Interview: Max Prosa

Max Prosa - Photo by Tino Sieland

Max Prosa - Photo by Tino Sieland

There are a few things that set Max Prosa apart from many of his contemporaries. For one, the Berlin-based singer-songwriter is actually from Berlin – born and raised, a minority among people his own age.

Additionally, as a musician, he resists the indie and electronic subgenres, preferring to write folk-inspired music with an unconventional edge: lyrics in German.

“So many people say that, you know, German is not a language to sing in,” he said. “But when you write lyrics, you have to have full control of what you’re saying.”

However, the slight disparity between the music he draws inspiration from and the music he creates is not lost on Prosa, who admitted he listens primarily to English songs.

Although he began playing classical guitar at a young age, his initial love affair with music could be attributed to when a family member gave him a copy of “Forty Licks” by the Rolling Stones.

“There was something about it which I couldn’t forget,” he said, adding that David Bowie soon also became instrumental in his growth as a songwriter.

But of course, it’s Bob Dylan who seems to take the coveted position as primary influence in his writing. In fact, Prosa said it’s exactly that kind of “old school stuff” that inspires him the most, looking up from rolling a cigarette to nod in the direction of a book on the corner of his couch, containing Dylan’s lyrics. Prosa refers to this as his Bible, although he did add that the actual Bible itself inspires him, in particular, the Psalms.

“I find [inspiration] in books – these sentences, which are beautiful, or you know, have something about them,” he said. “And I just take them out and write them down.”

It is these small findings which aid him in writing lyrics, a part of the process which generally happens before the songs themselves.

“I write…texts first and then I put it in some chords, and for the arrangement I have my band,” he said. “But it all starts with words.”

Prosa acknowledged that writing in this manner can prove to be more challenging, as even he finds that “music is much more flexible than words.” But he prioritizes lyrics in a way that many musicians don’t, treading across the territory carefully. And that’s why he does choose to write in German: because he understands the weight the words carry.

“A sentence has a special thing to it, you know, and a special meaning which is not within the words and that’s different in every language,” he said.

Prosa’s outlook on songwriting may come across as particularly precocious for someone of his age, but one only need observe his gentle way of navigating the world, of the careful deliberation put into articulating his thoughts, to understand how reflective he is.

He explained that to be successful at writing, he has to constantly have a higher awareness of not only who he is, but how he functions in the world around him.

“I think that’s what the life of an artist is all about, you know, knowing yourself and seeing how you’re working…it’s like a mirror. It has a very psychological aspect to it,” Prosa shared. “You always have to sit under the tree and hear the apple falling down, and then you have to put out your hand in that moment. That’s what it’s about, trying to see that your hand is there.”

Of course, understanding the process is a good thing, but Prosa admitted knowing one’s own methodology and place in the world can sometimes be a detriment, because art shouldn’t be an exact science.

This is why he strives to take that awareness and not be afraid to incorporate new ways of approaching music.

“To move on, you know, you always have to go back to where you started at and you know, find maybe another way to it,” he explained.

One way Prosa said he has kept things fresh is by incorporating new instruments into his playing. The most recent of these was learning the piano, something which introduced a new approach to writing songs.

New or strange instrumentation also aid Prosa in stepping away from labels he is not keen on being grouped under.

“In German you always have this comparison to Schlager. And I’m trying to get away from that the most I can,” he said. “You know, it’s not cool. And so you really have to find your way, and it’s a hard struggle.”

This, too, is something he has navigated successfully for the past few years; much of Prosa’s personal struggle entailed not being afraid to follow his dreams.

He spoke of how he went to university for physics, something which was somewhat expected of him by his West Berlin upbringing. But as he went on in life, he realized it wasn’t something he wanted. Instead, his head was filled with ideas, dreams and a lust for something more.

“I just felt that something’s missing,” he said. “I was totally lost. And then I went to Neukölln and smashed everything which was my old life.”

The out-with-the-old and in-with-the-new approach to things helped Prosa clear his head and figure out his next step. And part of that next step was having no real plans – something slightly foreign to the boy who, beforehand, always seemed to have it figured out.

“It was kind of starting a moon mission,” he said, speaking of the daunting task of beginning anew.

Yet it was the overwhelming nature of his undertakings that helped Prosa gain the perspective he’d been lacking.

“I can’t possibly have any goal, like, you know, when the moon is there. It’s just, being on the way is so nice,” he said. “That was what was always in my mind, that in the end I’m sure it will be somehow good.”

Max Prosa plays today at IFA Sommergarten in Berlin, as part of Die Neuen DeutschPoeten. His debut album will be released in January.

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