Tim Gruar continues his series about artists coming to Womad in March, this time talking to Dutch/Kiwi three piece My Baby – a group that defies the usual trappings of the music industry machinery, preferring to tour, record and produce entirely under their own steam. Nailing down their sound is a bit of a challenge. They borrow heavily from gospel, blues, soul, voodoo-raves and 60’s psychdelica. A recent visit to Wellington gave an opportunity to meet up and discuss the band’s origins, music and their upcoming performance at Womad.
So you are a Dutch band?
Daniel: Yes and no. I’m originally from New Zealand but I grew up between NZ and the Netherlands. I’d the band’s guitarist, although we all play various instruments when recording.
Cato: I’m the lead singer, I also play guitar player and bass. My brother Joost (Aka Sheik van Dijck) both grew up in in Marken, The Netherlands.
Um, sorry “Sheik van Dijck”?
Joost: A friend of ours, Ivo Sprey is an ‘inventor’ of names. Mine isn’t really a special story, it just rhymed and somehow it stuck with me.
Daniel: My nickname is Daniel ‘Da Freez’. Growing up, here in New Zealand that’s how Kiwis say my last name which is De Vries, typical Dutch name, during roll call in school.
So, How did a brother and sister come to work together?
Cato: We were (raised) in a musical family, I guess you’d call it. No way we wouldn’t play instruments and jam, at least. Since I was very young I’ve been singing or dancing in some form. It’s natural.
Joost: Like all siblings we fight on stage sometimes but people seem to love it.
Cato: Daniel is like a brother too. So we shout at him, too!
Daniel: Like a family. Plus I am good at ducking!
So, were your parents musicians?
Daniel: Neither of them actually worked professionaly in the industry but they did play instruments and as a child I was constantly exposed to music. There was always a record on. Or we’d play around the house. They were very good players and we learned a lot from them. I first heard the record collection belonging to my mother and I was hooked, you know? I wanted to play guitar. I haven’t stopped.
Daniel, can you remember the first music, that inspired you?
Daniel: Yes, it was Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers”. It really stood out for me, I think. Struck some kind of a cord with me. That’s the period of your life, growing up, when you’re finding yourself and that, I think, ‘searching’ for some kind of common, universal truth. I wanted something to connect to. I also wanted to play something that was full of meaning, not a trashy love song on the Top 40. It opened me up to different ways to think.
And did that have a major influence on your writing?
Cato: Yes, that feeling has been the ‘driver’ of all the music I’ve done over the last nearly 18 years, I think.
Did you feel any pressure to deliver, having grown up with so much music around you?
Joost: We didn’t really feel any pressure but when your parents are musicians maybe it could put you off, because you see the standard as too high. But as our parents were just amateurs (very good ones) we learned about enjoying it, not just the business ethic to be very good. I wonder if it’s the same with kids who have parents who have accounting as a hobby, or investing in the stock market. Would their kids enjoy a hobby like that too?
How did this band called My Baby come about?
Joost: Well (putting on the air of a classic narrator), we like to say “On a rainy night with lighting and a majestic presence”.
Cato: Ha ha. The truth is….we’d been in lots of different bands together, and apart, before getting to a stage where all three of us, we had the same ideas about what style and ‘shape’ of music we wanted to play and make.
Daniel: We wanted to be a little bit ‘out there’ – something with a rebellious nature. At that time we’d had a few projects go south on us so for our first venture as My Baby we called it No More Failures.
Cato: So that first record was made with no outside influences, without worrying about what other people would want to hear or what was on the radio or the net. We made it for ourselves, alone.
In our first year we began playing our record live, and began developing this bigger, brighter, new a new sound that moved away from the songs on the recording. I think it was more of a psychedelic dance party vibe. That became our ‘signature sound’. We did this for our second record.
Joost: And we wanted it to be loud, less blues, to combine as many influences and ideas as we could. We were mixing styles up like a ‘Robert Johnson’ country blues riff with an English folk tune.
Cato: It was a weird mess, but a good one.
