She is still a bit confused and lost, still in the very early stages of her career - she knows that - but Lena Hessels’ (19) dreams for the future are crystal clear. She is determined to transcend her headstrong punk background. She wants to make pop music, befuddle the world, and if all goes well, make it to headliner status one day. “How hilarious would that be?”
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Photos: Nick Helderman
It's hard not to be amazed when you walk into the White Villa in Wormer. Every nook of the early twentieth-century building is filled with plants and knick knacks. The villa is visibly in a state of constant restoration; there are plans to tear down the old sunroom and then restore it. The eye is drawn to the high ceiling in the living room where, in addition to the necessary ornaments, there are also a few gaping holes. “My father wants to fix those too. I like it that way, but my father is a perfectionist. At least when it comes to woodwork…”
I am visiting Lena Hessels, who, before we officially start the interview, puts on a CD: Hawa by the Malian kora player Djibril Diabaté (Toumani Diabaté's nephew), recorded here when Hessels was barely a year old, in the attic room where her own home studio now is. It seems to only very rarely be quiet in the villa. Hessels has seen many musicians come and go throughout her nineteen years of living here: many Malian, Angolan and Ethiopian musicians such as Diabaté, but Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore is also a frequent guest. The instigator of all that vibrancy in the Zaan countryside is father Terrie Hessels, one of the driving forces behind the country's most illustrious underground collective, The Ex, since 1979. You can google them.
The more you know about her background, the more likely it seems that Hessels will face a similar future in the underground. In fact, much of what Hessels has done up to now has been in that vein. She has been touring with The Ex from a young age (even going with them all the way to Addis Ababa), made her debut at the end of 2018 with Billow, an EP full of minimalist avant-garde songs, and last summer, alongside members of The Homesick and Lewsberg, participated in the project The Industry of Canshaker Pi and Personal Trainer frontman Willem Smit. A blistering highlight of the accompanying album is Obsession’, on which Hessels wails: "This is my confession!" It's not necessarily who Lena Hessels wants to be.
On a journey of discovery
During the interview, Hessels keeps repeating that everything she does is an investigation of herself. An investigation that officially started with Billow, for which she locked herself in the attic for a month in the summer of 2018. “It wasn't going well for me in the fourth year of high school. Depression, burn-outs – that's how it was labeled. I really wanted to make music, but I also had to go to school. I had my parents' world, my own world, my friends… Those worlds collided very much and there was no room for what I wanted. So I told myself: you are going to finish your fucking high school as soon as possible and then you are going to give yourself the time to do what you want so badly. No excuses, no bullshit. You are just going to do it.”
The result is a dark EP, which sounds nothing like the music Hessels herself loves. “My whole being had to be in it, it had to come out. I also thought: let me not throw myself into a struggle between what I want to make and what comes out now; apparently what comes out now is important. And as soon as the project came out, it was settled. My mind had been emptied. Onwards. And so the journey of discovery began: what do I want to make?”
In the following year, Hessels is on the road more often than she is at home: staying with Thurston Moore in London, traveling, exploring. “Traveling, observing, playing, reading, doing a lot of research, seeing a lot of concerts; writing a lot, but not taking any time to record yet. I didn't want to do that until I really knew what was going on." In no time it's summer again and Hessels receives an invitation to go to Vlieland, where Willem Smit, at the invitation of Into The Great Wide Open, is set to record an entire album in a week with a variety of musician friends. It turns out to be an eye opener.
“It was the first time I met people my age who had as much passion for music as I do, and I thought that was fucking sick. Because I didn't know anyone. I didn't even know Willem. My biggest fear was that people would see it as a vacation and forget about the music. Just drink a little and smoke weed. But we really got up at nine o'clock, and by ten o'clock everyone would be in the studio, go, go, go. We’d have a swim in the sea, have lunch and go again. For me that was super interesting to see: yes, there are people who are just like me – even though the music didn't match very much.”
There are now three singles on the shelf, six songs in total, which for the first time really reflect what Hessels wants to do and how she wants to sound. It's pop music, because in a few years, if everything goes according to plan, Hessels wants to be a pop star of stature; a headliner at the major festivals. She now dares to say it out loud.
“I was a huge Taylor Swift fan as a 12-year-old. I don't even think I found the music that interesting, but the phenomenon of a Taylor Swift was so strange to me, so otherworldly."
“I knew I wanted to make this ever since I found out pop music existed. The idea that you can share something with so many people, that you can give yourself completely and that everyone then does something different with it, that a song can be so massive, I find that very interesting.” Hessels admits that it is mainly the idea of pop music that appeals to her, more than the music itself. “I was a huge Taylor Swift fan as a 12-year-old. I don't even think I found the music that interesting, but the phenomenon of a Taylor Swift was so strange to me, so otherworldly. I also went to one of her shows in 2016. I was 15 and no longer really a fan, but I thought: I have to see this. It was super strange, because in my head she doesn't really exist; she, like Beyoncé, feels like a made-up character.”
