“We have this stereotype about us. We’re not the coolest country…”
We’ve got Little Mix from the UK. Tove Lo from Sweden. PSY from South Korea. For all the complaining that we pop nerds do about the insular sound of Top 40 radio in America, there are still a fair share of international representatives making the rounds on US airwaves. (Don’t get me wrong — there’s still plenty of room for improvement.)
But as for a German pop star in 2016? Good luck picking your brain with that one. (And no, Cascada hasn’t caused the dance floor to evacuate in years.)
Madeline Juno is a Berlin-based singer-songwriter who caught my attention earlier this year with her fantastic sophomore record, Salvation. And judging by the radio-friendly sound of what she’s been supplying, she just might have what it takes to break stateside.
Right after I wrote about Salvation, I had the opportunity to speak to the talented singer herself about her impressive musical background, her latest single “You Know What?” and its lyrical origins in the 2011 Gus Van Sant film Restless, which then led to a greater discussion about her musical influences and the glaring lack of German pop stars in general.
Since then, Madeline’s released the gorgeous, heartbreaking video for “You Know What?” a few days ago — no doubt a nod to the film she’s referenced in two songs now — which features her real-life BF, German singer-songwriter Chris Brenner. (They’re not only cute together, but they sound great together, too.)
Here now is that chat, along with some fun things to listen to and watch in between.
So, I don’t know if you read the piece I did, but I totally found you by accident —
Oh my gosh, I wanted to thank you so much. It was one of the best articles I’d seen written about myself. [Laughs]
Thank you, that’s so sweet. I was kind of blown away because I felt like you have such a radio-friendly sound that I think would translate. I was so surprised that I hadn’t heard of anything from you yet. It just felt like…wow, she’s a major pop star in the making.
Thank you. I’m just trying my best.
Could you tell me a little bit about how you started out?
I was born and raised in a very musical family. My dad is a drummer and my mom is a pianist. She studied music and so I was always surrounded by music. My whole family — it’s almost creepy. They’re so musical. [Laughs] Everyone is really talented. It’s a nice environment to grow up in. So when I was 13, I started my YouTube channel. That was a time when YouTube wasn’t a thing yet — especially not in Germany. That was not a thing. I actually wanted to start this channel for some school projects because I was the head of this online magazine we started. I wanted to take school videos, but then, I taught myself to play the guitar and started writing my songs and I put them online.
And then very quickly, within the first year of me having this channel, it spread all over my state. We have sixteen states in Germany. I’m from down south. My state is the second biggest state. My school knew all about it. A year into my YouTube thing, I got an email from my current producers. They wanted to get to know me. I think when I was 14 and a half. That was when we started recording. I brought my songs into the studio in Hamburg, which is like 800 kilometers away from home. I would spend all my vacations in the studio, and then go back to school and life my normal life. I graduated when I was 18 — I did my A-levels, which is kind of the highest graduation level you can have in Germany. I actually moved to Mannheim. When I moved there, my first album came out. I’d signed with Universal when I was 17. Ever since I was 15, I worked on my music stuff in the studio. When I was 18, it came out. Now I’m 20, and my second album is out. That’s the story!
The first album seemed like a different direction, sort of.
Totally. I was in a totally different space as I am now. I mean, obviously, I was a very young girl and I’d fallen in love for the first time. And out of love for the first time. And all of these things are really intense when you’re really young. It was really dramatic and really sad, and that was The Unknown. I came from a more organic, acoustic direction. It’s very different to Salvation.
I haven’t seen the movie that “You Know What?” references (Restless), so I sing the song to myself but I have no idea which characters I’m talking about. What is it about their relationship, exactly?
So, I’m not going to spoil it. Enoch and Annabel, they’re just normal young adults who fall in love, and um…it’s hard not to spoil it. Fuck! [Laughs]
It’s okay! I have to know what it is. It’s fine if you spoil it.
*SPOILER ALERT, DUH* So, they fall in love and Enoch doesn’t know that she’s suffering from cancer, and she’s going to die very soon. I think a month into their relationship, she tells him about it, and they have three and a half months left together.
I kind of wrote “You Know What?” about my own long distance relationship, and how everything seems really perfect, but it’s not what it seems because we can’t really be together for a really long time every time we see each other. We always have to let go and live in a weird in-between world. That was not the first time that I mentioned this movie, actually. [Laughs] I had another reference in one of my songs off The Unknown — I think it was “Always This Way.” [Singing] “We would’ve snuggled on your sofa, and would’ve watched Restless…”
I’m absolutely going to watch it. That’s a lot of praise for one movie in two songs.
I mean, it’s not an action movie. I always have to tell people that they should not expect too much. It’s a soft entertainment, I would call it. It’s really nice. I highly recommend it.
I was wondering if there were any records that you were listening to, or were there certain records you were picking from while making the album?
You actually pretty much got it correctly. I think you mentioned Tove Lo, and I love her so much. She really influenced me on this album. I love her record so much. Everyone was really hyping “Habits (Stay High),” but there was so much more to it. Definitely her. I think also, I like Melanie Martinez a lot, and her sound kind of influenced me as well. A lot of Nordic artists — there’s another girl called Aurora, this white-haired girl. She’s pretty awesome. She’s young as well. She’s 18. And obviously everything on the charts. Diplo. I love the new Justin Bieber album. I’m kind of influenced by everything. For the first time, I feel like I’ve opened up myself to pop music and the things that are on the charts.
