Driven by melancholia
Three years ago, Jan Swerts surprised Flanders with his debut album Weg – a title that can be translated as Road or Gone, and in this case, refers to both). Last week, the 36-year-old released his sophomore effort, Anatomie van de melancholie (Anatomy of the Melancholy). Again, he deals in minimalistic piano songs, sparsely adorned with instruments (strings, horns and once even an electric guitar). He sings them with his high-pitched, sometimes androgynous voice.
A comforting, minimalist second album by the contemplative Jan Swerts
Swerts (pictured) thought that Weg was going be the only album he would ever release. “I worked on it for almost a decade and paid for everything myself,” the musician tells me at his home in Heusden-Zolder in Limburg. Cost, he says, is “the main reason why it took me so long. Sometimes I had to save money for a year to pay for studio time or the artwork. Though, I must admit, I’m also an extreme perfectionist.”
Unexpectedly, the record would alter his life. It was released in 2010 and got favourable reviews from some Flemish webzines. But that was it. Then several months later, a rave review in the Flemish weekly Humo changed everything. “Suddenly all the leading newspapers and magazines wanted to review the album. And it started to sell. It taught me that, although there are great writers working for webzines, they don’t have remotely the same impact as the print media.”
Swerts was happy, naturally, with all the praise, but it had one annoying side effect. “People were begging me to play live. Flattering, without any doubt, but I could not accept the offers, because I hate playing live,” he says. “I find it unnatural, like taking a plane. Making music is expressing your emotions. It has to come from deep inside you; if not, it’s a mere reproduction, and that would be dishonest to the songs.” Unless, he adds, “like Bob Dylan or Keith Jarrett, you have the talent to keep reinventing your music every time you play it.”
However, “speaking in public and transmitting information, I really like.” Luckily, because he’s a lecturer at a university college. “I want to keep doing that,” he confirms. “I’m certainly not aspiring to a musical career.”
However, one thing has changed: He is giving concerts! “I think I have done five shows so far,” he says. “It was [artistic director] Kurt Overbergh of the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels who lured me into it. I accepted the offer because I don’t want to wake up one day regretting that I never tried it. It will remain a necessary but sporadic evil that places me on the thin line between love and hate.”
Inspiration at hand
The artist’s new album is named after a 17th-century book by the English scholar Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Swerts, who describes his work as contemplative, was trying to capture melancholia in his songs. “My whole life, melancholia – an extreme awareness of how everything is transient – has been my driving force. In Burton’s time, it was seen as a sickness. Only during the Romantic era did melancholy – spleen, Weltschmerz or mal-du-siècle – get, thanks to artists and philosophers, a positive connotation. I totally agree with Joni Mitchell, who sings on Hejira: ‘There’s comfort in melancholy’.”
The 10 tracks on the new album were inspired by nine Flemish artists and philosophers whose work, according to Swerts, is driven by melancholia, including director Michaël R Roskam (Bullhead), composer Wim Mertens and visual artist Thierry De Cordier. In the CD’s liner notes, all nine have been portrayed by painter Stijn Felix with black bile being extracted from their bodies.
The song titles all refer directly to them, which is why they are in Dutch. But the lyrics are in English – impressionistic lyrics that don’t tell a story as much as try to create a mood. “Let me reveal something,” Swerts proclaims: “The songs don’t have lyrics. When I was young, I thought good music didn’t need lyrics. I realised that was oversimplified when I discovered albums like The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen, Blood on the Tracks by Dylan or Hejira.”
Subsequently, he started singing, clearly influenced by Mertens, who had also shown him the way to minimal music. “He often sings meaningless lyrics; their sounds have to express an emotion,” says Swerts. “I’m working in the same vein, though I noticed that I always use English, without thinking about it.”
Singer-songwriters, he concludes, “have the reputation of being huge narcissists. ‘Listen to me! I’m sad and want to tell you about my misfortunes! Poor me!’” He laughs. “I’d never do that. When I hear such songs, I think: Quit whining.”