The singer Lenka Nová was born in Brno. Even now she frequently and happily returns. Last autumn she released her third profile disk, Čtyřicítka (Forty), on which there are ten personal songs with texts by Michal Horáček. She was recently nominated for the Anděl music prize in the category Singer of the Year. This year with a newly rehearsed repertoire on March 8 and 9 in the bar U kouřícího králíka in her home town she opened her Čtyřicítka Tour, the spring part of which will be concluded with a Prague concert in the DVA studio on May 21. And we spoke about all of this …
Already at grammar school you had shaped yourself as a distinctive singer, mostly with ‘bigbeat’: Manhattan, Helmutova stříkačka, The Street … and some I have forgotten?
I never sang with Helmut, but we went with them and Manhattan on the first tour in my life. At that time my mum excused me from school with a note: ‘Excuse my daughter from school as she is taking part in a rock tour.’ At first they didn’t want to release me from school, but in the end they did. I also sang with The Street and Honza and Zdeňka Klukový’s group GO! That was a kind of antediluvian rap formation with violins and beats. We even went with them to the Bratislavská Lyra festival.
Was it clear immediately when you left school that you would try music as a career, or did you have plans to study?
I wanted to take some kind of university course, where I would get an education, which I would then use in my life. Architecture attracted me. But I did not even have a specialised secondary school education, or the kind of connections I would need as they indicated to me at that time in the Architects’ Club. Then I went to study English, but unfortunately I found myself such an awful school that I left after three months in disgust. I joined our family firm as an assistant to the director, my stepfather, and then auditions for Laura came up, which helped me a great deal. All at once it was clear what I should do. I began to earn my living in a professional group. It was a dream fulfilled, even if I hadn’t got there by the straightest path. In the beginning it didn’t even occur to me that something like that could happen.
How and why did Lenka Pulkrábková become Lenka Nová?
At the root of it lies the poor memory of Karel Šůcha, manager of Laura a její tygři. He wasn’t able to remember my maiden name of Pulkrábková. He said: “If I can’t remember it then no-one else will. You’ll have to come up with a pseudonym.” So I thought and thought … it is so hard to come up with a name that you won’t get tired of after two weeks … In the meantime I went with Laura to concerts and they constantly said that I was their new singer. And then it came to me that Nová (‘New’ in Czech) could work. So from that time I have been Nová and I have to say that I quite enjoy having two identities, working and private.
What was there that appealed to the young rocker about Laura a její tygři? Was there something which Karel Šůcha surprised you with that time, or had you already got to know each other earlier?
I got interested in Laura at the Show Tomáše Tracyho concert. I was thirteen and it was something that before then and for a while after I hadn’t seen. I fell in love with Laura, and went to all their concerts. Then I lost interest a bit but I got an offer to sing the vocals at a joint concert of Progres 2 and Laura. On the basis of that they then invited me to audition because Jana Amrichová was expecting and Laura needed a new singer. I went for the audition and then said to myself it was just a dream. It caught me by surprise when they took me on and we immediately began to record the disk Vyklátíme modly. So I had not done almost anything with them and I was already in the studio. When I listened to it again after a long time it was sort of rough and raw … but even so Karel likes it.
How long were you with Laura – and why aren’t you anymore? Where did that cooperation take you?
In the end I spent twelve wonderful years in Laura, five years in the first stage, then a five-year break and then seven years in the next stage, of which nine months were a risky pregnancy that meant bed rest at home. Twice they let me go and three times I had the chance to go back. The last time I said no. Even now it is close to my heart and I am glad I stayed friends with Karel throughout all the twists and turns, that we like each other and that I still get to sing with Laura on various occasions. In and around Laura I got to know lots of good and clever people, played hundreds of concerts, which is not a transferrable experience, and also enjoyed some pretty wild trips, sometimes with disgraceful episodes. I am glad I had those years and I am glad that I was in that group. The third time I rejected the offer to return. I had the feeling that I had done all the singing I could with Laura and it was time to move on. At that time I was already working with Michal Horáček and also giving solo concerts.
Sheila in the musical Hair would be a dream role for many singers – but I’m sorry but I can’t really see you as just another cog in a Prague musical production …
Yes, that’s right … I’m not really the type for musicals, nor a fan. But Hair somehow just by chance fell into my lap. Well not really by chance - I don’t believe in coincidences. I love the films of Miloš Forman and Hair is a great film and the music in it is absolutely perfect. That period was good for me – one year I joined Laura, the next year I got the lead in Hair and the one after I closed a dream contract for five discs with the most successful record company in the Czech Republic. But it took me more in the direction of giving concerts with my own repertoire, or that of one group rather than to musicals. In those you do not always sing what you would really like, if you want to make a living out of it. I did not really give it much thought, just doing what came up, which was then a solo disc. Anyway I believe that what a person subconsciously wants and gives out signals about, is what they will get. Although sometimes it takes twelve years.
You are clearly a solitary singer – did you ever think of forming your own stable group for concerts?
I have already had some, but mostly their existence was linked to individual discs, which I released, and after some time we stopped working together, because I was involved in some other project. For the moment the model where I work with various top musicians and play in whichever line-up suits a given concert seems to be working for me. Or the ones that play are those that are available because they are often pretty busy. For example on the upcoming tour Matej Benko, Petr Malásek or Michal Nejtek will be alternating on piano. All are excellent musicians and for me it is an honour to work with them.
Čtyřicítka is your joint project with the lyricist Michal Horáček. I was first aware of your cooperation in connection with the album Ohrožený druh, where Mr Horáček chose “his” female ‘chanson’ voices. Where did you meet and how did he contact you?
