In 1984, Claudia Brücken’s old band, Propaganda, startled U.K. television viewers by spicing up an appearance on The Tube with a crisp electronic rendition of Throbbing Gristle’s industrial classic “Discipline.” These days, the singer is eager to show off an unexpected new discipline: her guitar playing.
“I’m learning very fast and loving it,” she announces via Skype from her London flat. She strums a couple of chords, then wiggles callused fingertips into the lens as further evidence.
Though she dabbled on guitar as a teenager, a new wave of instruments soon preempted her six-string even before she joined Propaganda in 1983. “Synthesizers came along, and the guitar was not cool anymore, so I put it in the corner.” But in October 2013 (“right around the time Lou Reed died”), she started practicing guitar again — and writing on it for the first time, too.
For an artist as closely associated with music made on computers and synthesizers as Brücken, this is a big deal. Propaganda, along with Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Art of Noise, was one of the crown jewels of ZTT, the hyperbolic and artsy record label founded by producer Trevor Horn, businesswoman Jill Sinclair, and music journalist Paul Morley. A Secret Wish, the sole studio full-length by the band’s classic lineup, spawned three singles (the U.K. Top 30 hits “Dr. Mabuse” and “Duel,” as well as “p:Machinery”) and a remix album (Wishful Thinking), but the group imploded after Brücken married Morley in 1985.
Brücken’s subsequent career highlights, neatly summarized on the 2011 anthology Combined, include collaborations with Erasure’s Andy Bell, Paul Humphreys of OMD, and Thomas Leer (best known for his 1978 D.I.Y. single “Private Plane”). She tapped producer Pascal Gabriel for her 1991 solo debut, Love: And a Million Other Things, years before he worked with Kylie Minogue and Goldfrapp.
What has consistently distinguished Brücken’s artistry even more than her affiliation with electronic pop is her distinctive voice and commitment to well-crafted songs. Her latest album, 2014’s Where Else, proves no exception. Its understated performances throw these strengths into even sharper relief than 2012’s The Lost Are Found, her collaboration with Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, New Order). But while that disc showcased her interpretations of other people’s songs, for Where Else she co-wrote nine of the eleven selections with producer John Williams (The Proclaimers, Blancmange, Petula Clark, and more).
“He’s a serious guitar player,” Brücken observes. “John restrung my guitar, sorted me out with the right tuner, and off we went.” They wrote together, either in her living room or at Williams’s converted garden shed turned recording studio in Kensington. They met six days a week for four uninterrupted months. “We were playing so intensely for so long,” she continues. “And whatever we did, I kept strumming along. This record was inside me, and it needed to come out.”
Ironically, it was a member of one of the biggest electronic bands in the world, Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore, who helped prompt Brücken to reappraise her modus operandi. “Years and years ago, Martin used to be my neighbor.” Together they composed the blissful “Cloud Nine,” which surfaced on the 2007 Onetwo album Instead.
Gore threw a lot of parties, she recalls, and would often haul out his guitar and perform for his guests. “Not even Depeche Mode stuff, just anything that came to mind that he loved to play and sing.” And as she listened, Brücken thought, “I want to do that, too … to have the ability to grab a guitar or sit at a piano and sing a song, rather than having to set up lots of synthesizers and all the gear.”
The first outcome of that epiphany was Another Language, Brücken’s 2005 pairing with neoclassical composer and former ZTT label mate Andrew Poppy. “I started to look at songs very closely, rather than trying to make big statements … it was more about listening, getting to the essence, and how to put the song across.” That evolution continued on The Lost Are Found. Themes of loss and loneliness recur throughout its eleven lesser-known compositions by David Bowie, the Bee Gees, and even ELO. “These kind of melancholy songs speak to me best. I can’t stand happy songs.”
When she donned the songwriter’s mantle once more for Where Else, Brücken says, “It came together in such an organic, beautiful way.” Before they started writing together, producer Williams asked her to take a pass at an original he already had lying around, “Nothing Good Is Ever Easy.”
“We did it in two takes, in his garden shed in Kensington, and when I got home he’d already sent me a version of it. What you hear on the album is basically the second take.”
Williams and Brücken also dug into her own record collection to keep the juices flowing. “We went through my vinyl and realized I had a lot of Nick Drake and Lou Reed in there.” While the former is represented on Where Else by its sole cover, a relaxed reading of Drake’s “Day Is Done,” the influence of the latter is most obvious in the direct simplicity of opening track “I Want You.” She notes, “I always adored [Reed’s] vocal delivery, and I try to be as relaxed as he was with ‘I Want You.’”
Brücken regards her earlier work fondly, but she’s clearly still happy learning her craft. And she insists Propaganda is now firmly in her past.
“That was a long time ago, and I need to move on,” she concludes. “This new album, Where Else, that is Claudia now … that is me.”
—Kurt B. Reighley