Just last week, on a Thursday evening in Neukölln, Berlin-based singer-songwriter Vincent Sala shared the stage at Oblomov—along with two other musicians—as part of a benefit concert for Music4Good.
Sala, who is French, decided one year ago to leave behind the frustrations of being an indie musician in Paris and London and moved to Berlin.
“At a first, bar level, it was easy to start working here. There are lots of places that just want to do some promotion and invite musicians; it’s not difficult to find a spot and others to play with,” he shared of his experience in Berlin. “I took part in jam sessions, I started to meet people, and [I] made my way through. I played many gigs with Francesco De Rosa at the piano and melodica, and with Natasha Jaffe at the cello. Francesco, for example, has a very good scenic presence. He’s positive and builds a good vibe around himself.”
It’s interesting to hear that he thinks of the Kiki Sol in Wedding as his springboard. He was advised to go jam there while playing at a bar with the violinist Kaio Moraes, so he did. The sound managed to break through the smokescreen in the small, carpeted room, and the people in attendance loved it, which only motivated Sala to keep at it.
A small sign of victory: last August, he won the Wulle Bandcontest. His prize? In addition to receiving 52 crates of beer, he was booked for five gigs around the city.
“They got me playing at the Klunkerkranich, at the Kallasch& -Moabiter Barprojekt, at the Hangar 49,” he said. “It was a great occasion to play around and keep my musicians together, even though it’s sometimes hard to stick to people—everyone is with everyone, it’s like a big sex party sometimes, you know.”
Vincent defines his music as rock and roll, though it’s often just voice and guitar, or voice, guitar, and piano / melodica / violin / cello. For him, rock and roll isn’t just a musical genre; it’s a concept, and strong melody and meaningful lyrics are all part of the deal.
“When I started last year, someone came up to me and said he’d rarely seen anyone in Berlin playing what I was playing with the kind of sound I have. That made me feel for the first time like I was part of a movement, like I was making a contribution to something valuable, and that’s important,” Sala shared. “I also feel there’s a need for this kind of music. I see it when I play on the street: people need melodies and lyrics, not only beats.”
He has precise ideas about the place he wants to occupy in the music scene in Berlin, and about the scene itself. In Paris, where he worked for some years, he felt that there was no actual scene or space for underground musicians to present themselves to the public. This obviously raised the question of whether he thinks that people in Berlin are simply more receptive to music than they are in Paris.
“Well, it’s not that people in France don’t appreciate music. But either you play in shitholes where it’s very hard to have [the] public at all because nobody knows about them, or you play in big venues and festivals,” he explained. “About the musical culture, yes, I feel people here are just more curious, and there’s variety, not only among the locals but also with all the foreigners here. They come to Berlin and they’re just excited. This is a state of mind. That’s how the city is.”
One recurring idea he kept returning to was that of a musical community: the idea that musicians can make an impact if they influence each other and try to play together as much as possible. He mentioned the East Coast and West Coast scenes in 90s hip-hop from the U.S. as a great example of that. As for Berlin, he thinks this kind of collaboration won’t be visible for awhile, as it takes time for the scene to develop.
“Take the techno scene. It’s so big now because it started decades ago, and more after the Wall came down, with all those empty spaces suddenly available. The same is happening in Detroit right now: techno people are going to Detroit after the city has suffered from the financial crisis and everything is cheaper,” he said. “As for the rock scene here, we all know it’s quite small, and I’m so excited to be one of those that will hopefully make it bigger. This is why it’s so important for me to just go out and play. You just have to do it at some point.”
When asked to name other musicians doing what he does, Sala already had a few names that come to mind: Cameron James Laing, Kaio Moraes, Tim Granbacka, and Alice Phoebe Lou, for starters. What brings these artists together, he explained, is the immediateness of playing live, and the lack of interest in signing with big labels. Keeping it underground is the key.
“You can really build yourself an underground network in Berlin. Nobody knows you, but people know you,” he said. “And on top of that, it goes fast. Within a few months from my arrival, those colleagues knew me and I knew them. The same thing in Paris or London would have taken years.”
In terms of songwriting, Sala confided that he owes a lot to Elliott Smith, an influence that comes out clearly in some of his soft ballads.
“Songwriting is obviously about self-expression, and Elliott Smith was someone who could really move the listener,” he said. “This is what I ultimately try to do. I’m not a technician and I’m not interested in being one; it’s more important and interesting to take out what’s inside of you, to ‘get naked’ in front of the public.”
Meanwhile, Sala has been getting recognition elsewhere in the world.
“Apparently in the U.S. they love my song ‘My Ballad,’” he said. “The PR work being done for me there is mainly with independent radios, and the Americans seem to like my music.”
However, when it comes to Berlin, he wants to keep it local.
“It’s great to be able to have control [of] the promotion happening here, and I can do that because the regulations in Germany are favoring us,” he said. “When it comes to paying for advertising, it doesn’t matter if you are Paul McCartney or Vincent Sala; you pay the same. In France or in the UK, where the industry is stronger, things are different, the competition is crazy, and independent artists can afford very little. “
Of course, Sala isn’t only performing these days. Currently he has plans for a new album due out in September or October, along with new music videos, which will be directed by Peter Sliacky. And then there’s the matter of founding his own label, which he will call MyEyes Records. The name comes from the French Meyzieu —“Mes yeux” translates to “my eyes”—and is a nod to his hometown of Lyon.
“It’s a way to confirm what my vision is like,” he said. “It would be great if my label could become, in the future, a reference for other independent musicians. I want to be the man—well, one of the men—to help the rock scene stay up.”
Vincent Sala plays today at the Weddingmarkt in Berlin. The event begins at 11.00 and goes until 19.00. Sala performs at 16.00.