She is responsible for countless earworms and even more hit singles. She fills her audience’s minds with thoughts and their hearts with joy. German music icon Nena has been following her very own soundtrack for more than 35 years. With the release of her new studio album Oldschool, Discover Germany spoke to Nena about her ongoing tour, her greatest hits and her dreams for the future.
Listening to the opening of Nena’s latest live record, Live at SO36, one can immediately feel that the person behind the microphone never really wanted to grow up. “Hello my dears,” she says on that first track. “How are you? It’s going to be a long and hot night. Are you ready?” Then for the next 88 minutes there is pure, rousing rock ’n’ roll. Born as Gabriele Susanne Kerner in Hagen in 1960, Nena grew up in a musical household. “Already as a baby I always wanted to listen, sing and dance to my parents’ records,” she explains. “At the age of seven I got my own accordion, then I took a detour to the land of the recorder. Eventually my father brought home an old piano, on which I was free to beat away extensively. And in 1971, when I was 12, my first guitar lay under the Christmas tree.” Incidentally it was in the same year, that Nena first heard The Rolling Stones song Angie. Like so many of her generation, the legendary band had a huge influence on her. “The music I grew up with has inspired me to go out into the world.”
Over the horizon
When Nena became the lead singer of her first band called The Stripes, she did not know about golden record awards or international acclaim. It was not even important whether or not her efforts would lead to a career. “We were four: a drummer, a bassist, a guitarist and a Nena. It was romantic and also a little bit wild,” she says. Playing with The Stripes was a formative experience for her and until today she has never let go of the feeling of freedom and living that it gave her. The band played straight up rock ’n’ roll with Nena singing in English. After the band broke up, Nena moved to West Berlin in 1981. At the time Berlin was the musical hotspot of Europe that was fast, vibrant and hugely creative, and Nena was right there where it all happened.
In Berlin she formed a new, self-titled band and in 1982 their first hit single was Nur geträumt (Just a Dream). It was a classic overnight success story, as the band played on the German television programme Musikladen and sold 40,000 singles the next day. Two singles later her most famous song was released, a tune that became an international smash hit and changed her life forever. “At a Stones concert in Berlin, at the end of the show, Mick Jagger released thousands of balloons and the wind pushed them over the wall into East Berlin.” 99 red balloons was conceived at that moment and guitarist Carlo Karges wrote the lyrics the same night. “I love this song,” Nena says. “It has become a friend since long ago. In this lifetime there will never be a Nena-concert without him. ”
In February 2015 Nena released her latest studio effort Oldschool. Produced by German rapper Samy Deluxe, it deals with the passing of time and is also a call back to the sound of The Stripes. The combination of the two artist’s sensibilities is exciting and makes for a dynamic listen. “Encounters from different worlds are often the most thrilling ones. We got to know each other and quickly realised that we liked and in-spire each other,” recalls Nena.
Throughout the year Nena is on tour again, playing all over Germany like she has been doing for over 30 years. “Still, no concert resembles the other, regardless whether there are 200, 4,000 or 10,000 people, it is always new.” Since the 1980s she has been on stage all over the world, but in 2016, in between her German concerts, she will do her first American tour starting in September. Going over to the United States has been a long time wish of hers.
“Not that much thinking – doing”
When asked about her recipe for a life of success, Nena laughs and explains: “It continues anyway, that’s the stream of life. Everything is in movement and when you stay flexible in body and soul, you can travel with it and experience amazing things.” Since the death of her first child she has stopped questioning everything. “For me nothing is just right or wrong anymore, because after a while one can see in the deepest darkness.”
She has found a spiritual home in Ham-burg, enjoys the city’s international appeal and the fresh breeze from the sea. Musically Nena still listens to her teenage favourites, including of course The Rolling Stones, but also Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Pink Floyd. She has four children and continues to get involved in social issues. In 2007 she found the New School Hamburg, which for the first time in Germany follows the Sudbury model. On television she took part in the show The Voice of Germany and can currently be seen on the new season of Sing My Song, where artists sing each other’s songs.
One of her big dreams is to live on a farm: “Someday I will live in the midst of fields and grasslands, with goats, dogs, bees and pigs.” She says this with clear certain–ty, a certainty birthed from her seemingly unlimited reserves of positivity and her unique ability to dream and go forward. We do not doubt her, because after listening to her songs, we know that she will make it happen. Anyplace, anywhere, anytime.
TEXT: THOMAS SCHROERS I PHOTOS: ALEXANDER HUSEBY, ESTHER HAASE, HEIKO LASCHITZKI