“‘Just do it’ and be prepared to do anything and everything and dive into the city.”
Cassis Birgit Staudt, is a German singer, songwriter and composer. She studied music in Germany and at Juilliard University in New York City. Working for director Jim Jarmusch brought her to New York City. She won a Golden Palm at the Cannes International Film Festival for being one of the producers of the Iggy Pop and Tom Waits segment ‘Coffee and Cigarettes.’ For several years she has called Berlin and New York her home. S2S talked with Cassis about the many hats she wears and the two cities that have captured her heart.
S2S: Cassis is a commune east of Marseille, a wine and of course there is ‘Crème de Cassis,’ liquor made from blackcurrants. It is also your artist name. Why ‘Cassis’?
Cassis: As a performer, I used to twirl a stuffed, bright green snake around above my head pretending it was real – though it really was too green and also from Ikea. I asked the audience to give the snake a name and the outcome was: Cassius. I fell in love with the sound and people started calling me ‘Cassius.’ This would be a very luscious sounding female name – if it wouldn’t be associated with the most famous boxer in the world. And the spelling of the name was a turn off. Being fed up with school Latin after working way too hard for a Latin proficiency certificate, an ancient Latin name was out of the question. I doctored around on the spelling and scratched out the ‘u’ just to discover Cassis – which is a word that makes me smile. It is black currant in French – which tastes sweet and sour – and grew in our garden.
S2S: How did you get into music? Did you come from a musical family?
C: Nobody well known but there has been a lot of creativity in my family. My great grandfather apparently played several instruments. My grandmother, Berta, had a beautiful voice and sang in musicals. Her husband to be, who knew about things electrical, couldn’t stand seeing her in ‘kissing scenes’ and took out the fuses during a show to create a black-out so that no one would see his bride kissing someone else. She also was trained to make hats. My mother and godmother are natural poets and all of our family parties are full of handmade entertainment with sketches and sing along songs with new personal lyrics and comic poems.
S2S: The accordion is a very traditional instrument that is very much related to folk music. Who or what inspired you to learn to play the accordion? Can you talk about your recent collaboration with the Swans and Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs?
C: To be honest, I have never really been too attracted to the accordion as a traditional folk instrument. As far as accordion music goes I love Astor Piazzola and Pauline Oliveros. What really happened is that my family wanted to climb up in society and it was important that the daughter play piano rather than accordion (which is what my mother played by ear). My father had himself ten accordion lessons and then the instrument was hidden on the top of a closet. I studied piano for 15 years and was grateful that it got me through my loneliness and into a music university. The crux was that I could play difficult classical pieces but wasn’t able to write anything on my own – I tried the guitar – nothing worked. I gave up music for a few years to concentrate on filmmaking. At some point, I asked my mom to bring my dad’s accordion to New York and all hell broke loose and I started writing one song after another. I play the accordion more like an organ, which is probably what Michael Gira from the Swans was drawn to. I was in his post-Swans band the Angels of Light for a couple of years and tours and he taught me a lot about sound. It was an honor to be asked to overdub accordion for the latest Swans album including one of his songs that Karen O had just sung.
S2S: When did you move to New York and why? Do you remember the first impression you had of the city? What made you stay here for so long?
C: My first boyfriend, the filmmaker Matthias Glasner, persuaded me to go to New York. He loved it from the movies and I was very judgmental as I didn’t really want to go to a country where I thought people were superficial and vain. Boy, when I arrived at the airport already I fell in love. We stayed for 2 weeks in a shady hotel, went every night to the old Knitting Factory, sneaked into the press screenings of the New York Film Festival – saw Jim Jarmusch in a distance who I would later work for – who knew? I felt at home instantly.
S2S: You have a place in Brooklyn, one of the most gentrified boroughs in New York. How do you feel about all the changes you have seen in your neighborhood?
C: I actually love my New York and Berlin neighborhood, still. In Brooklyn, I love all the different types of people that are there – the hipsters, the old people from Italy, Poland, Puerto Rico, the truck drivers, the dry cleaner. It’s logistically an amazing place to live. Of course a lot of my favorite places are gone or changing and that rips my heart out. I don’t really follow every new restaurant that opens up and I ignore the fancy stores. Soon my bubble will pop and I’ll have to face gentrified reality – not yet.
C: I am in the Swabian region of Berlin in Prenzlauer Berg – but by accident. I am originally from Swabia, from a little village South of Stuttgart. Berlin seemed the best place of all German cities. Our neighborhood here gets more and more gentrified as well, which is a shame. But there is still a lot of old and odd-ness, East German flair, atmosphere and mystic hanging in the shadows…
S2S: Your husband Mike Trupiano, who is American, left NYC for Berlin a couple of years ago. What inspired his move?
