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For audiences in the United States -- and, in fact, to the English-speaking world at large, the new album I Walk is an introduction to an artist whose music is fervent, personal and passionate, a singer-songwriter with stunning creative confidence. Which is perhaps to be expected, because, as one writer put it, Herbert Gronemeyer is "the biggest selling artist you've never heard of." Not that he's been invisible. Before he embarked on a musical career, he was seen on film screens in the breakout German film Das Boot, and more recently (2007), he was in the Anton Corbijn film Control. And in 2010, he wrote the evocative score for Corbijn's arresting film The American starring George Clooney. But those intermittent appearances on the U.S. cultural radar are footnotes in the context of his musical career in Germany, where he has been the most successful recording artist of all time for the past three decades, where his album sales have surpassed 18 million copies, and two of his albums, 1984's 4630 Bochum and 2002's Mensch, have become the biggest German-language albums in history.
I Walk, then, is an introduction that is also a summation, a collection of songs from throughout Groenemeyer's remarkable career, going back as far as 1985's "Airplanes In My Head" and going forward to English translations of some of his most well-known songs, and two that are new to this project. As the website DIY wrote in October 2012 upon the U.K. release of I Walk, the the album is "Sophisticated, majestic pop, with songs ranging between love and lament, joy and grief, and always with a hint of melancholy even in the most glorious moments." Listeners will hear sweeping and uncynical songs made to reach the upper reaches of the arenas that Groenemeyer has filled with ease, heartfelt anthems that at the same time have intimacy and emotional resonance. Even if you don't know the narrative behind the lead-off song "Mensch," written a year after devastating losses of his brother and his wife within a three day period, you feel the undercurrent in his performance, and in the lyric: "We lose and still we try," he sings, and ends the song with a simple "I miss you." On "Mensch," Groenemeyer is accompanied by Bono, one of the guests on the album along with Antony Hegarty of Antony and The Johnsons on the dramatic "Will I Ever Learn" ("When he started singing, my skin went up," Groenemeyer recalls) and guitarist James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers on "To The Sea."
Over the course of fourteen studio albums and many live tours, Groenemeyer established his reputation as a songwriter whose music reflects the influences of such writers as Randy Newman and Elton John, and a performer whose sweep and theatricality brings to mind such artists as David Bowie and U2. The only thing holding him back from broader international recognition was the language barrier: he sings in a language spoken by less than 3% of the world's population. That's a significant disadvantage, and goes a long way towards explaining why no European or American pop superstar has emerged from Germany. While singers whose primary language is French (Aznavour, Gainsbourg) or Spanish (Iglesias) have crossed over to global acceptance, singing in German has been more limiting. Now, with I Walk, that obstacle has been lifted.
Although Groenemeyer was born in Gottingen, Germany, in 1956, he considers his home town to be Bochum, where he spent most of his formative years (he told an interviewer that the location of his birth was due to the presence of a medical specialist in Gottingen whom his mother consulted during her pregnancy). In the mining town of Bochum, Herbert began taking piano lessons at the age of eight, and got his initial break in the local theatre, where he was hired as a pianist, but then landed a performing role in a production of Willy Russell's John, Paul, Ringo and Bert. In 1981, his acting career took off when he was cast as a war correspondent in Wolfgang Petersen's film Das Boot. This lead to more acting roles, but although he would continue to appear in films through 1985, he was determined to pursue his more enduring creative passion by focusing on his music. "I was always a musician," he says. "My acting, I would say, was OK, but I think in music I'm much better. I feel more at home."
His recording career got off to an inauspicious start -- his four albums released between 1979 and 1983 didn't cause much of a stir -- and he didn't give up acting right away, but the release in 1984 of the album 4639 Bochum changed everything. It topped the German charts, quickly becoming the country's third biggest-selling album of all time. Over the course of the next fifteen years, his music became more political, addressing the Kohl government's policies, and the impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall. 1993's Chaos went to number one, and on his tour that year he played to well over a half-million fans. The next year, he became the first non-English-singing artist invited by MTV to do an Unplugged concert.
In 1999, Groenemeyer moved to London, and founded his own record label, Groenland Records, and released an ambitious project Pop 2000, an 8-CD collection compiling recordings from the entire post-war-Germany's pop music and youth culture. Groenland also released the back catalog of the influential Krautrock act NEUI, and signed such contemporary artists as Boy, Metric, and William Fitzsimmons, as well as other seminal artists such as Harmonia and Gang of Four. 1999 was also the year his wife Anna died of cancer, and he also lost his brother Wilhelm. For a year, Herbert suspended his career, and then he returned to the concert stage with a Philharmonic Orchestra, an event that was taped and released on DVD as Stand der Dinge (State of Affairs). Then, in 2002, came his most successful album, Mensch, an album that without exaggeration could be called the Thriller of Germany, with advance orders well over platinum, and sales now exceeding three million copies, more than any album in the country's history.
Although Herbert helped facilitate his friend Anton Corbijn's film about Joy Division, Control, wrote the score for Corbijn's The American, and devoted time to humanitarian projects (he was given a 2005 European Hero award by Time magazine for such efforts as helping to establish Germany's Make Poverty History campaign), it's music that drives him, and I Walk is just the natural outgrowth of his desire to push forward creatively. Working on an English-language album, he says, was less about dissatisfaction with his status outside the German-speaking world that about the challenge, the opportunity for self-discovery. Since he normally writes melodies by employing what he describes as "banana English," it seemed like a logical progression, even though he has relocated from England and now spends most of his time in Berlin.
"I have to find my own challenges," he says. "This is one of those moments where I think, 'OK, let's try it.' So let's start here and see what happens. I try to reinvent what I'm doing in my limited way. And that's the fun. That's my joy. This is what I can do."