German indie pop singer/songwriter duo Poems for Jamiro’s approach to working in the music industry is simple: If you love it, then do it – if you doubt it, then don’t. ‘The philosophy of this project is that we don’t worry about anything – we just do it,’ says Nina Müller. ‘Which is why we are in Scandinavia now and don’t have any money.’
In 2013, vocalist, pianist and guitarist Nina Müller travelled to New York for two weeks of songwriting with other musicians. Returning with a notebook filled with songs of her own, she was reminded of the wondrous simplicity of childhood, when putting creative ideas into practice was effortless. As a teenager, she had once written a full-length fantasy novel as a Christmas gift for her parents, with a hand-drawn map and a brave and handsome hero called Jamiro.
‘Jamiro is like a symbol for childlike creativity,’ Nina says. ‘So we decided to dedicate this project to him. To the child in us.’
The perils of loving your work
Back in Germany, Nina asked vocalist and classical violinist Laila Nysten, a fellow student at Lübeck Academy of Music, to join her for a tour in February 2014. When I meet the duo before their gig at Kafé de luxe in Växjö, Sweden, during their first Scandinavian tour, they have played close to a hundred shows in thirteen months. They get serious withdrawal symptoms if they go too long without playing; Laila says there is something addictive about the instant feedback from the audience on tour:
‘It’s reassuring, because all our lives, people have been telling us: “Hey, you can’t be a famous musician. There are so many people out there. Why would you make it? You will never be able to support yourself.” Stuff like that. It’s constantly sitting there on our heads, like a ticking time bomb.’
With both of her parents being classical musicians, Laila started playing the violin at the age of five. Her world was made up of orchestras and chamber music, concerts and competitions.
‘The pressure was immense,’ she says. ‘I had this one evening to make it work, and I couldn’t really handle it. I’m actually more of a happy person now, because every night, I have a new chance to make it work for the audience.’
Nina, who started writing songs and formed her first band with her brother when she was eight years old, believes one of the nice things about pop music is that there is no need to be a virtuoso to succeed.
‘Just look at Bob Dylan,’ she says. ‘He has never been a great singer, but he has touched so many people with his songs and lyrics. The only thing you really need is the will to do this. To find the stories you want to tell and to bring them to people.’
Both Nina and Laila work exclusively in the field of music. They are both studying music and giving lessons of their own, and while Nina is composing film scores and writing songs for other musicians, Laila is leading a choir and playing at weddings and other events. They both admit that they are working too much. Since musicians usually work holidays and late nights, they tend to fill their days with other jobs, Laila explains.
‘But I don’t feel that I’m working, because it’s just so much fun,’ she says. ‘It’s what I naturally do, so it doesn’t feel exhausting.’
‘You get so obsessed with what you do,’ Nina agrees. ‘You don’t notice if you’re not sleeping enough or keeping an unhealthy lifestyle or need to take a break.’
‘Not until your body shuts down and says: “Okay, you are going to lie down. Now”,’ Laila adds. ‘So having a day off on tour is like heaven.’
An intersection of two worlds
Nina believes taking a deliberate break from your regular routines and experiencing new places can be a great way to fuel your creativity.
‘Just go away from home for two or three weeks’, she says. ‘Bring your piano and rent a room somewhere, where you’ve never been before and don’t know anyone. Go to some concerts, listen to some music and then write. All day.’
Nina and Laila both find inspiration in everyday life, but they approach their impressions in slightly different ways. While Laila is inspired by observing the small details around her, and by imagining stories about the people she meets, Nina looks within and aims to write only true stories.
‘It’s all stuff that I’ve really experienced,’ Nina says. ‘And the best thing is when the songs are just there. Some days it’s really difficult, but other days I just sit down, write what I have on my mind, and an hour later, the song is done.’
Emotions play an important role in Nina’s songwriting:
‘I never feel the need to write a song because I’m happy,’ she says. ‘But when I’m really sad and can’t stand the pain, I have to let it out somehow. For me, it’s very easy to find sad melodies, so our music is very melancholic.’
‘Yeah,’ Laila adds. ‘We try to make it up by being funny on stage. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.’
