Helmut Lotti offers hopeful message for dark times

Summary

On his latest album, Flemish singer Helmut Lotti combines freewheeling pop songs with a positive message about resilience in the face of crisis

New beginnings

Almost three years ago, long-time singer Helmut Lotti surprised critics and fans alike with Mijn hart & mijn lijf (My Heart & My Body), an album that saw him exploring uncharted musical territories, veering from gritty rock and passionate soul to chafing blues and intimate folk. Also, for the first time in more than 20 years, he had released an album in Dutch.

That decision meant the singer was limited to performing in front of Dutch-speaking audiences during the subsequent tour. And Flanders and the Netherlands are a small playing ground for someone of his stature.

Lotti, who is touring with a Winter Concert this month, has sold more than 13 million records, and, thanks to a series of Goes Classic albums he released in the 1990s, he has fans across Europe.

When Mijn hart & mijn lijf first came out, Lotti (pictured) told me that he toyed with the idea of recording the songs in English. He eventually chose against it, though he did record the vocals in German. But his record company in Germany was not interested in the album. “They thought it was too far removed from the old me,” he says with a deep sigh.

The limited market for Dutch-language songs is one of the reasons why his new album, Faith, Hope and Love is again in English. Though initially, Lotti admits, he did contemplate sticking with his mother tongue.

“I recorded some demos in Dutch, and the 30-concert tour I did after the previous album was amazing. For the first time in ages, I was sorry a tour was over. But on the other hand, I got itchy. I could only play 30 concerts! ‘Is this all there is?’ I wondered.”

Golden oldies

The 46-year-old is candid about his embrace of English: “I hope this album will generate some work abroad.” For now, nothing is certain. And Lotti is far from convinced that his past success abroad will crack open doors today.

I think the themes that I touch upon will always be topical

- Singer Helmut Lotti

Mind you, the choice of language wasn’t just motivated by business concerns. “I think I really do sound better in English,” Lotti says. “In Dutch, I really have to be careful not to sound turgid. In English, that isn’t a problem.”

The difference between his previous album and Faith, Hope & Love isn’t just about language. From the first words Lotti sings, it’s also clear he’s steering his musical oeuvre to different waters.

Wouter Van Belle, who co-produced Faith, Hope & Love, suggested UK composer Andrew Powell to arrange the songs. “I listened to the soundtrack Powell wrote for Ladyhawke, and I knew: ‘With this guy, the sky is the limit.’”

That’s when the singer decided to opt for a sound that harkens back to the heavily orchestrated pop songs of the late 1960s and early ’70s, with golden oldies like “Eloise”, “Suspicious Minds” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”. “Songs in which everything seemed to be possible: wild arrangements, crazy tempo changes, you name it.”

Lotti tries, he says, “to start from scratch with every album. Musically, but also thematically. This time it all started with a song that I wrote for Mijn hart & mijn lijf, but which lyrically didn’t fit.”

The translated lyrics of that song, and more specifically the line Thank God heaven is make-believe”, formed the starting point for Faith, Hope & Love. “I noticed that religion also reared its head in other songs,” he says. “I wouldn’t call it an album about religion, though, more one about ways of living: What do we cling to when life turns sour? What are life’s traps? And what makes one a better human being?”

Good and evil

Lotti loves books and movies about characters who overcome hurdles, “especially when they themselves form the main obstacle but still reach a catharsis. The duality between good and evil is fascinating.”

To explain this tug of war between opposing forces, God is regularly called upon in the songs on Faith, Hope & Love. But for Lotti, the new record is also about pacifism. He gives the example of his English cover of “Inch’Allah”, a 1960s peace song by Belgian singer Adamo.

“The most important sentence in my lyrics is ‘Dividing walls, disgrace to man’. Another theme of the album is: How do we move forward when we’re gripped by fear? When you feel treated unjustly and no one seems to notice you anymore – that’s when you make the wrong choices, as we have seen lately.”

Lotti is of course referring to the Paris attacks that occurred just a few days before our interview. Is it a coincidence that Faith, Hope & Love taps into the current mood so strikingly? “I started with this album two years ago, but I think the themes that I touch upon will always be topical. They will never be coincidence.”

Think positive

Earlier in our conversation, Lotti talked about blindly following one’s ambitions. Has he ever experienced the dark side of an all-encompassing ambition?

“If you mean that instance where you follow your dreams so intensely that you forget to live and be happy? Sure! It’s no coincidence that at one point on the album I sing: ‘Lonely just like me’. I’d like to point out that, thanks to their sequencing, the songs implicitly tell a story. I had the choice between a happy and sad ending. I chose the happy one, a marriage.”

I had the choice between a happy and sad ending. I chose the happy one

- Helmut Lotti

Almost two-thirds of the 15 songs on Faith, Hope & Love are covers or traditional songs, “but I managed to personalise them by addiing new lyrics or using very free translations," he says. “I was looking for songs that were related to the central theme of the album but that I could play with".

“The only personal view I express is that you have to try to think positively. And that violence is always the wrong answer. It’s the only view I’m certain of. In one of the songs, I voice an atheist, but I’m not an atheist. In another one, I incarnate the devil, which I’m not. But I’m not afraid of playing that character, or of people’s opinions. In the end, we all have some degree of darkness.”

Winter Concert Helmut & Friends kicks off on 15 December in Leuven

Photo courtesy Sony Music

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