By Georg Forchhammer.
Over the years Jan K. has been written material to many big danish acts, he has done chart-hits for artists like Jette Torp, Thomas Kjellerup, Lis Sorensen, Mek Pek, Ester Brohus and others. Beside the songwriting he has toured with many acts and the last 5 years with Jette Torp, were he also got the possibility to write many of her songs. Georg Forchhammer is meeting Jan K to a talk about his recent release Starfish Pond and his songwriting and much more.
-When I listen to your debut album, Starfish Pond, I find a collection of sad songs, about broken love a.s.o., but here I am, face to face with a happy and smiling guy. Is it so that song writing has to be about sad things?
Well, these themes are often the most inspiring ones. At one time, I felt that when I was really happy then I had the energy to write about being sad and unhappy. That was the time I was able to see it in the eyes and accept it.
Actually, I don’t think all of the songs are sad, but some of them are.
-The first song on the album, “1-2-3-4-“, is that a song about people not being able to talk with each other, but more to each other?
Actually, it was a song I wrote for my girlfriend. As you know, women talk a lot, and that’s fine, but sometimes they really must be quiet (big laughter!). That was because she had a difficult time with people misunderstanding her.
-The thing about counting to 4 reminds me of Donald Duck having to count to 10 to control his temper.
Yes, a mix of that and the fact that as a musicians you count to 4 before playing a song.
-The first time I heard the song “Telephone Fever”, something about the groove that reminded me of the Sheryl Crowe hit “All I wanna do”.
That’s true, and some of the chords are suspiciously close to hers.
-I don’t think so – it’s more the feeling in the song.
I actually don’t remember if I wrote the song before or after Sheryl Crowe’s. “Telephone Fever” is a kind of a crazy song about how irritating the telephone can be. As a musician there are periods where you sit by the phone waiting for others to call you and say that they want you to come and play with them.
The song shows how much the telephone has taken over our lives, and how the man in the song gets more or less paranoid about it.
-When I heard the second song, “Hold on I’ll get the door”, I came to thinking that being a gentleman maybe has gone out of style?
Basically, men are quite shy towards conflicts in their personal relationships with woman, and instead of really trying to solve things, they often just say, “well, if you’re okay, then…”, and just act as if nothing is wrong. That is totally misunderstood. The man in this song is so afraid of conflicts and so “nice” that he scares her away. As many other things in life you have to find the middleroad.
-And when she decides to leave you, you hold the door for her?
-Even though you are very much inspired by artists like James Taylor, Tom Waits and others, you have managed to create your own style and sound, and therefore I don’t see any problems that some of your songs might remind the listener of other songs.
Well, as a songwriter you basically don’t like to be compared with other songwriters. I have also tried writing songs that turned out to be rip-off’s from other songs. That’s a thing that sometimes makes you a bit paranoid. As a singer/songwriter your first and most important job is to find yourself.
-How old were you when you started writing songs?
I think I was about 16 years old. But for many years I didn’t compose that much, simply because I worked as a musician for a lot of other artists. However, it was and still is an important part of my life.
-Can you mention some highlights from that period – things that really made you grow?
Some of my greatest moments have been with a Danish folk singer/song writer, Thomas Kjellerup. We played at different festivals, just the 2 of us. I played tenor sax, some guitar and sang 2. vocals. It was really great being only 2 in front of 800 people! The nakedness of just 2 people on stage is simply breathtaking. I have realized that the older I get the more I seek the simplicity in expressing my songs.
-What is the story behind the song “The fire in her hand” – a kind of melancholic autumn song?
I wrote the song shortly after the 11th of September 2001 when everything was chaotic around the world. It is a song about human relations and at the same time a love song.
-A characteristic thing about the lyrics that you have written is that they often describe one situation or occasion, things between ‘you’ and ‘me’. That makes me wonder what inspires you to write a song: is it e.g. a walk in the park, a good or bad experience or what?
I haven’t really thought about that. I think if you speculate to much about inspiration you’re gonna lose some important inputs. When it comes to my song writing, I make more melodies than lyrics. That is also why I work together with Ole Grønne, who has written the lyrics for 3 of the songs on the album.
-Do you get the lyrics from him and then write the songs?
No, I write a song and then I talk with Ole about the different moods in the song and then he writes the lyrics. He also knows that I like lyrics with an ironic twist.
-How did you meet Ole Grønne?
I met him when I was working with some song arrangements for an album, where he had written the lyrics, and since I had a lot of melodies without lyrics at that time, we talked about working together, and that’s how it started.
I actually think that “Universal Hobo” was the first one he wrote for me.
-And that’s a really lovely song!
Yes, I see it as one of my best songs. And the lyrics are fantastic!
-The song “It’s all in your mind”, with lines like: “…It’s all about putting yourself on a pedestal and just pretending that you know it all. It’s about putting faith into those who influence where you’re going to…”. Is that song a reflection of self-knowledge?
There are a lot of people in this business who will rather say rubbish than say nothing. I don’t consider myself one of them.
-That’s a great attitude, because so much popular music today is a matter of how you look, or can you win “Popstars” or other music competitions.
Exactly, and in a way I feel sorry for many of the participants in those programs. I think you have to be a really strong person to deal with a success that hasn’t come in a natural way. A lot of these winners are about 20 years old. I just hope can take it.
