England - Full Moon 78 - 02/16/03
Des de Moor
another prince of darkness
Des de Moor is an English singer who has sung his own songs and material by Jaques Brel and
David Bowie. His music is cabaret styled but has many other influences as well. His most recent
album Water of Europe is a masterpiece with well-observed and dramatic songs of the kind
almost no one else does these days. He can be both supremely moving and cruelly funny. I interviewed
him about his upcoming album Testing Times and the show he's done based on David Bowie's
songs: "Darkness and Disgrace".
Luna Kafé: How is Testing Times going to be different from Water
Des de Moor: "I think it'll be more focused, and in that sense it'll be a progression from
what went before. Water of Europe contained songs written over six years, from 1993 to
1998 when I started recording it. The album before that, Photographs in Empty Houses from
1992, had songs that had been written over the preceding ten years, many of which had spun off
other projects. I hadn't really done much as a solo performer over that period - I'd worked on
collaborations, or not worked at all. But in 1992 I decided I was going to be a solo performer
again, and furthermore that I was going to concentrateon material that was related to chanson
and musical cabaret, because that is what I'd really wanted to do all along without necessarily
realising it very clearly. So I collected together all the songs that seemed to fit with that aim,
from the preceding ten years, and recorded them, but without any real experience of performing
them before an audience in the sort of context I was aiming at. Most of that album was a "home
studio" recording, with sequences and samples sometimes used to imitate acoustic instruments
because that was the best I could do on the resources available."
"WoE exhausted all the original material I had available to record, so everything on
Testing Times has had to be written afresh, and although this has been very scary, because
I find songwriting very difficult and demanding, I also think it's been a good thing in all kinds
of other ways. For the first time I feel I really know what I'm doing! I've also tried to keep
the writing much more focussed than it was before, and to treat the album as a single entity
rather than a diverse collection of songs. In the past I used to finish one song before I started
another, but much of the stuff on Testing Times has been written bits and pieces at a time,
a more productive way of working. I've tried to simplify my writing a bit both in terms of words
and music, easing up on some of the elaborate rhyming structures I used to use, and being happy
with simple chord sequences that sound right, whereas in the past I might worry about not being
musical enough, and try to cram in lots of weird key changes or something."
"I planned the whole thing as two close-knit song cycles. Now all the basic songwriting is
finished, it's more loosely structured than I originally intended, but it will still largely follow
this model. First there are eight songs which, for want of a better word, I'd call cabaret songs:
they all have a certain satirical wit, a mixture of a European and a jazzy feel, all very much
piano-based songs to be played on traditional instruments. Then I'll be including my version of
Jacques Brel's "Madeleine", which seems to fit, and I've really been enjoying performing it
recently. Then there are five pieces which form a denser cycle, called "The Invisible Empire",
which will feature hardly any piano and quite a bit of guitar, as well as some sequences and
samples, but used in their own right,not as substitute acoustic instruments, and at the other
extreme some a capella and spoken word sections. It'll be on quite a grand scale when it's
finished if everything goes according to plan. I've partly been inspired by some of Léo
Ferré's extended pieces, and when I was writing it I was also listening to Mahler
symphonies, which is probably a dangerous thing to do! Then there's one other piano-based song,
a very affirming love song called "Incidental Bard", to finish off."
Luna Kafé: Tell us about your club Pirate Jenny's.
Des de Moor: "It's a monthly event at the Vortex, a small but very friendly jazz club In
Stoke Newington, north London, which I've been running since December 1994. Every month we have
two different guest acts, plus a set from me. I started it because there was nowhere that was
dedicated to doing the sort of thing I wanted to do, and I very quickly ran into a few other
people who were having the same trouble: we were playing folk clubs, jazz clubs, theatres and
rock venues but we didn't seem to fit anywhere. I've been promoting gigs since I was at school,
so starting a club seemed the obvious thing to me, and happily I persuaded the management of the
Vortex likewise - it's a great place to do something like this and they've been immensely
supportive of us over the years. We've become something of a haven for the small but dedicated
bunch of people who are interested in chanson and cabaret in Britain, both performers and audience.
The audiences are almost without exception enthusiastic and attentive, and the performers always
seem to riseto this, no matter how experienced they are. I'd say that some of the best sets I've
ever seen certain performers do are at PJs. The performers like it there, which is good because
there's never much money in it!"
