Cali Rose, K.G. and Fashion LaBeija Haunt the City in 'Madame Berlin'

Cali Rose, K.G. and Fashion LaBeija Haunt the City in 'Madame Berlin'

Jun 28, 2024

I spent just one season in Berlin, but it may as well have been a lifetime. Anyone who’s had the strange pleasure of partying in that dark city knows its highs and lows. One moment, you’re euphoric on the dance floor, and the next, you’re wandering through some barren wasteland as the sun peaks from behind the horizon.

It makes sense then that “Madame Berlin,” the new single by California-born, Berlin-based artist Cali Rose, is served with an equal helping of mess and terror. Blanketed with brooding strings and operatic moans, the track moves like a death march through Mitte, the chic Berlin neighborhood the titular Madame Berlin is said to haunt.

With vocals by NYC icon, mood board mainstay, and ever-booked DJ, Fashion LaBeija, “Madame Berlin” is a sexy portrait of a typical but ever-iconic Berlin “spiral queen.” That story is made all the more clear in the video, which was co-created by Rose and artist K.G. Helm. A black and white, dizzying image collage of Madame Berline strutting through the gray and spectral city, both the video and the song are a slice of dark life in the city the world can’t quit.

PAPER spoke with Rose and Helm in the lead-up to the release of “Madame Berlin”’s entrancing video to discuss their collaboration, Berlin vs. NY, and working with the icon that is Fashion LaBeija.

Tell me a little bit about how you both know each other and started working together.

Cali Rose: I met K.G. Helm during the last few months of COVID, but we started working on music together last summer. First, [K.G.] made the music video for “Mall Doll,” and then we started working on music and other projects together.

K.G. Helm: Yeah, after we met I was like, “Hmm! This girl is not afraid to express herself. Let’s start making things!”

Rose: Yeah, and I got kind of bored of DJing. So I'm like, “Okay, I wanna discover my artist side and make my own tracks.”

I want to hear a little bit more about who this “Madame Berlin” is. Do you know her? Is she real?

Rose: She's a fictional character that I created, but she's inspired by our friend who's a gallerist. She's this glam, professional lady I always see out, and she's always smiling and always has a glass of champagne in her hand. She also does coke, and she stays up for nights on end, so she always seems to be put together, but I know she's not.

But also Madame Berlin is really about everyone in Berlin who comes here. I feel like a lot of people in Berlin come here to party and it's not for fun. It's more like they're chasing the dragon. There are people who are carrying too much: all the spiral queens here in Berlin.

Helm: There's a lot of lost souls here, like energy vampires. You spend a lot of your time protecting yourself from people who don't know who they are. There's a lot of party tourists, sex tourists, identity tourists.

Yeah, I've been hosting my Berlin friends here in NYC for the past week, and that was something we remarked upon. In New York, if you spiral and party for days, you will lose everything, but in Berlin the spiral can go on for a really long time.

Helm: Yeah, it can be rewarding for some people.

Rose: Yeah, here housin g is a little bit cheaper, so people can afford to stay up a few extra nights [laughs].

I love the sound of the track. It's super, dark and ominous. Tell me just a little bit about the sound that was inspiring it.

Helm: We were trying to do something different for both myself and something different for Cali.

Rose: Yeah, it’s a different sound than what I usually would be playing. I love the drama of it all. It's super eerie and intense. We added that opera and I think it's really amazing.

What was shooting the video like?

Rose: The music video was really cool. We did a lot of it in a museum in Mitte. And then we chose this park that has these mini landmarks of Berlin in it. I love shooting with a small team, it was just [Helm], Luca Perez and I. It's really fun to work with a few people, and not a big team. That gives me anxiety.

Helm: Our process is very informal. They're not large productions. We kind of tried to keep it as small as possible to allow kind of whatever to happen in the moment.

Had you already connected with Fashion prior to this project?

Rose: I've known Fashion since 2016. I met her in San Francisco, and then we got closer when I moved to New York. She lived in Berlin for a bit too, but she was here while we were recording the vocals in the studio and she was happy to hop on.

We were talking a bit about the relationship between Berlin and New York, and the interchange happening right now. But I'd be curious to hear more from your perspectives what that relationship looks like at this moment.

Rose: In the past four years that I've been here, Berlin has become more like New York. Everything's getting more expensive. And there’s the influx of New York people coming, especially during COVID. A lot of people from New York moved to Berlin. Most people that I know here are from New York.

Helm: The cost of traveling between New York and Berlin has gone down so much as well that Berlin has kind of become another playground for New Yorkers to go to.

Rose: Especially for the New York techno scene. There's definitely a lot more to do here [in Berlin], but I really miss Basement, Bossa and Nowadays. I'm a bit over stuff here [laughs].

Do you think this New York influence in Berlin is a good thing ultimately or does it feel like an invasion?

Rose: It's a good thing and a bad thing. It's a good thing, because there's a lot of people that I know here. But that's a bad thing, because I'm no longer anonymous. And Berlin has become clouty like how New York is.

Helm: One of the good things is that New York has influenced Berlin to pull people out of these basement, dirty parties, and try to have something a bit more glamorous and chic to experience. It's almost gone the other way around where New York is trying to emulate Berlin's grunginess.

Rose: New York is impressed with the “crackiness” of Berlin. And I think we're a bit over it. We want more glam here.

Helm: Yeah, we want somewhere you can wear a pair of $1,000 shoes.

Rose: You can in Berghain, but they'll get ruined pretty quickly.

Right, you want a Madame Berlin vibe.

Rose: Yeah!

Photography: K. G. Helm