As the global pandemic looms in across six continents. Torture the Artist checks in on Berlin’s Jennifer Touch who had just recently came out of the studio after completing her new album, Behind the Wall on Fat Cat, only to revert back to isolation. The Berlin-based artist who also contributed a track to Riotvan’s Familiar Faces N°. 3 compilation just last week, had a busy next few months planned: touring, travelling, reconnecting with people, as she unravels a very intimate collection of music that provide a glimpse into her complex inside world, through her own unique and eclectic sound. But as unforeseen circumstances got in her way, and everyone else’s for that matter, the DJ/Producer/singer takes a step back and reflects on her creative process, her inspiration, her music and her roots. Growing up in GDR before the wall came down has introduced young Jennifer to music from an unconventional perspective, but the way she has evolved from there has a lot to do with her success and determination now, and she doesn’t mind talking about it here.
There is a bigger thing than our personal success or joy, it is now about saving our world and society and showing solidarity and trust.
Torture the Artist: We can’t shy away from what’s going on and affecting every one of us, and it’s quite important to check in on our artist friends. Sorry to put you in the spot, but how has the recent pandemic impacted your day to day life these days? As an artist, and a human being in general?
Jennifer Touch: In the beginning I was worried about my family and friends and wanted to make sure that everyone was safe. But day by day I realized how much it will also affect my life as an artist and my work from the last two years. Now my album release and promotion are postponed, as well as some gigs, some were cancelled. I cannot travel and play my music. The last weeks were so strange in Berlin that I finally gave up going to my studio. I was kind of hopeless for a few days, but now I think: I have finished my album and it is more than I ever wanted to. I’m trying to make plans for the next weeks and we have some ideas for social media, maybe a live stream gig and some mixes etc. It’s a tough time and I’m not happy at all. But the music scene is in solidarity now, more than usual, because we are all in the same boat. It’s also a chance for society to realize how important it is to support art and culture, it’s basically necessary for people’s mental health. It is very difficult to be an artist today if you are not rich and famous. In any case, more support should be given. In return it is crazy how much money is paid to some people in the scene, it is almost perverse. It twists the meaning of art, it is a business without any meaningful content. Festivals pay thousands for a headliner, and the tickets are so expensive that normal people can’t afford them anymore. That’s not what music is about. It is not elitist. It should be a love gift for everyone, and of course the artist deserves good pay, but still sensible. Now we are all in the same bad and sad situation, and I feel sorry for all those who suffer from it. But there is a bigger thing than our personal success or joy, it is now about saving our world and society and showing solidarity and trust. Some countries do not even have clean water and soap to fight the virus. And there are still starving children and people living on the streets. This is not the only crisis we are in.
Torture the Artist: You’ve always been expressive with your music, which is often more an indication of introvertion if anything. Is the urgent need to self-isolate (well, at least physically) hard for you, or is it something you’ve been accustomed to, or at least familiar with?
Jennifer Touch: Yes, of course! I am completely used to isolating myself from the world, but only out of the need to be creative and to get as close as possible to my own feelings and expressions. It is not something anyone tells me, so it is my personal freedom to hide. And I always have to be dynamic even in my loneliness, I love to travel and be flexible. If I get stuck somewhere, I go crazy. Now it is completely different. It’s not something I decided. I’m not sitting happily in my studio writing music, because I feel rather phlegmatic at the moment. And I can’t travel and see my friends who I really miss. So loneliness and isolation can be healthy for me as long as I am able to leave and see my loved ones. So the situation is actually painful now because I don’t feel free and the world around me is not available. I was isolated for a long time while I was working on this album. Now I finally wanted to show my face again, and I cannot.
Torture the Artist: We know you’re in the middle of some projects, your contribution to Riotvan’s Familiar Faces Anthology which is due out next week, and the final stages of your upcoming album which we would like to explore deeper later on. Did you have to make some adjustments to your game plan or is the timeline running on schedule?
Jennifer Touch: The Riotvan release came out as planned, which is great, and I think there’s a good chance that people will enjoy the music at home in isolation, and maybe it’s not so bad that the artists will not play around this release. People have time to discover the label and the great back catalogue. But the whole planning around my album has changed. The release was postponed to June and also the next single will be out later than expected. An album promotion is an elaborate schedule to build up interests, and now we have to stretch it and maybe lose some attention. But I am lucky that we can still postpone things and maybe wait for a more relaxed situation. And hopefully I can do my little tour around the album release later.
