World musician, contemporary of Paul Simon and one half of The Hottentots, Carl Cleves, has created a very special new album entitled The House is Empty. He spoke with Mandy Nolan about his upcoming launch.
What inspired you to create The House is Empty ? The torments of my soul.
How would you describe the genre of this album and the songs contained within? I struggle with genres, as they shift from album to album. David Hinz in Folkworld magazine calls The House is Empty the ‘missing link’ to the classic UK folk scene from the 1960s. The setting is acoustic, reminiscent of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I didn’t realise it when I recorded these songs during a 16-month tour with the Hottentots around the world, but in hindsight I realise that I was looking for the voice of my roots. I was born in Belgium, a tiny country in the heart of Europe, and when I grew up I was exposed to all kinds of popular music on the radio: Italian and French hits, German schlagers, English rock music and pop and American R&B, broadcast from Luxembourg to the US soldiers in occupied Germany. The rawness of folk music and blues and the freedom of beat poetry gave me goosebumps. The House is Empty does have a definite European flavour. I even sing a Jacques Brel song on the CD.
What is to you the essence of a great song? To touch. To connect. A direct line to your heart, your hips or feet.
When you are crafting your music, what are the traps or obstacles that you try to avoid? Leave your editing hat on the clothes hanger while you are in a creative mood and drive your car without brakes. Return to it later with a critical eye. Persist gently. Some songs take an hour to write, others take years.
Do you recognise a great song when you write it, or does that come in the playing? Finishing a song is like having a baby. You admire it and wonder how you managed to create such a wonderful thing. You play it over and over in a state of bliss. After a couple of days of doing this, the umbilical cord is cut and you sober up and know whether it is truly great, mediocre or ready for the bin.
Who are the people who have influenced you the most on your creative path? Big Bill Broonzy, Bert Jansch, Randy Newman, Jacques Brel, Leadbelly, Buddy Holly, Caetano Veloso, Bob Dylan, The Everly Brothers, Arthur Rimbaud, Sister Rosette Tharpe, Kurt Weil, Ray Charles, Parissa Bouas, Joni Mitchell, Corto Maltese, Townes van Zandt, Charles Bukowski, Woody Guthrie, Jules Verne, Milton Nascimento, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, The Beatles, Jack Kerouac, Tintin… Now you’ve got me raving, Mandy.
You are such a traveller as well… how does this reflect in your songwriting and storytelling? A stranger in a strange land does not meddle, but observes and learns. A sense of humour, attitudes towards children, relationships, sex or music might change, yet every human being, anywhere in the world, has to tackle the challenges, potholes and car crashes of life. Having lived for long periods in foreign cultures – Latin America, Africa, the Arab world and Asia – I have not only enriched my emotional palette and acquired a trunk full of stories but have soaked up song structures, guitar styles and rhythms. My songwriting and storytelling is constantly evolving.
What should we expect from your Byron show? An entertaining concert with captivating stories, deep emotions and a fantastic band. I am thrilled to be joined by 10CC’s guitarist Rick Fenn, my Hottentots partner and favourite singer Parissa Bouas, and Byron’s ace bass player Thierry Fossemalle.
Launching at the Byron Community Centre on Saturday at 8pm.