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Aiming at the Essence: an interview with Wouter Hamel

Posted by Editor Editor
on 17 July 2012 in Music

This post has already been read 83981 times!

By Melanie Hulsebosch

Amsterdam-based jazz singer Wouter Hamel (34) has been asked to host two of  the Robeco Summer Concerts at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, one of the most beautiful stages of the city. For the first concert on 28 July he has asked Roos Jonker, Giovanca, Lucky Fonz III, Benny Sings and Janne Schra for an intimate musical get-together. On 15 August there will be a special Logengrin concert where all the tracks from this latest album will be performed.  Accompanied by saxophonist Benjamin Herman, a horn section, a 15-piece string ensemble, cimbalom player Vasile Nedea, Lucinde Bell and a vocal choir, we can assure you this will be something special.

Wouter’s first two albums, ‘Hamel’ and ‘Nobody’s Tune’, were an instant success in The Netherlands and also spread like wildfire throughout Europe, Japan and Korea. But he considers his last album, Lohengrin, released in September 2011, as his most personal until now. The title Lohengrin not only refers to the street in The Hague where he grew up in but also to Wagner’s opera. Lohengrin is one of the knights of the Holy Grale and the age-old myth goes that he forbid his beloved Elisa to ever ask anything about his past or origin. That’s why Lohengrin stands for a new beginning, a fresh start. With the summer concerts coming up and a nomination for the Edison jazz/worldmusic award in his pocket, Lost & Found thought it was time to re-evaluate Wouter’s transformations as well as the essences in his work.


You went through some critical transformations throughout the making of your last album. What was the most important outcome?
‘Gratefulness. Earlier on, it was more like everything just happened to me. But now I’m able to really enjoy things and realize the specialness of it all. So yeah, gratefulness is the most important one.’


How did you develop this awareness?
‘During the process of making my last album, Lohengrin, I mostly kept to myself. I live in a small apartment in Amsterdam, not the best place to go crazy with my music. So I went to my parents’ place and I wrote this album in their shed. It felt kind of romantic in the beginning, bringing my piano and guitar and writing some songs. But then you are actually there, away from home, in a shed. And then you realize: okay, everything depends on me, and me alone now.’


You produced this album yourself. Was that a good choice?
‘It was, looking back at the process. Benny Sings, who is also signed with Dox Records and produced my first two albums, already said to me after the second one, “I think it’s time for you to get on your own feet.” But I found it really hard to make all the decisions myself. At one moment, I even asked my mother for advice. She sat with me in the shed with a gin and tonic, giving her opinion on the songs I wrote. But when I was at my lowest point I thought: I’m worth shit, I can’t do it.’


You and your partner broke up, was that part of the transformation as well?
‘We broke up in the same period, after being together for nine years. That was tough, also because he was highly involved in everything I do. We made music videos and we discussed all my ideas together. So as well as music-wise, on a personal level, creating this album has been a brand new experience. Making the record on my own while I was feeling down was hard already, and beyond that the exhaustion of the last few years came out. From the moment my first record came out [2007’s Hamel], lots of crazy stuff started happening to me.’


Like what?
‘I went to Japan in that same year and all of a sudden I got a lot of media attention. Everybody had an opinion about me and what I was doing. And that is the biggest disadvantage of making music. You look too young or too tired, you are too fat or too thin. Your voice sounds too sophisticated or you can’t sing at all. I have been raised well, so if someone wants to share his or her opinion, I listen politely. It’s way better to be arrogant, rude and anti-social, and to just not give a shit. All those opinions, in combination with everything else that happened, made it necessary for me to stand still and think about who I was again.’

You have been having a lot of revelations recently, but it’s not like you’re just starting your career.
‘Although I’ve been serious about music since I was a teenager, I only wrote my very first real song when I was already 29.’


How come so late?
‘After high school I first studied journalism for two years, and then I went to the Conservatory where I studied ‘light music’. I learned a lot there but it also paralyzed me in a way. Most of all it gave me tools. I didn’t grow up listening to Curtis Mayfield or Stevie Wonder so I knew barely anything about soul and jazz when I started at the Conservatory. I got acquainted with the most beautiful compositions, which at the same time made it really hard for me to write on my own.’


It restricted your own creativity?
‘In a sense, yes. The Conservatory gave me a broad education; the one moment you had to sing with a soul voice and then you had a sound like chansonnier. Because of their high standard, it took me five years before I got to write my own songs. If you study classical music, it’s most important you learn to play Bach and Beethoven at their best. But a good singer-songwriter is characterized by his own unique sounds. Everything I tried sounded too simple or too corny to me. It all had to be complex, unexpected, high and low and fast and loud. I totally forgot to aim at the essence: to catch my story as pure and as real as possible by a song.’


But you got there eventually, and not without merit.
‘After three records and quite some success, I now dare to say that I’m a pretty okay songwriter. And it’s not that I merely blame the Conservatory. I also partied a lot during that time, got more experienced in life itself, so to speak. But sometimes I find it regrettable that I didn’t start to train that songwriting muscle earlier on. I can get a bit jealous if I see a 21-year-old making his debut. Not that it matters so much though; when I was 19 I could sing well but it nevertheless sounded empty. I had to smoke quite some packs of cigarettes to get a bit of grit on my vocal cords.’


How did you process all those transformations in creating your album?
‘The topics on the album are way more honest and straightforward. There’s a good sense of drama behind it.  I used to create more of a distance as a storyteller. Now every song tells about my personal life. The title song, Lohengrin, is about the street I grew up on, and another one is about a friend I should see more often. But I’m not sure if the people who the songs are about can hear that they are about them. And that is not out of anxiety; I just like it better this way. I used to teach singing lessons often and I also want for other people to interpret my songs in their own way. But I do hope you can hear the drama behind them.’



What is the best thing you have found for yourself in the past year?
I have found a new love and almost as important: a new pianist. I was devastated when my former pianist left the band. But Thierry is a real gem. As well as on a professional level as on a personal level.

 What was the last thing you lost yourself to?

What do you like most about Amsterdam?
It doesn’t happen that often because I’m on tour a lot, but if I’m riding my bike across the canals, I totally fall in love with the city.

What’s your favourite spot in the city?
Prinseneiland, an area near Central Station. It feels like a little village within the city. I used to have a studio there together with Benny Sings.

Best place for a drink or a bite?
Belhamel at the Brouwersgracht. The interior is authentic Jugendstil.  It looks amazing.  []

More info about Wouter Hamel:

Wouter Hamel sings Lohengrin @ Concertgebouw
Tickets & Info:


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