Torture the Artist: Okay, current events out of the way. There’s so much we want to know about you. Let’s start from the very beginning. Where did you grow up and when did you realize your long-term love affair with music?
Jennifer Touch: I grew up in the GDR, a few years before the Wall came down. We had these weekly meetings at school, and I often had to sing heroic socialist songs in front of the whole school, which was so strange because I deeply hated this uniformity of behaviour – but I always liked singing. So I took it as a chance to shine, to stand out. And sometimes I changed a word, that was my personal, childish revolt. But I was also lucky to enjoy the really beautiful East German children’s records on which they already used synthesizer sounds and beautiful melodies, which also carried the typical bittersweet sadness of society. At the end of the 80s my parents separated and my father gave me a self-recorded cassette with his current favourite songs. I remember listening to True Faith by New Order all the time. I was so young and didn’t understand anything, but I felt what the message was. Those powerful beats, his sensitive voice, that sad synthesizer melody… I realized what a wonderful, painful and sweet universe and a mirror of a song can be. And how much it embraces you. Later I was surprised how much the lyrics described my situation. So I didn’t start composing my own songs when I was young and all that nonsense, no, I spent the first years of my life listening very well and respecting the art. I captured the details of music and tried to hear every single note in a song. I have acquired a deep love and sensitivity for sounds and details.
Torture the Artist: Your productions are very rich in character and substance, unique in sound and fearless in style. What inspires your artistic vision and direction? Who were among your greatest musical influences?
Jennifer Touch: My artistic vision is to return to devotion and truth as a child does. To invest as much time and care as possible in our work. My incentive is to connect every detail of a composition with the whole It sounds simple, but every little second and every note must make sense for the result. So the intuitive creative process is followed by an intensive part of separating the essential from the superfluous. Or rather: to put everything in its place. And yet not being too perfect, calculating everything. I am inspired to do this by a certain group of musicians and artists who all create with special care. With a certain attitude towards their work and their own voice. They subject their own person to the music. I like musicians who are able to create like a child, but amazingly structure this with a wise devotion. I love PJ Harvey. Sonic Youth. Karat. Depeche Mode. Alan Vega. I love the weird techno of Krikor. I love the voice of Elvis Presley. And it’s not like I have a certain style that I listen to and try to emulate. I rarely listen to music of the 80s or Dark Wave. I like to use synthesizer sounds, but I am also inspired by indie or beatnik music. I am inspired by attitudes. And by courage. My DJ sets are also much harder than my own music, but these are two different attitudes, whether I play a set or compose my own music.
Torture the Artist: You are notorious for a distinctively fine ability of fusing a little bit of vintage, a little bit of punk, a disco flair, some industrial spunk. How much does growing up in East Germany influence your style? Do you think that your upbringing plays a major role in the Jennifer Touch style as we know now?
Jennifer Touch: As a child I could constantly feel this longing for another world, for an escape and a few colours. At the same time I felt at home in this small world, which was trapped in a socialist wall. A part of the world, but far away from everything that surrounds it. Even before I knew about the wall, I felt this prison while I saw my parents trying to escape the small thoughts, the small possibilities, the narrow structures. They were so young but already old, they didn’t have many possibilities to form themselves as individuals, they already knew how everything would be in their future. And when the wall came down, everything was new. And strange. They felt lost, and they missed their little world of friends, apples and strawberries, one beer, one TV show, one party. But they also got new chances. I guess it was a strange, exciting pain. The reason for me to make music is to relieve a sense of this longing, which still exists now. The whole core of my art lies in this ambivalent feeling of being safe in a small world (within myself), but dreaming of the farthest desert and the greatest stories that may come. I also try to keep my music away from sales arguments, I always work directly from the heart, not from the idea of making a business with my work, what could make the most money, etc. I only put into a song what it really needs. I grew up in an environment where nobody had much money and in the end it was not necessary. It didn’t make things worthwhile. I think some vibes of the GDR times are still present in my music. It is a special document of these warming Krautrock sounds, accompanied by cold 80s synthesizer wave sound and followed by the first techno bunker. In the end, it shaped me as an artist and gave me the ability to draw my own picture. But despite or because of my background I don’t feel very German as an artist, rather universal. That’s where it just started, nothing more or less.
