Entertainment » Vol. 36

It’s time to discover Herbert G.

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 Herbert Groenemeyer.

Before he embarked on a musical career, Groenemeyer 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 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. Groenemeyer’s 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 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 including English translations of some of his most well-known songs. I Walk also includes two songs that are new to this project. Listeners will hear sweeping and uncynical songs and heartfelt anthems. 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’ll feel the undercurrent in his performance. On “Mensch,” Groenemeyer is joined on vocals by Bono, one of the special guests on the album, along with Antony Hegarty, of Antony and The Johnsons, on the dramatic “Will I Ever Learn” and guitarist James Dean Bradfield, of the Manic Street Preachers, on “To The Sea.”

Although Gronemeyer was born in Gottingen, Germany, in 1956, he considers his hometown to be Bochum, where he spent most of his formative years. In the mining town of Bochum, Gronemeyer began taking piano lessons at 8 and got his initial break in the local theater, 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 led 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 said. “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. However, 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 15 years, his music became more political, addressing the Kohl government’s policies and the impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1993, Chaos went to No. 1, and on the next year, he became the first non-English-singing artist invited by MTV to do an Unplugged concert.

In 1999, Gronemeyer moved to London and founded his own record label, Groenland Records, and released Pop 2000, an 8-CD collection compiling recordings from the entire post-war Germany’s pop music and youth culture. Also, 1999 was the year his wife, Anna, died of cancer, and he also lost his brother Wilhelm. For a year, Gronemeyer suspended his career. 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, with advance orders well over platinum and sales now exceeding three million copies, more than any album in the country’s history.

Although Gronemeyer 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. I Walk is the natural outgrowth of his desire to push forward creatively. Working on an English-language album, he said, was less about dissatisfaction with his status outside the German-speaking world that about the challenge, the opportunity for self-discovery.

“I have to find my own challenges,” Gronemeyer said. “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.”

For more information, visit groenemeyer.us.

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