With some deck chairs, a carpet and a handful of pocket-sized instruments, a New Zealand couple took to Berlin’s streets to busk and get by in a city where they couldn’t find jobs.
That was two years ago. Today, Chloe Lewer, 24, from Wellington, and Elliott McKee, 26, are Berlin-based indie-folk band Charity Children – with a record deal and a recent Berlin Video Music Award nomination.
“I can’t believe how our crazy little adventure has grown,” Lewer says. “It makes us so overjoyed.”
Charity Children recently released its debut single, Elizabeth. The song, inspired by a girl McKee knew in primary school, tells a story of a girl growing up in an emotionally cold environment. The pair described it as “an anthem for the unloved”.
“It is a song that could allow the bullied to triumph over their tormentors,” Lewer says. “It’s the feeling of optimism we want to come through the most, the feeling of hope in a supposedly hopeless situation.”
The results of its nomination for a Berlin Video Music Award will be announced this week.
When the pair met two years ago, Lewer was working as an actress and McKee as an actor and film-maker in Auckland. After McKee showed up late to one of Lewer’s gigs, the pair spent the night playing music together in an empty concert room.
Three months later, the couple left New Zealand and headed to Berlin on a whim. “I had fallen madly in love with Elliott three months before leaving. He already had his ticket booked and about a month before he was due to leave I booked a ticket too,” Lewer said. “I gave away or sold everything I owned. I put my life into one suitcase.”
But their lack of what the pair called “any hireable skills” or German language meant they couldn’t find jobs. So they took to Berlin’s streets to do what they loved – playing music.
“Our first time busking we made 12 euros and two apples. We felt right at home on the pavement and in our little idealistic world of thinking, we thought ‘this could be our life’,” Lewer says.
McKee says busking soon became an infatuation. They started busking cover music for up to eight hours a day, sometimes by the remains of the Berlin Wall, in parks or on street corners.
“We’d get to know the city by playing around it. If the police shooed us away from one spot, we’d pack up our little wagon and find another.”
As the summer went on, they became tired of playing other people’s music, so spent their nights writing their own, McKee says.
“I don’t think either of us even had the notion of starting a proper band when we first moved over. We started playing our own music every day to new crowds and realised this is what a band is, this is what a band does – so we decided to make it official,” he says.
So they called themselves Charity Children, after the children in Oscar Wilde’s short story The Happy Prince.
“We read about a group of dreamers called the charity children and it struck us that’s kind of what we were – idealistic dreamers living off the kindness of others,” he says.
Charity Children developed a ukulele-driven sound featuring harmonicas, melodian, xylophone, hand percussion and anything else small enough to fit in a suitcase to be transported around Berlin. Some of their lyrics have been based on 17th-century folk songs.
“When busking, you have five seconds to try and persuade someone to stop and listen to you before they walk past completely – we found our music developed in a way that most effectively achieved that,” McKee said. “This is why so many of our songs are high energy and why so many of them begin small and build to the end with us making as much sound as we can.”
By summer’s end they had signed with Berlin-based independent label Monkey Records. As winter hit, they moved inside to record their first album from their Kreuzberg apartment with the help of 10 guest musicians and a children’s choir. Their unique sound has earned Charity Children a faithful following in Berlin.
“Our last few gigs this year were all packed to the brim and people had to stand outside the venues to listen, which was very surprising for us,” Lewer says.
Last year, the pair toured Ireland and England with three extra musicians, two of whom have now joined the band – an Iranian percussionist and an Australian cellist.
Charity Children is managed by London-based Quest Management, which also manages Arcade Fire, Noah and The Whale, Lykke Lii and Sir Paul McCartney.
“We feel a little out of our depth at the thought of entering this world which we know very little about, but excited at the same time too,” Lewer says. “We’re just letting things happen organically. I mean what’s the worst thing that could happen We could end up playing back on the street, which we like to do anyway.”
They hoped to be based in Berlin for the next few years, with lots of travel in between – including possibly a tour home.
Charity Children will release its debut album, Autumn Came, mid-year. Elizabeth is available for free download on their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/CharityChildren.