There aren’t that many German pop stars that break through to America.
No, not really.
Why do you think that is? We get Sweden, London, of course. But Germany is kind of rare.
There are a lot of reasons to that, I think. Obviously I think about that a lot, because I’m in this industry and I’m from Germany. I think we don’t even have that many artists that make English pop music. I don’t know if you know her, we have Lena —
That was like the only one I could think of immediately.
She pretty much is the only one! And, yeah, a lot of indie bands. I don’t know what it is! Maybe Germans — I don’t know, I can only speak for myself, but I think a lot of musicians from Germany are very anxious about the language. The Nordic countries, for example, they’re really ahead of us in terms of learning the English language and growing up with the language. Everything in Germany — every movie, every series on television that you have — is dubbed for us. You really have to be interested in the language to become good. We do have it in school, and our education system is kind of okay, but you have to be ambitious to become really good at this language. I think, maybe, it’s because German musicians don’t feel comfortable making English music. And also, we have this stereotype about us. We’re not the coolest country. [Laughs] We have this weird accent. I don’t know. I don’t know what people think of us.
That’s really interesting. I don’t hear it from that perspective. Obviously you speak English perfectly well, so it was something you pursued in school?
I was always very into the English language. I started reading really early, and I begged my parents to get me movies in the original language. Really early, I got into listening to bands from America. When I was 13, I found this one band that was called Never Shout Never.
Oh, wow. My sister loved them.
They were my favorite band! Oh my God. I used to hate German bands, for some reason. I don’t know.
Tokio Hotel is German, right?
Yeah! My producers — they’re the guys that found them back in the day.
So, I should say, Tokio Hotel crossed over. That’s true.
That’s true, yeah. Who else? I don’t know. Rammstein, maybe.
Do you have interest in attempting to cross over?
I would love to! That’s the ideal scenario. That’s the dream. I’ve always dreamed of being on Ellen and talking about my stuff. [Laughs] That would be the dream come true, but it’s a long and hard road to get there.
Are you thinking of touring?
Yeah, we’re going on tour in October officially. That’s a Germany-Austria-Switzerland tour. We have some more singles coming out this year. We don’t really know what’s going to happen. Maybe if it’s all going really well, we could do a Europe tour or something.
You never know. Keep putting out singles. It just takes one song. There’s that single, “Bon Bon,” by Era Istrefi. It took off virally, and now she’s signed to Ultra Music, which is that dance label in North America. It’s not in English — it’s an Albanian song, but it kind of sounds like Rihanna and it completely took off. I just think it’s totally possible to have a really good hit that can come here.
Totally. We decided on the new single a few days ago. It’s going to be “You Know What.”
I don’t know what it is. There’s something magical to it. In our team, everyone is so behind that track and everyone really seems to believe in this song. So I was like yeah, why not?
I don’t know what it was, but as I said, I was texting and that song came on and I was really taken aback.
Thank you. We’ll see. We’ll work our asses off. We just need this one shot.
There’s a lot of new talent right now. Who excites you?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Halsey lately. I’m loving the new Coldplay album. I’m in this hole right now…I can’t find stuff that inspires me. I’ve been listening to Amber Run, they’re from the UK. I like them. There’s a lot of bands that I listen to too much in the past, but I like them again because I can’t find new stuff that inspires me. [Gasps] Oh! I forgot the most important person ever: Jon Bellion. Do you know him?
Yeah! He wrote “The Monster” for Eminem and Rihanna, right? He’s been making a big name for himself as a songwriter.
I love him. He’s a genius. He really influenced me as well. I discovered him just when I started writing for Salvation about a year and a half ago. A friend of mine from Finland told me about him. We met up for a session. I looked him up and completely fell in love. You should listen to his album, The Definition. It’s really cool, and he’s got a lot of “Making Of” videos on YouTube.
Speaking of YouTube, are you still doing that? An occasional cover or something?
Yeah! I think so. I’ve been thinking of getting it started again. It’s so weird, I’ve been off YouTube for the last five years. Ever since I met my producers, I kind of stripped it down. I’m still on YouTube every single day and I’m part of the scene and I know everything that’s happening, but I myself haven’t really done much at all. I really want to change that this year. I just finished writing a song today that I posted on my Tumblr, like, a year ago called “Hurricanes.” It’s funny, because Halsey has a “Hurricane” too. [Laughs] It didn’t go it viral, but it had — I don’t know, 2000 reblogs in a really short amount of time — so I told my Twitter community that I’m probably going to post that on YouTube very soon because it didn’t get to go on the album.
Does that mean you’re already writing new material?
I actually do think that I’m just going to write as much as I can, even though we’re still in the promo phase of Salvation. I remember when we stopped touring for my first album, I’d realized that I hadn’t written anything for a year. I couldn’t find anything that inspired me and I couldn’t get into songwriting again. That was really frustrating, so I think I’m going to let it grow and flow.
Some artists say the best inspiration is out on the road, and others say they need to live life in order to write. It depends on your experience.
I think I definitely need to live life. I’m really inspired right now, so that’s a good sign.
Salvation is out now.