life feels more creative since I left the “old” music business and became a crowd-based artist. Probably because I know that there´s people who want me to do nothing but create. It´s been life-changing, I highly recommend it.