It wasn’t long ago that I came across the debut album of Berlin-based singer/songwriter Dennis Große-Plankermann, who performs under the moniker Vava Quail. Eclectic, experimental, and deeply emotive, ‘Beloved Ashes‘ is an album that I still listen to on a near daily basis.
I was desperate to get to know the artist behind the music, and was thrilled when Dennis agreed to an interview! Chatting with us about the two-year process of creating ‘Beloved Ashes’, the joys and obstacles of being an independent musician, and what he has in mind for future releases, please give a big welcome to our friend Vava Quail!
Thanks so much for chatting with us Dennis! It’s awesome to be able to re-introduce you to our ever-growing audience! I fell pretty hard for your intimate debut album ‘Beloved Ashes’ last year, and I’m wondering what you hope listeners take away from experiencing the album.
Thank you, Jeremy, I’m really happy we can talk a little. Intimate – yes, recording the album was such an intimate thing – weeks and months and years alone in my bedroom! To be honest, I was extremely nervous to put it out into the world. So now I hope for listeners to have their own personal moment with it, and that at some point there’s a real connection to something in the music and in the lyrics that resonates with their own dreams and memories. Be it the atmosphere of the album as a whole or something very specific like, “Ah! That walnut tree he sings about: maybe my French teacher’s bicycle plays that kind of role in my own life”!
The title track is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in a long time. Pure sonic heaven I believe were my exact words! Please tell us more about the tune.
I took a walk alone in the town where I grew up and it struck me that I felt so connected and so alienated at the same time. An insane amount of memories came back and screamed to be dealt with. It was obvious that I would have to write music about this. So I wrote a basic version of ‘Beloved Ashes’ and decided it would be the title track of an entire album, something that kind of rearranges past images and feelings playfully. The following two years felt very creative and very chaotic. Literally, the only thing that didn’t constantly change was the album title. These two little words gave me some orientation when navigating through versions and versions of my songs. And the track itself is no exception, you wouldn’t believe how many serious changes it went through. At one point I was close to giving up but I knew I couldn’t – the concept of the album rested on it! So I’m really glad about your words, they mean a lot to me.
What do you love most about being an independent musician? And on the flip side of that, what would you say have been some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced so far?
I’m super super super independent, which means that I have all the freedom in the world but also twenty different jobs, which in a sense sets limits to that very freedom. It was important for me to write and record ‘Beloved Ashes‘ completely on my own, to choose who to work with on the mix and master and also to decide and create everything to do with the visual dimension of the project. It forced me, in a good way, to answer a lot of questions: What sound exactly do I want? Which take is the one I’ll go with? Am I ready to share my work now or do I need more time? How do I want to present my art and myself on social media? What should the website look like? How can I get my music on Spotify? Etc. etc. This was necessary and extremely helpful. Now it’s time to focus more on the creative aspects of future projects.
Who would you credit, or give a shout-out to, for helping shape your overall musical soundscape? Who did you grow up listening to?
As a kid and teenager, I think I didn’t really listen to a lot of music, to be honest! I was really focused on making music, playing classical piano, and singing in choirs. I later fell in love with the music of Sufjan Stevens, especially his early albums, and also started writing my own songs. But I stayed with Bach, Mozart, and Schubert at the same time. There’s something in the precision and sincerity of classical music, especially maybe the importance of timing… And I just love the sound of my piano! Some people have asked me about the synths in the album – But there are no synths in the album! All the atmospheric sound layers are audio recordings of my piano. I played a lot with them in the arrangements, made them fade in and out, and played them backwards. Even the bits that sound more electronic or a little alien are heavily edited piano recordings. And then I was very lucky to have worked with Jonathan Richter as a mixing engineer. We tried to put everything in the right place and tried to create an organic sound that feels like chamber music.
Einstein famously said, “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician.” If you were not a musician, what would you be?
Ah! I want to live more than just once! I’d be a volcanologist, a whale researcher, or maybe a theatre director.
Which of your lyrics would you like to see printed on a T-shirt?
“All the zombies with flutes and trombones“. Or the opening line of the album, “When we played Schubert, we knew we were in love“.
I’m eagerly awaiting your next release…Is there any news you could share with us about that? And, I guess in a broader sense, what do you hope for in your musical future?
I want to have fun and explore new areas! But I don’t know where exactly I’ll go next. Many ideas… It‘s tempting to make something instrumental without any vocals but then I’ve written a lot of lyrics in the last couple of months… I also bought a synthesizer for the first time in my life. And I recently found out that my great-grandfather played the violin. His violin hasn’t been used for literally a hundred years and now it’s with me in Berlin and I might see what I can do with it.