Gems from Antwerp pt II

In het aprilnummer van het internationaal gerenommeerde maandblad fRoots is de coverreportage volledig gewijd aan Laïs. In een artikel van vier bladzijden wordt de volledige Laïsgeschiedenis uit de doeken gedaan. In het tweede en laatste deel gaan Annelies, Jorunn en Nathalie dieper in op hun cd-successen, hun ontwikkeling als livegroep en hun muzikale ambities.

20050330_froots_002GEMS FROM ANTWERP II
At the same time as Lais, there were a number of other young folk groups emerging, including Fluxus and Ambrozijn (see fR252), all centred around the Wild Boar Music label which Erwin Libbrecht, Kadril’s frontman, had created. This new generation of folk artists set out from a traditional base, but then added influences from rock, jazz and sometimes world music. Erwin’s label provided the perfect playground for the new individual styles, and it was in his homemade studio in the summer of 1998 that Lais recorded their first album, entitled simply, Lais. “All the material on the album was traditional, but all the songs were rearranged by us. None of it was produced really. We recorded the songs as we sung them in concert. This was really raw stuff. But it’s been our best-selling album.” The album has sold an astonishing 80,000 copies which really is sensational considering Belgian folk doesn’t really sell in Belgium.
(Article: Hélène Rammant – Photographs: Guy Kokken)