That there were several posters of Taylor Swift on the wall somewhere in the villa that has become an icon of the Dutch underground was, until not so long ago, "a very big secret." “That was really not acceptable, but in the end you do get your way as a twelve-year-old child. Then your parents just have to accept it. Although she was also the only one I liked, the only one who had penetrated my bubble. I find, now that I have a boyfriend who is quite familiar with pop culture, that I know very little. There are so few things I know. I know who Paal Nilssen-Love (a Norwegian free jazz drummer, ed.) is, but I don't know much about the rest of the world.”
Hessels therefore doubts whether the 'pop music' as it is in her head really exists. “I just didn't have enough experience with it for that.” And the music she makes now is still inspired by the contrarianism she was raised with. “It was, and has always been my idea to confuse the whole world, but at the level where I can really have a big reach.” She cites Frank Ocean and FKA twigs as great examples. “That's already pretty mainstream, but if something like that could really be up there for once… Oh man. I saw FKA twigs in Carré recently.” She lets out a sigh of admiration. "That is genius. If I could ever make something even remotely close in show and experience…”
As far as that sense of total confusion is concerned, it doesn't really matter to Hessels that everything she's done so far fits well into the indie/underground category. “That's how it went and I don't mind. I'm looking forward to seeing those singles come out soon and the people who hear it thinking: what the fuck?"
The daughter of
Hessels' big what the fuck moment is not yet forthcoming. She already played at Noorderslag and had planned to release the first of the singles in May, but that plan has been flipped upside down again. “After Noorderslag I went on holiday for a while, and I thought: fuck, I'm not ready to release this yet. It's not what it can be yet and I just want to make the sickest music that's in me right now” – and so she’ll remain in her attic for a little while longer, planning.
“I often catch myself thinking: what I want is possible?"
The pressure is also tremendous. At least, that's how she imposed it on herself. It has everything to do with the environment she grew up in. Experienced, professional musicians are constantly visiting. And yet she prefers to do everything alone. “I have a lot of resources, a lot of people who are just as busy with their own creations. But I still feel like a loser in those circles. You're always the ‘daughter of,’ which fucking sucks, and you're always the youngest. Then you feel like you have to prove yourself.”
“Everywhere that is the first or the second sentence: Lena Hessels, lives in Wormer, daughter of Terrie Hessels, The Ex, many musicians in the house, blablabla. That makes a lot of sense, because it's a very good description of who I am, but it kind of undermines what I do." However, she is trying not to worry about it just yet. “What have I really shown right now that has nothing to do with my background? At the moment it is still so true.”
When we talk about pop music and the name Billie Eilish comes up, there turns out to be another persistent cliché that Hessels is only too happy to escape. “Ugh, that chick. I've really tried to keep my distance from her as much as possible, because I'm already compared to her quite often - especially with the new music I'm making, but also strangely enough with Billow. As soon as I see or hear something, it takes on a life of its own in my mind, and there's a chance that it will come out again and I'm not interested in making something that already exists." Not that she's really mad at the comparison. Of course there are parallels in the clear voice, the dark production, the age… “I don't feel any resentment either. I can well imagine that it could start to resemble each other and I just really want to do my own thing. Period. I also have no idea who she is, what kind of music she actually makes. I have already taken that distance.”
Hessels wants to be unique; do something completely new with a massive scope. Confuse the world. How feasible is that? “I often catch myself thinking: what I want is possible? And of course you don't know that, but I do have the feeling that it could be. That's weird isn't it? I also find it quite scary to say that.”
Luckily she still has some time. She does not see an album happening before the end of 2021, early 2022. “In two years I will still be at the beginning. It's going to take a lot of time – or I will need to go super viral all of a sudden. I am still very much searching, very much lost actually. It would be really nice to have the time to develop myself in the next few years, until I am at the level where I can do this in a way that I am sure of.” An example: “I'm quite a people pleaser by nature and I'm super negative. When someone writes that my music 'has a lot of potential', I think: oh, I'm just not good enough yet. That's how I read it. Other people's opinions and my views on them, those are things I have to work on. I just shouldn't care what other people think of me."
She's a perfectionist and determined, but that pop star status is no be-all, end-all. She likes to clear that up. “I just want to make fucking good music and it would be really sick if I can reach a lot of people with it, that I can play with that. That is a very high goal. It's not about being famous for me, but if you have such a crowd and can interact with it like that; that must be so interesting. And also fucking shit, and that's why it's great. I really see it as an investigation.”
“But as long as I'm working on this, I'm happy with everything. It's not that I just think: this has to be it. It would be hilarious and it's really what I want, but it's not a manic thing. It's not that that's all and that what I have now isn't good enough. I also get a lot of fucking fun out of this.”
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.
Last summer the video team on Vlieland already recorded a live session with Lena Hessels: