After 15 years performing around Europe, Austrian singer/songwriter Clara Blume had little idea of what to expect when she moved to Berkeley. Working mostly out of Madrid and Vienna, she’d experienced the best and worst of the music biz. She recorded an album for a label that promptly folded before the project was released. Promoters pressured her to change her music to reach a wider audience. Blume also built a performance platform from scratch that helped introduce dozens of young acts to Central European audiences.
Prompted by her husband’s post-doc appointment in Cal’s chemistry department, they relocated to Berkeley last fall, and she’s slowly been finding her way on the Bay Area music scene.
“Looking back now after almost a year, things have evolved much better than I expected,” says Blume, 34, who performs Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall on a double bill with Negative Press Project, an excellent Bay Area band that earned national attention last year with the critically hailed album Eternal Life: Jeff Buckley Songs & Sounds (Ridgeway Records).
Focusing on a recent honed repertoire of melodically inviting original songs with Spanish lyrics, she made her Bay Area debut in April at The Back Room, drawing a standing-room-only crowd. She credits her accompanist, nylon string guitarist Phillip Geissler, with bringing out the people. While he hails from a musical family, Geissler is better known for his day job as an esteemed professor of chemistry at Cal oft-awarded for his teaching.
“He’s just a natural, one of those genius people,” she says. “His father was a music professor, but Phil decided to pursue chemistry, so he has a steady gig, but he’s also an amazing guitarist.”
For the CJC show she’s also joined by Negative Press Project bassist and co-leader Andrew Lion (his co-pilot, Ruthie Dineen, has another gig, so Berkeley High alum Erika Oba is covering the piano chair). They connected through a mutual friend, San Francisco singer/songwriter Jeff Campbell, and have performed together several times.
“She’s one of those artists who has a very appealing outlook and artistic outlook on life, the type of person you love to be around,” Lion says. “She fosters inspiration. Initially on social media I checked out some of her pop music , which is great. But I really got lured into loving her Spanish-language music, which is gorgeous, with these romantic themes and humor and great melodies.”
Blume was born in Vienna to a Spanish mother and Dutch father who met as students in Austria and decided to settle there. With her dark hair and brown eyes, she grew up to a steady refrain of questions and comments regarding her “Spanish” looks. With a dozen years of classical piano studied her belt she moved to Spain at 17 to study painting and sculpture at the Madrid Academy of Arts, but poured a lot of her creative energy into music. “I started gigging a lot,” she says. “I had punk bands and rock bands and developed a solo project that was very Tori Amosy, long dramatic ballads with me at the piano. I developed my skills, and was always working my own songs.”
She spent three years studying jazz at a program affiliated with the Berklee College of music, but feels her most important musical education took place performing with fellow musicians. Moving back to Vienna in 2007 Blume was dismayed to find precious few opportunities for young musicians. Working with her brothers, a videographer and architect, she launched a monthly concert series, the Singer Songwriter Circus. Serving as the artistic director and leather whip-wielding ringmaster, she created an itinerant forum for aspiring artists to play a half-hour set before an established headlining act. Oh, and actors dressed up as animals to complete the circus theme.
“Before long we got booking request from around the world,” Blume says. “We did that for seven years and built up an infrastructure. Now Vienna is an incredible place for all kinds of live music, not just classical. That was a major milestone.”
When she wasn’t running the Circus or writing and performing her own music, Blume pursued a PhD in Romance Studies and history, focusing on Nazi Germany’s intervention in the Spanish Civil War. She’s put her various skills to use since moving to Berkeley and taking a job as deputy director of the art and science at Open Austria, a new organization that promotes the country in Silicon Valley.
She doesn’t have as much time to focus on music but surveying the Bay Area’s creative landscape she sees “an incredible geographical space with much more ethnic variety than Austria,” she says. “It makes for great creative explorations. There are so many incredible people here. Everything is possible and nothing is possible. I’m too old to be naïve about this and old enough to humbled by reality. Whatever happens I’m thankful for.”