We are busy making plans. At every juncture of human experience, from idle weekends in the pub to the juddering rattle and collapse of Tuesday’s train commute, life reels out before us in a series of events that repeatedly fall short of our expectations.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? Berlin, perhaps, or Montreal. Maybe I’ll be exactly where I am now, sat in the window of an empty café in the Netherlands.
Across the table from me, Dutch artist Pitou is gazing into her coffee. She’s not keen on grand plans these days. “Being in the same city for a long time can be… well, we say kader in Dutch, the framework that you move within,” she explains. Pitou recently moved to Belgium, away from her native Holland, where she’s trying to find a new perspective. It seems to be working out for her.
“Being in Amsterdam you get so used to it, that you think, ‘Well this is the world, this is my world.’ When you move to a new city you can see people doing it differently, thinking in another way, living in another way, and you realise it’s not a given fact that you live your life in a certain way. That’s part of the reason I moved to Anwterp.” She looks up momentarily. “But I want to do the same thing with my music, too…”
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Pitou’s music isn’t easy to pin down, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that from some of the press she’s had over the years. Like all female artists holding an acoustic guitar, she has invariably been cast as the new Joni Mitchell, the new Laura Marling, the new Feist, and so on.
One dip into the Dutch singer’s catalogue reveals they’re all fairly redundant: you can hear something of Mitchell in her most heartbreaking explorations, on tracks like ‘I Fall Asleep So Fast’ perhaps, but deeper listens reveal a cornucopia of skittering rhythms and neo-classical flourishes that couldn’t belong to anyone else.
Since I last spoke to Pitou in May, she’s toured her recent mini-album around Europe and the UK, a distinction that may become increasingly necessary (“It’s so absurd!” she says during our brief foray into UK politics. “It’s also weird that there’s still no plan where they can say, ‘Okay, so this is probably what’s going to happen…’”).
After stunning performances at showcases such as The Great Escape and Eurosonic, where our paths cross this afternoon, the artist is looking at collecting some of her new songs together for an album. As with everything in her life, she doesn’t want to stand still too long.
“I’ve always written songs on my own, and while that allows you to set certain boundaries, I want to make sure I know what it’s like outside of those boundaries before I start recording new music,” she tells me. “So I experiment a lot, try to play with different musicians, see what’s outside of my little bubble. Because I can go on creating songs within the square metre of where I am right now, but I’m very aware that there’s so much outside of it.”
Part of that work is not letting your critical brain take over. “I think for the creative process, it’s super important to keep your brain a bit hazy. Because when your brain starts working too hard, the inner critic gets switched on, and that bit has no part in the first step of creation.”
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Born and raised in Amsterdam, Pitou grew up adoring classical music, only later discovering alternative music. Following a recent adaptation of Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, it still seems to be an important part of her creative identity.
“I’m just aware that whenever I hear a choir, or multiple voices singing together, something happens in me that is the closest to a divine experience that I’ve ever had,” she says. “And I know that’s something you don’t come across very often in life, that you have an unexplainable excitement happening within you when you hear something. I think it’s very important to follow that, to honour that, and to get as much out of that as possible.”
And for her own work? “It will always be a big part of my music, but I just want to see if there’s more of those things.”
Talking to Pitou, as well as reading through her interviews over the past year or so, it seems the idea of consciousness – specifically, being present in the moment – is something that plays on her mind a lot.
‘Give Me A Glass’, for example, operates as both metaphor and literal desire for the softening effects of alcohol. Is it something she still worries about?
“I’ve always had those episodes, and then get out of them again,” she says, and it feels like an honest reflection from someone used to self- analysis. “I’m not sure if it’s even possible for humans to stay in that perfect present. I think music is one of the ways that we can draw open the curtains, so to speak – or it could be a good conversation, a good book, good art in general. But I don’t think it’s something that can be fixed. So for me that’s the main thing in life at the moment: to try and open the curtains as best I can. And I think music, for me, is the way to deal with this.”
With 40 songs apparently in the mix, as well as ideas for videos, new versions of old tracks, and most everything else surrounding her work, the only problem Pitou faces now is working out what goes in. “This is very exciting, and it makes me think, ‘[dramatic gasp] I need to get everything ready! I have to record this quickly!’ And then I think, no, wait. Because I have all this material but… this album needs to be amazing.”
She pauses to think. (One of the many charming things about interviewing Pitou in person is seeing the way she visibly takes her time to formulate ideas carefully before communicating them.)
“You said the word ‘organic’ earlier and I think that’s very appropriate, because at a certain point when I’m working on these songs, I will see a pattern. It’s so wonderful when you’re working on something and these things just start happening.”
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“At first I was afraid,” she continues, as I summon all my restraint not to break into Gloria Gaynor, “and I thought: I need a plan for the album, and then I can start. And for a couple of months I was not in a good place while I was working on the album. I’d start to write a song, and after thirty seconds I’d already be thinking, ‘Okay, what spot is this song going to have on the album?’ I was thinking about the album as if it already existed, and that everything needed to be confined into The Album.”
Like it’s a pre-existing template waiting for the right shapes to go in? “Yeah, that’s it. So now I’m working without any boundaries. What I’ve discovered is that when you start creating without setting boundaries, without making it a paint-by-numbers picture, it’s actually making something new and seeing where that takes you.”
The problem with making plans for the future, of course, is they’re liable to betray you. Just as we’re finishing our coffees, a flurry of hail suddenly begins to descend on the street outside, and I look across the table in dismay.
“Welcome to Holland,” she smiles back.
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Words: Matthew Neale
Photo Credit: Pablo Cepeda
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