That name, My Baby, it’s the hardest thing to Google
Joost: I know. We didn’t really think that through. Actually, it’s a blues reference. We decided on a name that’s both logical and also familiar to everyone. The music is our baby, I guess, because of the care we give it, raising it, nurturing it. That phrase (“my baby”) – it first appeared at the end of the 19th century, a reference to a girlfriend or a lover. It was an urban term, popular in Blues and Jazz. Remember the Nina Simone standard – My Baby Just Cares For Me.
Joost: My Baby is about this ‘muse’, who’s travelling through in time. It’s a loose, general idea. You can imagine this ‘muse’ to look and behave in any way you like, so we take our listeners with us on that journey. Our early albums took you through Blues country, witch doctors, Juju. But now we travel even wider, expanding across many cultures.
Daniel: When you’re write music you set it into some kind f backdrop or genre or story. Maybe a ‘landscape’. It can be real or made up. When this began we thought, “Ok, so who is My Baby?”. Well, its a sort of character, a universal thing that everyone can relate to – yes, an idea that you can hang your hat on. The My Baby (persona), it represents many ideas. It is difficult to define something that is so ethereal. Part of that is about a search, to find where the character, this muse, ends and Cato begins as she’s on the stage.
Ok, so Cato, that begs the question, how do you embody this character, muse, whatever on stage?
Cato: Many singers have a character they employ when they’re on stage – yes, like Aldous Harding. It’s easier from me to be ‘My Baby’ when I sing on the stage than to be ‘Cato’, myself.
Cato: Well, My Baby is a lot more adventurous, sexy, daring, out there. She/he is like a character and a mask for me. Maybe a costume, to change me to become her/him. Way more outspoken than I am.
So how does the writing and producing process work? Are there lots of sibling arguments?
Joost: It’s a bit of a cliché, but it begins in the subconscious.
Cato: We listen to different types of music and when we hear certain pieces we click on to it. We gather all different kinds of outside influences and take it as a starting point. When we really get stuck in we will filter it all into something else and then twist it into something that’s new. It’s like reconstructing sounds.
And for you, what do you write first: music or lyrics?
Cato: Music, usually. It has to have a strong atmosphere that it decides the story for itself.
Daniel: We have an idea for a story or some subject that we want the song to be about and we write music with that (vibe) in mind and the music decides which words work best.
Daniel: With the song Seeing Red we decide that the story was about the upset, an angry girl wanting to break free from everything. And this My Baby muse wants to rebel against society.
The name of your second album is a bit strange – Shamanaid
Daniel: Cato made up this word. It was during a recording session. I first was thinking of that book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (Tom Wolfe), about a group of hippies on a bus throwing acid parties, mixing it with Kool-Aid. Then there are shamans, with spiritual rituals whilst under these psychedelic substances, to get to a a higher state. Musically, we try to get to that level in our live shows.
Cato: Shaman take ayahuasca, with us it’s music. That’s the potion you take to to go on a journey.
Your music changed quite a lot from the first album. There’s quite a noticeable musical evolvement.
Joost: That came from constant touring and playing live. Seeing different places and meeting different people across the world, We took in so many new influences – Europe, India, African music. Always expanding our horizons.
Daniel: And we constantly redefine our music.
Cato: Playing different audiences also helps to keep evolving our sound.
So does travelling and touring create new pressures?
Joost: I think we play and create pretty well, when under pressure. It makes you much more focused.
You record independently, so what’s the biggest challenge in the music industry, for you?
Joost: Probably the industry itself, the big machine. We thought downloading was a solution to the big monopoly the music labels had but Apple cornered that.
Cato: On the other hand, people like us can exist under the big corporate radar, almost in spite of it. We like the freedom to create. We manage ourselves. Yes, we do far too much couch surfing an relying on others but it’s a kind of freedom to travel the world, too. With the power of internet you can manager your own destiny.
You tour nearly nonstop. Does is get hard, on the road so much?
Cato: Yes constant touring is always a challenge. You can’t put down roots. Although we like to connect with friends and family when in New Zealand and back in the Netherlands.
Joost: I think travelling is good for the soul.
You will be playing WOMAD this year. Is that a highlight.
Cato: Definitely. Yes. Womad is like traveling, mixing with artists from around the world. Good for the soul and creative spirit. Can’t wait.
For all the details see: https://www.womad.co.nz/