In the beginning it was a matter of whispers. The caress of a voice, the shadow of a guitar. Then, slowly, new colors and new travel companions started to appear on Lieven Scheerlinck’s road. In the occasion of the release of the fourth record under the moniker A Singer Of Songs, “From Hello To Goodbye”, the Belgian-born songwriter (but living in Barcelona) accepted to draw for us the map of his path so far.
You are already an old acquaintance for the OndaRock readers, since you took part in the first compilation of our OndaDrops series. But for those who didn’t know you yet, could you tell us one more time how the project A Singer Of Songs was born?
About seven years ago I was going through a rough patch in my life. I broke up with my partner, I was suddenly without a home and I felt unsatisfied with everything I did. The only way to fight the sadness was writing songs. Though maybe they were more confessions than songs, really intimate and personal and raw. I wrote and recorded them all in one take. I never meant to share them with anyone. They were for myself, hoping they would help me heal.
But then a friend heard the songs, and urged me to start a MySpace page and share them. I doubted for a couple of weeks, but then one evening I followed his advice. Those days I was listening to a great Johnny Cash song on endless repeat, so I borrowed the title of the song as band name… A Singer Of Songs was born.
A Singer Of Songs is now a four man band. How did today’s line-up come together?
I met Laura Räsänen on the road. She attended a show of mine in Galicia two years ago. We had some mutual friends and we started talking after the gig. She told me she played the violin. So we met up for a little jam and it felt perfect. I loved singing with her from the very beginning.
Then after last year’s tour as a duo, we felt the need of someone strong to have our backs. So we got in touch with José Rosselló, who had drummed in some very nice bands. José adds a lot of subtle power to our music.
And I met Germán Gadea through my girlfriend. For my birthday she gave me a really nice present: trumpet classes. Ever since I was a child I had wanted to learn to play the trumpet. She found a cool teacher: Germán came to my house, gave me three classes and a couple of weeks later he was playing a show with us.
Your previous record, “There Is A Home For You”, has a lot to do with memories. Which experiences from your past did affect more your musical path?
I think the most intense experiences that influenced me were through listening to music. I have always been a fanatic music lover. I remember spending entire days listening to “Small Change” by Tom Waits on endless repeat. Reading the lyrics, dissecting the arrangements, applying the words to my life. “Either/Or” by Elliott Smith, “Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot” by Sparklehorse… Those albums made me the person I am. I have spent more hours with them than with any person I know.
And then of course moving from Belgium to Barcelona has been very important as well. I went from a small town boy whose future was very clear-cut to a stranger in a big city whose only certainty was daily confusion. Confusion is good for making music.
Can you tell us a bit about the recording and the production of your new album, “From Hello To Goodbye”?
For the first time I had the feeling it wasn’t just me. I wrote songs knowing that I could ask Laura, José and Germán to play some parts. So maybe I wrote them a little bit “bigger”, with arrangements in mind. I recorded the skeleton of the songs in my home studio, and then invited them over to do their thing. We did everything ourselves in our homes. It is very important to me to maintain the intimacy of the music. Especially now that I am not alone anymore.
There is more lightness in the musical palette of your new songs. What difference do you feel from your previous records?
I think it has everything to do with the previous question. There being a band this time, more instruments, the songs being written with the other guys in mind. I also think I have gotten a little bit better at recording. I still only use one microphone to record everything, but I guess I must have learnt where to put it to get a better sound.
Most of the songs of your previous records were recorded right after you finished writing them. Do you still use this method in your songwriting process?
Yes, though it doesn’t happen in one day anymore. I always start recording immediately after I have finished the song. But it takes more than one day or night to record a track now. Years ago it was only a guitar and a voice and maybe some harmonies that needed to be recorded. But now there is bass and drums and violin and trumpet… It takes a little bit longer for everything to fall in its right place. Also, I kind of learned to like the idea of a recording to grow slowly, over a couple of days. Little by little the song goes from being in your head to being on tape. It’s almost like watching it grow in slow motion. I think that’s my favorite part of the whole music thing. Me on my own in the studio, trying to record a song the way it needs to be. And then when I feel I have the essence of the song on tape… That’s as good as it gets.
“From Hello To Goodbye” is a travel journal of sorts. What did you learn from traveling?
Everything and nothing. It never ceases to amaze me how you get to a place you know nothing about, maybe not even the name of the capital. And then after a week or so you go back home and there is so much you have learnt. Places, people, languages, situations, feelings… Travelling is learning in fast motion. But then you go home thinking you’re so smart, and you look at the world map and you realize there are so many places you still know nothing about. The more you know, the more you realize you know very little.
For you what’s the relationship between travel and home?
I have come to realize that “home” is a state of mind rather than an actual place. I have felt at home in many places, and I have felt a stranger in my home many times. Every time I have thought that I had a home, a place where I could stay for a long time, something has happened and I was out on the street again, looking for a new place to call home. And then one day I realized I am not looking for a physical place anymore, but rather a mental state. For me being home is feeling at ease with myself and what I do and the people that surround me. Which is why it is possible to feel at home on a plane to a country you have never been to. And any place becomes a potential home.
Do you think the places where you've been have an influence on your music?
