Observatory singer-songwriter Simon van Gend reminds one of a time when music was made for music’s sake – a forgotten era when the art form was born out of a need to awaken the senses without ever making concessions to pretension or avarice.
In an age where production-line divas and dudes dominate the charts, he is a welcome anomaly, a bulwark of originality and innovation against the rising tide of lionised plasticity.
There is meaning to his endeavours, and most importantly, he will stop at nothing to preserve it.
One need look no further than the monumental undertaking of writing 52 songs in as many weeks to appreciate just how committed he is to his art, the culmination of which has resulted in a 14-track album, Suffer Well, officially launched in Cape Town last weekend.
Between February 2014 and February last year, he wrote a new song every week and posted it to his blog (www.asongaweek. simonvangend.com). And he alerted his followers on social media to the presence of a new offering.
“The idea for ‘A Song a Week’ was drawn from two sources. Firstly, there’s (US radio personality) Ira Glass’s concept of ‘the gap’. He says that often what makes people want to become artists is their good taste. They aspire to emulate the great art they have come to love. But as they start creating, they become aware of this huge gap between what they are creating and the art they aspire to create – and they basically realise they suck. But the only way to bridge the gap between sucking and greatness is to put in the hours and do the work.
His second motivation came from Grammy Award-winning composer Beck, who lives by the mantra that a person has to write bad songs in order to write good songs. “I realised that if I wrote 52 songs, there were bound to be good songs among them.”
Van Gend realised the only way he would be able to force himself to stick to the weekly deadline would be to go public with the idea – to announce it on Facebook and start a blog, so there would be no backing out of it without losing face.
With such intense pressure to deliver, questions naturally arose as to how he would find subjects for the songs. However, he found that while there were times he did not know where concepts would come from, he drew a lot from everyday experiences.
“I would think about things lying in bed at night, or walking up the mountain. The internet was also incredibly useful. For example, the title track from the album, Suffer Well, was inspired by a Muhammad Ali quote I found, where he said he hated every minute of his training, but that he knew he had to suffer that in order to become a champion. I then Googled other famous quotes about suffering, and that’s how I drew inspiration for the other verses of the song.”
Whittling down the list of 52 to an album’s worth of songs was tough, but the band enlisted the help of friends and fans, who each submitted lists of their favourites. Songs were given scores according to popularity and the 14 highest-scoring songs were chosen for the album.
The album was produced by Chris Tuck, who had been recording each week’s song at his city studio. “Chris had done such a great job of recording the weekly songs that we were able to use most of those recordings as the basis for the album, just adding drums, bass, vocal harmonies, etc. where needed.”
At the end of the 52 weeks, Van Gend collaborated with graphic artist Sanet Stegmann, who created an ink drawing for each of the 52 songs. These were box-framed along with a one-off CD-single of that week’s song, and exhibited at Youngblood gallery during September 2015. Some of these and limited-edition prints are still available at a selection of Cape Town shops.
As frontman of the Simon van Gend Band, alongside bassist Eric Michot and drummer Ross Campbell, Van Gend is a much-loved institution on the Cape Town music circuit. He has also performed overseas, in America and Germany.
Although many of the artists Van Gend grew up listening to – Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, were renowned for their political views, he believes the true cause of the world’s troubles lies in people’s inability to process what happens to them in their day-to-day lives.
“Music needs to touch on a deeper level than politics. It has to be able to heal, and that is the level I aspire to.”