If we dream together, maybe the world will wake up.
We can truly speak of a sensation. Just about everyone seems enthusiastic about N.E.L & J.P, the new project by Nel Mertens and Jean Paul De Brabander, combining sharply written punk poetry in Dutch with industrial electronics. N.E.L & J.P did it and they are asked to perform just about everywhere. We asked them too. On 23rd December, we will invite the duo to the first new style Dark Entries Night, which will still take place for free in the Kinky Star in Ghent. We checked whether the two can still keep their feet on the ground with the success.
Hello N.E.L & J.P. As you know, we at Dark Entries are very enthusiastic about your debut EP ‘Honger’ (Hunger). Are you satisfied yourself and did you expect this positive reception?
Nel : I couldn't estimate it at all... I certainly didn't expect the positive reactions – from our first single ‘Zelfbeeld van den Aldie’ (Self esteem of the Aldi) – and especially the many performances that immediately followed. JP immediately suspected that it would ‘catch on’. With his musical experience, he knows whether something will ‘get caught’ by an audience or not but it was still exciting to wait and see whether our work would be picked up. And of course I am very happy with the result. It goes without saying that JP and I will only release things that we are both excited about.
JP : I am personally very satisfied with the EP. It gives a good idea of what we are doing and of the possibilities in terms of sound, lyrics, etc. It really is a bit of a journey of discovery for us and we are only at the beginning. (laughs)
How people will receive your music is really difficult to estimate in advance and something I don't want to deal with at all while writing. I think the healthiest starting point is always: try out musically things that give you goosebumps, and lyrically express things that are important to you. And then you will see whether there is an audience for that. But I really enjoy that our music is so well received.
If I understand correctly, your collaboration resulted from a one-off collaboration between Nel and JP’s group, This Can Hurt. Can you tell us exactly how that worked?
Nel : I already knew the gentlemen of This Can Hurt a bit from concerts and interviews I did with them. But I actually had the least contact with JP.
Sven, the frontman of This Can Hurt, contacted me at some point. They had almost finished their semi-acoustic EP ‘A Deeper Shade Of Blue’, with an instrumental track as the closing track, with which they wanted to do something with poetry. A mutual friend told them that – in addition to music reviews – I also wrote poetry and that's how they came to me. I wrote a lyric for their track and we recorded it.
JP : We liked that so much that I suggested we work on a few more songs together. We were off! In just a few weeks we had recorded a few songs. Then the Ghent new wave band Fragments asked us to play the supporting act on their EP release. We are quite impulsive and like to say 'yes' to everything, so that was quickly arranged. On the bill, we were announced as ‘punk poetry in dream rooms’. Nel writes punky poems. But the songs we made together didn't sound punky yet! Slight panic. We threw everything in the trash bin and wrote new songs and new lyrics in six weeks. It was just fitting to be able to open for Fragments with an electropunk set in a sold-out Trefpunt!
JP, as mentioned, you have caused a stir in the past with This Can Hurt, the sound of which you describe as ‘industrial postwave’. Do you have any other projects? Aren't you afraid that the success of N.E.L & J.P will cast a shadow on your work at This Can Hurt?
JP : I have just finished Villa Voortman’s double album, which will be presented at the Handelsbeurs in Ghent on 15th December. 28 tracks on a double vinyl, ranging from drum 'n bass and punk to cabaret... In short: a particularly eclectic soup. (laughs) With Nel, I am working on the pre-production of our debut album, scheduled for the spring... and with This Can Hurt I am reworking a lot of songs that are planned for the third album... So my hands and agenda are full! Since there is so much difference in style and working method, it is not really a problem to have everything coexist. It’s just those agendas…
There is a whole story behind the title of your EP: ‘Honger’ (Hunger). Can we know more about that?
Nel : You can actually recognize hunger as a common thread through all the tracks on the EP. Everything but the most concrete, literal meaning of the word, as the basic need for food. Rather, it concerns what is referred to in today's society as ‘basic needs’... and that is sometimes positive when it comes to hunger in the sense of ‘yearning’. So we have the desire, the hunger for real contact in ‘Huidhonger’ (Skin Hunger). Because if we dream together, maybe the world will wake up. Or the beautiful admission of fragility, missing an old love, the beautiful memory of it, the secret longing for a reunion, in ‘Ik beken’ (I Confess).
