Lost Albums: Sibylle Baier – Colour Green | Double J
Sibylle Baier, a housewife and mother, recorded Colour Green at her German home on a reel to reel tape machine between 1970 and 1973. Upon finishing the recording, she gave out a few copies and retired the master tapes to the attic of her home. The tapes remained forgotten for 30 years until her son discovered them. He sent out cassettes of the recording, which led to the release of the album (in part courtesy of J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr).
Colour Green is an album never intended for wider public consumption. Listening to it is akin to eves dropping on a private performance or album by a talent equal to Leonard Cohen, Bridget St John or Karen Dalton. Colour Green is one of the purest distillations of classic folk songwriting ever recorded. Aside from Baier’s brittle vocalizing and timeless song craft, the lyrics are what is so affecting about the album. They traverse the spectrum of the everyday as heartbreak and insecurity remain buoyed by hope and an uncertain optimism.
Colour Green remains Sibylle Baier's only album so fans and critics commonly romanticize and mythologize it as the work of a reclusive savant. But this album is the work of a mother, a wife and a friend. This is perhaps why this album resonates with so many people.
There is a purity and innocence to Colour Green which is slowly eroded as one gets an insight into Baier's mindset.
The album is a remarkably intimate portrait of the songwriter. Although now recognized as an accidental classic, Colour Green remained critically unheralded – or more accurately, unheard – for its first 35 years of existence. It is only now finding an audience and, with the benefit of hindsight, is being acclaimed as one of the vital records of the 1970s folk underground.
While critics have sought to draw parallels between Baier and outsider folk artists of the era like Vashti Bunyan, there is something in her songcraft and story which suggests she is without contemporary. Baier was a songwriter who sought only to write and record songs to satisfy her own creative wont. Devoid of ego and thirst for recognition, Baier wrote and recorded an album on par with Nick Drake's Bryter Layter or Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate and then filed it away in her attic after giving a copy only to a few close friends (including filmmaker Wim Wenders).
There is a purity and innocence to Colour Green which, over the course of the album, is slowly eroded as one gets an insight into Baier's mindset. She, perhaps for the sake of song, clings to a very brittle version of happiness.
One of the few things we know about Baier is that, after a period of intense depression, friends forced her out of her bed to take a road trip to Strasbourg. Upon returning from the trip, which took in the Alps, Sibylle wrote her first song, ‘Remember the Day’. It was an ode to being alive. The story of Baier's inspiration to write her first song attests to her ability to capture the beauty that lurks behind our most despondent moments.
Colour Green is a rare album that serves as a soundtrack for those in the midst of heartbreak, or in love, in ecstasy, or in depression. It is a feat few songwriters are capable of.
We know little about Sibylle Baier. Interviews are scarce and the outside world has been privy only to snippets of information. We know she now lives in America where she emigrated with her family from Germany. We also know she featured in one scene of Wim Wenders 1974 German road film Alice In The Cities, in which she sings on a boat to her then small children. Aside from this, we have only Colour Green. But it's a record that reveals more about Sibylle Baier than any interview could. Few albums truly uncover the psyche of the songwriter at the helm quite so intimately. One can’t help but feel that, in one album recorded 35 years ago, Baier revealed more about herself than most artists do over a traditional career.
Colour Green truly bares Sibylle Baier for the whole world to see. Its unreserved honesty, longing, desperation and stewing sadness perhaps stand to reason why it might be the only album we ever hear from the reticent Baier .
In an age that places narcissism, ambition and celebrity above actual art, Sibylle Baier is a reminder that timeless art and beautiful songcraft can emerge from the most unexpected places.
Interview with Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth)
Whom do you consider the best writers — novelists, songwriters, journalists, poets — working today?
