Only Charles Babbage knows the real reasons why he designed the first programmable mechanical computer in 1837. But it’s doubtful that ol’ Chuck had any idea just how important his little discovery would be to the advancement of popular music. It’s hard to imagine the original “propeller head” fidgeting over crafting the perfect mix of syncopated percussion and bass lines in a Skrillex mix.
Over the past two centuries, Babbage’s inspired contraption has contributed mightily towards an astonishing melodic progression, resulting in music that is louder, faster and craftier.
But while it may be true that popular music has experienced a remarkable evolution, there is one thing that hasn’t changed over the past 200 years: nothing can enthrall an audience quite like an artist with a simple melody, a masterful lyric and an acoustic six-string.
Which brings us to Holland-based singer-songwriter Johannes Sigmond, better known as Blaudzun. The critically praised Dutch artist recently released his first U.S. and latest acclaimed effort, “Heavy Flowers.” The new record is the extraordinary follow up to his highly lauded sophomore release "Seadrift Soundmachine" which IndieMuse.com called “one of the best releases of 2010.”
Of Blaudzun’s newest opus, Netherlands daily NRC Handelsblad deservedly declared “Heavy Flowers” to be “One of the most ambitious records of Dutch origin.” In addition to Netherlands Public Broadcasting’s 3voor12 Award for Best Album of 2012, “Heavy Flowers” garnered the talented performer a 2013 Edison Award (Dutch Grammy) for Best Male Artist.
The brilliant songsmith spoke with me recently as he anticipated the release of the new album. Although “Heavy Flowers” is his third studio record, the artist confessed that it had the feel of a debut recording owing to its status as Blaudzun’s first U.S. release.
“Yeah. It’s kind of nice because in Europe, ‘Heavy Flowers’ is my third album. So people are expecting something after the first two albums and in the U.S. I can make a fresh start. That’s kind of nice. There’s no expectations. For an artist, I think that’s a great thing. It will be nice if you could make debut albums all the time (laughing).”
“Europe is also a very good place to tour and to do great festivals. But I think for singer-songwriters and rock bands, the U.S. still sounds a little bit magical to us.”
America may be the musical “land of milk and honey” for the Dutch musician, but he’s never let the enchantment deter him from what he’s about. “As a songwriter my main business is writing songs and trying to make good albums,” he explained.
“It’s not exactly about playing in Japan or going to Australia or touring in the U.S. That’s okay but it’s not the end of it. My main goal is to write good songs and to sing them and that’s where I find my challenges.”
Singer-songwriter Sigmond has made the most of those challenges. He played in bands for several years before launching his solo career in 2006. Taking a name from a relatively unknown Danish cyclist, Blaudzun began working on a special collection of songs originally intended to be a soundtrack for a midnight car drive.
He recorded most of the tracks in his Amsterdam home, several studios throughout Netherlands, and even added some sessions in Barcelona. The diverse recording sessions became his self-titled debut album. Blaudzun described the genesis of the record.
“I think it was 2007. I was planning to put out an EP – a collection of songs. And those songs were intended to be like a soundtrack for a midnight car drive or a train journey. I love music that accompanies the dark of night, you know?”
“When everyone else is asleep and you feel like you’re the only person in the city, a car or whatever vehicle you’re in sometimes feels like that’s the only world, like that’s the only thing you have.”
“Songs can be like little houses or caves where you can hide for a little while. And I wanted my songs to be that. That’s no different from the songs from ‘Heavy Flowers.’ I still believe that a composition or a good song can be like a place to go and find relief. Or just enjoy yourself or hide from somebody.”
Given his untouchable songwriting and haunting vocals, hiding from anyone has proven to be an impossibility for the gifted Blaudzun. For the tunesmith, crafting insightful lyrics is much more than simply finding words that rhyme – it’s about paying attention to everything that’s happening around him and squeezing out every last bit of meaning from the experience.
“It’s not that interesting of an answer maybe, but basically it’s life in general. So it has to do with break ups and it has to do with sex, or with death and loss and people dying too young or people breaking up.”
“Most of the time, it’s not really a choice but when I look back on my songs on my three albums, most of the time it’s about the raw part of life. I really use my own songs and opera singing as a way to deal with that I guess. I tend to write in small stories. The song’s about how I broke up, the last fight or something and maybe that’s also a way of dealing with that vulnerability for me as a songwriter.”
The introspective and insightful nature of Blaudzun’s music would seem to fit best in an intimate venue where he can establish a connection with the audience. But somewhat surprisingly, the imaginative artist felt just as comfortable in a larger setting.
“Just last weekend we played a big festival and there were lots of music business people. It’s always hard, but I compare it with good love, with making love. You both have to put off your clothes to have good sex. When you are performing and singing and giving it all, then the audience has to as well.”
“Sunday you have to work harder, especially on Sunday nights when people have to work the next morning. The audiences are lot different from Saturday nights. Every artist will tell you that. And sometimes you’re not just into being a cheerleader all the time. So you just think, ‘Well, I’ll play my songs and do my best and try to get in the song.’ And then eventually the audience will pick it up and sometimes it’s more like a party.”
Blaudzun made his U.S. concert debut at CMJ Music Marathon last year. And this year he’s set to perform at next month’s SXSW 2013 in addition to a solo performance at Bowery Electric in NYC on March 10.
The Dutch musician was eager to play at this year’s Lonestar fete. “I talked to a good friend of mine who once was in Austin and he said, ‘You’ve got Texas… and you’ve got Austin (laughing). But I don’t know. I've never been there, so I'm looking forward to it.”
Not coincidentally, thousands of music fans are looking forward to his appearance. Because you have musicians…and then you have Blaudzun.