I’m interested in the tension between beauty and transience. An Interview with Kristina Jung

When singer Kristina Jung appeared out of nowhere with an impressive debut around ten years ago, I was particularly attracted by the subtlety behind which, as I wrote at the time, “you could easily ignore the depth and sometimes profound melancholy of the five tracks”. There was something homely and at the same time eerie about the songs, in whose faint folk echoes a hidden drama shone through, which was so effective precisely because it didn’t have to wave with the fence post. Since those days, the singer and musician, who now lives in Freiburg im Breisgau, has come a long way. In addition to her (partly academic) work and her family life, which also keeps her more than busy all the time, music is just one area that she pursues with considerable intensity. The fact that, as she will say in the following interview, she can only be maximalist, can be heard in every second of her album “Care & Explosion”, which was released almost two years ago. It’s a diverse work full of emotional intensity and yet devoid of any sentimentality, in which one can go on a journey of discovery in a darkened cabinet of curiosities or in the weirder collections of a natural history museum and almost hope to lose oneself. The fact that she knows how to combine such an atmosphere with an engaging beauty without striking contrasts is one of the many topics that our interview is about.

German Version

Your first long player “Care & Explosion” was released a little over a year ago and was received with quite some enthusiasm – not just by us. How do you feel about the record today? Has your view of it’s music changed a bit after some time?

I rarely listen to the album. Actually only when my husband shows it to guests. And then I’m just happy that I did that and managed to write and record such a lively album, with all its strengths and weaknesses.

Could you imagine that at some point you could hear the record as if it was someone else’s work, simply because so much has changed over time? I come to this because I sometimes feel that way myself with my older texts…

It’s hard to say, but there are so many memories attached to the record, joys and sorrows, small victories and hard battles, there’s still a lot of water that has to go down the drain before I can get that distance.

As far as I know, you took classical singing lessons. How would you describe your development as a singer? Were there any particular ideas, paradigms and perhaps activities before your current career as a singer and songwriter was born?

I actually had a lot of classical singing lessons as a student and at the beginning of my studies, but – and this is a crucial difference – I didn’t study singing. However, when I was younger, being an opera singer was clearly my dream job. But the more insights I got into the opera world, the more I became aware that I would always feel like a foreign body. At first it felt like a failure, but today I’m happy.

How did you decide to record and perform music as Kristina Jung?

This was less of a decision and more of an organic process. Jung is my grandmother’s maiden name, I played my first concerts under that name and then it just stayed. And from the first songs and concerts to the first recordings it was only a small step. Ultimately, at some point during the lesson, my guitar teacher in the USA said “that sounds lovely, let me grab a mic” and then we started.

It was once said that you basically taught yourself the studio work. Is that true, and if so, was it a playful act and what were the biggest challenges?

Yes, that too was the result of failure. I stopped my dissertation in 2016 and was left in limbo for the time being. So I got some software, a manual and cheap microphones and got started. That was definitely naive and playful and that’s what I needed after all these years of academic seriousness and pressure to perform. I love recording. Nowhere else in life do I have more creative freedom. I actually only had nice studio experiences, but I still didn’t want to always wait for men to develop a vision for my music. I wanted to be able to implement the vision myself.

Is there a particular way you generally approach new challenges?

Full of fearlust.

There were several years between your debut EP “Into the Light that I have Known” and the release of your first album, during which you also started a family and, if I understand correctly, worked in academia. Did you take your time with the music because of your other priorities, or are you just very thorough and give the ideas time to mature?

So, while working on the album, I had two children, changed residence three times, changed careers three times, completed further training, published academically, built a house and, like all of us, survived a pandemic. There’s just a lot of life in between. But I also learned how to make an album while I was making it. It took a lot of time for mistakes. I also recorded guitar and vocals at the same time and without clicking. So if I messed it up at the end of a great take, I couldn’t just cut it, I had to start over.

In some of your songs, the focus is on the body in its exposed, threatened and sometimes damaged state, in other words as an unsafe place with a limit that can always be crossed. How did the topic come to you? Would you like to use this choice of motif to make a statement against the still strong tendency towards idealized body images in popular aesthetics?

I think the theme has always been there. Life is so precious and we are so strong and so fragile at the same time, how could I not think about it? But I also think that I don’t know any woman who isn’t fully aware of her vulnerability. We do not have the privilege of feeling invincible in patriarchy.

In your songs, something mysterious often appears together with a half-darkened sweetness. What makes such an atmosphere so appealing to you and are there any role models in other media?

I think I’m interested in the tension between beauty and transience. There are role models everywhere, David Lynch immediately comes to mind, Francis Bacon, Nan Goldin, Gregory Crewdson, Hieronymus Bosch, Christian Petzold, Sofia Coppola, Marcel Proust, Robert Musil. I sometimes say in my concerts that my goal is to send everyone home crying. This is of course a joke, but on the other hand I do believe that there is something cathartic in the sadness that a work of art has triggered in us.

