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INTERVIEW: Judy Blank

In September, singer-songwriter Judy Blank made history by becoming the first Dutch artist ever to play AmericanaFest playing a number of day parties, several radio appearances, an official showcase, and Grimey’s Americanarama. In 2014 she released her piano-driven debut album, When The Storm Hits, which earned rave reviews and quickly positioned her as an international artist to watch. Since then, she’s been making a name for herself playing all over the world, from surf festivals somewhere in the south of France to open mic nights in Louisiana, to performances at major music festivals including Pinkpop, the Lowlands, Songbird Festival and the North Sea Jazz in Rotterdam.

She recently released her EP Morning Sun in the US to critical acclaim, landing coverage in PopMatters, Ditty TV, Glide, The Boot, Wide Open Country, and Americana Highways. Up next is the release fo a second EP this fall called Morning After.

Hi there, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Hanging in there, haha. I’ve survived Americanafest in Nashville and played an unholy amount of showcases that week. But I made it through! It was a lot of fun, and I’ve actually been really good. I feel like 2019 has been a really good year so far, with a performance at South By Southwest in Austin earlier this year, a tour with SUSTO and a lot of big festivals in Europe with my Dutch band this Summer. But it’s also really nice to be back in the States. Americanafest definitely felt like coming home. 

Can you talk to us more about your song “1995′”?

If there’s anything you don’t have any control over, it’s the way you feel. But it can be really frustrating to feel things that you think are inappropriate or unnecessary. But the truth is: you can’t un-feel any feelings, and sometimes your head and your heart are simply not in sync. That was the headspace I was in when I stepped into my friend Suzie Brown’s East Nashville home on a hot Summer’s day, after I’d been recording the first half of my album, ‘Morning Sun’, at Southern Ground Studios the week before. I felt like I was at the start of something big, a rebirth of some sort, and had an immense desire to be free, to be alone, to explore the earth on my own. The problem was that I was actually traveling through the States with my partner at the time. We were getting serious, he was incredibly thoughtful and encouraging about everything I did and I felt like I could be myself when he was around. He loved me unconditionally and I knew that was special. Yet this awful feeling of needing to be alone kept creeping up on me, and I was definitely not ready to face the consequences of my feelings: having to lose him. If only we’d met a few years later. If only I could be happy with what I already had. If only my heart wouldn’t be so fickle. The truth was becoming clear: I was way too young to grow old with him. When I sat down and talked to Suzie about it after she’d asked me how I was doing, she said: ‘’That a real story. That’s what we should write about.’’ She immediately came up with the first line: ‘’You’re a four-leaf clover in a field of green, it’s a miracle I found you.’’. Shortly after, the melody and the words of the chorus came out of my mouth: ‘’Maybe I’m too young to grow old with you // I don’t wanna feel it, but sometimes I do’’. It felt like it was outside of our control, the words just spilled out of us and about an hour later, we had a whole song that covered my entire anxiety. It’s still positive though: ‘’I will send you letters and a photograph, will you keep ‘em in your pocket? // So I know you will remember me when I come back down the line’’. Joni in a better mood. Haha.

Did any event, in particular, inspire you to write this song?

Not a particular event, no. It was more just that general feeling. Something interesting happened after I wrote the song though. A very special and timeless inspiration to me somehow discovered my song and put it on the playlist of his favorite songs. It was pretty wild. One day I pick up my phone because it keeps on buzzing. When I open it I see I have over 100 Twitter notifications. I opened it and then I saw this:

https://twitter.com/eltonofficial/status/1053243109910503424?s=21

At first, I was like: “This is not real. There’s no way. No way that’s the REAL Elton John.” So I put my phone away, and then picked it up again. It was still there. It was real. The next day I was playing the single on a live radio show, and in the interview, I told the audience what had happened the day before. In the audience was the owner of Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome – where Elton would be playing his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Show – sold out, obviously. But right there on the spot he walked up to me and promised me he would get me to the show, and guess what… he did! He even gave me VIP tickets and everything. It was the first and probably last time of me watching Elton live. It was last June; the show was absolutely amazing and moved me to pieces. I would love to meet the man one day and find out how he found out about the song though! No one has a clue how he heard it. 

Can you tell me about the inspiration behind the track “Goldmine”?

‘’At the time I wrote the song, I was broke as hell. Me and my band were booked to play a surf festival in the south of France, and I literally had to ask my mom to wire me money to rent a van, after I had spent all of my cash on recording Morning Sun. On the way to the festival, I discovered Rayland Baxter’s single Casanova, in which he refers to dealing with his own financial problems by borrowing money from a woman he’s never met:

Money, all I ever want is money

but I don’t wanna work for the money,

so I borrow the money from a woman

can you believe I never met her?

When I heard those lyrics on some French highway, stressing out about the toll road up ahead, I thought to myself: ‘’There’s no way you’re going to borrow money from this woman.’’ When I arrived at the festival, I walked down to the beach and wrote this song in reply to his, from a female perspective. We ran it through during soundcheck and played it the same night. We’ve kept playing it live ever since. It’s a sassy one. Also a reminder to not take myself too seriously all the time. 

How was the recording and writing process?

Writing these new songs was a big adventure. I traveled all across the Southern United States and fell in love with folk music. Not just folk music, but it did play a pretty huge part in discovering new artists, and old artists that were timeless. 70’s folk never gets old, and people spin Townes van Zandt, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby Stills Nash & Young-records just as much, if not more than new releases. I wanted to make a timeless album that was true to my emotions. Not pretentious. Just what it was. It sort of became a silent rule when I was writing songs: I needed to be able to feel whatever I was writing about. That’s what makes it good, and that’s what makes it so hard for me sometimes. And for the people I care about, or not care about anymore. But even if songs are not about me, or when I’m being cynical, I need them to be truthful. Like, when writing ‘Goldmine’, I was actually broke. I didn’t just come up with a catchy hook. That way, when singing it live, I can always go back to how I felt when writing it. It’ll always be relevant, in a way. But a song like ‘’1995’’ will therefore always be a little bit painful. But relevant. 

