Some musicians know, deep down inside, that they would like to record a solo album one day. It’s just about seizing the right moment and taking the leap to finally let all those pent-up thoughts and feelings run wild. With Montbray (2021), Belgian musician Sylvie Kreusch made a debut album that sounds like she just had to make it. It is a melodic album with sensual tones that cover the underlying dark emotions with a cloak of tenderness. Writing this album, Kreusch got rid of her demons after a painful break-up with the frontman of Warhaus, the band that she was part of, for some time. As a result, you can hear her alternate between sadness, anger, revenge, resignation and a newly gained self-confidence. It’s just that these feelings don’t run linearly, but cyclically – like life. So now she is back, more confident than ever. She has forsworn the wild years and rock and roll exploits of the Warhaus days, and has exchanged them for a clear head, peace of mind and a furry friend that needs to be taken for walks regularly. We met the artist at her boyfriend’s twelfth floor squatted flat in Ghent, with a wide view over the city. A conversation ensued about art and love and sublimation, the right kind of melodies and the wrong kind of men.
Sam Steverlynck: You’re originally from Antwerp. Do you like Ghent?
Sylvie Kreusch: Actually, it feels like I’ve been living in Ghent on and off for almost ten years. My ex [Maarten Devoldere, frontman of Warhaus] lived in Ghent, so I often travelled between Antwerp and Ghent. But now it’s time for me to engage a little more. I’d like to buy a property here.
Sam: How different do you think these cities are?
Sylvie: I like combining the cities because they’re so different. Both in terms of the people and the energy. Ghent is gentle and accessible. Sometimes a little too goody-goody. Antwerp can be rough. The energy in cafes and in the street is different, louder. There’s more male energy, more testosterone. I have an Antwerp accent, but I never really felt I was from there. I’m more of a Ghent person, which may have something to do with my character.
Sam: People from Antwerp seem to have more confidence than those from Ghent.
Sylvie: I don’t know if it’s confidence. I know a lot of people who moved to Antwerp and gave up after a year. It’s harder to be accepted in Antwerp and make friends. It’s easier in Ghent. I meet new people here almost every week.
Sam: You started your own band, Soldier’s Heart, when you were sixteen. Then you did the backing vocals with Warhaus, and eventually you recorded your own album. Were you thinking of doing your own thing for some time?
Sylvie: Actually, these groups all just happened. I never took the initiative. Someone from Soldier’s Heart asked if I wanted to sing in their band. Suddenly we were taking part in this music competition that I’d vaguely heard about [De Nieuwe Lichting (The New Crop) organised by the Studio Brussel radio station] and we won it. Everything happened so quickly. There was an album before I knew it. The same with Warhaus.
I did the backing vocals. Round about when I was twenty-five I began to realise what I wanted. And that this wasn’t it. I was really curious about what it would be like to write songs myself. It was scary to let go, but it all turned out well.
Sam: When you were with Warhaus, you were often described as Maarten’s muse. What do you think of that term? Do you consider it a compliment, or does it feel a little paradoxical?
Sylvie: Now when I look back on it, it’s a little sexist, yes. But I wasn’t really aware of that at the time. Of course, you’re honoured if your beloved writes a nice song about you. It’s very romantic, like the songs that Serge Gainsbourg wrote for Jane Birkin. But my role on stage was more in the background. After a while, I began to feel it was a bit empty. Warhaus was his story, not mine. After a few shows it wasn’t exciting anymore. It’s also about valuing yourself. The older you become, the more you realise how important it is to pull the strings yourself. I was in need of my own story.
Sam: Your debut album was very well received. The Belgian magazine Knack, called Montbray ‘the best break-up album of the year.’ On this album, you go through all the phases of a break-up and the accompanying mourning process. In ‘Haunting Melodies’ you are intent on revenge after being cheated, ‘Let it All Burn’ is a kind of reckoning and ‘Walk Walk’ expresses more a feeling of empowerment …
Sylvie: ‘Let it All Burn’ is also about revenge, actually … [laughs]
Sam: There seems to be a lot of revenge in this album.
Sylvie: Yes, but also a lot of hope! Many people call it a break-up album, but that’s not how I see it. It’s not a break-up album but an album that was created after a break-up. It doesn’t really matter who it’s about or what’s just happened. It was a time in my life when everything went wrong. Everyone has such periods in their lives. It’s a very cheesy thing to say, but you do come out stronger. I feel much happier and more stable than before. But that makes it difficult to be creative. I ask myself: can I still write good songs? Do I have something to say now that I’m happy?
Sam: That might make you inadvertently look for danger, so you can draw inspiration from the drama?
Sylvie: Yes, but that’s not what I want to do anymore [laughs]. I enjoy peace and quiet these days. I almost live life like a granny. When I was with Maarten, everything was much wilder. But that was more suited to his character than mine.
Sam: Doesn’t it feel strange to sing those lyrics and having to talk about that period in interviews when mentally you’re done with them?