"There are what I'd called core English chanson artists who appear regularly: people like
Barb Jungr, Pete Atkin, Robb Johnson, Leon Rosselson and Philip Jeays, and me doing a headliner
in my own right occasionally. Then there are the people who specialise in the European side, like
Caroline Nin, Monique, Eva Meier, Boum!, Jo de Waal who also does original stuff with the Pigeon
Quartet, and an excellent trio called Black Market. Then there are cabaret acts with depth, like
Dillie Keane, Lorraine Bowen and a great Brighton-based singer and entertainer called Kinny
Gardner. Fran Landesman, the lyricist of standards like 'Spring can really hang you out the most',
has done several shows with new material sung by a jazz duo. The Tiger Lillies did a couple of
PJs a few years back then went on to fame with Shockheaded Peter. We also presented Agnes
Bernelle a few times - a genuine link to the German satirical cabaret scene of the early 1930s
who was championed in the 80s by people like Elvis Costello and Marc Almond, an extraordinary
woman who is sadly no longer with us."
"I'm enormously proud of PJs. I honestly think if I hadn't done it, our little English chanson
scene would probably never have come about. It's also good that it's inspired others - Barb
Jungr's Café Prague down in Brighton is the only similar night that's kept going regularly."
Luna Kafé: How has it been making Bowie interpretations for the show "Darkness
and Disgrace"? When did you first discover Bowie?
Des de Moor: "Bowie was my first fan interest back in 1970s - Aladdin Sane was
the first album I ever bought, when I was 12. I actually say in the show that hearing "Time" on
that album was one of my most formative musical experiences, sending me off in the right direction
at a fairly early stage. Later in my career I spent ages trying to get all Bowie's ticks out of
my singing voice. And of course in the 80s it was de rigeur to deny Bowie since his work had
reached such a low point. But after a while his songs began going around in my head again, and I
realised what fine songs some of them were, and wondered if I could reinterpret them in a
musical cabaret context. One day I suggested to Russell Churney that we try doing "Time" and he
was enthusiastic, so I floated the idea of a whole show. Then Barb Jungr offered to direct, and
encouraged me to take the show in a more theatrical direction than I might otherwise have done.
"The show is based around some of the slightly lesser-known ones rather than the obvious hit
singles, covering a period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, reinterpreted for voices and
piano, plus a bit of guitar and percussion. But around the songs there is this linking text,
some of it introductions, some of it dramatised, like quotes from George Orwell and interviews
with Bowie,which brings out some of the recurring themes of the songs, like madness, the imprisonment
of creativity, issues of sexuality. We root the songs in terms of Bowie's biography and especially
in the cultural explosion of the 1960s which was his crucible. And I also talk about my own life
and my early enthusiasm for his work and the impact it had on me. It's quite a personal show,
very much our own take on the songs, and quite dark, certainly not a frothy glam tribute, though
it does have its moments of humour, most of which Russell handles cos he's better at that than
me! We put it on ourselves at the Rosemary Branch in London and a producer who came along took
us to Edinburgh in 2001. It's got a lot of attention, and we've had some very positive responses,
including from the Bowie fan network. Indeed the man himself has heard a tape of it and gave us
a great quote. In February we're reviving it at the Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead, and it will
probably be in an even more theatricalised version than it was before. It's been great doing it:
the songs are fantastic, I've enjoyed working so closely with Barb and Russell, and it's been
very interesting to do such a theatrical show. I suppose part of me is sorry I've got the most
attention I've ever had for a show of songs by someone else, but that's the way it is. It's great
material, we tackle it in an unusual and worthwhile way, and we also bring out the way the material
relates to a hidden tradition in British songwriting which seems to go contrary to the prevailing
tide of pop, in terms of textual richness and intelligence."
Luna Kafé: What is your opinion of the cabaret scene today?
Des de Moor: "I'm not sure what you mean by the cabaret scene. In Britain we've never
really had a cabaret scene: we had music hall, and the revue and satire traditions, but most
people think of cabaret as either stand-up comedy or the musical by Kander and Ebb, or Bob Fosse's
film of it. Women in fishnets and bowler hats striking vulgar poses on chairs. The US has a cabaret
scene, but most of that seems to be elderly ladies and gay men of a certain age listening to
overdressed divas belting out Broadway standards. Germany and the Netherlands still have theatrical,
comic and satirical cabaret but nowhere near as vibrant a scene as they used to have. France
still has its own chanson but the glory days are long gone. H K Gruber, an Austrian who specialises
in Weill and Eisler material and similar stuff, insists on calling himself a chansonnier because
cabaret today is too confusing a term. I usually describe what we put on at Pirate Jenny's as
musical cabaret and chanson, and me and a few other people writing new stuff in this style call it
"The scene in Britain is very small but very vibrant, creative and healthy considering how
difficult it is to get publicity. Most people have come from some other background: they've
established themselves on the folk scene, or they've come from rock and pop originally. I have
something of both: I used to play in folk clubs and in rock bands. There are a tiny handful of
well-known British artists like Marc Almond and Marianne Faithfull, also David Bowie to a lesser
extent and Scott Walker who is an honorary Brit, who have performed cabaret and chanson material
but are better known for their rock and pop work. Then there are the grassroots people who play
at Pirate Jenny's!"
