“Most of my life I’ve felt rootless,” says Christine Oele, aka alt-folk act with the ethereally bewitching voice, VanWyck. “I know I’m Dutch because my parents are and I’ve spent most of my adult life in the Netherlands, but I couldn’t tell you where in the Netherlands I’m from. I’m not really from one place.” Instead, she says, “I’m slowly creating my own realm.”
Oele has indeed crafted a place entirely of her own in the world of The Epic Tale of the Stranded Man, her forthcoming fourth LP set for release in early April, and it’s a realm that will be glimpsed during her UK festival debut at the Lost Causes festival, Tewkesbury, this Saturday.
Rotterdam-born, Amsterdam-based Oele, who cut her performing teeth busking on the Paris Metro and did stints in acid jazz band Hit The Boom
(their 1995 single Here Comes The Sun was a Dutch and Belgian hit) and ambient/folk project Nevada Drive before going solo, has contradicted these claims of rootlessness through her choice of her grandmother’s maiden name as a stage moniker. Her own label, on which she released previous albums An Average Woman (2018), Molten Rock (2019) and God Is In The Detour (2020), before signing with iconic Dutch indie label Excelsior Recordings, was called Maiden Name Records.
But Oele’s early childhood, growing up in Indonesia and New Zealand before moving back to the Netherlands at the age of eight, was an itinerant one, and she notes, “There is no strong Dutch musical tradition to build on, so a lot of Dutch musicians have always looked elsewhere for inspiration. Maybe the quintessential Dutch tradition is absorbing all these different influences and trying to build something new with that.”
In her own case, the journey through memory and myth that is The Epic Tale of the Stranded Man draws on influences ranging from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to Dante’s Divine Comedy and the narratives of old English broadside ballads, while its mystical and quasi-scriptural lyrical palette owes much to Leonard Cohen.
An odyssey through the fever dreams of a washed-up stranger, shot through with the folk tales of the woman who rescues him, the album takes place on an island with the universal quality of the epic and which is inhabited by fantastical characters like the destructive Havoc Wreaker, the blind visionary the Seaweed Seller and the vagrant guardian of the truth, the Smiling Prophet.
“I feel it’s my job, my duty, to let them out into the world, to build them homes where they can blossom, so they can search out the people who are
in need of them,” Oele has said of the personalities in her writing.
While God Is In The Detour included much everyday imagery – a plastic bag
blowing in the wind, waste collectors who “jump on and ride the truck like
it’s an ocean wave” – and closed with the celebration of the humdrum life,
Ballad of the Quiet Citizen, bigger themes preoccupy her on this album.
The lead single, I Was Innocent, was inspired by an early 16th-century engraving in the Rijksmuseum. Oele, once a historian, has explained, “I’ve
researched artworks that deal with the subject of guilt, penitence and innocence. Drawings made in prisons etc,” selecting this particular image by
German engraver Barthel Beham “because it was the oldest I could find”.
The image depicts Saint John Chrysostom, the desert hermit who, according to medieval legend, seriously erred when he impregnated the distressed princess to whom he was giving shelter. It shows him crawling on all fours as he lives like a beast in expiation for his sins. On the track it inspired, Oele sings of “the prison of our good intentions”.
Oele has explained that themes of guilt and responsibility hang over the album: “We are living on the brink of epic transitions, we know that the old ways will lead to our destruction but can’t decide on the path forward. Sometimes it feels like we are trapped in our own prisons, in our inability to
take good care of each other and this wonderful planet, like we are failing in
our most epic of struggles, the survival of our humanity.”
But she sees hope in “finding a true connection with an audience”, observing, as she looks forward to playing dates in the Netherlands, the UK and Scandinavia later this year, “Sometimes it’s the emotion in a song that reaches over national borders, sometimes the lyrics tap into something universal, maybe more people are just as rootless as I am. Or longing for that union.”
VANWYCK IN FIVE SONGS
Maybe, Maybe Not (2022)
The new single is a wistful ode to indecisiveness – “Being stuck, not daring to move forward”, as Oele puts it. “The only answer is to just keep walking, even if you don’t know where to go.”
I Was Innocent (2022)
The haunting first single from The Epic Tale of the Stranded Man sets up
the album’s concept – the uncertain guilt of the eponymous character for unknown crimes.
Annekin’s Bay (2021)
From Oele’s 2020 lockdown album God Is In The Detour, this deeply romantic folk ballad is full of seductive natural imagery.
I Wish You Well (2021)
This break-up song contrasts an agonised mood with matter-of-fact lyrics: “You’ve made your choices/ You’re gonna see them through/ So there’s nothing left for me to do/ But to wish you well”.
Carolina’s Anatomy (2019)
Inspired by a friend who was unselfconsciously last on the dancefloor at a Berlin techno club, this is a delicate hymn to self-possession: “Have you ever been this close to feeling no remorse/ And being where you want to be?”