Soon after they released their first CD, the trio felt the urge to break free from the Flemish folk circuit and to stand on their own feet. “We’ve been the first folk group who’s had the courage to do something different,” says Jorunn. “We recorded our first CD at a really young age along with a slightly more commercial single Het Smidje which received a lot of airplay. This was something no folk musicians had ever achieved before. The other folk groups didn’t seem interested in appealing to a wider audience and were happy to remain within the folk circles whereas we were like, ‘Hey peopleŠ please come and hear us’.” Between November 1998 and January 1999, 8,000 copies of that debut album were sold and it entered the national album chart at no.29.
In January 1999 Lais appeared on the cover of TV 7, the local equivalent of the Radio Times. Folk or traditional music was no longer viewed as being stuffy and old-fashioned and it seemed as if the girls’ success had somehow spawned a bigger interest in folk from the Belgian mainstream media. This in turn led to a roots revival throughout Flanders and the French speaking regions in 1998-99 which, although it has lost some of its initial force now, bore fruit throughout the late ’90s. As festivals grew larger, associations across the country started to expand on all-year-round activities from the making of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies, to flag waving, classes in different dance styles and even a radio show entitled De Grote Boodschap (meaning The Big Message) a programme in which Belgian folk, traditional music, and chanson are now regular features.
The next step on the girls’ agenda was to look for their own musicians. “We started off playing with musicians from a folk background, but soon realised we were suffering from an overdose of folk, so we turned to musicians from the jazz and rock world.” It took them a while to find musicians who they clicked with, two years in fact. The new match led to a move to Virgin Records with whom they released their second album Dorothea in 2001. “We chose Virgin because they were the only record company that promised us complete freedom over our music and that was hugely important to us,” says Nathalie. The producer of the album was the leader of their new backing band (and Jorunn’s boyfriend at the time), Fritz Sundermand – a guitarist with a rich past in Belgian pop music (California Sunshine, Dirk Blanchaert, Elisa Waut). But although the girls were now accompanied by a pop band, their earthy polyphonic style of singing still dominated the sound. Much to their own surprise, the Belgian press was full of praise for Dorothea and this gave the trio the necessary confidence to go on.
I asked them why they thought they had been so successful, more so than any other Belgian folk group had ever been. “Firstly because we are three women singing a cappella and in that we are unique,” thinks Jorunn. “However, we can’t deny the importance of The Dranouter festival which has played a very big role in our success.” Dranouter, which attracts an average of 70,000 people over three days each August, is by far the largest and most important folk festival in Belgium and has long been considered one of the leading folk festivals in Europe. In addition to showcasing the pioneers of the local folk movement, artists like Wannes Vande Velde and Rum, there is ample room for more contemporary styles such as folk rock and folk punk, singer/ songwriters, world music and Belgian pop. Which explains the festival’s subtitle: The New Tradition.
The fact that folk music doesn’t sell certainly doesn’t mean it’s dead. Most towns in Belgium have their own boombal (which translates as tree balls) where the newcomers dance bourées, gigues, polkas, scottisches and walzes alongside the old. Annelies interjects: “A lot of people are sick and tired of the glamour and the ‘one day’ flies of the pop world. They are in need of pureness and that’s what we are, authenticŠ We were much more real and spontaneous in what we were doing than those glitter girls who sing nothing but covers. That’s why folk music will always keep on intriguing, I think, because it’s real and that’s reassuring.” If the girls have an equivalent in another country, it would be Finland’s Värttinä who they actually cite as a source of inspiration.
Annelies thinks that “for foreigners, Flemish may seem like a very strange language. If we succeed in passing on a certain mood, the words in fact lose their importance.” Jorunn adds, “We have created our own little world, away from the Belgian folk worldŠ which means we can go anywhere we want now.” And they have. The group has appeared in festivals as far afield as South Africa and China. The girls have mastered the art of singing by touring and performing for over 10 years now. Nonetheless, the experience which they cite as having taught them the most was a concert series in chapels and churches with folk singer Ludo Van Deau, the lead singer of the pioneering group Rum. I asked them why. “Not just because of the acoustics etc. but because the environment of the church helped us to find peace and to come to our senses as a group.” So much so that the girls decided to release an all a cappella EP last year, appropriately title A La Capella.
Lais have recently started to be more selective in their choice of repertoire and have become particularly interested in dark and sad stories that contain a strong dose of melancholy and eroticism. “I think’s it’s to do with the fact that we’ve grown up,” says Nathalie, “and that we’ve started experiencing the suffering and pain that life brings.” Jorunn explains more: “Folk is often associated with cheerful, frisky little tunes, but for us, it is important to tell something substantial. I love the pain that those sad songs express.” Their latest CD, Douce Victime, is marked by a clear thematical change. Practically all of the songs on the CD talk about suffering and death. “The characters we sing about are almost without exception the victim of something or someone.” Their beautifully crafted pink songbook, published recently, contains their favourite folk songs, all about death, war, rape and suffering in general. Wanhoop Van Een Wees (the agony of an orphan – you heard it a couple of months ago on fRoots 24), De 3 Maagdekens (the three virgins), stories about young women being raped or killed, preferably both! The soft focus pictures in the songbook show the Lais girls running through woods or laying down in wet meadows, their colourful skirts ruffled up, breasts half exposed. They are hazy very romantic images that bring to life the maidens and orphans, the douce victimes, who have been dormant in songbooks scattered around Europe for centuries, until recentlyŠ
Meanwhile, the music on Douce Victime is much more daring and incorporates a number of different musical influences, from Arab string arrangements to tough Eastern European close-to-the-mike Warsaw Village Band-style chanting (in Polish too!), from Nordic Sami howling through to bluegrass shuffling and Cajun yodelling.
I wondered whether this latest CD is a direct result from the girls’ own musical growth. Jorunn admits to having left a lot of the musical decision making to Wouter Van Belle, their new producer. “Because we don’t play an instrument we are dependent on musicians and producers to mould our vocals into songs with a proper beat and musical accompaniment.”
Wouter is a well-known pop producer and pianist who’s worked with many of Belgium’s pop and jazz musicians (such as Gorki, Novastar and Flip Kowlier) and was really the mastermind behind Douce Victime. Jorunn explains what it felt like to be working with someone from the pop world. “We used to be real maniacs. Everything we sang had to be 100% in tune. Wouter has helped us to get rid of this obsession and made us listen to other groups and musicians. The music has to flow above all. We have finally learned how to balance our voices and how to create a sound that is natural.”
Their song Rinaldo epitomises their new-found musical freedom, stylistic courage and commitment to novelty and is a strong candidate for international hit status. It’s a Middle Eastern sounding song, on which the girls were accompanied by the London Chamber Orchestra in the grand halls of the Abbey Road studios. To make it, they enlisted the help of Andrew Powell, a well-known orchestrator who has arranged the music of the likes of Kate Bush and Al Stewart. Annelies explains: “We basically gave Andrew Powell carte blanche and didn’t hear the arrangements until the actual day of the recording.” Jorunn jumps in to say, “We loved what he’d done to our music. It was amazing. To be singing in those studios, those huge spacesŠ” The three have taken with gusto to singing to an orchestral accompaniment and are now planning a live orchestral performance later in the year.
Andrew Powell and Wouter Van Belle have injected a good dose of pop and other exotic influences into the girls’ musical veins. Gone are the ethereal a cappella vocals, replaced now by confident growls, oriental love-wails and confident Polish outbursts. The three are high on the heady mixture of growing fame, attentive mentorship and the joy of discovering (literally) a world of music styles and influences for them to explore and develop.
Where they’ll go next, nobody can be quite sure – least of all the girls themselves. Will they stay true to their folk origins, or get sucked into a more pop mainstream? Perhaps the most telling response and certainly the most interesting came from Jorunn. “Our sound needs to be filthier,” she said.
Filthy Belgian folk music? Sounds good to me, and will sound good to audiences here in the UK too, when they have a chance to hear it. The girls are planning their first international release this year, and one thing is certain, they’re finally going to make it big outside Belgium too.

Article: Hélène Rammant
Photographs: Guy Kokken
Source: fRoots, april 2005

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