Anyone who has seen An Pierlé in concert will remember her. A fascinating, expressive performer, she has been taking her homeland Belgium by storm, and is also generating interest in Holland and France. This interview is from October 2002, for The Bulletin in Brussels.
An Pierlé: What’s with the bubble?
An Pierlé is not kooky. Literate, wry at times, yes. Kooky, no. Why should fey girls that play solo piano be kooky? Pierlé (pronounced peer-LAY) is one of the country’s most promising songwriters, a discreet but very distinctive presence in a media landscape that loves the shrill and hysterical. A lesser talent would have been crowded out by now. But Pierlé continues to attract attention, becoming more interesting as the years go by.
Like many of the current generation in Flanders, Pierlé has an odd musical background. As a teenager, she was largely into Flemish and French “holiday” music such as Jean-Jacques Goldman and Mylène Farmer. Nonetheless, she found herself inescapably dragged into music as an outlet for her creativity. Her break came when she entered the Humo Rock Rally, a contest with an incredible pedigree as dEUS and Soulwax both came from its ranks. After extensive shows playing solo, Pierlé recorded “Mud Stories” in 1999. It was followed by another long round of shows, bringing her across Belgium and Holland. A throwaway album of electronic remixes of “Tower” filled the gap until Pierlé released “Helium Sunset” earlier this year.
A jump and a half
“Helium Sunset” is a jump and a half. Co-composed with her boyfriend Koen Gissen, it goes further than the previous. The feisty solo piano playing has grown into a warmer band sound, pinned down with a lonely double bass and gentle guitar accompaniment. Whereas previously Pierlé rushed headlong into her songs, she now gives them the time to develop and grow. It makes for an album that is far more interesting, revealing little details at every listen. It is also, with the exception of the title track, far more forthright in its lyrics.
“The first album was, well, younger,” Pierlé explains when we meet in the courtyard of Ghent’s Victoria theatre. “It had more complicated, poetic lyrics. When we started writing for this album, Koen – who is much better with words – came up with lyrics. But it quickly became very clear that I couldn’t sing them. They didn’t sound right in my mouth. Plus, I hate writing lyrics with other people as I start to censor myself. So I had to do the words myself. It’s something I really have to work on. I was nineteen to 21 when I wrote the first album, so I wrote about breaking up with ex-boyfriends and things. Pop music is always about the romantic first passion or the disastrous break-up. But I don’t live that anymore. I’ve been with Koen for five years. I thought it was kinda cool to write about the little things everybody who has a relationship goes through.”
Quoting from “Sing Song Sally”, I ask if it’s better to burn than fade away? “I’m not so sure,” she says laughing. “If, like the girl in the song, you’re running away from home it’s probably something you believe. But it’s probably better to spread your energy over time.”
“We don’t need a place, we need time”
Gissen works as artistic director of the Victoria while Pierlé spends afternoons (when she’s not giving interviews) writing or playing at her rehearsal studio in the Vooruit. An exile from Antwerp, she enjoys the atmosphere in Ghent. “It’s stimulating when you see other people busy on projects. It makes you want to work as well. The Victoria is a creative environment. So is the Vooruit, with all the young bands that rehearse there.” She has never been tempted to move away to write. “People tell us this occasionally. ‘Oh you should go here or there, it’s incredible.’ But we don’t need a place to write, we need time.” “Helium Sunset” was recorded in various locations, including a warehouse. “We’ve noticed that you can record almost anywhere these days. We have a good mobile studio, and as long as the atmosphere is right you can record that way. But when you mix in a proper studio with a good mixing table, it sounds so much better.”
Pierlé uses her voice far more effectively now, something which is partly due to her extensive live experience and partly due to her trademark “bubble”. In concert, she bounces and moves on a giant inflatable seat as she plays. “It’s good for my back,” she says, with a giggle. “I got it as I have a tendency to slouch at the piano, which makes singing more difficult. This way, my weight is pushed forward on my feet and my back is kept straight. It’s easier to breathe, and when you have four concerts in a week that makes a difference. This is not light vocal material. I only deflate the bubble when we fly, and it’s hell to inflate again.”
The songs change over the years. “We’ve been playing them for a year now. Plus, the album was largely written in studio. After that, we had to find a live sound with the band. Plus, every audience and every concert is a different.” She is also very excited by her latest project with the Mons Orchestra (who previously played with Craig Armstrong). “We’ll be playing with 12 strings, a harp and a percussionist. We also have a few dates with a string quartet. I’m really looking forward to that. It’s something we wanted to do on the album but couldn’t afford.”
But, for better or for worse, we won’t be seeing Pierlé in a celebrity duo anytime soon with someone like Robbie Williams. “I’ve been told that this is the entertainment business, that people want something fun. But we’re getting tired of that. We work with people we like, or with young bands that will be big one day. But these duets are often just a marketing thing.”