'In Germany the brain needs to be touched first, and once the brain says it’s OK, you’re free to check the music out too.'
Herbert Grönemeyer may be the biggest star you’ve never heard of. He’s Germany’s most successful contemporary musical artist - his albums 4630 Bochum and Mensch are the best-selling German-language records of all time.
Herbert moved to London in 1998 and was named Time Magazine’s ‘European Hero’ in 2005 for his humanitarian work. Now he’s released an English language album, ‘I Walk’, which includes duets with Antony Heggarty, James Dean Bradfield and Bono. Brian Draper spoke to him for U2.com.You’ve said that releasing an album in English is like 'starting again'. What can you hope to achieve when you’re already such a huge star in Germany?
To move forwards you sometimes need to move backwards. To start from scratch again. And you need to be willing to fail, because failure refreshes the brain. So this is an opportunity. I didn’t want to become - how do you say? - flabby.You are a critically acclaimed German lyricist. What gets lost in translation - and what gets found?
This isn’t my first English album. I recorded one in the late 1980s, and, that time, tried to translate the lyrics literally. But you can’t just transport one culture into another like that. Another culture has another way of listening to music, to lyrics.How do people listen to music in Germany, then?
In Germany, the brain needs to be touched first, and once the brain says it’s OK, you’re free to check the music out too. In England, they are a bit more vague when it comes to lyrics, but they want to be touched emotionally, in the heart. I have now lived in England for 13 years - a quarter of my life. I’ve learned more about the culture, and I speak the language better. So this time around, while we tried to keep the spirit of the song, we weren’t afraid to find new ways to say the same thing.
Take the song I sing with Bono, which is called ‘Mensch’. That word Mensch doesn’t exist in English. It translates as ‘man’ or ‘mankind', but in German it has a more romantic depth to it. A mensch is a really decent, humble person.
So we had to find a way around that. The song still talks about the beauty of being human, and how beautifully limited we all are - but without using that word.How did you choose the songs from your vast back catalogue to go on this album?
Well the aim is to appeal to someone who has no clue about me; but also to create an album in its own right. It’s not meant to be a greatest hits compilation. I want it to have a character of its own; for the songs to hang together. In fact, three have never been released before.Your wife died from cancer in 1998, just after you’d moved to London. But you decided to stay ?
Yes, this was the beauty within the catastrophe. She always wanted to go to there, and we moved to London just three months before she passed away. We had two little kids, and at first, I thought I should go back to Germany. But we stayed; I thought, there’s a reason why we’re here. And we got so much support from the neighbourhood, from people who had only just met me. They didn’t know who I was, and that was so nice, so good for the children. My kids call London their home. That town helped us to get through.
You don’t always know what to do if someone is in need - I always say, you can’t do a lot, but just be there. Don’t step away: have a cup of tea with them. This is what carried me through that period. It is right to believe in people. I always have.Your music seems very human, very warm in that way. Would you say there’s a spiritual depth to it?
Yes. Definitely. Any art - including music - brings something very deep out of the people who create it, as well as who listen to it. Something they were previously unaware of. Your duet with Antony Hegarty is certainly spine-tingling...
It was worth it all for that musical moment alone with Antony! When he started singing, I thought, “Oh God. What is that?” I had goosebumps. If you can catch the magic in that moment, it’s a treasure forever.And you sing with Bono, too. How did that happen?
I’d met Bono once, I think, through Anton Corbijn, at a party. But I met with him and Bob Geldof at the time of Make Poverty History, and we went together to the G8 summit in Edinburgh. We had the Germans to convince - they were the last to sign!Are you the German Bono, then?
[uproarious laughter] No. At a time when Africa was quite far from people’s minds here in Germany, a magazine asked me to go to there to raise awareness about poverty. It moved me... And then, Richard Curtis asked me if I would help with the German side of the Make Poverty History campaign. So I said sure; I was very touched that he asked.
But no: I don’t see myself as the German Bono. But we co-operated well. I organised a G8 concert in Rostock, and we invited bands from the poorest nations of the world - the P8, as we called them. And then Bono told me he would come on stage with me and sing the German lyrics to Mensch. So he did, we sang Mensch together and he was trying to sing it in German. It was a very funny moment! Did he make any sense ..?
[more laughter] I think the crowd was completely surprised and excited. For them, and for me, it was such a surprise. It was a great gift to the people, for Bono to sing in German. It was very courageous of him.And this led to recording the duet in English?
Well, one day he was in Berlin, and he called to say, “Do you want to get together?” We happened to be recording I Walk. So we played him a few songs and immediately he was deeply into it. He was really focused and we changed the song Hurting Me because of his ideas. He pushed us. It was a really good time.
Later, he told me to send him over a few songs, to see if he could do anything. It was his idea. I wouldn’t have dared ask him. But wow! Suddenly we got something back and he’d sung Mensch. We didn’t expect that at all. It was so beautifully sung.
So I asked him if we could do it as a duet, and he said yes. It was such a gift. And once he does something, he gets into it. It’s lovely to have him on the album, most importantly because it’s a very beautiful contribution. But it’s also a great help. He has been a big support. And the funny thing is, Mensch is exactly about that - about someone who jumps to your side to help you through. It’s about the belief in these things to happen. It’s about friendship, support, helping...And he sang with you on stage again recently?
I recorded a concert in Potsdam, which was to be aired in the US recently, and Bono came along and sang with me, yes. He didn’t want me to announce that he was coming. But he came and we sang Mensch and Stuck in a Moment. These are beautiful things. For him to do that for me, to sing with someone completely unknown in the Anglo-Saxon world, to fly in and help. He has plenty of other things to do with his time. I started singing Mensch, and he came on. The last thing the crowd were expecting was Bono.Were you a fan of U2?
Yes, since the Eighties. I saw my first concert in Cologne when Bono had long hair, in 1986 I think. My wife liked the early albums for their covers of the boy. And I always liked the Edge’s long, stretched guitar lines and this really hypnotising music. I have a little label and worked with a band called Neu! from Germany; The Edge says he was influenced by their guitarist. So there are some connections. I liked Achtung Baby in particular...
... which had its roots in Berlin, of course
And the funny thing is I’m in Hansa Studios right now, as we speak, two floors down from the studio U2 recorded in. Another connection is that Anton Corbijn is the godfather of my son, and we have worked together since the late 80s. I wrote the music for Anton’s film The American and I am just writing the music for his new movie, Most Wanted Man. The funny thing is that Anton used to do the videos to my songs, now I’m doing the music for his films.I Walk has just been released in America. What are your hopes for it?
We are complete newcomers. We start from scratch. If we can put a little seed in there, and the people who get the album think it’s good songwriting, then that’s good news. It’s the first approach, the first meeting, in an unknown country. I hope people think it’s something nice to listen to. Then we work it from there. We let it grow.