How did the process of putting together this record differ from any of your previous releases?

The recording process of ‘Morning Sun’, my sophomore album, was a lot different from my first album, ‘When The Storm Hits’. I was so young when I did my first album. Nineteen, never seen a studio before. I was very intimidated by the producer I was working with, he was kind of a big deal in my country. I feel like I didn’t have enough of an opinion on my sound or musical direction, so the songs kind of became whatever. I do have to say; my first album sounds pretty cohesive. It has a lot of strings on it, and I played piano at the time, so it’s cool to have a tangible piece of what I sounded like at the time. But ‘Morning Sun’ is a totally different story. I went to Nashville by myself and met up with Oliver Wood, one of my songwriting heroes. He told me about Southern Ground, Zac Brown’s studio, where I’d visit just a few days later. A year after that, I reached out to Chris Taylor, one of the producers at that studio at the time. He said he loved my stuff and wanted to make it the best he could. Called in his friends to play on it. It gave me a really great sense of confidence. I also had the experience of being scared to say what I thought, so  I decided to just be honest about everything I felt. In retrospect; I think I may have been bossing people around a little bit, haha. But only because I cared about these songs so much! And eventually, because of that, it turned out to be an album that is very close to my heart. I just did that. On the other side of the world. At 22. By myself. With a little bit of help from some really cool people. 

What role does Nashville play in your music? 

Nashville is my safe haven. My home away from home. It’s very rare to have a place where I know more people than in my real hometown, Utrecht. I feel like I’m in the ‘zone’ whenever I land at BNA. It really pushes me to be better, because everyone is so good. The album wouldn’t have been half as good if I hadn’t recorded it in Nashville. Also, the fact that you could possibly meet one of your heroes at any giving moment, is also super cool. The (East) Nashville community has welcomed me with open arms since the second I set foot in there. People have been helpful, friendly, and everyone gets what you’re doing, ‘cause everyone’s doing the same thing. Back home, I do have to explain what I’m doing to people a lot more often. When I’m home, I try to keep up with what’s happening around Nashville, who’s releasing what and stuff. Listening to music is still what inspires me the most to write. And to feel a little bit homesick, in a good way. I’m doing a Nashville Now!-tour in the fall, where I and a few friends that also recorded albums in Nashville put together a show of the songs we wrote there, how the city inspired us and songs from other Nashville artists that we love. I guess Nashville plays a pretty big role in my music, haha. 

What aspect of your life/lives did you get to explore on this album?

‘Morning Sun’ is a coming-of-age confessional and covers problems that I had to face in my early twenties, mostly. Relatively innocent. ‘Morning After’ is basically about the other, less objective side of growing up, the side that doesn’t want to grow up. The side that wants to kick things and fuck them up. In a way, I wasn’t myself while writing the songs for ‘Morning After’. Or at least not my nicest, kindest self. But that’s ok. Periods like that just make me write different kinds of songs. I also believe being versatile is not a bad thing at all. It would be weird to release seven albums that were equally similar to my first album. I’m really curious to see what the next one is gonna be like, because my mind is all over the place.

Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

It’s a cliche, but inspiration is everywhere. You never really know when it’s gonna hit you. I spend a lot of time in the arthouse movie theatre in my hometown and try to write down pretty lines I hear the characters say, or a vibe that I really dig. Sometimes I hear a groove in a random playlist that is simply so infectious that it makes me want to write something like that. In moments like that, I’m like: ‘’Screw all of my acoustic songs. I wanna rock.’’ But the next moment I pick up an acoustic guitar, the resonating sounds of the strings move something in me that I didn’t know could move, and then something subtle comes out. I can be checking volume levels during a rehearsal and hear my bass player Judith play something cool and come up with a melody in seconds. And sometimes you just sit and wonder why the hell you can’t come up with one line. That’s usually when your head is too full. The more non-music related stuff you have to do, the less space there is for creativity. 

Any plans to hit the road?

I’m actually currently in the United States to play a few shows here and there! Next up are:

10/16 Nashville, ACME Feed & Seed

10/18 Dripping Springs Songwriter Festival, TX

10/19 Dripping Springs Songwriter Festival, TX

10/20 Dripping Spring Songwriter Festival, TX

After that, I’ll be playing my EP release show in my hometown Utrecht. It’s going to be at EKKO, my favorite venue on November 6th. 

Then the Nashville NOW!-tour will begin in The Netherlands:

11/22 Manifesto, Hoorn

11/29 Altstadt, Eindhoven

12/7 Poppodium Volt, Sittard

12/8 Kroepoekfabriek, Vlaardingen

12/15 Hedon, Zwolle

12/21 Neushoorn, Leeuwarden

What else is happening next in Judy Blank’s world?

I’m not in school anymore, but it may look like that when you see me from a distance: I’m currently ’studying’ Bob Dylan for a tour I’ll be doing with my friend Yorick van Norden. We’re both super interested in this songwriting legend, and we’re working on a show where we tell the Bob Dylan-stories tour that we’ll be doing early 2020. I’m digging through old Rolling Stones to find specific interviews, and I’m truly amazed by how he has such an uncompromised sense of ‘’fuck it’’. He seemingly really doesn’t care what other people think of him. He’ll say it whenever he disagrees with the interviewer. He kicks things. It’s so refreshing. Personally, I could learn a lot from that, so that’s what I’m trying to do right now.

VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgkSGLmt-po

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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