“‘I feel suspended. I don’t belong anywhere. There’s bits of me that belong here, bits that belong there,’ she says halfway through the interview, in answer to a question about place and identity.”
STORY: FRED DE VRIES
PHOTOGRAPHY: ANKE LOOTS
Juliana grew up in Pretoria, moved to Jo’burg, then to London, then to Cologne, to Munich and to Berlin. In Germany she had to give up her South African citizenship when she applied for permanent residence. Presently she spends her time between Berlin and Oslo. Like a European soutpiel? ‘Yes, haha, a soutpiel,’ she laughs, and with a touch of nostalgia adds: ‘Gee, I haven’t heard that word for a long time.’
But wait, we are nostalgic too. We miss you Juliana Venter, your trademark screams, your avant-garde explorations and your brazen interviews full of fucks (although some of the old don’t-give-a-fuck attitude seems to have evaporated when she says she doesn’t want me to mention the names of the Afrikaans artists whose albums she would gladly destroy. ‘If you do that I’ll make myself really unpopular!’).
Watch a video of her singing ‘Green Eyes’, and you’ll get my drift about missing… The song was co-written by Ramsay MacKay, leader of the underground legends Freedom’s Children, South Africa’s late sixties equivalent to Pink Floyd. But MacKay left the country and now lives in some dark Scottish forest. In that same video, which has Venter deeply bent over, sing-screaming from her innards, you can also spot lap steel guitarist Jim Neversink, who released a stunning self-titled album in 2005. We had high hopes. Here was our own Wilco. But alas, Neversink also packed his bags, and moved to Copenhagen. ‘Green Eyes’ makes MacKay, Neversink and Venter a band of outsiders, too talented, too impatient and too restless for this often suffocating southern tip of Africa.
But now she’s here, doing the odd theatre, music gig and recording, until she deserts us again in May. ‘Being back, you always feel the push and the pull,’ she says. ‘South Africa is a depressing place and an inspirational place. When the sun shines on my skin and I smell the fynbos and jump into the Atlantic Ocean I know where I come from. But when I have to deal with this pain that’s among people here, there’s always that thing in me: fuck do I want to be here? There’s always that duality.’
From the age of three Venter (1970) knew that she wanted to sing. ‘I’d be hearing Abba and cry to my mother: I’m going to sing,’ she says on the deck of the False Bay Yacht Club in Simon’s Town (she’s staying with a friend in Fish Hoek). Her father was a lawyer who played the trumpet, her mother was a good singer. ‘But they both came from such a stoere boere Afrikaner background that there was no way anyone was going to pursue a musical career. They were very religious, gereformeerdes.’
As a thirteen-year-old Juliana sang with her school revue ‘vir die troepe’ in the Caprivi strip, at the height of the Border War. Her vocal qualities subsequently impressed South Africa’s famous baritone opera singer Dawie Couzyn who took her under his wing and suggested she attend Die Kruin high school in Johannesburg. ‘It was the art/ballet/music school with a hint of Afrikanerdom from hell to it. It was the weirdest experience. You were not allowed to draw naked figures, and there were severe restrictions on the kind of music you could study.’ Fortunately, Die Kruin was not far from Hillbrow, the Sodom and Gomorrah of Jo’burg in the eighties. ‘I was this good Christian girl who arrived to study opera, and within a year I was totally wild. I was fifteen or so and the relationship with my parents broke down. I broke with God and the universe.’
Hillbrow was heaven, the edgy womb of a Jo’burg subculture, where people experimented with sexuality, where you were introduced to the subversive literary works of William Burroughs (Junkie, Naked Lunch) and where you experienced the cleansing of the doors of perception that Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison had promised. ‘Hillbrow to me was like being in New York. It was mad, with places like Café Vienna and the Chelsea Hotel, it had such a vibe. It was like someone gave you LSD for free and the whole thing just turns around. It was: Ok, the world has changed and I’m changing with it.’
In Hillbrow (she never finished art school, because she was kicked out after the staff found burnt pages of the Bible in her cupboard; however, Couzyn kept training her for a total of thirteen years) she met visual artists such as Neil Goedhals en Konrad Welz, and actor/musician Marcel van Heerden, with whom she had a relationship and started the theatrical music group Mud Ensemble, which was so way ahead of its time that no music was ever released. That is until five years ago. Because in 2011 Venter decided to bring out the compilation 1993-1999, for which she was criticized by some of her former band mates. ‘Ag, it was stupid not to have it documented. You spend ten years creating it and then everyone’s fighting about it. That’s just ridiculous,’ she says.
