Thursday, July 2, 2015

Natasha Shneider dead at 52

A Russian rebel became an American alternative rocker. Such events seldom happen and people rarely transform in corresponding a fashion, unless they first are cosmonauts on a mission to Jupiter, of course.


Irina Yakunina (Natasha Shneider) being amazed on board the Leonov.

Natalia Shnaydermanova was born in 1956 in Riga, Latvia, to a then-Latvian Jewish family. Moving to Moscow as a child and growing up there with her artistic family, music was a big part of her everyday life. Natalia's father Michael - "Misha" - was an accordionist and her mother Larissa was a Folk singer. Her sister Vera followed in her mother's foot steps and also became a singer. Natalia - also spelled Natasha - started playing piano early on, as did her 6 years older, Siberian-born brother Vladimir.

The 1975 album 'Sovremennik'
Natasha got a classical music education at the University of Moscow, where she in 1973 met her future husband Serge, at an underground rock session, no less. While in her teens, she and her husband joined the Anatoly Kroll-led, state sponsored orchestra Sovremennik, which played mainly jazzy, contemporary, Russian music. The name of the orchestra itself means "contemporary". Since the band was sponsored by the state, the repertoire had to be approved by the culture commission. This meant absolutely no rock'n'roll.


Her brother Vladimir meanwhile played in the nine-piece band Singing Hearts, who while being sufficiently successful were also tightly controlled by the state.


Emigration

In 1973 they collectively made the decision to apply for emigration clearance. They immediately started clandestinely preparing, gathering documentation, studying the legalese and so on, and the clarity of the decision became more and more apparent as time went on. The anti-Jewish sentiments in Russia played a not small part in their decision to apply. "Sure you feel it. You always feel it. They make you feel it, at every turn of your life - going to college, whatever," she reminisced. To make matters more complicated, Natasha became pregnant. "I did not want my son to be born in Russia," remembered Natasha. There was only one clear option in her mind. "I wanted him to be an American citizen."

The fact they were Jewish gave them a fighting chance to actually succeed, "much thanks to the pressure American Jews were putting on the Soviet state," Natasha noted. However, the process took months and months of negotiations and $700 per person. "Had we not been Jews," according to Vladimir, "we would not have been allowed to depart our native country." Upon filing their emigration papers all of their employments were terminated. "Serge and I had to leave our jobs," Natasha said. "We didn't have any income for about five months. We waited and were preparing psychologically and writing material."

Natasha, already several months pregnant at the time, clearly remembered the date they finally departed Moscow, December 30, 1975. As a final greeting from the authorities they were told the plane was overloaded and they had to leave their personal belongings behind if they wanted to board. The next flight to their destination was a whopping five days after their visas would have expired. After nerve-wrenching deliberation and after leaving their personal items and hard-earned instruments to their fate, they board the plane, only to find it empty except for one other small family in the farthest corner.

The state had said farewell.


Making New Music

They flew to Vienna for two weeks before moving on to Rome for a three-month stay. They were intent on reaching America, where they had relatives, to establish themselves as recording artists. Finally, on May 26, 1976, the Kapustins, Vladimir, and the Shneiderman parents arrived in the United States. Two months after they arrived, Serge's and Natasha's son Robin was born.

The Kapustins, backed up by Natasha's brother Vladimir, immediately founded a band upon arriving in the States. Being influenced by soul and rhythm'n'blues artists, the band played a unique style of R&B inspired disco with a classical European-Russian touch. Being Russian and playing 'black' music the name of the band predictably became Black Russian. The name has longer roots than that, though. Already in Moscow while listening to rock'n'roll on banned radio stations such as Radio Luxembourg and Voice of America, Natasha's group of friends were called 'the black Russians'. "There are many meanings in the name," remembers Natasha. "It means we are black Russians, not red Russians. And we were black sheep."

Working odd jobs during the day - Vladimir as a security guard and Natasha as a hotel desk clerk and later as a fashion model - and playing gigs at night, they worked very hard to get established. The older Serge already had a degree in organic chemistry and found work at a cosmetics company. Yet, the focus was on music.


