Half an hour before I’m set to meet Juliana Venter at Clarke’s Diner on Bree, I get a text telling me that she’s running fifteen minutes late. I change my arrival plans accordingly, but she ends up arriving only five minutes after our original meet-up time, and I sprint the distance from my location to the restaurant, rendering me well out of breath by the time we sit down at our table.
Despite reading about and listening to Juliana and her work extensively over the previous few weeks, I had very little idea of what actually to expect out of meeting her in person. Despite being generally flustered, I am immediately put at ease by her charming and engaged manner. ‘Warm’ is perhaps the wrong word here, but despite her intimidating resumé and deeply cosmopolitan past, she is remarkably open and approachable. She looks resplendent in her blue dress and sunglasses and is in turns playful and serious, passionate and reticent. She remains, at all times, stridently articulate, even in her silences.
Perhaps as with all well-traveled and wandering souls, she has a very strong sense of place. “Cape Town is such a weird space,” she says. “Or maybe it’s me that’s in a weird space. Or maybe it’s the combination.” Born in Pretoria, she spent much of her youth in Johannesburg. Here she formed the Mud Ensemble with then-partner Marcel Van Heerden, an ever-evolving band who pushed boundaries, not just musically, but in their live performances too, which mixed music with powerful performance art and film sensibilities.
This was South Africa in the 90s: a place of possibility and hope, but also a place filled with uncertainty, and not just the political kind. The Mud Ensemble’s music can only be found in a slapdash collection that Juliana scrounged about to put together, and has since uploaded to BandCamp, an action which angered some of her bandmates, but which she strongly defends. “We don’t have to agree, but here’s a fucking document. It’s better than it just becoming dust.” Despite all this, the music retains an enigmatic, powerful quality. Twenty-odd years since its creation, it still sounds vital. Hearing years later in Germany that what they were doing was on par with what was going on in Europe and New York at the same time genuinely surprised her. “We were in the Southern tip of Africa, we were just starting to open up and get in contact with the rest of the world. We thought we were doing interesting stuff, but that we were probably behind. We had absolutely no idea.”
The Mud Ensemble formed part of what is now reverently referred to (by those who remember it) as ‘The Lost Generation’. These were a group of musicians and artists on a journey of creativity and personal expression, who have since been not only ‘lost’ but, in many ways, removed entirely from the consciousness of a new generation of musicians and listeners. There is no regret in Juliana’s voice when she discusses this period, however; she is surprisingly pragmatic on the issue. “It’s all just historical, it’s logical. We were in a transition. It’s not like we had any relevance to fighting against Apartheid anymore, so we kind of fell in this in-between stage, and everyone’s attention was basically just pulled somewhere else.” The ‘blame’ for this, of course, falls on the artists themselves too. “We were all a bunch of radical anarchists, we were not into self-promotion,” she says, laughing.
It was in that group’s fiery dissolution (an ending that she admits was all-too-fitting; “we burnt with enormous intensity and burnt out very quickly too”) that Juliana moved to Berlin and set up a new life. Despite her acting abilities and her fascination with performance art and multi-disciplinary work, she made a conscious decision to focus on her music. “I wanted to become a purist for a while. And I think it was necessary. Because the multi-focus thing is fantastic and it challenges you, but music is such a world in itself that I felt I was being distracted by the rest.”
In Europe she met up with local legend Ramsey MacKay of 70s band Freedom’s Children and lived with him in his house in the hills north of Edinburgh for a few months, where they wrote an album that was never recorded. In Germany, she met a vast array of musicians; she had a kid; she started to learn how to use her computer as an instrument. She also met Cologne legend Joseph Suchey with whom she recorded her most recent album as Spooky Attraction at a Distance, called Sunflower Sutra. “Joseph was one of the most important musical mentors in my life, and he remains that. I would really love to work with him again. But I would have to pay him, which is difficult in Euros. He’s an artist who’s struggling like everyone else.”
If the Mud Ensemble were enigmatic, Sunflower Sutra was that eleven-fold. The reactions locally varied from skepticism to bafflement and were vastly different to those in Germany and New York, where she was put on par with Devandra Banhart and Joanna Newsom as an artist re-inventing folk music. “Of course my stuff is not just folk, but it had that critical acclaim to it. There was context for me to be understood. Whereas here, where do you put me? People just said ‘that music is weird’. My father says ‘I won’t pay to buy that CD.’” Everything from krautrock to electronic music to opera, folk and beyond can be heard on the album, which seemed to mark a true moment of artistic progression for her.
It is as an artist that Juliana is best viewed. She talks with passion about her plan to turn the life of Afrikaans writer Eugene Marais into “An opera where he’s the tragic figure like you would with a Tristan and Isolde. Like how Wagner uses the underworld, mythology, philosophy like Schopenhauer, and incorporating natural science and tragedy and philosophy into a single structure.” She speaks with reverence about the Viennese Actionists, a school of radical performance artists in the 60s and 70s fronted by Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler. “That shit was radical,” she says, pointing by way of comparison to her experience of going to the performance arts festival at the City Hall (part of the recent Cape Town Fringe festival). “I really found what the people were doing there tame. Putting chicken shit on the floor and stuffing stuff up your fanny – that doesn’t shock me.”
On her musical influences, she waxes lyrical about Hildgard von Bingen, Ligetti and Wagner, as well as 50s doowop, the Ronettes and Miles Davis. She takes a little longer to answer on her contemporary influences and touchstones, before name-checking Aphex Twin, Scott Walker, Moondog and Carla Bozulich. The spirit of experimentalism appears key to all aspects of her life. She is not one for respecting boundaries nor any kind of cultural norms.
It is for this reason, perhaps, that she seems to find Cape Town almost a bit tame for her liking, although she does admit that in recent times she has been exposed to a different side of the city. “You meet a few freaks you can be comfortable around, and from there you can meet a few more. The longer I’m in Cape Town and the more I’m getting to know people, I realise there is an audience for my work – ok, it’s not like Europe, they’re not gonna financially support my career, I have to be in Europe too, but it’s untrue to say there’s not a Capetonian support structure for experimental stuff.”
During her time in the city, where she had thoughts of settling down which have since been smashed, she has taught drama at AFDA and quietly progressed as a musician, developing her skills on Logic and writing and recording with musicians Brydon Bolton and Albert Du Toit, who will join her on stage on Friday night at Blah Blah Bar. She seems excited by the prospect of the show, which will be her last in the city before she returns to Berlin. It promises to offer something truly unique to the Cape Town live scene. Her performances are not for the faint of heart; they are experiences, jarring yet sensual, and in them Juliana commands both the space and the audience’s attention.
To hype the show she’s done interviews with newspapers and magazines, all the ‘self-promotion’ that was so foreign to her and her contemporaries in the 90s. “We did interviews back then,” she says. “It was just… different. It was a different time.” Speaking of mainstream press at the end of our conversation, she says: “The Mail & Guardian put a front-on nude picture of me on the cover of their Arts section. This was in 1997. Now they’d never do something like that. Are we regressing?” she asks, with a laugh and a small shake of her head. “Have we all gone back to Jesus?”
Catch Juliana Venter live at Blah Blah Bar tomorrow evening. The performance starts at 21:30. More details here.
All images by Craig Matthew.