Michel Ackerman's powerful transformation from being a top flight piano teacher to becoming a dynamic, emerging singer/songwriter began one night with a dream. The multi-talented performer was gigging heavily at clubs in his native Berlin, pondering a way for his deeper musical expressions to take flight when he dreamed he was performing on a stage in Cologne City in front of a large audience. Captured by the feeling that he was "grasped slightly on the cheek by a ghost," he has the sense that something had happened to dislodge his true life-and he soon began writing and recording the songs that he is at last releasing as his 4-song EP debut Kite.
The full range of a journey this rich and expansive cannot be fully captured, however, in only four tunes, so Ackermann over the coming months make the rest of the tracks from the ten song album available for download. Influenced by a wide range of artists from Joe Henry and Van Morrison to Randy Newman and David Gray, the emotionally compelling, high flying Kite is the culmination of a deep musical biography of a professional pianist who, as he says, "started to sing one day and tried to work out his own specific style in writing pop songs." Elements of the title track, "Back On The Road," "Rather Be With You" and "Our Love" also reflect Ackermann's skills as composer of scores and the story of feeling youthfully creative while pursuing one's lifelong passion in middle age.
Ackermann grew up with a dual love for classical and jazz as a result of his first piano lessons from popular American pianist Virginia Zimberlin ("who gave me a feeling for sound and clarity") and a casual meeting at school with a mysterious German jazz pianist whose chords "moved into every cell of my body." He performed in various bands and was later part of a big band conducted by well known American trombonist Jiggs Wigham, who exposed Ackerman to new perspectives in musical phrasings and timing. After some detours studying law and working in a rehab center in the alternative service, he began shopping his experimental pop songs to major labels.
At a musical crossroads, Ackermann took the safe path back to classical when he was accepted out of 70 applicants to a major music conservatory, where he had the opportunity to study composition with famed German orchestra composer Wolfgang Rihm, whose works have been performed in the U.S. by the Chicago and Boston symphony orchestras. While the foundations of his seven years of conservatory experiences were solid, and he was considered among the most interesting of Rihm's students, for the next seven years, the pianist became part of a small clique of eccentrics that ultimately left him disenchanted. Ackermann eventually began pursuing his music career as a bar pianist playing pop and jazz-his true musical loves--in big hotels, shopping malls and Berlin hotspots like Vollmond, Harlem, Oxident and Schlot. He also became a popular private instructor, with a slate of 30 students per week.
"The talented musicians at the conservatory were for the most part out of touch with reality, writing music people could only hear in the middle of the night on rare radio stations," says Ackermann. "I feel like I was losing my soul there, being part of a musical universe which turned out to be full of cold illusions. I missed the direct feelings I once found in pop and jazz. I had developed into an ‘eccentric but I felt like I was not being authentic with my own music. So ultimately, after a period of emptiness and depression, I returned to a more conventional life with natural emotions, ‘regular' music and new friends. I had a family and a daughter by then, and it made sense to start performing and survive by teaching music theory, piano and composition."
Not surprisingly considering this compelling background, the four tracks on the Kite EP are emotionally moving, heartfelt experiences. The title track, which tells a lonely and romantic story, is a true pop ballad with melodies enhanced by classical string arrangements; starting with the image of "the sun is bright," the protagonist is searching for a way out of his dream world. "Our Love" is a somewhat sarcastic tune about anyone's love relationship, and Ackermann is especially proud of the way he "spoke in tongues" on the track via a mix of influences ranging from Talking Heads, David Bowie and Depeche Mode; the outro has an exciting jazz part that draws from the way singer/songwriter Joe Henry incorporates scat into his recordings. "Back On The Road" is somewhat sarcastic too, about a man who suffers in a relationship because of double-bind situations-i.e. "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" Its pulsating string ensemble blends blues piano with elements inspired by Vivaldi's "Four Seasons."
"The thing I enjoy most is the process of working out a song, and improvising on the piano after creating the original lay-outs of the composition," says Ackermann. "Then it's great fun coming to the arrangement and looking for a beat, testing synth sounds and imagining how the whole tune will be if it's finished. Working later with other musicians and creating such an intense and concentrated energy is marvelous, too. I also like performing very much because it's a pure feeling of life. Being onstage is a lot like being an actor, an adventure and a challenge to beat my basic shy character. The best part of performing is to swim through music, being a complete part of a sound that happens in the moment. Studying the impact it has on the audience is another way to learn more about my music and my relationship to other people. Ultimately, it's a very spiritual connection."