After Mud Ensemble split in 1999 and her relationship with van Heerden ended, she decided it was time for a tabula rasa. ‘Things were too straight for me,’ she says. ‘I wanted to be in a situation where I could learn new things.’ She bade a tearful farewell to her six-year old son and moved to London, where she didn’t know a soul. It took her a year and many odd jobs (including selling light bulbs to farmers) to find her feet and think about music again. Her endurance paid off. She met like-minded people and collaborated with post-punkers Philip Winter (Lone Taxidermist) and Steven Mallinder (Cabaret Voltaire). They made ‘druggy music’.
Via a drummer, she was introduced to Freedom’s Children’s Ramsay MacKay, who invited her into his hermit-like world in the Scottish forest. They recorded sixteen songs, none of which have seen the light of day. It’s a matter of no hurry, no urgency and, most importantly, no money. The experience, however, was incredible. ‘Ramsay has such charisma. He’s an incredible poet and writer and painter. He taught me a lot about arranging and orchestration, and how you can get out of the restrictions of rhyme and use poetry in such a way that it conjures up mysterious images, making it visually very rich when you listen to it.’
Back in London she fell in love with a film editor who took her to Germany. There she got involved in dance and theatre and befriended electronic duo Mouse on Mars. She became part of the neo-Krautrock scene, influenced by bands such as Can, Faust and Neu, which in the 70s changed the trajectory of pop/rock with their improvisational skills and motorik rhythms. As a tribute to this legacy, she called her own music ‘neue Musik’. It resulted in the album Sunflower Sutra, which she recorded with guitarist Joseph Suchy under the moniker Spooky Attraction From a Distance. It’s music that defies categorisation, drawing on psychedelia, freak folk, opera, dada, pop and krautrock, carried by Venter’s idiosyncratic vocals. Adele or Beyoncé it certainly wasn’t.
In the meantime Venter married and divorced the German film editor (they have a 12-year old daughter together) and continued to extend her geographical scope: next destination Oslo. There she works with saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrom, a big name in the world of contemporary classical music. They met in 2012 during the Edge of Wrong festival in Cape Town, where she gave him a copy of Sunflower Sutra, hoping he’d like it. She waited and waited and waited. ‘I didn’t hear from him. But then out of the blue he called me up and said there’s this project happening and I should speak to the director.’ That project was Congress of Dreams, a piece of experimental musical theatre to be performed in Oslo’s Black Box Teater. ‘It was very much based on finding out what the “European Dream” is today, and dealing with refugee crisis, the economic crisis, all the European problems. The text was written by a famous Norwegian punk poet Øyvind Berg,’ she says. And with a sense of wonder: ‘So I was suddenly playing with the cream of Norwegian jazz and contemporary classical.’
She now inhabits a world where the contemporary classical composers Giacinto Scelsi and Olivier Messiaen rub virtual shoulders with Jimi Hendrix and Einstürzende Neubauten, a creative world without borders. She shrugs and says, ‘I’ve always been fascinated with bringing what you would call pop sensibility together with this avant-garde or contemporary world.’
Oslo has been great for her. ‘The Norwegian scene at the moment is one of the best in the world. As a musician you have your ass kicked so well and so intensively that in very quick time you realize you better be good or you’re out,’ she says. ‘If you compare it to a drug experience then in Oslo I’m on a rush. But it also means you’re shitting your pants every single day.’
She smiles and sips some wine, while we watch the boats lolling in the gentle waves. ‘But to be kind to myself,’ she continues, ‘in terms of singing skills I don’t have to be shy. I can sing very well and in many different genres. In Congress of Dreams I come on as James Brown, going on my knees while doing “Please, Please, Please”. And then I go straight into opera. And then I come out as an actress. And then I do my famous screaming. And then Kabuki theatre and Japanese music. I love that.’
But at heart she’s still that Hillbrow punk. When I ask her if she prefers Oslo to Berlin she grins mischievously. ‘The Norwegian society is just a little bit too clean for me. I love Berlin; I need to know the heroin addicts are still at Kottbusser Tor; that there are still some beggars; and that there’s definitely going to be some pub brawl tonight. In Berlin you can see some real shit going down, in Oslo you wish there was shit going down.’
Show No Mercy
Tristan und Isolde
Emi la voix de son maître
Alpha & Omega