Still a bit like Leonard Cohen van Deurne-Noord

Even if Sam De Nef thinks that singer-songwriter is ‘a bad word’.

“Like being by the sea, right?” laughs Sam De Nef. We stand by the window of his fifth floor apartment and stare at the view. No water line to be seen on the horizon, because below us lies the Antwerp district of Deurne, where De Nef has lived with his girlfriend Jovana since he left his parents’ nest in Edegem a year and a half ago. It is there in the attic that he began writing the songs that make up his debut album Dawn/dusk to shape. It is here, in a small back room, that he further refined and largely completed them. Under James Dean’s eye on a black and white poster on the wall, at a desk, on a little old typewriter. ‘I got it from my in-laws, somewhere halfway through the writing process. Since then, I sometimes use them to finish or deepen my texts. The slower pace of such a typewriter helps you think longer and better.’

Ambitious? It has always been something. Since I was still playing a lot of basketball, it was also with the conviction that one day I would end up in the NBA.

Upon arrival, we recognized the name of the apartment complex where De Nef lives – Westpoint – from the small print on his first square. The drums and vocals from some demos and tracks are also recorded in the same room. ‘They mainly drum with brushes, you know, not sticks! And the grandmother on the floor below us can’t hear very well anyway. So we’ve never had any complaints.’

Outside, evening has fallen in the meantime, and back in the living room we see the lights from Bosuil Stadium looming three kilometers away. He never personally encouraged The Great Old, but there is definitely a connection between tribe number 1 Sam De Nef and his music. Jovana’s father played for Antwerp for a while: Dejan Mitrovic, a Serbian midfielder. ‘This is how his family ended up in Belgium. Injury has put an end to his football career quite early. Today he is a player agent. And our landlord. (laughs)

Merak

The melodies, arrangements and vocal lines up Dawn/dusk resulted in comparisons of De Nef with Anglo-Saxon bards such as Elliot Smith, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen and Andy Shauf. In the lyrics of some songs, such as lap steel adorned Lonely dinner and colored by Tsar B’s violin Robin Bird, his fascination with Americana shines through – above De Nef’s head hangs a painting of a ghostly cowboy, which he made himself, the bookcase contains the big names of the beat generation. But the homely glow in which the songs are bathed is entirely due to the Serbian homeland of his love and her family. ‘I have visited about five or six times since 2018,’ explains De Nef. ‘The way the music is experienced there has influenced me enormously. Jovana’s grandfather – a crazy good guitarist and singer himself – has built a stilt house on the banks of the Sava River with his own hands. There I have spent many memorable evenings around the table while grandfather plays and sings traditional folk songs for hours with the whole family and friends. That casualness, that simplicity in music, it’s something that’s much less alive in our culture and our daily lives these days. Those experiences touched me deeply. In Serbia, I learned that music is much more than standing on stage in front of many people. That something small can be big at the same time. I ended up writing my bachelor’s degree at Hogeschool PXL about my musical experiences in Serbia. I chose the title Merak, a Serbian word meaning a feeling of oneness with the universe, taken from the simplest form of pleasure. We tried to translate the small, clean and at the same time magical living room feeling in Serbia to the album.’

That record has been in stores for a month now, and De Nef is happy with the good reception. A few weeks ago he was allowed to play a live session for Duster on Radio 1, accompanied by a string quartet for the first time. ‘It’s a bit more about the music now, isn’t it,’ he smiles. He calls it ‘the nicer attention’, referring to the beginning of 2021, when he released his first EP Lonely day, crowded year and his name in the press coincided quite consistently with that of the StuBru host and his former neighbor Linde Merckpoel. During the first lockdown, he lured De Nef out of his room with English versions of Flemish song classics, which he was allowed to play live on national radio. He now calls that period a practical springboard for name recognition. ‘But I’ve made a lot of strides as a musician since then, and it’s nice that something like this is being noticed now.’

Tamino

And then there’s another name that kept popping up: Tamino. With a tip to his former label Unday Records (the Gent stable of, among others, Trixie Whitley, Dans Dans and Intergalactic Lovers), he would have helped his fellow citizen and peer with a record contract. ‘I have known Tamino since I participated in Kunstbende, the art trail for young people, with my group Danny Blue and the Old Socks in Antwerp. So that was before De Nieuwe Lichting and all that followed. Even then it was clear that Tamino was head and shoulders above all the others. I wouldn’t call us close – I’m more in touch with his younger brother Ramy – but over the years I’ve occasionally knocked on his door for feedback or tips. That’s how my demos came to Unday through him. That I ever received singing lessons from Tamino, as has sometimes been said and written, is seriously exaggerated. Once, yes, he gave me some technical tips when I was sometimes still searching by voice’.