My goal is to take rules that seem to be fixed, such as how a pop song or an electro track works, and question them.
Torture the Artist: We’ve heard that as a child, you were “led to believe all the melodies in the world had already been used, rendering being a musician futile and pointless.” Is this true? How did you absorb this concept and manage to expel such meaningful music in the future? Does this thought still come back and affect (whether inspire or complicate) your artistic process?
Jennifer Touch: Yes, I remember talking to an adult (my grandma or my teacher?) about becoming a musician. This person wanted to prevent me from being an idiot and starting a career in the arts. I was about 7 years old and was shocked when I heard this. My concept didn’t seem to work, I was obviously too late. All melodies are already taken? What the fuck?! But I think that was the moment when I realized the importance of creative work. Whenever I sang, I felt my own complement to the existing world around me. And that I was instantly forming something new. So I did not take the concept given to me, but took it as a chance to break through this bullshit. I developed a strong sensitivity for the things around me, I listened and observed, as I said before, for years just listening. And then I slowly began to create, respecting my influences but also consciously ignoring them. When you create a work of art, it is always a complement, a transformation. Especially today. Depending on the era in which you work as an artist, the meaning and content of your work changes. My friend Robert from DAF always tells me how exciting it was when they formed their band. They created something completely new, and when someone said to a new song: Oh, it sounds like this or that band – they discarded it. They wanted something they had never heard before. And they had that chance, because time offered a new machine: these new affordable Korg synthesizers. DAF were pioneers in the way they used them. So the way I make music is different. My goal is to take rules that seem to be fixed, such as how a pop song or an electro track works, and question them. And to create a new rule by simply changing some special details that you as a listener don’t even recognize, and to create a completely new piece of music based on the existing parts. When you listen to my songs, you might think: Oh, this is music from the 80s with a bit of post-punk, but you will also feel it: There is something intangible. And that is my very own ingredient, something that has never been there before. It’s the ingredient of memories and the result of someone telling me back then that I can’t do anything new anymore. That is the power of art. It simply has to be brought to life.
Torture the Artist: Before becoming a producer, how involved were you in music? Your career seems to have taken off immediately, and a few releases, some collaborations with other well regarded artists in the scene succeeded right after. What did it take for you to dive right in?
Jennifer Touch: I started singing in bands when I was 19. I always knew that I had to make music in some way. It took me a long time to realize how exactly that should look like. As a singer in bands I didn’t feel very connected to music because the music didn’t come from my own head. But I had time to practice and get to know my voice. And I had a great time! I also started my own band once, which sounded like Peaches with Robots in Disguise and Sandra in quarantine. It was fun, but it didn’t work out. So the music and I had a long-distance relationship for ages. It’s funny that you say my career is something that happened right away, it’s the opposite. 10 years ago I started composing my own music, 8 years ago I released my first song and my first EPs. Almost 3 years ago I decided to concentrate only on music, I accepted myself as the artist I am. And I think that was the point where things finally started to develop. But it took me eternal patience, stoic discipline and dedication. And little by little I got more and more recognized by the industry and now, 10 years later, I have my first record deal and my first album. And that still feels like a beginning.
Torture the Artist: Your sound has been consistent, but it has also evolved. Are there things you miss about the old Jennifer Touch?
Jennifer Touch: I do not miss anything if something is lost along the way, because that is the nature of development. There is no old Jennifer touch, it’s still the same, but clearer in essence and focused. My earlier pieces were just different versions of the current songs, but they are still included in my current work. I have a better technical knowledge now, but I always had my own vision. I used to sing with a strong reverb on my vocals, I think I had to take a step back from my role as a singer when I started to create my own music. I wanted to concentrate only on the music at first and was afraid that my singing might be too engaging. Now both elements have the same value and I feel that my music has now arrived at itself. I am so happy to be more awake, to develop myself as an artist every day, to create and build my own space. Change is important for me, even if it is only in the small details.
Torture the Artist: At this current moment. Which track of yours do you feel most connected to?