Your music is full of sometimes hidden details that could be understood as disturbing or at least heterogeneous elements, and which give the songs a special charm (examples would be the spooky whispers and other sounds in “Infant Thoughts”, a hypnotic tension that resembles the desire for pain in the lyrics of “Domestic Bliss”, the samples in contrast to the enchanted melody in “Ada”, but often also the subtly suspended mood in many of the songs). Do you consciously look for things like this, or do they come about automatically?

So when a song or a recording seems too nice for me, I definitely feel the urge to do something about it. I prefer complexity to coherence and the production of a piece is the crucial lever; you can then create something in the background that gives the piece something ominous.

As a night owl raised on dark romance, I particularly fell in love with the song “The North Water”, it is one of my favorites on the album. What kind of story are you telling?

Yes, North Water is definitely one of my favorites too. This is the first piece I recorded for the album. The Groninger Museum, an art museum in Groningen, asked me to write a piece for one of their exhibits, which visitors can then hear in the audio guide. They sent me a database of exhibits and I chose an old Dutch painting, sailing ships in a storm, the sky opens up, the sun comes through, something like that. It’s about saying goodbye and staying behind, about anger and sadness and about the dirt and charm of a port city.

One thing that has been said about your music is that it incorporates folk influences without a romantic idyll. I would say that too, but in my opinion there have always been disillusioning breaks in such music in the past, and folk traditions rarely developed without other musical influences. Is there music with such ambiguity that has particularly influenced your listening habits and your own creativity?

Yes, of course, I didn’t invent that, it’s always been around and everywhere. With Schubert and Schuman, Chopin, Mahler, you also find this discrepancy between the beautiful surface and the abyss. While I was recording the album I listened to a lot of different types of music. Lots of Alt-J, Beyoncé, Ghostpoet, Madrugada, Massive Attack, Radiohead, Sevdaliza, and Marika Hackman. All very different music with the commonality that they have beautiful melodies. That’s important to me.

The album was partly written during your pregnancy. Would you say that it was – in whatever twisted way – a maternal album?

It was actually written before that, but I also recorded it while I was pregnant or with a baby on my back. But since I had already dealt with motherhood in great detail before I had children and also discussed it in the songs, it is, as you say, “strangely maternal” in a way.

In my review, I described “Care & Explosion” as a “big” album and wanted to point out – in addition to the musical quality – the plethora of ideas, themes and musical motifs, and perhaps also the great willingness for such a comprehensive expression. Would you go a little more reductive on an upcoming album or would that be too much planned?

I’m afraid I can only be maximalist. Otherwise it would go faster.

Are the songs on “Into the Light that I have Known” still close to you, or is it more of a record from the past for you? We think it has great moments…

Thanks! As I said, I never listen to either release. For me it’s about doing what comes next, so it isn’t that important to me.

What do you think are the main differences between the two releases, including in terms of the creation processes?

With “Into the light that I have known” I wanted to do everything right. Not with “Care and Explosion”.

We’ve heard that you’re soon taking part in a tribute compilation to the work of Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators. What song did you choose and what can we expect from it?

I chose “Cold Night for Alligators.” My husband once made a compilation for car rides with this title and it also has the song on it. That’s why it’s close to my heart. He also sings great, and “Night of the Vampire” was already taken. I slowed the song down a lot and tried to make it more of a homage to Roky’s particular inner state than a cover. The piece is full of changes in perspective and breaks; I thought more in terms of film than music. But in the end, of course, it’s music.

Are there any other plans you have in the starting blocks? Of course we are curious when it will be time for a new album?

That would be nice. But in fact, in Germany it is practically impossible to be a parent, to work and to have artistic ambitions at the same time. At least I hardly know any parents of small children who can manage that. The opening times of our daycare center don’t even cover our working hours, so everyday work is an absurd juggling act between the daycare center, us as a couple and the grandparents. I was only able to do the Roky Erickson cover because I had accumulated so much overtime that I was able to take several weeks off. I can only answer this interview because I am sick at home. And I’m missing something crucial in life, and that’s boredom and being alone. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up. But the last album was already an incredible feat of strength for everyone involved, my husband, my parents, my best friend and, last but not least, our daughter, who had to do without a lot of me and us. And I also had to take a very long break afterwards.

I guess it’s needless to emphasize that the problem mainly affects mothers. While most fathers keep hobbies even after the children are born, mothers begin to organize their free time around the family. Free time is then making an Easter bush, sewing clothes for the children, all that sort of thing. I don’t do it as best as I can, at the price that there are no Easter decorations and the children don’t paint eggs at home. But the advantage is that I can pursue a fairly ambitious job and occasionally even manage to play the piano. The solution is political and social: Without more and better childcare places and without a social reassessment of motherhood and fatherhood, we will always reach the point where women, from the moment they have their first child, become increasingly invisible in everything except the fact that they are mothers.

Interview: U.S. und A. Kaudaht

Fotos © Frank Bale

Kristina Jung @ Bandcamp | Soundcloud | Facebook