She seems more Flemish. The g’s softened, a sense of melody in every sentence. Eefje de Visser moved from Utrecht to Ghent about two years ago and feels at home there. She enjoys the Burgundian way of life, the long-lasting friendships, the tranquility. And although she moved here for love, she’s now also fully enjoying the Flemish music industry, which she believes has just a little more guts and ambition. You can hear that on pop record Bitterzoet – and see it in her most ambitious live show to date.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Photos: David van Dartel
Call it a triumph. After a Flemish festival had the premiere, Eefje de Visser also electrified Into The Great Wide Open with two backing singers and dancers, a band whose playing is almost as impressive as their outfits, and a dazzling light show that seems to have come straight out of Blade Runner 2049. For most of the show, only their silhouettes can be seen – in graceful symmetry. It's enough to amaze an audience that’s so preoccupied with what they’re witnessing, they almost forget to dance.
There’s nothing so disparaging as the term on-Nederlands goed, but this show is, if anything, 'un-Dutch'. For the first time, the upcoming album will not be released through Eefjes Platenmaatschappijtje, through which De Visser released her previous three albums more or less independently, but with Sony Music; management, press and the like are largely in Flemish hands. Everything is according to a tight schedule, including our conversation, a few hours before her show on Vlieland. De Visser, however, seems to undergo everything with ease and speaks highly of the team – call it a machine – that she has surrounded herself with.
“I really like sweet, poppy things. I love Robyn, I love Flume, and I think that's also very edgy at the moment."
Oscar and the Wolf, Soulwax, Balthazar and adjacent projects; according to De Visser, they all have a certain “ambition” and an appropriate “arrogance” that is sometimes lacking in Dutch artists. De Staat and the Jeugd van Tegenwoordig are the exceptions, she says. In general, people in Belgium are a little bolder, she thinks, and more people have the confidence required to dare rise above yourself as an artist. It inspired De Visser to strike with Bitterzoet.
We are sitting on an otherwise deserted terrace in the warm September sun, right on the dunes, a stone's throw from the North Sea. Bitterzoet is finished but still something of an open secret. So let's first look back at the period in which De Visser left Nachtlicht behind in 2016 and started working on its predecessor. She started playing more electronic shows, without a band, all alone with drums, bass guitar and synths, and in places she would never have played before, such as electronic festivals Wildeburg, Genk's Absolutely Free, Draaimolen and Amsterdam Dance Event. “That was a lot of fun. It really gave me a boost. It’s such a positive, non-snobbish energy… People don't say to themselves: gosh, just what do I think of this guitar sound? Such a liberated and optimistic audience that’s there with their arms wide open, really wants to enjoy it, I think that's so cool. I felt very grateful to be able to play an audience like that for a change. It's just different compared to the 'listening audience'.” Not that there's anything wrong with an audience that listens, De Visser would like to emphasize, “but I think that I want to proceed in that other direction for now. And maybe I just say these things because I find it interesting that 'pop' is seen by some as such a dirty word, while I think it's cool."
A conversation with Eefje de Visser will sooner or later turn into a conversation about Robyn, Queen of Scandinavian Pop and since the release of Honey (2018) and the ambitious live shows that followed, a major influence on De Visser. “I really like sweet, poppy things. I love Robyn, I love Flume, and I think that's also very edgy at the moment. Some think that's commercial, but for me that's exactly the way to have an attitude, that you decide to go for that pop sound. I think that's the cool thing about Robyn, that she just does this over the top pop and that she doesn't give a shit about what is or isn’t credible. And what many people consider to be good taste, is often so subdued and gracious. There’s something so elitist about that sometimes, that I notice myself just getting more and more interested in simply making pop music – electronic, poppy songs.”
"That's my form of imperfection: that you just can’t understand a word, especially live."
As far as De Visser is concerned, even in so-called poptimist times, there are still plenty of misconceptions surrounding the genre in which she’s now found herself. Nothing about that “stylized pop,” as she describes it herself, is by definition ‘commercial,’ ‘slick,’ ‘perfect’, ‘mainstream’, ‘conventional’. “I think what Robyn does is unconventional. And I would think it would be quite foolish of me to make another largely acoustic record. This is me transitioning into what I think is edgier.”
In an interview with De Morgen, De Visser, who once attended the Rock Academy but, after winning the Grand Prix of the Netherlands in 2009, never completed it, notes that “the charm of imperfection” is partly lost in such artist training. It gets a bit predictable, too deliberate; musicians get too good. For Bitterzoet, with an in-house studio and a life partner as co-producer, De Visser had all the time and space to make the record she wanted to make. But if you can tinker endlessly, how do you make sure an album gets finished but never perfect? And what about the live show? “When it's finished, it's finished,” is the initial answer from De Visser. It comes down to fingerspitzengefühl. “I'm also a perfectionist. In that regard, I am very concerned that it is not all too perfect. I also ask the band to use a lot of effects, to play with filters and do other things that make it look a little less static and perfect. And ‘not perfect’ can mean anything, of course. It can also mean that you have some kind of casualness in how you sing. Perhaps that's where my form of imperfection lies: that you just can’t understand a word, especially live.”
“We live in a time where we are so focused on the details, where the aural has to be just as good live. My dad was in a band in the fifties when monitors just didn't exist. You had two speakers, your own amplifiers and a sound engineer who did nothing else: he just connected everything and didn't complicate things with faders or anything. Then you realize that we are taking such a big step towards perfect sound and that we want it that way live as well. But I do notice in Belgium that they are fortunately a little less perfectionist in music, that it has more of an edge in a certain way and that that is very cool.”
So it is not necessary to immediately understand everything. “That's how I listen to lyrics myself: I only realize after a long time what is actually being said. It comes very slowly, every time I listen there might be another lyric that will make me go: oh, what a beautiful line! I had that with Frank Ocean, for example. In the end I was studying all his lyrics, but it took me ten times to get to that point.” It only lengthens the lifespan of a record. “I notice when I'm making my lyrics that it is sometimes very unclear to other people. But then I think: imagine that I would now make it very literal. That I would really 'finish' it and that people know exactly what it is about. I personally would find that super ugly, because then it would no longer be open.” Partly for this reason, De Visser has avoided singing in ‘affected Dutch’ throughout her career. “Then it becomes too perfect, too intentional, too moralistic. Like: I'm going to tell you something now."
And so Eefje de Visser's strength lies, even on her 'pop record', perhaps in the fact that the music is never crystal clear or outspoken. Smoothly maneuvering beyond all conventions, she seems to have found both a breeding ground for ambition and a beacon of imperfection in Belgium and in Robyn.
Bitterzoet will be released at the beginning of January 2020. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.