The scene is a small theatre by a large lake in the southwestern suburbs of Amsterdam. A local singer-songwriter is playing her new album with a three-piece band. The album has been well reviewed – 10 out of 10 on this very website – and this is her hometown show, but the hall is a quarter empty. The Dutch are still very Covid-cautious. I’m in the centre of the front row having flown in specially. I don’t work in the music business and this is not a press freebie. In fact the trip proved super-expensive after I fumbled an online train booking so badly that I lost half the cash and had to fly instead. Why go to all this trouble for an artist who was unknown to me just two months ago? Let us rewind a little.
One day in April a song popped up in one of those personalised playlists that Spotify sends out every week. The title was Carolina’s Anatomy and I liked it enough to seek out the album. It was by someone called VanWyck from the Netherlands. I’d never heard of her, but I liked all of the songs. That never happens these days. So I listened to more VanWyck albums and, to my great surprise, I liked everything she had ever done. Really liked it. I had not known a new musical passion so intense since Whispering Bob Harris got me into country and Americana at the turn of the millennium. I had to see this woman play. She was on tour in the Netherlands but there were no imminent dates in the UK or anywhere else in Europe. So instead, I bought tickets for a Sunday night show in Amsterdam and built a weekend around it for me and my partner. Finally, here we are in the Blue Room at the Meervaart Theater at the western end of Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Meer lake. The rest of the audience seems entirely Dutch.
The seats are steeply banked behind us but there’s no raised stage so we’re looking at the four musicians from five yards across the floor. Not a bad set-up for creating an intimate atmosphere, it turns out. But first VanWyck tells the audience that “some people have travelled a long way to see us tonight” (we have exchanged a couple of emails) and if the rest of the folks don’t mind she’ll conduct the whole show in English for our benefit. Of course no one minds. This is Holland.
So what is it about the music of a mild-mannered 50-year-old woman from Amsterdam that so moves me? I have some sympathy with that clever line attributed to Frank Zappa: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” but, regardless, here’s my personal stab at pirouetting atop a narrow Dutch gable.
VanWyck (rhymes with spike) is the stage name of Christien Oele. Like Vera Lynn, Lauren Bacall and Meg Ryan, she has borrowed her grandmother’s maiden name. Her music is a supple mix of delicate acoustic and crunching electric, with colours of bubbling Hammond and bright Telecaster. On record there are strings, mostly from the less-is-more school, but unafraid to go the full Bernard Hermann when required. It’s been called alt-folk and alt-country but the qualities that bowl me over are the strength of the melodies and the ache in Christien’s voice as she slips seamlessly from her throaty mid-range to an impure falsetto. Thanks to a childhood in New Zealand, she writes concise English lyrics that bear comparison with giants like Joni Mitchell, John Prine, even Leonard Cohen. Her new album, the one with the 10/10 score, is a conceptual fantasy called The Epic Tale of the Stranded Man, and it forms the bulk of tonight’s show. She normally narrates the story in Dutch between songs, so tonight’s switch to English is no small undertaking.The sound is warm and full with VanWyck on acoustic guitar and her long-term sidekick Reyer Zwart switching between electric bass and guitar plus occasional double bass. He produces her albums and arranges the strings on them too. They often play two-person shows but tonight there are extra colours and a rock-steady groove courtesy of keyboard player Paul Bond and drummer Rowin Tettero.
I know the Stranded Man story already, but it’s fascinating to hear her spell it out. An unknown man is washed up on an unknown island with no memory of who he is. Can he be trusted? Can he trust the people who help him? As an unusual frame for a song collection it reminds me just a little of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, the double-album that was Peter Gabriel’s parting gift to Genesis in 1974. But VanWyck’s lyrics are less clunky and she wears a dress plus cowboy boots rather than his famously grotesque costume of boils and pustules.
Standout moments include the single, I Was Innocent, a minor-key melody of compelling intensity with lyrics to match, “Blame my mother, blame my father, blame my cold-hearted lover – but know that I… was innocent.” The musical emphasis falls perfectly on the last three syllables. More upbeat but just as earwormy is the chorus of The Smiling Prophet: “Give me your hurt, give me your pain, give me your broken heart pieces, I’ll mend them again.” My absolute favourite is Lead Me On from her Molten Rock album of 2019, a song so exquisitely sad yet hopeful I can’t bring it to mind without getting all watery. Look up the “live in the studio version” on YouTube for a master class in understated emotion.
Later, musicians and most of the audience mingle at a reception. Everyone around the band has heard about our trip and expresses delight that we have gone so far out of our way. In separate conversations, both artist and promoter tell me they weren’t too downhearted by empty rows at the back of the 260-capacity hall because, following the pandemic, audiences on the Dutch theatre circuit are the most stubbornly risk-averse of all.
After my first email to VanWyck’s website – seeking reassurance that the show would go ahead before I arranged transport and a hotel – Christien had admitted that initial ticket sales were slow and told me: “Some say my music is ‘too beautiful’ for the Dutch audience. Maybe it’s because we are never on television. I have stopped to wonder why and just focus on the songs.” It’s easy enough to appreciate the beauty of her music without going all the way to Amsterdam the next time VanWyck plays. But you won’t regret it if you do.