Chris Connelly talks about “Eulogy to Christa: A Tribute to the Music & Mystique of Nico”

Chris Connelly initially set out to create an album of Nico covers, but after reading Jennifer Otter Bickerdicke’s You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone, he decided to expand the project with original compositions about Nico’s life. The result is Eulogy to Christa: A Tribute to the Music & Mystique of Nico, a fantastic double album clearly made by someone who went above and beyond simply having a love for the music. Connelly strived to gain a deep understanding of the songs and life of Nico, giving it more substance than the standard tribute album.

Initially part of Edinburgh’s Fini Tribe, Connelly has been a member of Ministry, The Revolting Cocks and Pigface. He’s put out over 20 solo albums, been part of many other collaborations and has also authored several books.

Over a Zoom interview, Connelly discussed the motivations behind and making of Eulogy to Christa: A Tribute to the Music & Mystique of Nico.

What inspired you to do this project?

Chris Connelly: Well, I’m a lifelong fan of Nico’s work. I adore her, as I do the Velvets, Lou Reed, John Cale; all that stuff is highly influential to me. But a few years ago, in 2019, I was doing a record, and I did a cover version of the song “You Forgot to Answer.” And I did it with my friend Bill Rieflin, who was actually going to do the record with me. But he became too sick, and he actually died before the record came out. But he heard my version of “You Forgot to Answer.” I sent it to him. And so after that, I went on and did an album called “The Birthday Poems.” When that came out, I played a very small show. It was right as things were starting to open up … I played for 30 people over three nights.

And after one show where I did the song and [Nico’s] “Janitor of Lunacy,” a guy came up who was a Nico fan and said, “That’s great, you’re playing this.” We talked for quite a long time. And then I thought, well, I love playing these songs. Let’s record some. So I recorded 10 of them and when I was done, I realized it wasn’t enough for me. So I went about writing a song cycle about her life and I just kept going until I finished the album. It, of course, ends when she dies. So, I ended up with 24 songs and I just looked at it and thought, ‘what is this?’ It’s a song cycle. It’s a musical. It’s a story, and it’s very listenable and this is what we’re going to do. So it was a new concept for me. And I don’t know if anyone’s done this before where you cover the artist’s songs and then write songs about the artist to try to explain the life within your writing style and your own musicality. It was really good fun to make.

Was the intention always to release this all as one album, as opposed to perhaps a covers album and then a companion album of original material?

Chris Connelly: Yeah, as I sort of get older, I get more audacious in that respect. Where in the past time I said, “Well, a double album is too much.” I’m like, “I don’t care. This is what it is.” And I’m usually very much becoming more audacious. For example, you can notice in the album that I actually sing in the voice of Lou Reed, which was a big question for me, “Can I do that?” And I thought, “It’s your record. You can do whatever you want.” So yeah, all the intentions are very particular and very absolute. This is what I wanted to do, and I saw it out to the end.

It seems like a lot of bands are actually shifting toward shorter releases and you’ve done a double album. Does that concept differ now since many people might listen to it digitally? As opposed to having a physical item where the music gets up split into actual sides? Does that affect the way you approach it, maybe in terms of the sequencing or considering how people are going to be experiencing it?

Chris Connelly: No, it doesn’t. I mean, first of all, for me and a lot of my peers, we never really lost that format of the album. To me, as such an absolute music fan who’s been collecting since the mid-seventies, side one and side two are different animals. The first song on side two is a very important song. The last song on the album is a very important song. My idea of placement is still beholden to that old school and I wouldn’t know what to do otherwise and I don’t want to. So people will listen to it as it is. And sadly, I couldn’t do it on vinyl. It was just too bloody expensive because it would’ve been a three record set if it was vinyl. But I loved double albums. I think the first double album I bought was “Trout Mask Replica” [Captain Beefheart] and looking at it and looking at the band and the cover said, “If this nutcase can fill up four sides of music, he’s got something to say.” So I’ve always thought of it that way.

What went into the song selection?              

Chris Connelly: I tried out a few things, and one thing I thought of was that Nico had such a sparse output during her lifetime that it was easy for me to do a song from each record. And that was important to me to recognize each part of her public career, if you like. So from the very first single she did for Immediate Records, which was written by Jimmy Page and Andrew Loog Oldham, up until what probably was going to be her follow-up album. There’s a live album that came out from her last live show, and it has material on there that was never recorded. So I wanted to address all of her career. That was the plan.       

Do you remember when you first became aware of Nico and her music?           