Jennifer Touch: In fact, I would say, every song on the album, because I put all my time and all my heart into it. And I basically feel more and more connected to the songs that are not yet released because they still belong to me and I have to protect them or something. I listen to them very often, I take care of them, I carry them in my ears like babies. But as soon as they are published, they no longer belong to me, they belong to everyone. It’s like a gift I create in secret, and then I give it away. And it’s usually like a relief, that’s what it’s all about.
Torture the Artist: You have quite a tight relationship with Riotvan, dishing Hollow Flake to their Familiar Faces compilation, after having released your second EP on the label just last year. How did this relationship come about and how did you manage to stay on the same page through all these years?
Jennifer Touch: Before I moved to Berlin 5 years ago, I lived in Leipzig, and we met through a mutual friend, Good Guy Mikesh. Mikesh supported me with my first releases and I also sang on Night Stalker by New World for Riotvan. So this was the beginning of a professional relationship, Markus (head of Riotvan) invited me to deliver a track for First Familiar Faces and an EP in 2016. And I started playing live at Riotvan Showcases and he taught me some DJ skills and took me to some of his gigs as a B2B partner. That was really cool, so we grew together, him with his label and me as an artist. The music scene in Leipzig is very tight, so I was lucky that some of my friends were also active in the music scene. My very first EP came out on Lunatic Records, and after them Riotvan was exactly the label that kept releasing my sound alongside their more dance-floor-focused records. I was like an addition to it, not a bestseller at first, but Markus had a good feeling for the mix of his roster, and it was a chance to build up a special palette. So while I was developing my sound, he was always open to it. Riotvan has built up his own universe in the electronic music scene, and I don’t always fit into the dance music scene. I’m something between indie and wave, post pop whatever. That’s why I’m now very happy to be signed to Fat Cat Records and reach a new audience, but apart from that I will always release more club related tracks on Riotvan. I like working with friends and both labels give me the opportunity to feel at home but free to be creative in all directions.
Torture the Artist: Not all vocalists produce their music, and certainly not many producers can do vocals. For you it must be a blessing, but are there times when it becomes almost a curse? What is your approach to creating music when you have to do both? Do you have a particular system or methodology? Make vocals first and ornate it with sound? Or make a melody and suture it with lyrics?
Jennifer Touch: No, it’s never a curse, it’s a blessing, as you say. I can do my own things, I can express myself in all parts. The voice is like an instrument, no more or less, and I am glad that I can use it the way I want. It simply makes the whole work of art complete, and it is my pure work. I never start a song with the vocals, that’s something that finally comes along. Or rather, I have to think carefully about when and how I can use it. Singing brings human energy and is always very intense. It can destroy the whole flow if you put too much emphasis on it. Or you lose power if you make it too blurry. And there is no particular process with me, it is always different. Most of the time I start with a lead synth sound where it takes me days to tinker with it. I love that! Then I add a beat or the vibe and then the vocal ideas or the other way around to get a feel for where the piece wants to go. And little by little it gets a form, I decide if it’s a song or more a track, if there are lyrics coming out of me or just phrases. It’s just a game that is completely surprising to me what comes out in the end. But like I said before, after the playful part the hard work, the structuring, the mixing begins. But I love that too, I love everything about it!
You can’t force the creation, it’s like a plant. You can’t force a plant to grow or to flower.
Torture the Artist: Do you ever find both roles in conflict? How do you bail yourself out of creative slumps and eventually figure out a way to make it work?
Jennifer Touch: As I said before, there are no separate roles, my voice is just an instrument that I use. So there is no conflict at all, it is simply my way of making music, because as an artist I work with sounds and singing. I don’t think I’ll deliver a title without even a little bit of my voice in it, that wouldn’t be me. And I have no recipe for solving creative holes. Actually, I believe in being creative in every way. So even if one day I don’t find the right energy, I know that my brain is already working on something. It never sleeps. But when I’m really stuck in an uncreative desert, I try to help myself with a little discipline. I still go to my studio and then I just sit between my equipment and get a little bit angry or sad and sometimes I can start something, sometimes I just go home again. You can’t force the creation, it’s like a plant. You can’t force a plant to grow or to flower. You can just provide a platform, some love and light, and sometimes you can just say: f*ck it, I hate my life, next time.
