Dark, vaguely apocalyptic

American Berlin-based songwriter Rachel Glassberg says there are no good songs about corona.

Real life inspired some of Rachel Glassberg's best-known songs - just not the pandemic.
Real life inspired some of Rachel Glassberg's best-known songs - just not the pandemic.Photo: Joconaut

Berlin-Rachel Glassberg is an American musician, songwriter and food and travel writer living in Berlin. Her band Glassberg and the Disasters released their first album, This Was Inevitable, on Frankfurt’s Lousy Moon Records in the pre-pandemic fall of 2019. Their 2016 video Let the Right Ones In poked fun at a certain Berghain bouncer. We caught up with Rachel, also food editor at Exberliner,  on the phone in early May.

How did you get into songwriting?

I was living in LA before Berlin and playing guitar in a couple of bands but not really writing my own songs. I had a couple of random viral YouTubes that were songs written in response to things that were in the news. The song that the most people have heard or seen is one about that flight attendant who jumped out of an airplane window. He quit his job, grabbed a beer and slid down the airline emergency slide to quit. Someone said, “Somebody should publish a folk ballad about this guy,” so I did. I came up with the song in the shower, then recorded myself playing it. I published the video on YouTube that morning and that evening it was on CNN.

How did Glassberg and the Disasters come about?

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I moved to Berlin in 2012. The first thing I did was play a bunch of open mikes. I wound up at the open mike at Madame Claude and there was this like-minded community of singers and songwriters that had a lot of the same references as I did and the same fondness for music with a lot of lyrics. I felt empowered to write songs in my style, with a lot of words.

What’s your style?

It gets classified as anti-folk, which is more this New York thing that happened 20 years ago. I wouldn’t say I’m part of that scene, but there’s maybe a little Berlin offshoot of it.

Tell us about Let the Right Ones In.

For a while, I was writing songs from the point of view of middle-aged men. I don’t know why. It’s fun to imagine yourself as these different characters. [Berghain bouncer and photographer] Sven Marquardt is this inscrutable man of mystery, so I wondered what it would actually be like to be him.

The guy in the video has the face tattoos, the camera.

The music video made it super literal.

Did Sven respond?

No, of course not. Although, during the pandemic he made a video of himself wandering around in the empty streets of Berlin and I swear there are some shots in that video that feel like they were copied from ours.

Your first album came out in 2019 just before corona.

We never got to properly tour with it. I played some shows in the US in the fall, and we were looking at dates in spring 2020. But then, you know, spring 2020.

What have you been up to in the pandemic?

I played a couple of small outdoor shows between lockdowns last summer. We played at FEZ. We played in a barn in the middle of nowhere. I felt like things were going back to normal, then they didn’t. In the winter, the big project was putting together this Hannukah holiday special by Collage Collective. We had had a Hannukah show for two years in a row. The founder of the collective was really into Yo La Tengo, so the first one was everybody doing Yo La Tengo covers. The second one was after David Berman from Silver Jews died. That was a tribute to him. This one ended up being an online holiday special, 18 filmed performances of holiday songs. It’s all on YouTube. We filmed it under strict corona-safe conditions. It was super stressful.

Have you been writing songs?

Not as much as I would like, but I have enough for an album. It’s a matter of getting a recording together.

Has corona snuck into your songs?

I don’t think anybody has written a good song about corona at this point.

Corona is like a Sharknado, right? [Sharknado is the title of one of Rachel’s songs]

I’ve always written these sort of dark, vaguely apocalyptic songs – then when it’s the actual apocalypse, what are you supposed to do?

What do you miss the most?

I guess just concerts. Being in a room with people and you’re all experiencing music in the same way. If you’re the band, the energy you get off of being physically in a room with people. It’s a bummer that so many venues are dying. Digital forms of that experience do not capture it in any way.

The interview was conducted by Maurice Frank.

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