‘It’s not so bad with my “cojones del toro”.’ © WOUTER VAN VAERENBERGH

At 24, he is only a year younger than Tamino, but De Nef does not hesitate to call his colleague an example. ‘Anyway. I think he is the epitome of a pure artist. Someone who makes it in the big world by doing his own thing, without tinkering with anything. He embodies his music, nothing more and nothing less. I hope I can achieve something like that too. I’m already just trying to be myself in everything I do, without always knowing exactly what that is. (laughs)

Fearful, ambitious, a hard worker, that’s how Tim Beuckels, record manager of Unday, describes his young thoroughbred. Nef agrees. “Especially before, I could be quite timid, especially in front of people I don’t know. It’s now much better. Thanks to the music, I’ve already become much more confident, but at the same time I’m still fully blossoming. And ambitious? It’s always been something. When I was still playing a lot of basketball, it was also with the belief that one day I would end up in the NBA.’

It was not music, but sports, that De Nef was spoon-fed, especially through his father. He died ten years ago in a tragic accident, but still plays a significant role in his son’s journey. ‘When I started playing guitar after my father’s death, I was able to put a lot of my grief into it. It was not possible in sports. He still inspires me in everything I do. With every step I take, with every concert I play, with every song I write. Writing a fitting ode hasn’t happened yet, no. It has already happened to my mother (of Motherfrom his debut EP, ed.). Perhaps his death still weighs a little too heavily. But one day it will definitely happen. After his death, I began to look at the importance of family in a completely different way. My mother, my brother, my grandmother, it’s very important to me that they know I love them.’

Wubbes

‘You know what gives me the wubbers? All the singer-songwriters who stare at their toes that you trip over’, said Marcel Vanthilt last year in Hum – he spoke about the current situation in the belpoppen. ‘You can’t turn on your radio without hearing one of those sweet listening songs that they mainly want to please their grandma with.’ This included the name Sam De Nef. He should be laughing at himself. “I read it then, yes. It means little to me. Not everyone has to like my music. I think it’s a bit of a shame that he has to express himself that way about other musicians. But you know what’s funny? My grandmother used to babysit Marcel Vanthilt’s kids, dammit, in after-school. (laughing) So she knows him live.’

De Nef has little use for the label ‘singer-songwriter’. ‘I once called it “a dirty word” in an interview. Maybe because that’s what my field of study at PXL was called. (smiling) But that’s just too simple a general description. Especially live, I’m much more than ‘a man with a guitar’. Take someone like Arthur Russell (New York avant-garde icon, ed.), which I’ve been listening to a lot lately. He sings and writes songs, but also experiments with crazy effects and ambient, in a way he even exudes punk. So nobody calls him a singer-songwriter, you know? I can definitely see myself doing more experimental things later. It’s already coming up in the live show. It’s much more dangerous, more exciting and darker than the neatly defined songs on the record. In the live show I can be myself even more.’

His baptism of fire at Pukkelpop this summer has already earned him kudos. One reviewer even found De Nef’s passage evidence of ‘imposing cojones del toro’. ‘Apparently because I started my performance with a little song just on guitar and a bit of whistling along. Not a strange choice for me at all. It’s not that bad with my balls’. A cover was also used in Kiewit Susan, one of Leonard Cohen’s most famous songs. That way, of course, he doesn’t lose the easy stamp and ditto comparisons. ‘Oh, but I don’t necessarily want to escape such comparisons,’ he laughs.

When Leonard Cohen from Deurne-Noord – it asks – shows up a little later, we casually ask him if he has seen any good performances at Pukkelpop. ‘I didn’t have time. A few hours after my show I was already back here knocking back pints. Jovana and I both work at the same cafe a little further down the road and I really couldn’t stand her being alone all night.’

Dawn/Dusk Out via Unday Records.

Sam De Nef On 23.11 in AB, Brussels, on 30.11 in De Centrale, Ghent, on 1.12 in De Roma, Antwerp, on 7.12 in Cactus Club, Bruges.

Sam DeNeff

Born on 31 March in Edegem.

Fetching in 2018 with the rustle rock group Danny Blue and the Old Socks the final of De Nieuwe Lichting and Humo’s Rock Rally. Releasing two EPs with the group, Backyard days (2017) and Boys (2020).

Debuts in 2021 solo with ep Lonely day, crowded year.

Working on his debut album Dawn/dusk together with, among others, Nicolas Rombouts (Dez Mona), Camille Camille, James De Graef (Loverman), Justine Bourgeus (Tsar B), the American singer Tenci and the musical blood brother Pieter-Jan Decraene (Rhinos Are People Too).

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