MARIA BURGER alias OSKA has been releasing her haunting singer-songwriter pop songs on the Canadian label nettwerk since the middle of the year. In September the ambitious artist (and Viennese by choice) won the XA – Music Export Music Award, which, among other things, is intended to provide young up-and-coming artists with a solid basis for international success. The sensitive and self-confident 23-year-old newcomer spoke to Isabella Klebinger and Michael Franz Woels about her musical roots and geographical influences, gaining a foothold in the music business, and negative experiences in a music world dominated by men.
You are coming from a very musical family, how much has that influenced you?
Maria Burger: I wouldn’t be making music today if I hadn’t heard it at home. My mother sang with us and was intensely involved with Irish ballads herself. My father sang in a Carinthian choir, my mother conducted a choir, one brother was with the Vienna Boys’ Choir and all siblings learned to play instruments. I don’t know how much time we five children spent making music in our parents’ winter garden, my oldest brother playing the drums and all of us singing mainly Irish songs together. Being the youngest, I wanted to learn everything my older sister did: singing and playing the guitar. My mother sang like Joan Baez and often played her records in the morning, so we all woke up with Joan Baez. But I am the only one who turned music into my profession.
Billy Joel seems to have had an influence on your music making, in a video you briefly play the song “Vienna”. What does it mean to you?
Maria Burger: A friend of mine from Ireland made me aware of this song. I listened to the lyrics and was reassured when Billy Joel sang that you can take your time, and not always have to chase your dreams with too big an ambition:”Dream on but don’t image they will all come true“. It’s ok if not everything you are hoping for happens immediately. As a musician, I often have the feeling not to have enough time to be successful by the age of 30, and I have been under pressure about this since I was 18 years old and decided to become a musician. It’s simply a challenge to be independent and responsible for everything, and my head is rattling almost all the time.
When did you actually start writing songs yourself?
Maria Burger: I started writing songs on my own at the age of 12, already in English. I wrote my first song with my oldest brother Oskar on the violin. My stage name OSKA by the way, comes from his name.
How did you get the idea to test yourself as a street musician in Vienna?
Maria Burger: Actually, up to now I’ve only played music on the street in Vienna. Except once on the famous shopping street Grafton Street in Ireland. There, street musicians can be found all over the place, and I simply asked one of them if I could join in and play, and a kind of dream came true. I don’t know exactly why I wanted to do that at the age of 18 after graduating from high school. What attracted me to it? To have the courage to just stand there? At any rate, this routine gave me self-confidence. What you don’t learn in music studies, in my opinion, is to understand this musical togetherness, it’s a give and take on both sides: people stop and listen, they smile at you, you smile at them, the children dance – it’s simply about connecting. In my own way, I would like to help other people and bring joy to them. If I wouldn’t make music, I would probably have chosen a social profession. At the end of my music studies I didn’t play music on the street that often anymore and now I’m in the studio a lot. But when I have time it’s still appealing to me.
Did performing as a street musician also help you for your work in the studio?
Maria Burger: These are definitively two very different things. But I have lost my fear of playing live, I have learned to respond to things and to interact with people. With a band on stage it’s a different challenge again. I also had to work on my self-confidence in the studio and on knowing which sound I actually want. Making music on the street is much easier in comparison.
Which other musicians have you worked with lately?
Maria Burger: In a songwriting camp in France, almost exactly one year ago, I met the band HAEVN. Marion Roudette was there as well, and I had a nice conversation with him about uncertainties and nervousness during sessions, without knowing who he was when I talked to him. I had a session with him and HAEVN the very first day. The song that was created there, and on which I am singing, will probably be released. After being back in Vienna, I wanted to live in another city for a while, but didn’t want to give up Vienna. Then a few weeks later I got a call from HAEVN that they would like to have me as support on their tour in the Netherlands. When I performed live with them on one of the biggest Dutch TV talk shows, it was pretty surreal – 1.2 million people watched. The tour was unfortunately postponed, it would have been last May.
Have other cities or countries also left a lasting impression on you?
Maria Burger: Greece has also had a strong impact on me. My father lives on Samos, and we took our family vacations there for two months every year. For a music video, which is also about my family, I went through old VHS tapes which I found in the attic, and I will be using excerpts for the upcoming single “Love you’ve lost”. This is actually the oldest song on the EP. You often remember things that were not that good, but these videos were the proof that I had a beautiful childhood. You don’t have memories about your life before the age of 3, and now I’m seeing myself on these videos in a kitchen in Greece dancing with my siblings to the Kelly Family. I can also remember how the three of us sat in a pickup truck bawling out loudly to Janis Joplin songs with the car windows down while driving to the beach.
You already mentioned Joan Baez and Janis Joplin. Have other musicians had an influence on you?
Maria Burger: I am a big Edith Piaf fan. She is cheeky and profound at the same time. I wouldn’t call her a role model. She has charisma, you simply believe every word she says, maybe also because she had such a hard life. This pain that is not presented in a suffering, but an honest way; I believe that to be authentic.
Are there also any Austrian influences – keyword Austropop? Where do you see yourself in the Austrian musical landscape?
Maria Burger: With my mother we also sang “Die Omama” by Ludwig Hirsch. Funnily enough, I also rediscovered a tape on which I’m singing “Viel Glück und viel Segen” all the time. I would describe the music I’m doing now as singer-songwriter-pop, but you will be categorized anyway. I always wanted to make indie music, but somehow that doesn’t work for me.
With which Austrian music legend would you have liked to go for a coffee?
Maria Burger: Now I immediately thought of Falco, he surely would have cool stories to tell. Or Mozart or Beethoven, they were certainly funny dudes, too. I once read about Beethoven exchanging letters with his brother who signed the letter with: “Your brother, landowner”, and he wrote back: “Your brother, brain owner”. (laughs)
Are there any collaborations with other musicians you are thinking about?
Maria Burger: There are many people I would like to work with, both nationally and internationally, but sometimes the labels oppose themselves. I am currently working on a collaboration with Stu Larson, he spent a day in Vienna for this. This Australian musician was on the road a lot with the band Passenger. In November a duet of ours will be released, just two songs. I realize more and more how cool it is to work with others and get something going together.
What about your EP?
Maria Burger: It’s basically finished and will be released in January 2021. At the moment I’m also working on an album to be released next year. The EP was already finished at the beginning of the year. After the release of the first single, labels approached me. The strategy of my label nettwerk, with which I have been working since June, is to release singles every two months or so. It’s a new concept for me, because I didn’t actually write the EP back then with this in mind – now all the songs are getting much more space and can stand for themselves. This way they can be “playlisted” of course, so the strategy has advantages. And for years I’ve had the desire to release an album. But times are changing and this fast moving music consumption is based on singles in playlists. I had conceived the EP with a different idea in mind, but sometimes you like to hide your very personal songs behind five other ones. Now I’m much more confident in handling and releasing quieter, older songs.
“SOMETIMES YOU LIKE TO HIDE YOUR VERY PERSONAL SONGS BEHIND FIVE OTHER ONES”
Being a newcomer, are you having a say with the label or with your musical decisions ?
Maria Burger: For four years now, labels have been approaching me and asking me if I would like to sign with them, but I took my time and rejected many things and didn’t sign. Even before that I wanted someone to help and advise me and that’s why I have my management. They also advised me to wait and see if someone would get in touch and who it would be. Then there’s really an interest and you don’t have to “knock on doors” all the time. A relatively new thing in Vienna, where musicians and managers can meet, is the Musikerstammtisch.
The Canadian label nettwerk is a bigger indie label that has been around since the 1980s. The CEO and yoga teacher Terry McBride discovered my song “Distant Universe” in a playlist and contacted me personally. The label has a strategy for releases, but artistically I have free rein, as regards both my music videos and my sound.
How do you go about your songwriting?
Maria Burger: It’s not just periods in which I concentrate on writing music, it’s rather a relatively constant process. Every other day I’m making song sketches on the guitar that are recorded, and thus one or two finished songs come up every month. There are songs that are almost finished in 20 minutes, but there are also songs I am coming back to after half a year and then continue writing. Very often I have melodies and sentences in my head before I go to sleep, which I then record. Otherwise I like writing songs with my roommate Johannes Römer, who co-produces some of them, and a couple of songs on the EP were created with him. Writing with other musicians, I’ve only been doing that for two years. I also attended a workshop in Ireland, because you get inspiration from these sessions. Nevertheless I like writing on my own.
“TO TELL A STORY THAT WILL ALSO BREAK YOUR HEART A LITTLE BIT”
Until now there are two official music videos, one for the song “Somebody” and one for “Distant Universe”. It seems that you enjoyed acting in them as well?
Maria Burger: Everything is possible and there are no rules: But sitting in front of the camera and singing, for some reason I don’t have the courage to do that yet, because everything has to be so perfect. I like music videos that tell a story. For a few songs I had pictures in my head while writing them, and that was also the case with “Distant Universe”. I really enjoyed the storyboard drawing. The song “Somebody” could have been produced as a happy, radiant pop video, but I wanted to do something weird. It was important to me to tell a story that would break your heart a little bit.
