With a string of critically acclaimed albums to his name and an army of fans across the globe, it is no wonder jazz star Wouter Hamel is feeling pretty good about turning 40. Following a month of gigs in the Netherlands performing his latest album AMAURY, the singer-songwriter is ready to hit Japan and South Korea, where he will once again play Seoul Jazz Festival before returning home for shows including June’s JazzBoZ festival in Bergen op Zoom. But this Spring will not all be about work for Hamel: a huge party to celebrate ‘the big 4-0’ is on the agenda, too.
Since he shot to fame in 2005 after winning the Dutch Jazz Vocal Competition, Hamel has won the hearts of pop and jazz fans alike with his catchy self-written songs that are often deeply personal. Now, on the eve of his next significant birthday, and looking back over more than a decade in the industry, the artist admits to feeling a sudden sense of freedom.
40 and fearless
“2017 feels like a pinnacle year in a lot of ways,” he begins. “40 for me is a big thing, but not in a negative way. A lot of people are like; ‘Oh, the big 4-0 is coming up’, but I’m actually welcoming it. I’m very happy to be turning 40.
“I’ve stopped being hard on myself and rediscovered life. It’s about coming to terms with yourself and owning who you are. There’s a lot of judgement in our society – you’re either too old, too young, too fat, too skinny…Finally I don’t care anymore! “It sounds so cheesy, but that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned – to really be myself: a proud gay man from Amsterdam and not afraid to show himself.”
The prince of pop
Hamel almost named his latest record 40 in honour of this milestone year, but decided it might be ‘bad luck’ to use the title before his actual birthday on 19 May. Instead, he went for the French name AMAURY, which means ‘ruler’ or ‘prince’. “There’s an alter ego kind of thing going on,” laughs Hamel. “Well, it’s just a name that I thought of when I was in a personal process… I guess my alter ego name, so I decided to go with that. Also, it’s just my favourite song on the album.” Hamel wrote the first track for AMAURY during a trip alone to Tokyo, where he read shocking reports of gay refugees from the Middle East facing abuse in Dutch camps.
“I was all alone in the big city. I read that terrible news and it was hard being so far from home. I started to write the song Keep Watch, which I finished with a Dutch colleague of mine. That kind of sparked the album, I guess.” Pure poetry A true wordsmith, Hamel finds the writing element of his work very intuitive, with lyrics often coming to him when he least expects it. The musical side is easier to control: although his oeuvre is rooted in jazz, Hamel admits coming up with a melody can still be quite mathematical. “My job as a lyricist is much harder than trying to come up with melodies,” he explains. “Jazz seems very free to people – and it is – but it’s still mathematical. You know, there are lots of rules. “Although I’m obsessed by chords and melodies, the storytelling is the thing that compels me the most. The way words come up is the most magical thing.” Highlighting the visceral nature of his work, the songwriter admits that sometimes it is only with the benefit of hindsight that he can properly grasp his own lyrics. “Sometimes I don’t even understand my own message…then it’s like; ‘Ah! That’s what I’ve been feeling all year’. The penny drops!” Worldwide success Touring is a big part of the musician’s life and Hamel has performed across the globe. Does he have a favourite place to take to the stage? “It’s difficult to decide,” he muses, admitting that his legions of fans in South Korea are hard to top. “Everything happened so fast there, like a dream come true. It’s not about how big the venue is, but knowing that the music is really appreciated – just having a whole stadium of people singing your songs.” Having suffered from stage fright in the past, Hamel admits that after 17 years in the game he no longer worries ahead of a big show.
In a good place
“Of course, you always have some tension in your body. I believe you even look different before a show: your eyes are a little bit more wide open because you know what’s going to come. “But I really feel like I’ve got nothing to worry about. I’ve got some experience, that feels good,” he grins. “I’ve got this!” Hamel used not to feel so comfortable under the gaze of the audience, or with the media attention that success brings, but focusing on the music and remembering the reason why he pursued a career in the limelight always helps. “I remember watching Bette Davis in an old interview on YouTube from the 1970s. She said it shouldn’t be about limousines or red carpets or adoring fans, it should be about the actual work. You have to do interviews, you have to have people looking at you all the time,” explains Hamel. “I learned that lesson a couple of years ago but now it’s really sunk in. I focus on my work. I’m really comfortable with this and I hope to hold on to that self-security.”
A happy soul
With five successful albums under his belt and a newfound inner peace, where does Hamel see himself in the next ten years? “I used to be so afraid of that question. It makes me really happy that I’m not anymore,” he replies. “I just want to be happy. That’s all it’s about.” Of course, Hamel still has ambition and drive – he mentions a desire to write a musical, as well as the dream of living in Brazil for a couple of years and recording a Portuguese album.
“But, actually, for the first time I really realise what I have already and how special that is,” smiles the star. “I’m really living life to the fullest and if I’m doing the same thing in ten years, that’s gonna be fine.”
TEXT: ANNA VILLELEGER | PHOTOS: SANJA MARUSIC