Mother courage

Summary

I first got to know Ellen Schoenaerts (30) at the end of the previous decade, when she was writing the lyrics for her then boyfriend Tom Pintens. The latter, a veteran of the Antwerp music scene, with credentials that include a long stint in Zita Swoon, had always had sung in English. After accepting a gig where he needed to sing in Dutch, he panicked.

© Filip Van Roe
 
© Filip Van Roe

The real Ellen Schoenaerts stands up with the release of an extraordinary debut album

I first got to know Ellen Schoenaerts (30) at the end of the previous decade, when she was writing the lyrics for her then boyfriend Tom Pintens. The latter, a veteran of the Antwerp music scene, with credentials that include a long stint in Zita Swoon, had always had sung in English. After accepting a gig where he needed to sing in Dutch, he panicked.

But Schoenaerts helped him out, and in the end, wrote the lyrics for three of his albums.

At that point, Schoenaerts had mainly worked as an actress – like her famous grandfather, the late Julien Schoenaerts, and her uncle, the now famous Matthias Schoenaerts. She also had a project with Marianne Loots, a combination of comedy and music.

But now Schoenaerts has brushed all those things aside. “It’s been a long quest, and very interesting for that matter, but I never had the feeling: This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she says. “Three, four years ago I felt I had to fully commit to music, because doing all the other things had made me unhappy. Finally the real Ellen is coming to the surface.”

That seems to be the right decision if you listen to her amazing debut album Feiten (Facts). Her lyrics are extremely frank without being exhibitionistic. It’s not difficult to find traces of her break-up with Pintens; she muses about her six-year-old son Oliver. Musically, she draws heavily on both chanson (Jacques Brel clearly springs to mind) and adventurous rock. Folk, chamber music and avantgarde have also influenced the songs.

No woman is an island

Schoenaerts, who plays a CD release concert in Antwerp on 2 December, worked on the album for two years. “I’m hysterically perfectionist,” she confides. “Some songs have been reworked five times.” She has no difficulty pointing out the reason for this endless labour. “The songs started out live. We have been playing them live a lot, but it wasn’t simple to come up with versions that worked well on record.”

Three years ago, when she started playing live under her own name, Schoenaerts told me that playing concerts was far more important than making an album. “I discovered that I do like recording. It’s a very stressful, fierce and intense process. But playing live is still extremely important: It makes me happy.”

Surprisingly, the album is released under the name of the Ellen Schoenaerts Kwartet. “I haven’t done it alone,” she points out. “I wanted to honour the great musicians with whom I work. They lift me up, and I respect them very deeply.” Those other musicians are the multi-instrumentalists Liesa Van der Aa, Tijs Delbeke and Ephraim Cielen. Together with producer Simon Lenski, they are responsible for the adventurous arrangements.

Many other musicians also passed by the studio. Bass player Hannes d’Hoine has even become a permanent member of Schoenaerts’ band. “Live, the line-up often alters, since the musicians have other obligations. In the past, I adapted the name to the line-up of each concert: septet, trio, etc. But I’ve decided to stick to quartet. It’s a beautiful and stylish name.”

Singing in Dutch

Schoenaerts sings in Dutch, still exceptional for a Flemish artist. “It’s certainly no statement,” she confides. “I sing in Dutch because that’s my mother tongue. I don’t have to think about it. It happens spontaneously. But I feel more inspired by French chanson or other international artists. My heroes are Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, Rufus Wainwright and PJ Harvey. In Flanders, I love Zita Swoon, Gregory Frateur and DAAU.”

The album is called Feiten., with a full stop at the end. “It’s a sign of vigour and determination. I’m quite assertive,” she laughs. “Well, I do change my mind a lot, but always very assertively.”

She pauses. “I hate false modesty. It’s important for an artist to take risks and to be, in life as well as in art, courageous. And if you fail, so be it. It’s better to fail courageously than to succeed moderately. There’s a streak of megalomania in me.”

 

2 December, 20.30

Monty

Montignystraat 3, Antwerpen
www.radicalduke.com

 

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Mother courage

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