Sylvie: I think it’s important to record those emotions. Writing an album is very therapeutic. It’s almost as if you’re writing a diary that you can reread later on. I received a lot of responses from people who went through what I did, and who reacted very emotionally to my songs. It made me feel as though those feelings and lyrics aren’t mine anymore but theirs. I gave those songs to anyone who needed them. It gives you the feeling you’re really helping people. It’s crazy. When I wrote those songs, I did so for myself. I never thought: I’m going to write those lyrics to help other people. Now, it almost feels like my duty. I quite like that they make other people feel better. It’s not difficult to still perform those songs; they still feel real. When I sing them live, though, it feels more like a performance. What I do mind is that the media still talks about our relationship quite often. We’re still linked to each other, although each of us is doing our own thing. But your love life happens faster than releasing an album [laughs].
Sam: Your fans are moved by your lyrics. What’s your connection with your audience like?
Sylvie: I felt I was turning into a psychologist at some point. Everyone wanted to tell me their problems. The conversation usually starts with a compliment, that the album really helped them. Then they tell me about their relationship in more detail and ask for advice. But I don’t know the answers either. I just put my emotions into those songs. That’s it.
Sam: I imagine it can be a delicate business, brushing them off.
Sylvie: Yes, but luckily it’s never too much. Those kinds of emails or compliments are the best I get, actually. They touch me more than other compliments.
… It’s the person you want to be. That person is in you, but you don’t dare to be her in everyday life. On stage, though, you allow her to come out. It’s a moment you can be proud of, as a woman…
Sam: You have an incredible stage presence. HUMO magazine called you ‘a natural star.’ ‘On stage, everything falls away, I become fearless,’ you once said. Do you play a role when you’re on stage?
Sylvie: That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a long time. You feel that you’re being honest, yet you play a character. It’s the person you want to be. That person is in you, but you don’t dare to be her in everyday life. On stage, though, you allow her to come out. It’s a moment you can be proud of, as a woman. In everyday life you’re sometimes judged if you behave like that. People think you’re arrogant or a bitch. I think I play myself. It’s also about certain emotions that I don’t dare to show in daily life, but do show in my lyrics and in my music. Generally, I prefer to avoid conflict, but in my lyrics I’m super honest.
Sam: You also have that duality of being vulnerable in your lyrics, but very confident on stage.
Sylvie: Yes, strong people dare to show their fragility. I don’t dare to do that in everyday life – that’s why I don’t think I’m that strong in real life.
Sam: You wear extravagant clothes as part of your act. You were a model even, and wrote music for Prada and Victoria’s Secret. Do you have a special interest in fashion?
Sylvie: I think that’s because I grew up in Antwerp. I went to parties thrown by students from the fashion academy. Walter Van Beirendonck was there too, as was almost everyone else. They all made their own clothes. It was all very creative. That’s when I started taking on different roles at the weekend, and that’s what I brought to my music. It’s really important how fashion can boost your music or your presence on stage. I’m not focused on the latest trends. Instead, I look for different characters in myself. One day I’m this person, the next day I’m that one. I’m quite eclectic that way.
Sam: You also used to make your own clothes for your performances. Do you still do that?
Sylvie: Sure, I have a performance in Antwerp coming up. That’ll be the third time I’ll wear clothes that I’ve made myself. For that concert I work with a friend. I start making the clothes, and she finishes them. I like owning those clothes. It’s always messy having to borrow clothes and then return them clean. It’s very hard to find something that you feel good in and that you can move in freely on stage. That’s why I started making my own clothes at some point. Still, it’s always stressful. Sometimes, I have nightmares that the dress falls apart and that I’m naked on stage.
Sam: Your stylist is your good friend Tom Eerebout. He also works for stars like Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue. Not bad.
Sylvie: I’m very proud of Tom. He’s one of my best friends. We met at one of those fashion parties in Antwerp. At the time we met we were both a little lost. Still, we clicked. I felt he had a lot of potential, and he felt the same about me. Now, he works with global stars but he still works for free for me, because he believes in me. It’s mostly because of our friendship that we have worked together so much. Thanks to him, Lady Gaga has liked one of my videos. I think it’s fantastic that she’s seen my work!
Sam: One of your idols is Jane Birkin. What is it that you like about her?
Sylvie: I have several sources of inspiration – almost every week it’s someone different. But I think Jane Birkin is one of the most beautiful women in the world. I often think that the supposedly beautiful women of today look unreal. They have undergone all kinds of surgeries. I miss that natural beauty. Birkin has imperfections, but they’re interesting. I love that kind of face. Nowadays, everyone looks alike. I think that’s creepy. I think it’s bizarre that people get surgery to look like each other. You want to be unique, don’t you? We’re inundated with images of supposedly perfect women – which does affect you subconsciously. When you’re at home and look in the mirror, you start noticing things that you’re not happy about.
Sam: Do you have any other idols?
Sylvie: They’re mostly people from the past, like David Bowie. Particularly from the period when he still had crooked teeth [laughs]. I can watch films and become wildly enthusiastic about a character dressed in a particular way – like Maria Schneider wearing a beautiful coat in Last Tango in Paris.
