Beyond The Black: how a former pop star could be symphonic metal’s next megastar
Jennifer Haben was a pop star and a magician’s assistant, but with Beyond The Black she’s realising her true passion
In the early 2000s, at corporate parties in Germany, nine-year-old Jennifer Haben could be seen belting out Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You and AC/DC’s Back In Black, backed by her brother and some schoolmates. Word had got around that the kids were entertaining and they were booked solid.
“People wanted to see a super-super young band playing covers!” she laughs, still somewhat bewildered. Today, she fronts rising German symphonic metallers Beyond The Black. Since forming in 2014, they’ve opened for Scorpions and Within Temptation, played Wacken, have charted in their home country and have just released their fifth album.
Their devoted fans are affectionately called ‘Ravens’ like the goth version of Swifties or Deadheads, and their live show is excellent – having eschewed tropes like the overlong orchestral intro track, they let the irresistible melodies of their songs speak for themselves.
At the heart of it all, smiling her dimpled grin and singing at the top of her lungs, is the 27-year-old, flame-haired Jennifer. Onstage, she revels in the theatricality of a costume reveal, turning her short black dress into a long red one in one fluid movement – a nod to her love of cosplay and a stint as a magician’s assistant (yes, really) in her youth.
“I’ve been a musician all my life, and I think that’s what I’m supposed to do,” she beams. Born in a small town in Saarland, southwestern Germany, into a music-loving family, Jennifer got a taste for performing at the age of four, when she sang a German song in church with a children’s choir (an anomaly: “We weren’t super-religious,” she explains).
Five years later, she formed that first band. With her mother acting as manager, her father in charge of sound and her brother playing bass, Jennifer enlisted some of her classmates to play at a party, and soon her ‘family band’ was performing nationwide. It sounds like a lot for a young girl who was, by her own admission, painfully shy, but Jennifer always found it infinitely easier to sing in front of a crowd than to speak – something she’s been reflecting on recently.
“I saw a video from when I was young,” she says wistfully, “and you can see that I was so comfortable singing onstage, not nervous at all. But when people used to ask me my name or something, I just did this…” She smiles blankly, like she’s been asked a question in a language she doesn’t understand, before breaking into a giggle at her own timidity. “It took me two years to start to say ‘thank you’ onstage when people were clapping,” she confesses. “Two years!”
Despite her reticence to speak in public, Jennifer’s love for singing and her desire to do it for a living was such that she threw herself into every opportunity that came her way. “I never said no to anything. I could make so many mistakes when I was talking, but with singing, it’s hard to be wrong when you know all the words. So whenever I got the chance to sing, I wanted to.”
Being a yes-woman took Jennifer far, from winning talent shows to signing her first record deal with the German language all-girl pop group Saphir (‘Sapphire’) at age 14. But for someone who liked rock music and singing in English, it didn’t feel right. She cringes a little at the memory. “Musically, it was not the best fit.”
You might think all this early fame would make somebody a little… starry, but, speaking to Hammer over Zoom, Jennifer appears completely down to earth, with a warm and sunny disposition. Far from the shy girl she describes in her youth, she chats with ease and unpretentiousness, her feet up on a chair, her dyed scarlet hair long and loose around her shoulders.
She speaks expressively, using her hands, and laughs often at herself when recounting her teen and childhood years – “I was not a rebel,” she emphasises. She’s fully aware her life has been different, yet she seems remarkably grounded, something she attributes to her parents, who monitored her commitments and, much to Jennifer’s relief, made sure she was only locked into her contract with Saphir for a year.
“I had to skip school, sometimes for weeks,” she reflects. “I’d come back and would’ve lost my best friend. That was the hardest thing about it.” She pauses a moment, then collects herself. “But in the end, I was always into being a musician. I always felt most alive when I was singing.”
Mixing bombastic melodies, fist-pumping choruses, key changes and choral chants with an urgent sense of melodrama, Jennifer formed Beyond The Black at age 20. Though she’s a self-professed fan of Evanescence and Within Temptation, she says she wasn’t trying to emulate those bands.
“I don’t think I knew that I was doing symphonic metal when I was doing it – I was just combining all the elements that I loved,” she muses. “At first, a lot of people didn’t understand why I was in this genre. Our first show was at Wacken; that’s not normal. People thought, ‘How is this possible?’ And the metal community, they need you to convince them that you really want to be a part of it.”
After the release of their debut, 2015’s Songs Of Love And Death, Beyond The Black seemed poised for success – they charted in Germany and Austria, and appeared on morning TV. But the following year all of Jennifer’s bandmates left, leaving her alone to rebuild.
“That was a hard time,” she sighs. “After a year or two, we had these talks about, ‘OK, what’s happening here?’ I was ready to risk everything, to do everything [to take the band to the next level professionally], and that’s not what they wanted to do. I thought we were on the same wavelength, but there was miscommunication. If I had communicated better, maybe it would have been different.”
Contrary to negative opinions shared online about the split – particularly about Jennifer – she’s keen to point out it wasn’t acrimonious. “We liked each other very much,” she stresses. “It was so much harder because of that. They told me, ‘We don’t want to stand in your way.’”
For Jennifer, there was never any question about continuing as Beyond The Black. “It was my baby. I wasn’t ready to rename it. I said, ‘Let’s try again with other people.’” Their current line-up has been stable since 2016, they’ve just moved labels from Napalm to Nuclear Blast, and their fifth album is self-titled – an indication that they’re intent on making a definitive statement.
Jennifer feels Beyond The Black’s time has arrived. “It’s a new start,” she says. “The album is telling the story of Beyond The Black. There are four themes we always focus on. We have love all the time and we have loss all the time. Then there’s humility, and also battle – with ourselves, for ourselves, or for others. That’s what we were playing around with. It feels confident, like we know exactly how we want to sound. We’ve found our true selves.”
While Jennifer’s hopeful the record will be a turning point in the band’s career, it’s clear that as long as she can sing for people, she’ll be fulfilled. This afternoon, several months on, she’s still buzzing from last autumn’s co-headline tour with Swedes Amaranthe. “It was the best we’ve ever played,” she enthuses. “It was the best feeling to be onstage again. Everyone was so happy. You could feel it in the air.”
Beyond The Black is out now via Nuclear Blast