Bettie Akkemaai came with the highest of recommendations: my friend Dave Hughes, the folk-punk singer-songwriter, returned from their UK tour earlier this year absolutely raving about her. He described her as his female equivalent – something I remembered as soon as I heard her new song “Loud Femininity”. The sharp lyrics are there, the wry humour and the ragged voice. It reminds me of Hughes’ “Paradise” as much as anything: the message is obvious, but it doesn’t come at the expense of the song.
Akkemaai is back in the UK this month on another short run of dates with Hughes, ahead of the release of a split EP on Glasgow’s Different Circle Records. The perfect excuse for a chat over email.
How did you get started writing music and performing?
I have played the guitar a bit since I was 15 or so. Never did much with it, until about four years ago when I got asked to do some chords and sing in a little Irish folk band. It was fun to do and to pick up playing again after quite a while of abandoning my guitar in some dusty corner.
The bands aim wasn’t to ever perform and that sort of killed my motivation. Actually everyone in the band had different motives so after one and a half years, we split up again. But I started missing making music and since I had seen many musicians (mainly acoustic folk punk) pass through Den Bosch and perform in our little vegan squat cafe, I was inspired and thought, why the heck wouldn’t I try to do it myself! So I wrote some songs, played them to some musicians and when they didn’t shoot it down immediately, I decided it was fun and good enough to continue.
My first gig was of course at our local squat cafe (called Knoflook, which is Dutch for garlic). I only had three and a half songs at that moment and didn’t feel quite up for it to be honest. But a musician from Denmark, called Dusty Awe, was coming to perform and since we had already met a few times before, he was very curious to hear me play and convinced me to be his support act. Loads of family and friends came out that night and it was an awesome evening! So I guess I was hooked.
Three words to describe your sound…
Only three? Hard one, but I’ll go with Bitey Sweet Folk.
What influences you?
As mentioned above, a lot of the musicians coming to Knoflook have inspired me. Most of them bring honest songs, true to themselves, which have more meaning or poetry in them than the mainstream pop songs usually do. And most of them sing about things happening in their lives, in society, in the world and how they suck or maybe could be changed. I think that’s a very important aspect of what a musician’s ‘task’ can be: spreading a message and who knows, changing the world just a tiny bit for the better. Some of the names that stuck and have influenced me over the years are Shireen, Dave Hughes, Efa Supertramp, James Bar Bowen, Cosmo, Wayne Lostsoul, Billy Liar, Don Potter, Evan Greer and many more. But one that really made the biggest impact and became my favorite band is Mischief Brew. Their lyrics are just brilliant and I can listen to their music anytime for hours, it just never gets boring.
Apart from that, there are two more things that inspired me a lot. One is some great Dutch ‘cabaretiers’: like stand up comedians, but a bit less about the laughs and a bit more with a (political) message and usually very funny and/or good songs too. My favorite one is called Harrie Jekkers. It’s a pity he only has songs in Dutch, for I always wish to share his work with everyone because it’s just amazing. And the other is an international poster organisation called Loesje (a Dutch girls name) which started in the Netherlands in the ’80s. They write posters with short texts which are usually funny but critical about the world and things that happen in it. I worked for that organisation for five years, and it taught me a lot about creative text writing, keeping things to the core and simple and not pointing fingers when spreading your opinion.
So yeah, that and things I see, question, hear, do, feel, think about in everyday life.
You’re coming back to Glasgow to play with Dave Hughes, following recent tours together in Germany and Scotland. How did that musical relationship come about?
Dave played in Knoflook the first time in April 2014. It was a very hungover-ish Sunday evening, not a particularly big crowd but a very pleasant one and very nice intimate gig. The first thing I noticed was that the few covers he did were exactly the ones I did or was planning on putting in my repertoire. And I recognised some of the influences in his songs, especially the ones I liked best. So after the gig we talked a bit and discovered that we had a lot of common interests, both musical and otherwise. I think we became Facebook friends then too.
A year later, he came back to play and this time I got to play as his support act. We decided on the spot to play a Mischief Brew cover together and it actually went quite well! It was a lot of fun so when Dave asked me to join him in some gigs in the UK, since I was coming to a little anarcho-folk gathering in Elgin anyways, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. The touring was very easy. Our shared love for quoting Monty Python kept us awake during long drives and doing the backing vocals to some of his songs went better with each gig. We are good at giving each other tips on our performance and songs, so it became a very pleasant and fun cooperation. Plus I fell in love with one of his newest songs called O’Hiraeth and it’s now in my repertoire as a cover. I am very grateful for all Dave did for me and the many connections it has gotten me. The fact that I get to be on Different Circle Records is a big honour! I am very much looking forward to the Glasgow gig, the other gigs we’ll do and the recording of my EP.
Have you noticed any differences in the folk/punk scenes in the UK and on mainland Europe?
Yes: in the UK it is much harder to build up a social community like the ones we have over here on the mainland. Mainly because squatting is not at all tolerated and you need a fair bit of money to get a venue or a place where people can gather, play music, have meetings and do creative stuff. I feel this causes more competition in the UK amongst musicians. It’s much harder to get to play somewhere, plus most places don’t arrange for accommodation, food or drinks like usually happens over here.
So that was something I had to get used to – but, luckily, I was warned about it in advance. And I do see more and more people who have toured the mainland trying to find ways to repay the hospitality by way of house gigs, arranging sleeping places or cooking lovely meals. So I definitely see there is movement in that area and quite a few people already making a change. And that’s what I also love about initiatives like Different Circle Records, because they are about more than just producing a CD. They actually help musicians with putting up gigs and promoting, and that is totally awesome!
What else do you have coming up in terms of tour dates, releases etc?
At the moment I am doing a few gigs in the Netherlands together with Cosmo, great fun! And in November, before coming to Glasgow, I will play at the Anarcho Folk Winter Warmer in London and a gig with Dave in York. We will also both play at Book Yer Ane Fest in Dundee, which I’m quite proud of and exited about. It’s organised by Make-That-A-Take-Records, who do approximately the same as Different Circle – I believe the latter one is even inspired by the first.
In winter it usually gets a bit more quiet with gigs, but in December I do have two little gigs at birthday parties lined up. January or February I will go back to Berlin and hopefully get another gig there. Then it’s silent for a while but that will give me time to prepare a spring/EP release tour. I am planning on Netherlands, Germany and will try to do Denmark and Sweden too – but we’ll see. I’ll probably come back next summer for the follow-up edition of the Anarcho Folk Fest again.
In the meantime, always trying to write new songs, building a website and growing my music network all the time. It’s a never-ending story and I love it!
And what are you listening to at the moment?
Silence, and the ticking of my fingers pressing the keys to write this down. I actually quite often forget to put on music… I guess that sometimes I just need to hear myself think 🙂
Bettie Akkemaai on tour:
21/11 LONDON, Anarcho Folk Fest Winter Warmer
23/11 YORK, The Black Swan
24/11 GLASGOW, The Hug and Pint
29/11 DUNDEE, Book Yer Ane Fest