Torture the Artist: Your album, Behind the Wall, is due out on Fat Cat this summer. When did the idea of composing your first album come about? Was there a particular inspiration or experience that motivated you to start the project?
Jennifer Touch: When I decided to quit all other jobs and concentrate only on music, my primary goal was to create an album. I wanted to present a complete artwork, a showcase of what’s going on inside. I had the urgent need to work permanently on a collection of songs that represented my current point of view. I felt that I had songs inside of me and they just wanted to get out. Like my own little document of time and my reflection on pop culture after years of making music. So it was a deep wish and also just the next step. And I met a person who inspired me a lot, someone who opened my eyes for my own meaning and value as a musician. That gave me the strength to be focused and uncompromising. I wanted and needed an album, nothing else. And I started with Chemistry. It was supposed to be part of an LP, but was first released on the EP on Riotvan. Finally it opened the door for me to make my album on Fat Cat. It was a showcase of my ability to write songs, and that was an interesting point, I think. The elements I use come from dance music, but also from post punk, pop or indie. Which becomes interesting when you manage to write a good song and include all these elements. That was my challenge. And in the music scene an album is another announcement, you are seen in a different way. It’s an opportunity and a risk. I take both.
You have to wait for the release, for months! And you can’t relax because you’re so excited, and you’re also scared because you can’t change the music.
Torture the Artist: What was the hardest part of working on the album? Did you ever have to take a break and find the need to pick up where you left off? For any reasons, perhaps maybe it was getting quite too personal?
Jennifer Touch: It was always and every day an extremely intense experience. From the day I decided to concentrate on this record, I lived on my own planet. I felt I had to cut myself off from the world around me. It was the right decision and the only possible option, and of course it was sometimes very difficult. Because whenever I wanted to get out of my isolation and connect with someone else, it wasn’t really possible. I could not reconnect with anyone else, it was like sitting in a cage. That sounds over the top, but it was my way of doing the best work. And the only way to believe in it and stay strong. Because sometimes you think: What the fuck am I doing here? Is this how it’s supposed to be? Making an album? Yeah, that’s what it is. I’m still working on getting out of this prisoner status, which isn’t really easy at the moment. So I’ve been very lonely a lot of times. And I never took a break, I was always working on it. Not always physically, but mentally. And at the final mix in Devon Analogue Studio I was about to go crazy because I couldn’t find the point to let it go, I thought about every detail of the sounds for far too long. It was crazy, but doable. And I actually really enjoyed the craziness. The truly horrible part just comes after everything is done. You’re ready to go! But you have to wait for the release, for months! And you can’t relax because you’re so excited, and you’re also scared because you can’t change the music, and you can’t concentrate on something new because you have to prepare live sets and organize things – and you’re just looking forward to playing the shows. It is necessary to play the music live, to go on tour, after such a long time of creating, producing and living in your own little bubble. It’s like a relief and you fight your way free. To enjoy the world. And now? Corona. So this state now, where I can’t play and take care of my record and maybe lose my chance, where I just have to wait, without making money and without much energy – that’s the hardest part. But music is music and it will always find its way. So in the end everything will be good.
Torture the Artist: Is there any track in the album in which you made yourself most vulnerable?
Jennifer Touch: Actually, every single song is born out of a very personal place and a very personal sensuality. How does Fever Ray sing: “I put my soul into what I do”. I think The Wall and Flatlands are two of the more sensitive songs, I sing about themes and experiences that are very personal and composed it in a very tender way. In The Wall my singing is more emphasized. I don’t hide behind the beats or noises. And the melodies come in like tears. Flatlands was completed with guitar sounds of another person, so my song somehow exposed itself to this person. In an interesting way. But to be honest, every song, every synthesizer sound, every beat and of course every vocal line is something that comes from deep inside, so I don’t hide anything. And this makes me feel more powerful than fragile.
To see my friends and just go for a coffee outside.
Torture the Artist: After the album release, what do you look forward on doing and spending your time on? A long break, vacation, heavy DJing?
Jennifer Touch: After the release I hope the isolation and the bans are lifted, so I´m looking forward to play as much as I can, to travel and to show my music. To see my friends and just go for a coffee outside. And finally I would love to earn some money with my music to afford my life as an artist and to work on new songs and records. That’s what makes me happy.
Interview by Marie J Floro