The Autumn Fog Voice of Sarah Bettens Turns Hasselt’s Culture Center into Dreamworld

In the evening after sunset, when the freezing violet dark blanketed the rainy streets of Hasselt, sprays of fading guitar chords and flakes of three-part harmonies were melting the hearts of thousands of concert goers at ‘K’s Choice’ ‘The Backpack Sessions’ acoustic show at the cultural center in Hasselt.

I was met by Sarah and Gert Bettens backstage before their 10th ‘Backpack Sessions’ concert for a short interview. Kicking off November 5th in Aalst (Belgium), this sentimental series of shows will stretch through 20th March, 2017, spanning thirty cities in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The band performs in arenas modified to theater format, the intimacy of which brings out the pure essence and emotional best of their music.

We found coffee and a table, then the musicians started to tell me about themselves. Despite the fact that the band has existed since 1992, I got to know about them in 2010, when I accidentally came across Sarah Bettens’s cover version of “Ne me quitte pas” by Jacques Brel. There is always the fear when you go to watch a sequel or listen to a cover that it could ruin the original entirely. However, there are those rare covers that surpass all expectations, to become your favourite. This was the case with Sarah Betten’s “Ne me quitte pas” which turned out to be as strong and as tender as the original.

Sarah Bettens, The Backpack Sessions, Cultuurcentrum Hasselt/Courtesy Anuschka Theunissen

Sarah Bettens, The Backpack Sessions, Cultuurcentrum Hasselt/Courtesy Anuschka Theunissen

““Ne me quitte pas” was performed on the solo Sarah Betten’s Tour I did years ago, which featured only the covers.The intention was to sing songs that I always adored and that I would love to sing myself”, says Sarah. “It is always tricky to do cover versions. Usually, if it is a beautiful song, it’s already perfect and it doesn’t need to be changed, or to be sung by a different artist. However, I cannot stop myself from not singing a beautiful song that I would like to perform. That’s why I did “Ne me quitte pas”, I also dared to do “I can’t make you love me” by Bonnie Raitt. Gorgeous songs, which we didn’t really change, I just wanted to perform them as they are. I do believe that I can if not add to the emotional aspect of the song, at least to get close with my voice to the emotional meaning of the piece. Jacques Brel is the artist that our dad was a very big fan of when we were little. It was a challenge for me to perform his song since my French is not very good, it wasn’t that easy to sing it and memorize the lyrics”.

K's Choice, The Backpack Sessions, Cultuurcentrum Hasselt/Courtesy Anuschka Theunissen

K’s Choice, The Backpack Sessions, Cultuurcentrum Hasselt/Courtesy Anuschka Theunissen

Since 1992, a lot of great bands and artists have disappeared. Happily, K’s Choice continues to exist and is also actively working – at an extraordinary high level of artistic achievement. Their name is still common currency in the global music industry and on the cultural radar. While enormous attention nowadays is given to commercial music projects of more modest ability, the authentic and old-school rock of K’s Choice stays in the spotlight despite what trends might say. Artistes continue to develop, and what is more, their recent songs are indeed works of art fully equal – and in some respects, superior – to the early pieces that made them celebrities and established their reputation.

“It is a good way of describing pop-music nowadays. There is that person who comes along and says to a composer “I want you to write something like this”. This kind of music exists for consumption, not for listening to. We always start a new piece from nothing, from whatever we are feeling at that time, whatever sounds real to us. For instance, for the last album, “The Phantom Cowboy”, we had a definite musical direction: we wanted it to be a rock record, but that was the only time we had a precise goal. It is a kind of an old-school honest way of writing a song”, says Sarah. “Basically, the way we write songs is autobiographical, it’s all about us; and if people don’t like it, it’s too bad. What we do is we portray our feelings, and in the beginning it was frightening because when you just start your music career, you compose and you think it is cool, but you don’t know if other people are going to like it or not. Gradually we grew comfortable enough through the years to know that what we really like is what other people like too. So, we just continue doing that,’’ admits Gert.