"But then, I always say that if you're looking for English chanson, you have to look for a
hidden history. Most British popular music is derived largely from American pop music, ultimately
from African-American music, rhythm and blues. At the same time there is a very literate thread
in British popular music that is characteristically European, a particular approach to narrative,
and satirical wit, deriving from the music hall, parlour songs, broadsheet ballads and the revue
tradition, and feeding on a marginal awareness of the popular song of other European countries.
You can see it in a whole range of artists, not only the ones I've mentioned, but many others,
from NoŽl Coward and Anthony Newley through Ray Davies, Steve Marriott, Pete Townsend, Elvis
Costello, Tom Robinson, Paul Weller to Jarvis Cocker."
"I really think that the major part of the problem is not the reluctance of British audiences,
who are generally very receptive once they get to hear the music, which after all is very accessible,
but the lazy and style-obsessed press, who want everything neatly pigeon-holed and attached to
something that can be marketed as a trend. With a few noteworthy exceptions, critics and journalists
here are befuddled by this sort of stuff."
Luna Kafé: Why is Jaques Brel still so popular?
Des de Moor: "Well, is he? In Britain, he's still a best kept secret. People may have
heard of him because some influential artists have covered some of his songs. It's nearly all on
import, with almost nothing aimed at the English-speaking market: I think there's one budget
compilation and that's it. But among those in the know his popularity does endure, and of course
in the francophone world he's still huge, with contemporary artists covering his songs. In Belgium
he is a cultural colossus, and all Belgian singers and songwriters still have to position themselves
in relation to him: there's a very interesting book on Belgian chanson, La Belle Gigue, which is
at least partly themed around this phenomenon. And the reason, I think, is mainly, because he was
so good, and wrote so many extraordinary songs and was such a compelling and intense performer.
His songs are both sophisticated and brilliantly direct, and he can bring such universality out
of songs that seem so personal and emotional, and so rooted in their particular place and time.
His lyrics in particular are extraordinarily concentrated but very direct and easy to apprehend
- he's much easier to translate than, say, Brassens, who loves all these clever puns and dense
literary and political references. He is a great storytelling songwriter, creating instantly
sympathetic characters like the poignantly optimistic nerd waiting for Madeleine who never turns
up, and diamond-sharp little vignettes like the lock keeper in L'Eclusier. Nearly all of his songs
have this sense of narrative, or at least logical progession and argument, which he partly achieves
through repetition and variation. Books have been written about this so I won't go on! Also,
although he's been accused of political fudging, he is always and without fail a humanist and
pacifist, with no patience for bigotry and bunkum."
Luna Kafé: Will you tour after the album is released?
"Des de Moor: "I hope to. Details on the website."
Luna Kafé: What is your audience like?
Des de Moor: "Very mixed. People aged 20 to 80 come to see my shows, though I guess the
bulk of people are within ten years of my age (41). Very mixed genderwise: there was a point where
70% of the people on my mailing list were women,though that's evened up a bit now. I have a small
gay male following but although I'm gay myself, I've never marketed my material as being specifically
of gay interest - the gay scene here is dominated musically by dance music and juvenile pop so
there's no point. Because musical cabaret and chanson don't really have a developed base here, you
pick up people who've got into this sort of music from all kinds of different directions, and the
vast majority of them are very enthusiastic when they find you!"
Luna Kafé: Could you tell us who Barb Jungr is?
Des de Moor: "A singer who originally comes from Rochdale, though her parents are Czech,
and started out in pop, gospel and soul. From the late 1980s she worked in a duo with a guitarist
called Michael Parker, as Jungr and Parker, and they did lots of comedy-cabaret and radio work,
although they weren't purely a comedy act by any means. They were part of comic Julian Clary's
repertory company and did his tours and TV shows, along with Russell Churney who was Julian's
pianist. I met them in 1993 when I was doing a spot at a club They were headlining, and then
again when they were on the same bill as me at the Gay Pride cabaret stage that summer. When I
started Pirate Jenny's I booked them for what must have been one of their last duo performances.
