When Terri Nunn, lead singer of L.A.’s iconic electro-pop outfit Berlin, calls me, the first question I ask her is the usual, polite, “How are you today?”
She does not, however, give the usual, canned answer of “Good, thanks.”
Instead, she happily goes off about a knee injury she has sustained recently on a trampoline while jumping around with her daughter, laughing as she says that she’d likely made matters worse by wearing heels onstage the following night while performing with Berlin. Though now in her 50s, Nunn hasn't let up on the striking femininity she's brought to the band throughout their 35-plus-year career.
Berlin, which started in L.A. in the late '70s at the hands of bassist John Crawford (who's no longer with the band), remains massively influential in the synth-electro sphere and is credited with bringing the strongly European sound to the States. They rose to national attention with the song “Take My Breath Away” when it was featured during a scene in the 1986 film “Top Gun,” though it offered a significant shift in musical direction for the group (the song wasn’t actually written by anyone in the band and reportedly caused some unrest).
Quiet throughout the ’90s, having disbanded for a few years, the group got back into the studio with a new lineup, led by Nunn, and has since released three records, much more in line with their Euro-synth sound (inspired by Kraftwerk, Ultravox and the like), the most recent being 2013’s “Animal.”
Nunn speaks with confidence and candor, laughing generously. She shares herself openly both in speech and song to great effect, genuinely present in the moment -- wherever that may take her. Onstage, she says, it takes her back into the moment that caused the music to be made in the first place. Highly emotional yet supremely grounded, Nunn shares here just what Berlin’s music and the band’s growth over the decades mean to her, how both sexuality and grief are powers and not crutches, and a whole lot more. Her answers, though verbose at first glance, are full of knowledge bombs and gems of wisdom. Read on.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz: So you’ve been at this with Berlin for a long time now, more than 35 years I believe. How have you seen the group evolve, sonically, over time?
Terri Nunn: Wow. That’s a deep question.
HLS: I should have started with a softball.
TN: [Laughs] So now I’m going over where we started and then where it went. I would say, to not to make it this long, laborious answer, that it has stayed electronic. ’Cause I do find that I keep coming back to that, and I keep being excited about it, and not just what I do but what electronic music has morphed into. ’Cause when I started, electronic music was just starting, like overseas with Kraftwerk, and it was just starting there, and now, I mean, it moved into so many directions with trance and ambient and industrial and now EDM, and there’s just so many cool, wonderful mutations of it that have inspired me. And so I find that how it’s evolved for me has been within that electronic realm still, and with “Animal,” our last album, I moved into EDM music because I was just turned on by the EDM I was playing for the radio show I did for two years. I was just like, “Whoa!” I was so excited by what was happening in that realm, and not just excited by but heard Berlin in, and what we started with is still in that music now. It’s not something that I can just like from afar; this is something that Berlin can do and has done. that came out of this chance radio show that was so perfect which is how life tends to be. I don’t believe in coincidence. I think there’s a certain orgasmic way: things come as they’re meant to come -- no pun intended [laughs] -- and we just kind of move in directions and evolve in directions that we don’t expect. To answer your question, which I promised would not be long and laborious but ultimately is, it’s evolved into electronic music and new mutations. And lyrically, I mean, there’s a lot more to what I write about than sex in the backseat of a car, and that’s all I thought about: sex, any way we can get it and how to deal with it and how to have fun with it and not be hurt by it. That’s what we wrote about sex and love, and now I’m not 20 anymore; there’s a lot more to talk about.
HLS: I’ve read interviews with you where you say that music has to have a sexual connotation to it. Can you talk about that a bit? Is there an inherent sensuality to all music? Or is there any music that you connect with that is absent of that?
TN: Absolutely. Lots that is not sexual. Ultimately for me, and what I find with people because it’s my business, music is emotion, and people love to feel and they love the permission to feel. And that’s what music does. It gives us the permission to feel everything. “The Metro” is just a tragic song, and I feel it every time I sing it. It’s a woman realizing she lost her guy, and I’m dealing with it, and I’m singing it in that song, and it’s awful, but people love that song because we’ve all been there, and seeing someone go through it on stage is like, oh, yeah, someone else has experienced that, and oh, yeah, it hurts, and look at how beautiful that is. Emotion is so f---ing beautiful in all of its permutations. It’s so actually rewarding. And I’ve been through grief now, and I’ve been through that roller coaster ride. It feels f---ing awful, but the other side of it feeling it is so huge and awful sometimes, but you get to the other side and you’re a new person, like you went through this rainstorm and you’re new and fresh and oh, my godm it’s this amazing transformation that even grief puts you through. I can honestly say, especially losing my mom, I’m a better mom, a better friend, a better wife -- I’m better in almost every way from the experience of losing her than I was before. So I see that life makes that happen to us to make us better as well; even though it’s hard we all have to deal with it, and it’s there for a purpose because it makes us better if we allow ourselves to feel it. Nobody tells us that.
Hannah Lott-Schwartz, a San Diego native, moved back to the area after working the magazine-publishing scene in Boston. Now she’s straight trolling SD for all the music she missed while away. Want to help? Hit her up with just about anything at all over on Twitter, where -- though not always work-appropriate -- she means well.