Sarah and Gert Bettens, The Backpack Sessions, Cultuurcentrum Hasselt/Courtesy Anuschka Theunissen

Sarah and Gert Bettens, The Backpack Sessions, Cultuurcentrum Hasselt/Courtesy Anuschka Theunissen

As Sarah and Gert told me, “our music is all about us”. Indeed, music is the art of arts, encompassing the full spectrum of what is human, from the broadest social problems and the other art forms to the sincerest reaches of our own lives. For K’s Choice, the music has always been inseparable from their personal experiences – and their own identity has been inseparable from the music. That is why their creations are regarded as art. Therefore, approaching K’s Choice vast work in any meaningful way necessarily means being prepared to deal with all three fundamental pillars of their creations: the music, the voice and the lyrics.

“If we talk about the value that we place on lyrics when digesting a new song, as opposed to simply the ‘sound world’ the song inhabits, it’s very hard to separate the lyrics from the music. Some lyrics are so much better, because of the way they are sung and I never think you can read them in a book without listening to the melody, it’s not the same”, observes Sarah. ‘Regarding covers, we have got to try to get a feel for what the artists were trying to say and analyze each song in such a way that I understand every single line. I think the covers that we play convey the same emotion that the artist intended. We hope so”, she smiles.

K's Choice, The Backpack Sessions, Cultuurcentrum Hasselt/Courtesy Anuschka Theunissen

K’s Choice, The Backpack Sessions, Cultuurcentrum Hasselt/Courtesy Anuschka Theunissen

“When it comes to songwriting, in most cases the music gets written first”, confesses Gert. “I have a lot of ideas for our next album. I’ve got a handful of lines I’ve written down. However, there are about 150 ideas music-wise”. For Sarah it is often simultaneous. “I sit down with the guitar. Sometimes the line dictates the music. Sometimes the tune dictates the direction of the lyrics. It depends. We never did them a hundred percent separately, where I finished the verse and the chorus, putting all the content together musically and then later writing some lyrics to it. It’s impossible. The other way around is even more difficult, it has to be organic.’’ “The words have to have a meaning, but they also have to sound right musically too. The phrasing must match. For that reason, we hold these two elements in equal regard”, adds Gert.

This autumn, the brother, the sister and the pianist travel through Belgium with an acoustic “The Backpack sessions” tour, in a state of creative bliss and inspiration. Their artistic capacity and productivity has increased as over the years, the band became more and more confident and satisfied with their work, which is being praised and adored by millions of listeners in Europe and the US. As the pace of their fan’s admiration encouraged their ability to invent new music and lyrical forms, the artists became increasingly expressive in their response to the world around them. Indeed, their latest works and live performances became public confessions, executed so effervescently and cleverly – with such a flamboyant sense of freedom – that they are received by the majority of audiences and critics as virtuoso displays of musicianship.

Sarah Bettens, The Backpack Sessions, Cultuurcentrum Hasselt/Courtesy Anuschka Theunissen

Sarah Bettens, The Backpack Sessions, Cultuurcentrum Hasselt/Courtesy Anuschka Theunissen

“We did an acoustic tour two years ago and we wanted the “Backpack Sessions” tour to be different. The previous one was around Bettens project, a record we made for a documentary. The three of us did also a theater tour “Little Echoes” which was an acoustic version of “Echo Mountain”. This time it was challenging, we didn’t want to replicate what we had already done. Basically, we dug a little deeper into older songs, things we hadn’t played in a long time”, says Sarah. ‘’Cover songs was the thing I did with my solo career, but we’ve never really approached that with “K’s Choice”, so that is a new departure. We always try to make variations between a small, intimate gig and the festival format. We were touring for the last one and a half years. Now, it’s really nice to be able to sit down, to hear our voices (our piano player is also a vocalist), have three-part harmonies, to pick songs where both our vocals and the lyrics are featured, and to mix it up with some lighter stuff, so that the night is not a heavy load that you have to take home. We pretty much put the set together like that: we like to make people cry and then we want them to be happy when before they leave; it’s a kind of a sentimental journey: from a tear to a smile”.

