Gaëtan Vandewoude picks up pieces in new Isbells album


On the new Isbells album Billy, frontman Gaëtan Vandewoude offers a melancholy account of the darkest episode in his life

An emotional backpack

A cheerful six-year old Gaëtan Vandewoude is pictured smiling on the cover of Billy. The image stands in sharp contrast with the far-from-happy mood of the songs on the album, the third record Vandewoude has released with Isbells, the Flemish Brabant band he fronts.

The first words Vandewoude utters set the tone for the next 42 minutes: “Billy was a sad boy / He didn’t even know / Until he was old enough.”

The singer says upfront that “Billy” the boy and the album tracks are based on his own life. “In looking for a cover picture, I was surprised to see photos of myself in which I’m laughing,” he says. “I was once happy as a child, I realised." 

I’ve met Vandewoude, 36, several times since 2009, the year he released the first, eponymously titled Isbells album. Delivered in his high-pitched voice, the band’s folky pop songs have long been drenched in melancholy, yet Vandewoude never seemed that burdened in person.

It was two years ago that his walls came tumbling down. “I was sitting at home, and I had an image of myself scattered on the floor in a thousand pieces.”

Putting the pieces back together was difficult, but Vandewoude (pictured) ultimately succeeded. And Billy is a sincere account of that process. At the same time, he has managed to compose lyrics that should resonate with everyone who has learned that life isn’t always rosy, and that speaks to the album’s strength.

“My older lyrics were also rooted in personal experiences, but I always tried to formulate them in a general way,” Vandewoude explains. “Now they’re more straightforward and refer more to my own life. Before, I touched on a subject, but I wasn’t ready to delve deep into it. It was too confronting.”

Impenetrable walls

The catalyst for this revised writing style was a temporary breakup with his wife. They had been together since he was 16 and she 15. 

“I was finger-pointing – ‘I can’t stand the way you want me to live with you’ – but later I realised the problem was deeply in me. I couldn’t cope anymore with how I was living my life.”

Subconsciously, I always knew I was lonely and insecure, but I denied those feelings

- Gaëtan Vandewoude

Vandewoude had built sturdy walls around himself. “I didn’t want anyone to come too close, to avoid getting hurt. It felt safe and strong,” he says. “Subconsciously, I always knew I was lonely and insecure, but I denied those feelings: It was my way of surviving. Now, I don’t feel strong anymore. But I do feel much better!" 

Looking back, he can’t single out any one event where things first went wrong. “It’s more like a backpack on my shoulders that filled up over the years. And at one point, it became too heavy to carry any further.”

He’s quick to add, though, that countless people carry such an emotional rucksack. “I’m not special in that. It’s called life.”

Vandewoude says making Billy was a therapeutic experience. “Processing everything that happened to me in song lyrics was necessary to close that chapter,” he explains. “In general, to understand an emotion or situation, I need to find the right words to formulate what’s happening. And this time, it had a healing effect.”

Famous moniker

After his last Isbells album in 2013, Vandewoude released an album as Sweet Little Mojo. Heavy on indie guitars and synths, it was an upbeat collection of songs he wrote before Isbells. “I wasn’t ready to record and release those songs earlier,” he explains.

And he couldn’t have put out those songs under his more famous moniker, he says. “The music of Isbells is clearly defined. It’s a way to express my pain. Which means there is no place for humour or exuberance, though these are also part of my personality. I think it would be difficult to release a dance track as Isbells. If ever I feel the urge to, I’ll opt for yet another name." 

All in all, Vandewoude feels privileged. For the past six years, he’s been able to live off his music. “It’s a dream I’ve had since I started playing at 15.” Isbells is a factor, of course – their first album sold 17,000 copies, a whopping figure for a Flemish band that wasn’t signed to a major record label. But Vandewoude also works as producer, and his music has been used in commercials and soundtracks, most notably in a Grey’s Anatomy episode. 

As a Flemish band, being featured on the soundtrack of such a famous programme calls for some amount of luck, Vandewoude is the first to admit. Still, “a good music publisher helps,” he says, explaining that they act as a bridge between artists and film and TV producers.

A friend gave Vandewoude Briefe an einen jungen Dichter (Letters to a Young Poet) by the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke while he was working on Billy. He immediately connected with Rilke’s idea that in the end no one can advise a poet – the only thing to do is go into yourself.

“In the end, one thing counts: Am I satisfied with the album? From then on, it’s out of my hands. I can’t influence what people think about it.”

Isbells are on tour from 18 September

Photo by Yves Delport

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