-Another artist you have worked with for several years, Jette Torp, and whose last studio album, “Snowflakes in the fire” you produced, describes you as being the perfect musician to work together with. You can be in the background “just” singing 2. voices, and then step forward playing a sax solo and also sing duets with her.
That’s a very big compliment! I really enjoyed making my own album and being the boss, but when I work together with other artists, as producer or musician, like I have with Jette, I see it as the most important thing to back them up as good as possible, so they can perform their best. The most important part of being a producer is to find the essence of the artist you are working with.
-Another thing Jette Torp is very happy with is that you in a way have shown her how to seek a more simple and naked musical expression. On the other hand she also feels that she has shown you how to be in front of a band / be a leader.
She is really great in front of an audience, and that is of course very inspiring.
-You also wrote a lot of the songs for Jette Torp’s “Snowflakes..”. When you write a song, how do you decide whether it’s going to be one for you or one for her?
When I write a song I never know where it ends in terms of artist. The songs on my own album are very personal. Songs I want to sing myself. The songs that appear on Jette’s album are songs where Ole made most of the Lyrics.
-Your girlfriend, Kristina Holgersen, wrote the lyrics for “Tonight Irene”. What’s the story behind that.
I had written the melody, and the only thing I had in mind for the lyrics was the song title, so I “ordered” the lyrics. The song is about the musician who’s out playing music while his girlfriend is sitting at home. That’s a thing both Kristina and I know everything about, since she’s also a singer. You can visit her on www.kristinaholgersen.com
-I’d like to talk a bit about you as a musician. It’s obvious that your guitar playing is inspired by e.g. James Taylor, and the over all style of the album is a bit “Taylor’ish”. Well, actually it reminds me more of his brother, Livingston Taylor. But you also play tenor sax, with a mellow, jazzy sound. Where does that come from?
Funny enough, I’ve never studied jazz on the saxophone. I have always seen myself as a pop/rock sax player, but as time has gone by, more elements have been added to my style. I started playing alto sax, much inspired by David Sanborn and other fusion jazz players. The element of folk music in my songs is because my eldest brother introduced me to a lot of music, like Jethro Tull. I also listened a lot to 10 CC, Supertramp and Steely Dan. In the earlier years, James Taylor also mixed the folk style with saxophone.
-Have you ever dreamed of recording an album in the USA, maybe Nashville, with local musicians?
No, not at all. I really don’t seek a special native sound, American, Irish or English. I like the traditional folk instruments but I’m Scandinavian. I want my music to sound like I feel at the moment I’m playing it.
-when did you start producing albums?
It’s a quite new thing. Thomas Kjellerup’s latest album was my debut as producer.
-But you already have a much defined style and sound as producer.
It’s quite simple. Also as producer, the most important thing for me is to make the artists bring out the best within themselves. I have just produced an album for Kristina, and the sound here is quite different from the other ones I have produced, because she has her own band However I love acustic instruments so on this album you will find glockenspiel, xylophone, dulcimer, dobro a.o.
-So maybe one could describe you as a kind of artistic producer – as compared to the producers who can create any kind of sound desired?
I will let other decide that. I think my strongest force is that I’m able to create the right setting for the artists I’m producing for.
-Did you learn all the technical skills in the studio by yourself?
I have been so fortunate to work with some very good engineers. So most of the time I don’t touch anything. However I have picked up things through the years and I just finished a project in my homestudio.
-What kind of response have you had on your album?
I have had a lot of good response from a lot of people. One of the greatest things about making this album is that I have met some people who are totally dedicated to music – not musicians – just people who love music.
-Isn’t it expectable in a country like Denmark that people would say, “It’s a very good album, but it probably won’t sell much”?
Yeah and they are probably right. It’s important for me to say that this album not in anyway was made to be a top seller. Of course I would be happy if 100.000 people bought, but that wasn’t my intention.
I think it’s great that so many artists now have the possibility to make their own album.
-You have released your album on Cope Records. That isn’t a “normal” record company, is it?
Today, there is a lot of competition between the established record companies, and therefore it is very difficult to make them release material that isn’t sure to succeed. And Cope records is founded by a group of musicians to make it possible for artists like me to have their albums released and distributed.
-Do you see that as a future for artists like you?
Absolutely. It makes you able to make music and records without having to think about how commercial it is and how much it might sell.
-Do you have a follow-up album in mind?
Yes, I do. My plans are that within the next year or so, I will be ready with a new album.
-Will the sound be the same as on “Starfish Pond”?
No, I would like to make a more ambient sound. I have this idea of working in a great studio that I know of, and stand with my musicians around an up-right piano and just record.
-Why an up-right piano? Normally artists who want to make an acoustic sound would prefer a grand piano.
I know but I have always loved the sound of an up-right piano. It has a special presence.
-All your songs are in English. Have you ever thought of writing in Danish?
The thought isn’t far away. Actually, when I started writing songs, it was in Danish.
-Have you sold any albums outside Denmark?
I have received mails from people in Italy, Japan and also Argentina who all say that they really like my music! I think it’s fantastic that someone as far away as Argentina likes my music.
-Have you had any gigs with your own band?
Yes, but it is really difficult to get them. A lot of clubs are unwilling to book artists who aren’t well known. But the gigs we have played have been really great.
-What will you be doing in 10 years?
I don’t know – but definitely something with music. Hopefully my album no. 7!!