Soon afterwards Barb rang me saying she was now doing a solo show with Russell and would I like
to book that, which I did. Since then she has really built up her career as a chanson and cabaret
singer, and done the best out of all of us. We've also become really good friends and she has been
a great inspiration: she taught me singing for a while and we have very similar ideas on singing
and performance. In 2000 she did an album called Chanson the Space in Between, for which I did
five original translations of Brel and Ferré songs, including a new and faithful translation of
"Ne me quitte pas", better known as "If You Go Away" in a very misleading English version by Rod
McKuen. Her most recent album, Every Grain of Sand, reinterprets Bob Dylan songs in chanson
style: she's been doing very well with it, performing with some success in New York. For more see
her website at www.barbjungr.com."
Luna Kafé: Do you like Marc Almond's work?
Des de Moor: "Yes, very much so, but to a point. I loved Soft Cell, though I generally
hated what happened in mainstream pop in the early 80s, with the rise of the New Romantics. Marc's
solo stuff is more uneven: he is an excellent interpreter of other people's songs and has an eye
for picking the right covers, but his originals often don't stand comparison with the great songs
he surrounds them by. There are exceptions, like "Mother Fist" or "Saint Judy". I like his Brel
interpretations on Jacques, though a lot of people don't: I think they have an acidic sensibility
which is closer to the spirit of the original than, say, the velvet tones of Scott Walker. The
one problem with them is some of the clunky translations he used by Paul Buck, which are inelegant
and over-literal. Absinthe, which features work by various French songwriters, is more mixed: some
of the arrangements are a bit overwrought, he doesn't sound entirely confident with some of the
material and there are Buck's translations again, but I was really glad he was trying to bring
This material to the attention of English-speaking audiences. I love his voice: though technically
it can be a bit creaky he uses it really ambitiously, and he is very much a singer who puts himself
at the service of the text, making the words and the meaning clear. He's a great fan of Juliette
Gréco and that comes across in the way he approaches vocal performance. My only big reservation
with his work is that he is sometimes a bit self-consciously camp and tacky in his approach. You
can't do this with chanson: even if the emotion seems overstated you just have to go with it and
present it in a believable way. And trying to dazzle with glamour and glitz doesn't work either,
which Marc's never been able to do anyway, and that was one of the things that made Soft Cell
more appealing than the rest of the shallow New Romantic mob. His version of the Dutronc song
Déshabille-moi falls flat for these reasons: he just sounds like a Brickie from Southport
in a frock trying to sound like a French sex kitten."
Luna Kafé: Is there a European sensibility to your music?
Des de Moor: "Yes, and very self-consciously so. Not for any chauvinistic reasons, but
just because that is the music I've consistently found has best equipped me for the sorts of things
I want to say, and it's also been neglected in this country so I feel it needs a better crack
of the whip. Formally, I suppose it expresses itself in things like more use of waltzes
and 3/4 time and a certain approach to rhythm and song construction. Barb Jungr claims there are also
differences in phrasing and versification: chanson tends to be one syllable per note, rather than
Anglo-American pop which has inherited a preference for melismas and elaborate ornamentations from
the blues. Also, I've looked at earlier European songwriting, before all the 20th century stuff
like Weill, Eisler, Brel and Brassens that is obviously a big influence. I love Schubert, for
example, and think it's a great shame he's been imprisoned in the bubble of so-called "classical"
music. He's still a textbook example of the way to treat the text in songs, and how to vary a
simple strophic song, and how to incorporate illustrative elements into the setting without
sounding crass, and all sorts of things."
"But it's not only formal, it's also a question of the subject matter of the lyrics, and an
overall attitude and mood. I try to be brave, intelligent, challenging, emotionally sophisticated
and honest, not afraid of being poetic and expressive, exploring language and form and tackling
a wide range of big subjects, but I also try to be direct and accessible, with a dose of wit.
The words are of at least equal importance as the music, and the vocal performance is there to
put the words across, not just to use them as dressing to the melody, as it sometimes is in jazz.
And it's dramatic and theatrical, in the best sense, with the words acted out. It's also often
political, in the same way that Brecht/Weill/Eisler or Boris Vian or Léo Ferré were
political, not "issue-of-the-day" but bringing a social and political critique into the way you
present your view of contemporary life. These are all things that you can find in many British
artists over the decades if you look, but they are the complete antithesis of the brain-dead,
derivative pap that passes for pop music here these days. Not all my influences are European,
by the way. Like everyone else, I've been reared on the sounds of black American music and its
rock and pop derivatives, and that obviously shows."
Copyright © 2003 Anna Maria Stjärnell
Photo © Theo Cohen