There are a million stories from people moving to Berlin for the arts and while the motivation to succeed here is not necessarily unique, there are those that stick. And as Merle Sibbel, known as Mone, and me ease into the talk on an erratic summer evening at a bar in Neukölln, her story does. I mean, it would be hard not to, considering the sweet surprise that her recent record Darling, Thief manifests.
“In art school I started writing. I always had this kind of dream since I’m young to make music. But then when I wasn’t writing any of my own material, I kind of said, okay, well, I’ll just do it as a hobby and go into the visual arts instead. But then when I started writing songs, it kind of tickled me again, like, maybe I could do something.”
Originally studying art in Rotterdam, Merle came to Berlin for an internship a couple of years ago, and there must be something about the community here that makes people throw overboard their plans and ventures, because soon she set herself “the goal of playing at least one open mic a week”, she recounts. “Basically to just test out” if she’d “enjoy playing live”, she goes on. “You know, kind of testing this life as a musician out a little bit.” Needless to say it suited her well, soon acquiring connections to the underground folk scene around Space Sessions’ James Michael Rodgers (read our recent feature here) and the weekly open mics of the folks from the Kindl Stuben in Neukölln.
“I felt very at home in that community. And so that’s when I decided to finish my studies, but then I already decided to move. I just went back for a year, and then I moved permanently to Berlin. And then basically I decided I’m going to pursue a music career.”
One More Lockdown Tale
Darling, Thief musically moves away a bit from the production surroundings of its predecessor and debut album Crocodile Kisses, the singer explains. The Covid era, where she started writing the songs might have had one thing to do with it, with the basis of the album being born from her bedroom.
“I knew I wanted it to be a lot smaller, very small, and I wanted it to be very intimate. I wanted it to be basically kind of an acoustic album. It’s really raw. There’s a lot of songs that are basically just me and guitar.”
This raw shape, which determines the lot of the album can indeed be sensed as a guiding stance of the songs on the record, and while there may be instances of intricate psychological layers, which she walks through, it is the stunning simplicity by which Mone is able to uncover her full sensitive potential – vocally and emotionally. “It kind of did grow” from there, she reveals, “but I think every song … has this pretty small and intimate feeling”.
“The way I sing on it is just way more like, I mean I was just playing in my bedroom, and I didn’t want to disturb the neighbors. So everything is way softer than I was singing before.”
She left Berlin briefly to hole up with her relatives in the Netherlands for a few weeks during the first, she circles back to recap the time, but soon decided to go back to Berlin to continue working and navigating through the meanwhile dysfunctional rhythms of getting your music heard in a city that is not used to the event of silence at all. “It was really weird”, she tries to sum up her experience, “I was just in the middle of basically releasing the first album [back then]” and “everything I planned for that … was not happening, or only happening online”.
“I went live [on Instagram] every evening at like 7.30 or something, and I would play like an hour and a half to an hour of music, and I had my fixed guests all around the world that were in their house alone or in their room. Which is really lovely looking back, because it was very nice to have that one thing that was like a new kind of rhythm to the day, because everything else is different.”
“Love Gone Wrong”
Her new record, whose roots were planted during that time, is somewhat moving between two opposite poles, which is something we can both agree upon during our talk. “It’s really tender, but also sort of darkish”, Merle tries to circle in the thematic core of Darling, Thief. And as much as it touches on notions of desire and romantic intimacy, as well as the need for relationships at large, it unearths dark insufficiencies that prevent the subject from reaching these connections. Mone’s record feels like a wholehearted attempt to get back into the realm of illuminated bliss and hospitality.
“ It is a lot about love and about romantic love, but also kind of love for my family and love for my friends, where I felt really far away from that… I was just in a bad place and I felt like I couldn’t reach all the love and the warmth that was around me. Like kind of isolated from receiving that or from kind of knowing it’s there, but then finding it difficult to experience it. And I kind of struggled to find my way back to feeling safe again and feeling safe in that love, basically.”
“‘Darling, Thief was this one line that kept coming back in many songs”, she goes on and emphasizes that “it’s more a feeling about something that you love and that also maybe did you wrong or stole something” rather than a fixed idea. “I was thinking about something like love gone wrong”, envisioning something beautiful that is somehow still inaccessible to get a hold of. In that regard, the haunting Fruits Of My Labour is a brief and yet painstakingly statement of that emotional condition. “I just imagined this table where people were eating. For me that’s a very homely setting. It was basically my definition or my vision of what happiness was and love”, Merle sketches her motivation for that particular song. “And I felt that I was standing somewhere in the window looking in at that and then being like, I want to be there. How do I get there? Like a guest peeking in”. The simple and yet incredibly effective design, almost scarce and raw acoustic design adds up elegantly to the desirous outcry of the piece.
„I want to eat at your table, taste all of the sweet fruits of my labour“
(Mone, ‘Fruits Of My Labour’)
The Colour Red
Sophomore albums can often be stumbling stones for musicians, but it seems that the process of creating hers has actually enabled Mone to design a record that represents what she values most and dearly. “It really feels like a unity”, she proudly claims. “I also think that, because all the songs were written in a very short period of time”, thus giving the album a clear red thread. Opposed to her debut, “where the songs were from a few years of writing”, the songs for this one were born out of a specific era of life. “This time it was more with the vision”, aligning lyrical themes, with questions of design and of course with the music into one coherent work of art.
“I knew from the beginning, for example, that the color of this album was red, and everything had to be blurry and very grainy.”
À propos red: It does seem like an appropriate move to work with the color red as a visual counterpart to the intricate lyrical layers, which you can witness these for instance in the music video for Daniel. Yet, in this case, colour and the choice of it precedes all of these thoughts, forming the initial idea of the artist in the first place, as she explains. “I think I always have a very clear idea from the beginning what the visuals would be for an album. So it will be like creating a little world from the start. And it can change a little”, Merle sketches the working process to me. “For this one, it was very clear, that everything needed to be red. I also wanted there to be a lot of skin, I wanted it to be very intimate and kind of romantic. But then with a dark twist”.
For all the fragile and introspective moments on Darling, Thief, it is not without an air of comfort and easement that this record dismisses its listeners. Not just by way of the soothing musical simplicity, but also in with calm redemptive manner, these songs feel like a sort of prayer into the voids of a heartless time, providing comfort just because Mone has found the courage to sing out these feelings, even no one might be there to hear them. “I wrote these songs very much with the idea that they were not going to be released”, she states, “I didn’t write them with an audience in mind at all. Because there was no possibility of an audience in the time I wrote them.”
“I just felt like I needed to write some songs that in some way were kind of soothing to me. Because I really needed soothing. And I really didn’t think of what people would think of it.”
If you reach the end of Darling, Thief, the ultimate track Beautiful Little Thing provides the ideal epitome of what Mone has worked through on her sophomore creation. The most elaborate and longest track on it, the worlds of longing, desire, fear, anger and desperation all meet up at last and as the piece shifts between what she has called “intimate but with a dark twist”, there is a musical realisation that circles through an acoustic and piano-based ballad form, dissolving into a jazz-fused sequel that lets you basically feel at peace with everything and that is at last a stunning and redemptive finale to the sorrow-laden world of Darling, Thief.
Mone’s Darling, Thief is out now on all platforms and she will be playing a release show this Friday at the Monarch in Berlin. Make sure to swing by. Looking for ways to support the artist? Join her Patreon right here.