Leni Stern is an electric guitarist, singer, and n'goni (Malian banjo-guitar) player. She was interested in music from an early age, beginning piano studies at the age of six and taking on the guitar age of eleven. Forming her own acting company at the age of seventeen, Stern attracted media attention and performed her radical productions in front of sold-out European crowds.
In 1977, Stern chose music over acting, and left Germany for the United States to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, studying film scoring. She gave up film scoring in favor of the guitar and moved to New York City in 1981, playing in various rock and jazz bands. In 1983, she formed a band of her own with Paul Motian on drums and Bill Frisell on guitar.
She has released thirteen solo recordings, the latest being 2012's "Smoke, No Fire" recorded in Bamako, Mali. The 1985 Clairvoyant was the first. Her most recent releases juxtapose Stern's trademark inventive guitar and vocal explorations with the indigenous sounds of accomplished African instrumentalists and singers. Her cover of Laura Nyro's song "Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp" appeared on Time and Love: The Music of Laura Nyro, the Laura Nyro tribute album. Leni Stern Recordings (LSR) was established in 1997. The record label seeks to put out music from the most creative artists in jazz and songwriting. LSR's first release was Stern's first full-length vocal release, Black Guitar. Ted Drozdowski of the Boston Phoenix described Stern's voice sounding "something like Marlene Dietrich borrowing Billie Holiday's phrasing."
She is married to guitarist Mike Stern.
1. Which was the first record you bought with your own money?
The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, I think. The Beatles, for sure.
2. Which was the last record you bought with your own money?
Ali Farka Toure — Niafunke.
3. What was the first solo you learned from a record — and can you still play it?
George Benson — “Eternally,” from It's Uptown. A minor blues. I can still play the first chorus, sort of.
4. Which recording of your own (or as a sideman) are you most proud of, and why?
The last one — Love Comes Quietly. Always the last one, since we try to improve every day. Even if sometimes it seems as if we don’t, as if we played better years ago, I believe we get better as we get older.
5. What's the difference between playing live and playing in a studio?
I like to take long solos when we play live. If I did that in the studio, my CDs would have only three songs on them. We all stretch when we play live. The songs sound different every time we play. Not always longer. It just depends on were the moon is, I suppose. In the studio I try to create something that you'd want to listen to more then once — a piece of music that has little surprises hidden in it that you discover as you listen for a while.
6. What's the difference between a good gig and a bad gig?
A bad gig is when don’t get to really play, for whatever reason. But actually every gig is a good gig, in a way, It's almost always better to play music then not to. Of course, getting shot at or yelled at or being very hot or very cold could be bad. Or having your guitar break and your amp. Having your bass player hate your drummer. I guess there are bad gigs.
Essoka (lead vcls), Tchounga (Assiko Bottle), Mwanaoli (kbds, perc), Manga (bass), Doumbe (bass, g), Leni Stern (g), Dou (perc)
7. What's the difference between a good guitar and a bad guitar?
A bad guitar hurts your hands, is out of tune, makes you work hard to sound decent. A good guitar is like a best friend. It makes you feel better when you’re down. It makes you sound great, even on a bad day.
8. You play electric and acoustic. Do you approach the two differently?
9. Do you sound more like yourself on acoustic or electric?
I feel more like myself on electric guitar, but I love my Collings steel-string and my Flip Scipio baritone acoustic. I guess I sound like me on both, just different mes — acoustic me and electric me.
10. Do you sound like yourself on other people's guitars?
For better and for worse, I do sound like myself. Wouldn't it be nice to suddenly play twice as good on some else's guitar? One time I played Ry Cooder's seafoam-green Strat, which was at my luthier's shop for refretting, and I thought I got a little Paris, Texas going, But it was probably just in my mind. One time I played through my husband Michael’s rig at a sound-check so that he could go into the hall and listen to his sound. His bass player started talking to me as if I were him — "You know, Mike, we should start the gig with...." Then he turned and looked at me like I was a ghost.
Alioune Faye, Leni Stern,and Mamadou Ba
12. What dead artist (music, or other arts) would you like to have collaborated with?
13. What's your latest project about?
I recently played with a group of n'gony players in Mali, and I am working on writing music for our collaboration. I will return to Mali to start recording with Bassekou Kouyaté, "the prince of strings," as he is called over there.
Duo with Amanda Ruzza