When I ask which song they are most proud of, Nina tells me about ‘Soundless’, which she wrote seven years before they started playing it live:
‘I never really knew how to handle it on stage, or how to record it. Then I brought it to rehearsal with Laila. Now we have this crazy vocal performer effect thing, and suddenly everything is working out.’
While Nina does most of the songwriting, they arrange their songs together. Nina describes the project as ‘two worlds meeting each other’, because of their differing musical backgrounds and approaches to arrangements, backing vocals and melodies.
‘This project has taught me a lot about the difference between songwriting and arranging,’ Laila says. ‘I always thought that if a song is great enough, it will work on stage no matter what. But the arrangement can make such a difference. If you add a harmony or another kind of layer – maybe you need a beat or some kind of new synthetic sound – you can take the song into a completely new direction.’
Jumping over the shadow
As Poems for Jamiro’s sound has developed, so has their approach to marketing.
‘When we started playing, there were only some videos online that other people had recorded on concerts,’ Laila says. ‘The quality was so bad that nobody wanted to book us, because they didn’t know what we were about. So we realized we needed a concept. It doesn’t really add up if you just play. People have to get to know you.’
In the autumn of 2014, two of their friends, Jesko Pingel and Constanze Guillard from the German film collective pingguifilms, made a music video for ‘Headlights’, one of the songs on Poems for Jamiro’s newly released debut album, Homeward Bound. A few months later, on a freezing December afternoon, Jesko and Constanze came over to their studio and suggested they go over to the attic and record a live video. Nina and Laila decided to play ‘Eden’. It was a fairly new song and a good representation of how their sound had evolved since they recorded the album, which would give bookers a better idea of what they actually sounded like on stage.
‘No one had been there for years,’ Laila says. ‘It was just falling to pieces, dusty and old. I think we were up there for two or three hours and we were only wearing these thin blouses. It’s amazing we didn’t catch a cold!’
Reluctant to ‘selling’ herself online, Nina admits marketing is one of her biggest challenges as a musician. She does not like promoting her own events or posting videos all over Facebook.
‘It’s a bit embarrassing,’ Laila agrees. ‘But we have to do it for our own good. Sometimes you have to jump over the shadow, as we would say in German.’
‘But I think it’s important to not define music by competition,’ Nina adds. ‘Because it isn’t really about becoming famous. It’s about happiness. But of course, it would be nice to earn enough money to make a living just by playing our own music. That would be the goal.’
The perks and pains of touring
As far as money goes, the Scandinavian tour has been a challenge for the band.
‘We had all the addresses to the venues but realized we didn’t know how to get there, since we couldn’t afford the roaming charges for our GPS,’ Laila says. ‘We kind of counted on our CD sales to cover our expenses, but that’s not really happening at the moment. We haven’t sold any CDs in Denmark or Sweden. In Germany, I think 70 or 75 per cent of sales are still from real records, but here, everyone is just buying music on iTunes or streaming it on Spotify.’
After unexpected bridge fees and a parking ticket in Copenhagen, the prospect of breaking even seems alarmingly remote. But Poems for Jamiro tend not to worry too much.
‘Pretty glad we got something to eat here,’ Nina says.
‘And there’s an awesome band room backstage.’ Laila adds. ‘It’s kind of what I always imagined being on tour would be like. It has red walls and stock beds and a fridge with beer. It’s awesome!’
Staying true to their worry-free philosophy, Poems for Jamiro are clear about their priorities. Throughout the interview, and later, from the moment they walk onto the stage, they radiate passion and presence. Before we part, Nina underscores the importance of focusing on love rather than success when pursuing a career in music:
‘If there is any doubt that you love what you’re doing, then you shouldn’t do it, because it’s going to break you.’
‘You have to give up a lot,’ Laila agrees. ‘If you have friends or family that are not in the music industry, sometimes they just won’t understand why you are working three nights in a row, why you haven’t been home for two weeks or why you skip birthday dinners and Christmas parties. You have to be in a good environment that helps you carry the load, because it can be really hard. And you have to love it. When you love it, it doesn’t feel half as hard.’ icon-dot-circle-o