FolkWorld article by Eelco Schilder:

The magic sound of Leoni Jansen

Leoni Jansen, photo by Martijn LiefferCeltic and Americana music is very popular in the Netherlands and there are many groups who perform these styles in a traditional way. Only a few months ago a remarkable CD was released by the Dutch singer Leoni Jansen. After an impressive career of three decades in music, theatre and television she recorded her first solo CD Three magic little words. On this CD she sings songs such as Broken wings by Dougie MacLean, Crazy man Michael by Richard Thompson and Fire and rain by James Taylor, just to name a few. She has certainly taken a risk by choosing such powerful and well-known songs from highly respected songwriters. But any scepticism disappears rapidly after hearing how, with the help of a selection of Holland's finest musicians, she breathes new life into each of these songs.

Jansen did not grow up in a musical environment. When she was about five years old, her niece had a small plastic guitar and the only thing Leoni could think of was: "That is what I want". Because her fingers were too small to play the guitar at that time, she started playing the ukulele and her teacher soon discovered that Jansen had a much better feeling for music than her average students. Music really came to life for her when she attended secondary school. She discovered Joni Mitchell's music and this made her decide that she wanted to sing as well. At the end of the seventies she started working with the Dutch jazz musician Polo de Haas. Already in 1979 she performed with him on the famous North Sea jazz festival. Jansen: "De Haas has been very important for me as a singer. We played minimal music and used electronics a lot. He gave me hardly any directions; I had all the space I needed to develop my vocals. He only indicated whether to start a song in silence or with a lot of noise and then he would scream 'just do something'. This way of experimenting with music gave me the opportunity to discover every corner of my voice, which was a valuable experience for me."

Leoni Jansen, photo by Egbert LuysDuring the eighties Jansen became very popular in the Netherlands. Not because of her music but because of her television work. After a few years she decided to give up television and devote herself to what she really wanted to do: make music. Jansen: "One of the last things I did for television was a show called Jansen & co. I hosted that show and sang with some international artists. I was not really happy during that period. There was never enough time to work out ideas; everything had to be done quickly and after having done something once, it was recorded and I had to move on to the next show. At that time I decided to follow my heart and stop my television career." Several successful projects followed. One of them was the Female factory. For this project Jansen, with the help of the Dutch artist Adelheid Roosen, brought together women from all over the world to create a show in which they would share their songs with eachother and the audience. Jansen: "We had a great group of singers from Uzbekistan, Brazil, Scotland, Congo, Bulgaria and many other countries. I didn't want any traditional musicians, but looked for women who made pop-music in which I could hear their cultural backgrounds. This project taught me a lot about music, but most of all about intercultural communication and management. Those experiences would prove to be very useful in later projects."

After Female factory Jansen was involved in several other successful programmes. Especially the She got game shows, in which she also brought together different female singers, were very successful in the Dutch theatres. Now, in 2005, she embarked on her first solo project. Jansen: "Because I was so busy organising the shows, singing always came in second place. For me the moment has come that I only want to dedicate myself to singing. When I did a project with Niamh Parsons, Karine Polwart and Corinna Hewat, I rediscovered that Celtic music somehow fits my voice quite naturally. In the Female factory I had already sang a Celtic song and I remembered that Annie Grace, who was part of the cast, told me how beautifully my voice harmonized with the music. I mean, I can sing in Dutch, Spanish or any other language, but nothing sounds so good and natural as the Celtic repertoire. When I was searching for material I could use, I looked for songs that released emotions in me. For example the song Where do you lie, in which the women of Srebrenica are searching for their (dead) husbands and sons. On the other hand, I like the song Crazy man Michael because of its symbolic nature: the battle between good and evil. It's not my intention to play "folk" music. The band I work with is a pop-rock band and the members of the band have no experience with traditional music of any kind. The only goal I have is singing songs I like and these songs happen to be, more or less, folk songs. But I am not a folk musician, I add a modern rock style. For example, I sing Crazy man Michael with an up-tempo beat, not like the Fairport Convention version with a more dreamlike atmosphere. Of course, I get a lot of reactions from the world of "folk" lovers. Most of them are positive, but others feel that my style does not fit the songs'. To be honest, I do not care. This is the music I like and I sing it the way I want to. I enjoy it so much, whether it is folk music or not, …just take it or leave it."

For more info and ordering the cd Three magic little words please visit:

Photo Credit: (1) Martijn Lieffer; (2) Egbert Luys

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