For poetry, Ariana Reines and Elaine Kahn. They’re both risk takers. For music, I like Stephen Malkmus, and also Sibylle Baier. I really love Baier’s sweetly melancholy melodies. She wrote one record, and it’s stunningly beautiful. Hilton Als is so intuitive — he writes from the heart and the head at the same time. I’m a recent convert to Joan Didion, whom I’ve been meaning to read for years and finally got around to. She’s a woman writing in a man’s world, but her voice isn’t girlish, but it’s not a man’s either. How cool is it that Céline chose her for their new ad campaign? I want those sunglasses.
After years of steady reissuing that has unearthed a few great recordings, several decent ones and more still that had been forgotten for good reason, the music industry shouldn’t be surprised that suspicious eyebrow raising greets each “amazing” rediscovery. Nevertheless, as neatly as the story of Sibylle Baier and her only album adheres to the lost-to-time folksinger archetype, that’s no reason to skip over Colour Green: There may not be a more persistently bewitching release this year.
A German theater actor, Baier was in gloomy spirits at the end of the ’60s. After a friend took her on a road trip, however, she felt renewed and began writing these perfectly dreamy songs—“The music just fell out,” she said, and from there it seems to have nestled into a breathy space between the suffocating melancholy she had been feeling and the restrained optimism that Europeans do so well.
The only place where Colour Green departs from the classic-reissue script is that it isn’t a reissue: Baier, who sounds like a less-burdened Nico, recorded the songs between 1970 and ’73 on a reel-tape recorder, to share with relatives and friends. In 2004 her son transferred them to CD, but even then just as a gift for the family on the occasion of his mom’s birthday. But he later made a copy for his friend J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), who passed it to the label Orange Twin. The lesson here? Take more road trips, save all your old tapes and pick up this
In Stuttgart in 1970 there was a group of bohemian young Germans who were interested in film, music, art and politics. One of them was the future filmmaker Wim Wenders; another was an actress, artist and future songwriter called Sibylle Baier. In 1973 she appeared in Wenders' Alice in the Cities, and by then she had recorded a collection of her own songs, sung in English and backed by her acoustic guitar, on a reel-to-reel machine in her living room. She gave Wenders, and probably other friends too, a cassette copy. And that's the end of the story, except that 35 years later Wenders, while standing in front of Reckless Records in Chicago, sees a familiar face, a young face, on a record cover in the shop window. It's Sibylle Baier. He rushes into the shop to buy a copy of the music he's been carrying around on a battered cassette since the '70s.
Colour Green came about through Baier's first son, Robby, who grew up with his mother in the United States to become a musician and record producer. He compiled a CD of her unreleased songs and gave a copy to J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr, who forwarded them to the Orange Twin label, which released the album to insider acclaim. Wim Wenders, reacquainted with Baier's music and still in contact with her, immediately commissioned her to write a new song for his film Palermo Shooting. She did: it's called ‘Let Us Know', and for some, hearing this song was the door back to Colour Green and the life of Sibylle Baier.
The album is totally intriguing: an artefact that offers the pleasures of its songs and the mysteries of the tomb. The music is similar in style to that of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. But here's the scary bit - it's also as good. It is doing Colour Green a disservice to linger on comparisons, but from Cohen there is the plucked jauntiness of the nylon-string melodies and the European dance of melancholy and poetry; from Mitchell there's the advanced guitar technique and a jazzy coolness in the singing. From both comes the idea of the song as confessional. That's the frame, but what Baier does with it is truly amazing. Here are 14 songs that many an artist would be happy to sprinkle over a four-album career. Running concurrent with the vast pleasures that the record gives are the questions it throws up. How does a young German woman learn to sing and write in English so well? Where did the remarkable guitar playing come from? Where was the folk scene (in Stuttgart?) that would have nurtured and supported her? Answers aren't forthcoming from the reclusive Baier, and because she had no standard ‘rock' career there are no interviews to go back to. Instead there is an enigma, a new great singer-songwriter popping out of the air, her existence only known to us because her son gave a CD of her songs to the lead singer of Dinosaur Jr.