Facing the music: Benjamin Appl

The German baritone on out-of-tune yodelling, dancing to Robbie Williams and his first career in a bank

What was the first record or CD you bought?

Unfortunately I think I am already a dinosaur, as I grew up with cassette tapes and not CDs. It was a series of the famous children’s radio play in German about an elephant who was able to speak, called Benjamin Blümchen (which means little flower). By the way, it also became my first nickname in school.

What was the last piece of music (written or recorded) you bought?

This was a score of English children’s songs that I just bought in a music store in London for my sister-in-law, because it was not available in Germany. Her children are now eagerly waiting for Uncle Ben to visit and bring them the music.

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?

If there is can be a musical guilty pleasure, I should mention my most favourite song when I was a child: Der Königsjodler. I remember listening it for hours and not being able to stop laughing. It’s a song by a Bavarian songwriter and comedian, Fredl Fesl, who deliberately yodels massively out of tune. I recently checked it out after a long time and still found it hilarious.

Did you ever consider a career outside of music? Doing what?

Yes, absolutely. I started out as an apprentice in a bank and then graduated in business administration and it was not obvious for many years that I would become a musician. However, thinking back now, I really appreciate this unconventional pathway, as not only did I gain insight into another world and learn a lot about business, but I can now fully appreciate how lucky I am to be a musician.

What is the most unusual place/venue you’ve performed in?

As a selected scholar of Yehudi Menuhin’s organisation Live Music Now, I once was asked to perform an afternoon of German operetta arias in a prison near Munich. We were all anxious beforehand about singing in front of inmates, but it was an important life lesson for us all, not to judge people beforehand. They were a wonderful, open and appreciative audience and we all took a lot from the experience.

What’s been your most memorable live music experience as an audience member?

There are so many. One was a performance of Mahler’s second symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle. In the last movement, I just burst into tears. At first, I felt embarrassed but the power of the music was just overwhelming.

We’re giving you a time machine: which period or moment in musical history would you travel to and why?

I would love to spend an afternoon or an evening with Schubert and his friends in Vienna. I would be curious to see how he was integrated into that group, how he behaved and to see the response of his friends. I am sure that from time to time, despite Schubert’s worries on different levels, they had jolly good time together. I would also like to ask him how he managed to write more than 600 songs with such immortal and gorgeous melodies in such a short amount of time.

What, in your opinion, is the best new piece written in the past 50 years?

I would have wanted to mention Britten’s War Requiem, not only musically but also because of its historic background, the selection of singers and the circumstances of the first performance, but unfortunately it was written 55 years ago, so it doesn’t count. I really admire the work of George Benjamin (particularly his opera Written on Skin) or Peter Eötvös’s music such as his opera Tri Sestri.

What was the last piece of music you danced to?

It was to Robbie Williams’ album Swing When You’re Winning in my living room one evening a few weeks ago. Listening to this kind of music just makes me feel happy and free, and then I start making silly hops and jumps around the house – I’m not even sure if I can call it dancing!

Which non-classical musician would you like to work with?

I really admire Adele. She is so passionate about what she does and has an amazing career, and is a true storyteller. Her compositions are timeless. Her songs are very touching and full of metaphors and they remind me a lot of the art songs of the past centuries, which I perform regularly. I think these two worlds are closer together than many people might think. I imagine she would be a cool person to hang out with for a drink and a chat, too.

What do you sing in the shower?

In interviews I always try to avoid this question, as I am quite embarrassed by it. During my morning shower, I normally only speak not sing, to warm up my voice slowly. If I were to sing right out, it would not be good for my voice. The weird thing is that, during this speaking routine, I try to imitate the speaking voices of other people, trying to catch their vocal range, accents and manner of speaking. This then makes me laugh at myself, which definitely cheers me up in the morning.

It’s late, you’ve had a few beers, you’re in a karaoke bar. What do you choose to sing?

After I’ve had a few beers, which happens very rarely, I find I can finally sing everything!

The GuardianTramp

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