Absolutely. I have written many songs based on an image I saw while on the road. Or on people I have met. The song “Map Of Lost Places” for example was written starting from an image I had when I was traveling with a friend through the USA. We saw an abandoned house along the road, and decided to have a look. We both love empty and abandoned places, so we walked around the ruins of what once was a home. We tried to imagine who had lived there, what had made them happy and sad, and why they could have decided to leave the place. And then years later, this song popped out of my guitar and all of a sudden that whole experience came back and attached itself to the melody. This happens all the time. Travelling is the perfect gasoline for songwriting.
“Happiness will make me fat and bold”, you sing in “The Question Is The Answer”. How do you relate to the idea of settling down?
I am scared shitless of settling down, always have been. I have seen so many people fade out in their happiness. I guess also that’s what happiness is about: being so relaxed that you start caring less about certain things. That’s why I get restless whenever I get too relaxed. I need some confusion to keep the flame going. But I have learned over the past years. I don’t make stupid decisions anymore just to keep the confusion going. I do want to be happy now. And I have come to the conclusion that happiness is a pretty confusing thing as well, so all’s well.
Lucía Mussini did a very special artwork for “From Hello To Goodbye”. How did the idea take shape?
A couple of years ago some friends came to visit me in Barcelona. They didn’t have a city map and so I gave them the one I had used when I was still new in the city. Before giving it to them, I had a look at it. It was full of things written and highlighted with pencil and markers. It was like going back in time. The bar where I had my first job interview ever. The corner where I had my first date in Barcelona. The cinema where I used to go watch movies that weren’t dubbed in Spanish. The house where I went to the first party with the name of the host scribbled next to it. Through the map I was able to re-live my first years in the city. It was such a beautiful and nostalgic experience. So when we started talking about the artwork with Mabel and Lucía, the word ‘map’ came up pretty quickly. Mabel had the brilliant idea to make a personal world map of a Singer of Songs, and Lucía turned those vague ideas into an amazing piece of art.
You said that the first times you played live your hands were shaking so hard you were barely able to hold your guitar… How did your relationship with live performances change over time?
I think learning to play live on my own has been one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. It can get pretty lonely on a stage. But then little by little you get used to it. You realize people are not your enemy, they just want to be entertained. They want to like you, at least in most cases. The audience always has a lot of love to give. And once you realize that, everything gets easier. I like to be close to the audience. Talk to them, hear them react… I love it when I go to a show and after it’s done I have the feeling I know the singer a little better, not only as a singer, but also as a person. That’s what I try to achieve myself at every show.
Last year you played a few dates here in Italy. How was the Italian audience reception? Have you any story you’d like to share with us about the tour?
I love Italy. Two of my best friends are Italians, so I’ve always felt very close to the country. And then playing those shows last year… There is really a special connection with you guys.
One of the places we played was a record store in Milano, “Dischivolanti”. It’s a small shop, a little bit like the one John Cusack runs in High Fidelity. The owner, Ferruccio, is a big fan and over the past year he has achieved to make my album one of the bestsellers in his shop. It’s amazing how many records I have sold there, the orders just keep coming. So last year when we were in Italy, we went over to his shop to play a little acoustic set there. And it was pretty amazing to see how excited people were about us playing there. As if we were this big important band that just came off their world tour. So yes, Italy is written in big letters on all our blackboards here. And we’ll be back for a bigger tour in spring next year.
You started your career in the MySpace era. Now you founded a new label, Son Canciones, together with Mabel Alonso. What do you think about the chance for the artists to promote their music in the digital era? In your opinion, how did the music market change during last years?
There have never been more possibilities for music to get out there, and at the same time there have never been less. There is so much music going around nowadays, that sometimes you get snowed under. All those releases, all those blogs, all those great anonymous artists… I know this might sound contradictory coming from someone who just started a record label. But we feel there is a lack of real contact between musician and listener. Everything has become so cold, even our laughter has become digital through emoticons. One click is enough for a song to disappear forever leaving no trace. There are few second chances on the internet.
That’s why we want to combine the possibilities of the digital market with real stuff. Hand-made artwork, vinyls, small shows in unusual places, an intimate bond between musician and listener, applying copyleft licenses to all our releases so the music can flow freely… Get back into the real world. Maybe even have bellyache when we laugh.
You worked with many other artists in your career (from Tiny Ruins to Craven Canary, from Ana Franco to Benjamin Shaw). For you what’s the key for a good collaboration?
Patience, blind confidence and joy. Without any of those three, a good collaboration is impossible. Playing with other people, having them interpret my songs, has been one of the best things that have ever happened to me. It’s a weird way of friendship sent through wires.
If your label could release the next album of any artist you want, who would you choose (and why)?
Oh my, there’s so many, new and old… I would love to put Paul Simon in a small cabin somewhere in the woods with Rick Rubin or any producer who knows how to keep things simple when they need to be. Just him, a guitar, a piano and those big songs of his…
We asked Lieven Scheerlick a gift for the OndaRock readers. And he decided to give us his cover of “Barcelona” by Will Oldham. A very special song for an adopted Catalan like him.
I had always been a huge fan of Will Oldham way back from his Palace Brothers days, but I had never heard this song until a couple of years ago. I was walking around Barcelona with my headphones on when I heard it. It describes a weird love story of a couple in Barcelona. It's so over the top that it becomes sad in a way. And Oldham is true: Barcelona can get really confusing love-wise. We have played it live often, always having a great time. So when we were asked to do a Bonnie “Prince” Billy cover for the Slowcoustic project, it felt like the best song to record.
A Singer Of Songs - Barcelona (Will Oldham)