But sometimes – or usually – that ‘modern hunger’ is also negative, when it comes to the constant urge for more. ‘Traan’ (Tear) is about wanting to emphasize difficult emotions even more than they really are. In life, really difficult things often happen, and relationships do not turn out as we expected. But what is ‘difficult’ for one person is not for another. Sometimes it is necessary to put personal misery into perspective... The most discussed text is that of ‘Zelfbeeld van denaldie’ (Selfesteem of the Aldi). Because it is perhaps very simple and very recognizable, about the urge to overconsume as compensation for personal emptiness. ‘Hamartia’ is also about negative hunger, about rulers with gigantic egos and an even greater drive for power, and the influence they have on societies. And the hope that we will continue to defend ourselves against it and keep choosing for our lives.
Nel, you address a whole range of important themes in your texts: emotional vulnerability, love, eroticism, but also broader social views. It sometimes seems as if you write your lyrics on a kind of high. Is that right? How do you get to work, and where do you get inspiration from?
Nel : Well, actually that doesn't happen on a high at all! (laughs) I have little books with a pen everywhere. In every room in the house, in my handbag, book bag, in the toilet, in my desk at work... Beautiful words and thoughts often ‘pass’ through my head, inspired by daily situations that I experience, which I write down somewhere. During a ‘free’ moment, usually somewhere at night, I collect all those writings in a notebook and cluster them a bit. By theme or coherence. They then turn that into a text.
I really schedule writing time at night. When the world sleeps, there is enough peace in my world to write lyrics. These are therefore mainly created through free association. Fragments that belong together, words that sound beautiful together, passages in which the rhythm naturally fits... I mold them into a text. As long as it doesn't rhyme. I don't like rhyming.
JP, I assume that Nel's poems are the starting point for the compositions. Or do you sometimes use music that was composed separately from the text? How easy or how difficult is it to set music to someone else's poems?
JP : As Nel just said, the first six to seven tracks we worked on almost all ended up in the trash bin... Actually, it's a bit of creating a musical seat or framework within which Nel works with her vocals and lyrics. I still remember quite well the moment of ‘Yes, I know what I want to write for her!’. The Eureka moment… Since then it has been extremely easy to determine which ideas will work.
Nel, we know you as a busy bee. You’re a school director, mother, music journalist, poet and now also a singer. Is it possible to combine everything?
Nel : Yes! Fortunately, I am someone who needs very little sleep. All these things ensure that I can use the time I have when the rest of the world is sleeping meaningfully and creatively. That wasn't always the case and I seemed to fall into more negative thoughts and behaviour.
Naturally, all this requires tight planning and a dose of energy because they are also intense activities. But they also give me so much energy!
And standing on a stage turns out to be – in addition to my daily dance session with my son – one of the only ways for me to suddenly completely let go of the ‘energy drains’ and the ‘frills of the day’. They are the ideal counterpart to the hustle and stress that sometimes comes with my job.
The concerts follow each other in quick succession. We were very happy to be able to get you for the first new style Dark Entries Night on 23rd December but we see that you are announcing new performances at a steady pace. I was able to admire you live once and I thought it was a very nice performance. How do you view your live concerts? What do you pay attention to during a performance?
Nel : I think the atmosphere in the room is very important. And good sound. My goal is to get rid of my book as quickly as possible. In principle, those lyrics are in my head but in my black book on stage, in addition to the lyrics, there is also a rhythmic score. I'm still so unsure`. I’m afraid that I might go wrong somewhere. Most of all, I want that thing off the stage because I feel a much nicer dynamic and interaction with the audience when I can look at them.
You promise a full album in 2024. That's going fast, especially when we consider that ‘Honger’ (Hunger) was only released at the end of 2023. How is work progressing on the full album?
JP : We're currently finishing the three final songs – maybe a fourth – and then it's basically ready to send to the pressing plant.