Chris Connelly: Yeah, very much so. I mean, I was aware of Lou Reed first, back in the mid-seventies when I was buying records. I remember seeing “Transformer” and loving the cover. And then when punk happened and all the fanzines and stuff that came out in 77, he was sort of recognized as the godfather of punk. And I remember buying “Sally Can’t Dance” by Lou Reed, which is his 1974 album. I brought it home and said, “Well, if he’s the godfather of punk, this is going to be outrageous.” And it was super lame. It sounded like Doobie Brothers or something. I’ve come to love that album later in life and appreciate it. But as a nine-year-old, no. 

Somebody had played me the Velvets. One of my brother’s friends worked in a record shop in Edinburgh. And so I went in one Saturday, and he played me “Sister Ray.” And I didn’t understand it at all. But I’d started listening to bands like Eater and X-Ray Spex, and I was definitely getting more into that territory. And then I went out and bought the [Velvet Underground] banana album. I think I bought it in 1980, and it absolutely changed me. But Nico was introduced to me by Cosey Fanni Tutti from Throbbing Gristle. I’ve known Cosey since 78. And in 1980, I went to visit her and Chris Carter in London. And she was the one, she brought out “Desertshore,” because we were talking about the Velvet Underground. She said, “You like the Velvet Underground, have you ever heard Nico?” And she played me “Janitor of Lunacy” and “Le Petit Chevalier,” and, boy, as soon as I got back to Edinburgh, I went out and bought that record. And I’ve been in love ever since.

You’ve done David Bowie music with Sons of the Silent Age. Did that have any impact in terms of your approach to you reinterpreting the music of others?

Chris Connelly: Yes, absolutely. When I started that band 10 years ago, of course I knew everything by David Bowie backwards. And I thought, this is going to be a no-brainer. I can also sing and it’s going to be great. What I didn’t think about at that point was climbing into the songs, trying to climb into his character. So with Bowie, you’ve got, for example, Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke. There is a character in front of the man. You don’t know how deep you’ve got to go to get to David Jones. So for me, it was mostly assumption and supposition based on what I can see to try to become that character. And I hadn’t banked on that. I thought, I’m just singing a few songs.

You take a song like “Word on a Wing.” You can’t just sing that song. That is a whole body experience. It is a very difficult song, and it is an emotional tunnel of fire you have to walk through. It’s beautiful, but it’s not easy. So now, my approach to the Nico songs was a similar thing. And in a sense, I’m really, really keen on keeping the spirit of rock and roll, if you like, alive. I am keen on going back there, telling the stories and living my life through these songs. Not in my everyday life, but when I’m doing them.

So for me, the Nico album is a tribute to her because probably pretty much like an actor would do if they’re studying the role of somebody who lived, I read about her; I sang like her. I bought a harmonium, which is this big wooden pump organ. And I realized that playing the harmonium was a very physical activity as well. So I worked with that all to try to feel that character. I can’t be her, but I can use everything that I have as a human to bring what she had out of her songs into me to reinterpret.

Having done the research, was there anything you felt strongly about getting across?

Chris Connelly: Yeah, I mean, I was very keen on getting across that she was sexually assaulted at a very early age, when she was a teenager. And to me, that defined her for the rest of her life and whatever else was going on. She was a survivor of World War II. Her hometown of Berlin was destroyed, and she was sexually assaulted by an American soldier. And for a child to go through that, and I know that this certainly defined her for the rest of her life. She was broken, and she was also very, very intelligent. What I want to get across in my album is that she was considerate, and she was incredibly strong and incredibly knowledgeable and a beautiful human being who was just kicked to the curb repeatedly.

She also had a child very early on, and the father, Alain Delon, the French actor, absolutely refused to have anything to do with that child. And so when she was at her prime as a model, she had a kid, and she was desperately in love with Alain Delon, who wouldn’t have anything to do with her. Such disappointment and such a broken heart to begin with. And that dogged her for the rest of her life. She became a heroin addict. And the fact that there were so few records for me to pick from because there were such huge periods of her having nothing and not making records.

Are there any songs that you feel particularly excited about performing in front of audiences? Maybe songs that you feel come differently live than in the recordings?

Chris Connelly: I’ll tell you one thing: Carolyn Engelmann, who plays keyboards in Sons of the Silent Age, is going to be playing keyboards and her violin. So in the song “Eulogy to Lenny Bruce,” it just sounds gorgeous because there’s guitar, violin, and voice. That’s it. I think it’s going to be an intimate show, even though I have a band playing. A lot of these songs are pretty minimalist and we’re just sort of feeling out the shape of it right now.

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