Wednesday, November 15, 2006


It’s impossible for me to be objective reviewing Wotienke, since she’s been a good friend of mine for a number of years now. Nevertheless, the first time I saw her perform was before I got to know her and I remember thinking that here was a major talent. I also clearly remember which songs she played – there were only two, it was a quick, impromptu performance – still my two favourites, Open End and Guitar Song. She immediately struck me with her blend of directness and subtlety, not necessarily extraordinarily original (ah, now there's a word) but clearly with her own style, presented without any artifice.

And since we all have to come from somewhere, what influences can be identified in her music? There are obvious jazz elements, and she is within the singer-songwriter genre, one I’m not always particularly keen on, but specifically? I once suggested Tom Waits, to which she replied that she’d never heard of him (she’s now a big fan and covers a couple of his songs – oohh, can I claim the credit?). At this point it came to me that maybe I was thinking too much like a music critic, keeping my distance, nodding sagely to myself whenever a trace of familiarity appeared… whereas this seems inappropriate in her case, this is music to simply be enjoyed.

I should at least give a little background information. Wotienke is from Amsterdam, and is still based there, though she has studied here periodically in both Olomouc and in Prague on exchange programmes and still maintains a strong relationship with the country. She sings mostly in English, occasionally in French. Her songs have a haunting quality, her voice at times breathy and soothing, but capable of gliding effortlessly into strident and even sharp. This is music that evidently contains emotion, but doesn’t shove it right up your nose. She avoids the pitfalls of many other female singer songwriters, the cosy, knowing smugness of some tame mediocrity like Suzanne Vega, and doesn’t come across like some shrieking, bullying harridan like Courtney Love for example. Although musically nothing like PJ Harvey, she has the same kind of class, the same ability to just be herself, and be good at what she does.

In fact it’s quite striking how little she assumes a stage persona. Last night she appeared with her band, who are based here in CZ. Between quite affecting, confessional songs she smiles openly and talks to the audience in Czech (always a winner). Initially I wasn’t convinced by the band, and in certain cases I still think they can tie her down to a more obviously conventional jazz format, not allowing her to express herself as intensely as before with more interestingly jarring changes of rhythm. However, that depends on the song, and in addition to that they have improved a great deal and now add some welcome diversity, even introducing a brief drum n bass interlude, which was certainly unexpected, plus a couple of stonking Waits covers. Apparently she has no ambitions to "go professional". I don't blame her, but in some ways it's a shame.

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