Sam: And musically?
Sylvie: Again, David Bowie. But also Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. I think Lana Del Rey is the best songwriter of the moment. Then there’s Nina Simone. Or Mazzy Star. They’re often front women. But that’s not surprising, because I want to compare myself to them.
Sam: You mentioned Gainsbourg and Birkin. That relationship was quite turbulent. Gainsbourg wasn’t always that woman friendly. Now we live in a time when gender roles are different, but many women complain that men no longer dare to be men and ask women if they can give them a compliment before they do.
Sylvie: I think a lot of spontaneity has been lost. That’s a shame. Sometimes, I almost feel sorry for men. But, of course, there are lots of pigs who harassed and raped women for years. And they got away with it! Many men didn’t always realise when they’d done something wrong. It’s a good thing that we’re better at defining our boundaries now, and that there’s more awareness. But sometimes it gets a little out of hand. It’s a shame that all men are now looked at in this way.
…There’s something vulnerable but also something sensual about waking up in each other’s arms. I love the purity of the morning…
Sam: Extra Extra is an erotic magazine. What do you consider sensual?
Sylvie: The morning. In the morning, when I wake up next to my love, I feel very pure. There’s nothing that the day has thrown at you yet, that you need to process. You’re starting afresh. There’s something vulnerable but also something sensual about waking up in each other’s arms. I love the purity of the morning.
Sam: What’s the highest form of physical or mental pleasure for you?
Sylvie: It may sound a little boring, but I really enjoy order nowadays. I really love it when things are neat and tidy, like this flat. I’ve lived in chaos all my life. I love having a clear view of my life. It can be little things. A feeling of contentment when I just paid an invoice that was long overdue. I can really enjoy moments like those. That’s probably a kind of growing up, is it? That’s a very unsexy answer, though [laughs].
Sam: Your artwork and videos are great. It’s not surprising, therefore, that you were awarded a prize for the cover of Montbray, which was done by artist Stef Van Looveren. I assume that you’re always closely involved in the process?
Sylvie: Yes, but I don’t want to pin things down too much in advance. The cover shows a figure that we made in 3D. I was photographed from all sides. The first idea was to depict me with a bow and arrow. With that arrow I was supposed to shoot myself. But eventually we decided on another image. I know Stef very well; we’ve been friends for fifteen years. When we work on something, we leave things to chance to see where we end up. That only works when you know each other well. Stef’s work is very futuristic. He’s focused on the future. I’m more nostalgic and get my ideas from the past. I think it makes a nice combination.
Sam: After your album came out a year ago, you performed at festivals in Belgium, France, the Netherlands or Spain almost every day. Now it’s winter. Do you use this period for writing?
Sylvie: Yes, I’m working on my second album now. I want to make an album full of happy songs that are still cool. That’s very difficult. I’m only in the starting phase. Last summer I did a lot of performances. Now I finally have time to write. I’m looking forward to it! At home I have a lot of ideas for vocal tracks. The difficult thing, though, is to bring them all together. That’s when I go somewhere else with my guitarist, Jasper Segers, to be able to concentrate.
Sam: You recorded your debut album in peace and quiet during lockdown, in the countryside in France. And then you performed it live in front of thousands of people. That must have been a huge contrast. Do you enjoy touring or do you dread it, like some musicians do?
Sylvie: Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I really enjoy having clear-cut periods: one for writing, and one for touring. But when you’re in a writing period and the writing doesn’t go so well, it’s crap. When you perform, other people decide your schedule, and after a while it gets really tiring. I have enough chaos in my head, so when my life gets chaotic too, it becomes too much. I think it’s important to eat well and do sports, but when I perform, that’s almost impossible. I find that annoying. It makes me feel like I lose control over my health, and after a while it gets to me. I also like being alone. But when you’re on tour, you’re never alone. That’s what I dread, sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, though, touring is fun. There are just some less fun sides to it.
Sam: You used to go out a lot after performances. What do you do nowadays?
Sylvie: I love running, it’s a good way to discover a city. If you want to explore a city, you need to do it in the daytime. I’m no longer interested in partying. Besides, I’m dead tired after each performance. It feels as though I’ve run a marathon. I find it very hard to be among people after a show. It takes a lot of energy to sign albums and talk to people. I’m usually very happy when I’m in bed and I can go over everything. After an intense experience it’s nice to be alone and process the performance.
Sam: What are your plans for the future, besides working on your new album?
Sylvie: Investing in my life! I’ve invested all my time in music but there are many other things that make me happy. I’ve also realised that success is not the most important thing. Every time I’m nominated for a prize or something, I think: cool. But it doesn’t really make me happy. It’s very nice, though, to be able to do what you want to do.
Sam: What’s your ambition? Is there anything that you’d like to achieve?
Sylvie: I want to keep making music that I’m proud of. I hope my albums will prove to be timeless, and that people listening to them in thirty years’ time will say, ‘Wow, that’s a cool album!’