C: Good question! He has a love/hate with the language (see Mike’s essay) but a pure love for the beer and, of course, for his writing/editing/teaching work.
S2S: You always had a “Koffer in Berlin” but recently you have decided to move back entirely?
C: For me, never having fully lived in Berlin, I consider this an experiment and I am giving it a try for the summer. Right now, though, I see myself always going back and forth.
S2S: When you are in Berlin, what do you miss most about NYC? And when you are here in NYC, what do you miss about Berlin?
C: When I am Berlin, I feel easily too German and a bit boxed in. I enjoy quality time with friends but miss the unexpected daily miracles that happen in New York. In New York, I work too much to make a living and to fulfill my dreams and time flies by, and so do friendships and time off…
S2S: Besides being a musician and film music composer, you are also a location scoot for film productions in New York. How do you manage to wear this many hats?
C: It is actually very inspiring to live in both worlds. Both intensely inspire each other. I am combining those two worlds in my latest project where I focus on places in Berlin and the memories they contain. As a location scout at the top of my field in commercials, I feel a lot when I experience places. That’s why I can discover them and share that love with a director or photographer. And that’s also why I can translate that feeling towards places and the people in the places into music when I write music for movies. Some places give me the creeps too. Berlin has a lot of intense corners that I need to look into and pair with one of my uplifting, passionate pop songs. It all goes together and is part of life.
S2S: Do you enjoy all three professions equally or would you prefer to spend your time making music?
C: To be honest, I am using my time in Berlin to focus on the music. It is what makes my soul smile and what keeps me going. I have toured several times through Europe, scored several films in Berlin, and have recorded and taught and still do teach songwriting in Herbie Flowers Rockshop in England. It’s time for the music!
S2S: Some of the films you have recently created music for have been quite successful. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved? And what is the process of creating music for a film?
C: The most successful was Ferry Tales by director Katja Esson, a short doc about women commuters on the Staten Island Ferry, which was actually nominated for an Oscar. I came up with the idea for that project and also wrote the theme song and some of the other music. I met Saundra Kaudelka, the director of Einzelkaempfer, at Berlinale 2012 and the very next year, this year, her documentary which I did the music for premiered there and will be in cinemas in November. We hit it off and discovered we had a mutual friend, the painter Jim Avignon.
S2S: If you would have to give NYC and Berlin soundtracks, what would it be? Or what song best describes either city?
C: I am currently working on a song soundtrack for Berlin – all the other songs I have ever written are really New York songs – written for New York. I always have an atmosphere, a visual in my head before and while I write the music. Be There is for New York and the song that starts with “I’m a 1990 German paparazzi fashion photographer…” guess where that belongs to…
S2S: Visitors to New York are always looking to discover the truly unusual. What are some of your favorite places you have found for films or commercials?
C: One of my all-time favorite places is Brighton Beach, I love the Russian stores underneath the elevated subway. And then there are some I can’t tell you about – for example the hotel roof where we would sneak onto in the middle of Manhattan with a bottle of wine… I scouted for Spider-Man 1 – and am a rooftop specialist. For that movie, for example, I scouted the Roosevelt Island Tram. The best places I have ever found were for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man – black and white non-typical Western landscapes in Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, California and New Mexico. There was a factory that hadn’t operated that we got going again in Nevada. The burned out forests were an amazing find and, really, I’m lucky I survived that scout since, I found out later from local police, I had been followed by a local Charles Manson devotee. The police found his diary and he had written about observing me and that unfortunately he didn’t get me. He was wanted and ended up in prison. A wide-eyed southern German girl tramping around the Wild West!
S2S: What are some of the differences and similarities between New York and Berlin?
C: In essence, I find both cities very particular. Their similarities are that maybe both cities don’t really represent their countries. New York is certainly not America and I can’t say that Berlin is Germany. I hear so much English being spoken while I walk around some parts of Berlin, that German can seem like a foreign language! Berlin after the war has been the ‘outsider’ in Germany. New York always has been outside of America. Both cities have that in common.
S2S: Having lived in both cities for many years, what are some of the tips you have for Germans who want to move to New York and/or Americans who want to live in Berlin?
S2S: ‘Just do it’ is my tip. If you feel the urge to move to New York – ‘just do it’ and be prepared to do anything and everything and dive into the city. Every experience will enhance you. As an American wanting to live in Berlin, it is adorable if you learn German. Why not? Learning a different language, discovering another part of your personality will enrich your life.