The First Album

The 1980 album 'Black Russian'.
After a year and a half in New York the trio's demos were finally heard by Guy Costa, a Motown vice president, who ended up as the group's manager. Leaving their son Robin with the Scheiderman parents, the trio moved to Southern California in 1977 only to find that their liaison had been fired. The times, in a manner of speaking, were hard. They lived in the basement of a Russian church and continued to work odd jobs outside the music business to make ends meet. Finally the group signed a deal, in November of 1979.


The deal with the record company was, in the words of the Kapustins "for an album and a half." In 1980, after four months of intense production, the band finally released their debut album, the self-titled Black Russian. Consisting of a solid but groovy foundation of disco beats layered with classical themes the music was, for wont of a better word, unusual. Having a unique sound was not a blessing, though. The quirky music, while liked by critics, meant it was destined to not shift many units.

A 1980 review in Playboy called it "Tshaikovsky with drums".


Acting

Despite some glowing reviews the album did not sell well at all. Desillusioned, the Kapustins ran into hard times. By 1982 they had divorced and Natasha reverted to her maiden name, now using the spelling Shneider.

Taking a break during shooting of 2010.
Frustrated she turned to acting, trying to find roles in various productions. Her self confidence, her looks, and her fashion model experience eventually landed her a small part in 1983 as Ludmilla Moroz in the TV series Hill Street Blues, in the episode "The Russians Are Coming".

Meanwhile, director Peter Hyams had decided he would use "nothing less but genuine Soviet actors" in his latest production, 2010. Hyams contacted movie producer and director Paul Mazursky, who had interviewed hundreds of Russian emigres for his film Moscow on the Hudson. One of the names on Mazursky's list was Natasha Shneider. Hyams read her file and set up a meeting with her.

"I met with the producer and director Peter Hyams," Natasha said, "and we talked for four hours. He never asked me whether I had studied acting. I was very surprised with that." The New York-born director seemed more interested in what kind of person the actress was. "We talked about philosophy," she said, "and notions on life. Strange, isn't it?"

"He said he saw everything he needed to see," she said, "on a test I made for another film." The 'other film' was Gorky Park.

Director Hyams picked Shneider to play Irina Yakunina, the Soviet scientist. While a relatively minor role, it was to become her most visible foray into acting. It seemed acting was only a temporary gig for her. Even in the press releases for the movie, she stated that she "hopes to resume her solo singing career after filming 2010". Sure enough, after 2010, Shneider only had two more acting gigs. One in 1985 as the character Laura Gretsky - acting with her real life son Robin - in the episode "Bushido" of the TV series Miami Vice, and the other as the Polish character Wanda Yakubovska in the 1986 movie Spiker.

Years later her final movie-related project was composing the theme song 'Who's in Control?' for the 2004 movie Catwoman, starring Halle Berry.

The movie bug, it seems, never really bit her.


Eleven 'til Midnight

Natasha on stage.
In 1987 she was re-married, to Chilean-born guitarist Alain Johannes, and they released the album Walk the Moon, to little fanfare. In 1990 the couple founded the band Eleven, and started denting the Billboard charts.

Meanwhile, the couple did many collaborations with luminaries such as Chris Cornell - of Soundgarden fame - co-writing his probably most famous solo track Flutter Girl. Subsequently they toured with Cornell in support of his album Euphoria Morning. Other collaborations included playing on Queens of the Stone Age's album Songs for the Deaf, and touring in support of their Lullabies to Paralyze album.

In August of 2007 Natasha was diagnosed with cancer, variously disclosed as lung cancer and cervical cancer. She started an aggressive chemo-therapy regimen and was already deep in battle with the disease when she made her final appearance, recording harpsichord in 2008 for the Louis XIV track 'Guilt by Association'.


Natasha never got to see the year 2010 for herself. She passed away July 2, 2008. She was 52.



[After writing this article, we were informed Natasha's older brother Vladimir Schneider passed away in 2012. He was 62.]

3 comments:

  1. un poco corta el final de la historia, pero buen resumen

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  2. just got into walk the moon "daddy's coming home".the cd has many great songs .gr8 cd .

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  3. Shneider made lots of musical contributions, indeed. Most of her music work is covered elsewhere, so it's not included here.

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