“The Backpack Sessions” features one cover song in Flemish, the rest of the songs are in English: fun and groovy covers mixed with the old and the new inward-nostalgic pieces of the band. “It’s tricky to sing in Flemish. In Belgium we have strong accents, and none of them are attractive to people from anywhere else, nobody wants to hear local accents in a song. You have to get rid of it when you are singing, but then you don’t want to sound too much like a Dutch person, because that doesn’t sound natural either. So I struggle with the language more than I do in English. English is what it is, and in Flemish, I can’t let my Antwerp accent shine through‘ laughs Sarah, ‘but I still enjoy singing in Flemish, especially if it is a beautiful song.”.

“The cover of Tina Turner’s “I can’t stand the rain against my window” is not an accidental choice. A Tina Turner concert was the first one I ever attended. Ever since then, I have thought she is amazing. With cover songs like that, we keep things light, we try to make it sound groovy, cause everything else gets a little sad, so this is a fun part of the performance. As for the cover of Aretha Franklin’s song “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman”, it is my all-time favourite. It’s one of those covers that is hard to do, because, you know, no one really needs to cover Aretha Franklin. We made it quite different with ukulele, we created our own version of it”, explains Sarah.

Sarah Bettens is undoubtedly best known for her voice. If I was asked to paint it, it would be fog. The voice stays in the mind for hours as the morning autumn mist in the valley. It seems, unlike anything that preceded it, a live recording of an intangible soul slowly dissolving in time and space.

“My voice? I think it’s getting better. Its stronger, not in volume, but I am better technically, getting better by doing it over and over and over again. When I hear the first records now, my voice really was not as strong, not as confident, not as solid as these days. Now I can be in the studio, sing it once and then correct one or two words, and the track is fine. That isn’t how it used to be. It’s getting better by repetition’’, remarks Sarah.

The first person who recognised the potential of Sarah’s voice and who actually propelled her to independent stardom was Rocco Granata, he lived close to where Bettens’ parents used to live. Sarah was friends with Rocco’s daughter and son. One day the kids played the cassette they had with Sarah’s voice to their father who without any hesitation took it to a record company. Now, almost three decades later, Sarah and Gert Bettens are going to celebrate their band’s 25th anniversary.

“ We are planning to perform a lot of older songs that we hardly ever played”, reveals Gert. “Sarah is making the list right now: people can choose online the music they want to hear at the concert. Basically, we are putting together a selection of about seventy K’s Choice songs, and then at the concert, we play about twenty-five of them that people have chosen online. Therefore, every concert will be different.’’ “Also, we’ve recorded one of our older songs with another artist and that part is a secret, but it’s coming out in the next couple of weeks to promote the new record devoted to our 25th anniversary”, smiles Sarah. “It’ll have a re-recorded old song, a brand new one, and the rest of the material is a compilation of “K’s Choice” best tracks. There will be, of course, a tour in 2017, and while touring we will start recording the next album. Our long and exhilarating artistic journey is continuing… ”.

For the last encore song “Killing Dragons”, the musicians put away their guitars and sang a cappella, their voices soaring into the night.

“Take my body, my shell
It’s old and it’s worn and it’s broken
Take my lips they are free
And they’re no use to me
All I wanted to say has been spoken
Take my hands they are cold
They’re too fragile to hold
It’s so hard to believe they were mine
Take my soul
(Take my soul)
Take it whole…”

They stood in a row, at the edge of the stage, like a choir of three angels. I sat stupefied, marvelling that rock music could sound so ethereal. Even though I was at that dark music hall with two thousand people around me I felt suddenly alone, but happy, and, Oh!, how I was swimming between the November stars and clouds, between the past and the future, in the pure now. Suddenly, the stage lights went down, the applause brought me back to earth. The concert was over.

By Marina Kazakova






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