What is your view of the future as a young musician, but also as a young person, generally?
Maria Burger: I want to do exactly what I am doing at the moment, but I don’t know if I will be able to do it forever. If I want to have children, then there is still too little help from the state for artists. An unconditional basic income would be a great thing for artists, that would relieve them. So much would have to happen. The topic of putting children into the world is very important to me and my girl friends. What will life be like in ten years? Will we be able to afford it? Will there be pensions for us? I spent the best times of my childhood in Greece, other children want to kill themselves because they cannot survive there. That makes me downright sad, far too much is going wrong.
Then there’s also the climate crisis, where nobody knows how bad it will really get. I’m just thinking there’s still a lot more to come, yet of course I’m hoping that we will get our act together. I’m writing about it more and more often now, but I don’t want to point a finger at these issues. I’m also in a quandary, it’s important to me personally, but then I have an iPhone myself and I know that children somewhere in the mines are sourcing the materials so that we can live the way we live. There is this strong feeling inside of me: We are destroying so much. But I still need time to find a way and a language to express this in a way that does justice to it, and I just don’t think I’m there yet.
“AS A WOMAN YOU HAVE TO LEARN TO ASSERT YOURSELF”
Would you like to give us a glimpse behind the scenes, or even into the darker side of your life as a musician?
Maria Burger: You have to do a lot yourself, and you also have to think about how to finance certain things. There are many tasks that have nothing to do with art. And there are days when I’m working 14 hours a day, for example when I’m in the studio. After that I also need a day off where I’ll just be lying around and watching Netflix. Sometimes it’s extreme, you don’t even have a weekend. I often find it difficult to unwind. I’m also working on making sure that I don’t stress myself too much about certain things.
Songwriting is the most beautiful thing of all for me. It’s also nice to play live: when you are touching people and are connecting with them. The unsolicited opinions I’m getting from all sides are not so pretty. It started with a singing teacher who told me: „In Austria you can only live off commercial music. And as a woman, it’s over at the age of 30 anyway.“ These predominantly male opinions were in my head for a long time.
As a young woman in the music business, which other experiences in a music world dominated by men did you have?
Maria Burger: I once met a man at a label who told me that he makes a note when women artists he works with have their periods, because then he doesn’t work with them in the studio. I found that really terrible. Or someone else said to me: “I first have to see what you’re like, how you walk”. I was 19 years old at the time and totally perplexed, yet today I would give him a sharp reply.
What totally annoyed me in interviews was the question of whether one should compare oneself with other women musicians who are doing similar things in Austria. And I thought to myself: “Are Lemo or Julian Le Play also being asked such a question?” It annoys me that from the interviewers’ point of view it simply can’t be that several other young German-speaking women musicians are around – although we are musically completely different. Or another example: I would have received 400 euros for a warm-up singing job. They would have offered 750 euros to a male colleague who was a friend of mine. We then made an agreement and together asked for and received 1000 euros each. Men still dominate the music business and the music world in Austria – even though there are many female singers. As a young musician, you are confronted with so many opinions from men and there are always some really weird sayings – for example from lecturers. As a woman you really have to learn to assert yourself.
Another example: I felt like being the little girl in the band rehearsal room for a long time. The men I’m working with now are not like that, because a familiar atmosphere is very important to me, we are friends and support each other. In my generation this is not such an issue, things are very different. I consciously choose people with whom I have a lot to do. That feels like family. All in all I have learned a lot from these experiences. But I would like to see that not everyone has to make such experiences and that some of the lecturers read and think about what they are giving and saying to young people.
What does the XA – Music Export Award you recently received mean to you? Is it a plan for you to become internationally known?
Maria Burger: It’s my first award. It came as a complete surprise because the people who were nominated simply were the ones who were nominated. In the run-up there was a quite good feedback, but I hadn’t expected it at all. I submitted a half-hour video especially for the Waves-Festival, and in this video a song is sung in every station, starting in the elevator, then in the staircase and in the courtyard, and all are freshly created songs. Me and my team, we were really happy about this award, the money and the tour support, since I am continuously working on my OSKA project. The award was so great because it paid off for everyone who participated. The plan for me was to play some showcase concerts next year, yet unfortunately, this will probably be cancelled due to the pandemic.
All in all, making music is a wish that came true for me. I had hoped that it would work out internationally, but I didn’t think that it actually would happen. It was luck. You have to wait, be patient and be able to bear a lot, and nevertheless you need to keep going. It’s also becoming more and more a path where doors are opening up and I realize that it’s good to follow it.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Isabella Klebinger and Michael Franz Woels
Translated from the German original by Julian Schoenfeld