The sound engineer Michal Pekárek, who I worked with on my first solo album, suggested Michal to me. As you said they were seeking for Ohrožený druh various known and also unknown to him voices, and so I tried to sing several things. In the end it resulted in the song Jak ten chlap se na mě dívá.
It didn’t stay just a one-off cooperation. You have sung and still sing in concert and album versions of the musicals Kudykam, Český kalendář and also in the stage version of Mezi námi as well as in the touring recital Na cestě; was it here that the idea of your disc with lyrics only by Horáček arose?
Yes, as we travelled together around the Bohemian and Moravian countryside, Michal wrote the first disc for František Segrado, his first solo album for his sixtieth birthday. And then came the idea for Čtyřicítka. Originally it was to have been rather decadent theatre, where I was to play a certain role and the lyrics were pretty dark. It was no stranger to coarse language, which is quite unusual for Horáček. With the passage of time we reached a point where everything was tipping toward my personal testimony, where it was for myself, that it was no longer about some event but about individual stories.
Čtyřicítka is separated from your first solo album Nová deska by thirteen years. Five years ago the album Psí hodina came out, so Čtyřicítka is only the third in the series. So you definitely don’t have problem of overproduction … Why is that?
It is linked to the fact that for most of my musical career I was not a soloist in the true sense of the word. I was either recording disks with Laura or in the last few years I was part of the projects around Michal Horáček, which led to several discs, which I was only part of. So the tension arose only when I was not recording other discs or was not artistically satisfied. But the interval between the second and third discs was only four years so I have significantly improved!
Psí hodina was a concept album, which was written and arranged by your husband Michal Pelant and most of the lyrics were written by Lukáš Pavlásek. This time however you have made a significant contribution yourself as the composer of the music. Fortunately you had experience with the lyrics of Michal Horáčk earlier – despite that: do you perceive them as the author’s testimony?
I’m not keen on the word “testimony”. Michal brought along 14 apposite and beautiful lyrics. He wanted me to write all of the music myself. He placed great faith in me, maybe like no-one else has done. Maybe it is also that he has no ambition as a composer. Earlier when I cooperated with someone it would be with an excellent musician. And so they did it all themselves because they had the impression that I wouldn’t do it any better. And I believe that was true. Here at first I balked at the tremendous responsibility. I was scared that I would completely ruin these wonderful texts. And to start with I didn’t do much on it, as it just wasn’t working. Only once other authors started to write did it free up my hand and mind. It began to come. In the end the guys in the studio agreed and mostly gave preference to my music, because in combination with my singing it was more authentic than some other completely made up composition.
Michal Horáček speaks for mature experienced women. Does he speak generally for women over forty or were some of the lyrics written specifically with you in mind? Do any of them refer to your specific experiences which he has captured, described and so relieved?
I wouldn’t say that some of the songs are completely my story word for word. But I know that several were inspired by my life because I was in close contact with Michal. He knew what I was dealing with. But it was rather the case of picking up hints that Michal was able to make something out of. For the most part these are general tales that I could identify with because I had encountered those situations just like many women of this age. And what’s more I think I don’t have to necessarily resonate with each of Michal’s words, with each part of his tales. I merge it with my own experiences and I believe that the listener does the same. It is rather about some emotion that if it resonates with the listener, will make me more than happy.
Aside from the participating musicians the sound engineer Michal Pekárek made a significant contribution to the album. From my perspective his part went significantly beyond what might normally be expected from the man on the sound desk – do you agree?
Michal isn’t and never has been “just a sound engineer”. He was part of the team, took part in the production of the album, also thought up concert versions, and was an active member. But even if he were “only” a sound engineer, that would be more than enough. The sound on a disc is incredibly important and again with Čtyřicítka it was again confirmed just where it can take a disc. Michal did mixes that came out pretty well. While it did not make me pass out, there was nothing to criticise. Then he took a slightly forced break and sent me, truly at the very last minute, a final version. I have to admit that I burst into tears from the impression it made on me, which says how much I liked it. It was easily a 40 per cent improvement. I really hadn’t expected that.
Already before Čtyřicítka came out at the end of last year, you gave a small sample concert of four songs from the album in Horáček’s programme Na cestě – and it was great. Is your concert line-up for the Čtyřicítka tour completely or only partly the same as that from last year in Sono?
As I already mentioned I am fortunate that a range of great musicians accepted my invitation to join me on the tour. The line-up will slightly overlap. Matej Benko, Petr Malásek or Michal Nejtek will play piano, with Lukáš Pelikán on guitar, Jan Tengler on bass guitar and double bass, and Pavel Bady Zbořil or Miloš Dvořáček on drums.
You started of your tour symbolically in the place of your musical beginnings, in Brno. What led you to the choice of a small jazz club?
It was simple – a friend who has something to do with the club got in touch with me. Originally he wanted rather a private concert for friends, but because at that time I had already started to plan the tour, I decided that we would kick off here. Given how much interest there was we added one extra evening, and now it looks like we will have to come back in the autumn.
You are setting off on a three-month concert tour of Bohemian and Moravian towns. Looking forward to it?
A lot. I have a great programme and excellent musicians. And I now have something behind me, so there is something to sing about. Last week we were rehearing intensively and at some moments it was really coming together well. I am sure we will all have a great time. At the same time I am curious how many people the tour will attract. It is really my first solo tour taking in the whole republic. The concerts in Prague have already been doing well for some time. That’s why I said to myself that it is time to go a bit further. My fortieth birthday is a good occasion on which to do it. It’s true that the first four concerts in Ostrava and in Brno are already sold out. Already other organisers are getting in touch concerning autumn dates, so it looks like the results will be good. I think that forty-two is a good time to go!