The first time she sang onstage, it was in a musical about Jacques Brel. Now, 25 years later, Dani Klein, the voice of Vaya Con Dios, is finally putting out her own album in French.
It’s a risk she said she would never take. She laughs when she remembers that she once told a journalist that her songs have nearly always been in English because she didn’t want to compete with the great French songwriters. But after two years of non-stop collaboration with top musicians and of waking up in the middle of the night to scribble down just the right word, Comme on est venu... is ready to prove that a powerhouse voice laden with emotion and combined with poetic lyricism carries music far across language borders.
It was more than 20 years ago that Dani Klein, Dirk Schoufs and Willy Lambregt put out the debut album of their Gypsy-blues trio known as Vaya Con Dios. Industry experts and even friends told them they would never get anywhere: the acoustical sound was too difficult to categorise, too tough to market.
They were indeed decidedly eclectic: a blend of blues-soaked lounge, Latin-infused pop and Memphis soul. But from the first sexy, sassy hit single Just a Friend of Mine, the band became a household name in Belgium. Two years later, with the release of the second album, Night Owls, international fame was theirs. Music fans thirsting for soulful beats after the synthesised New Wave that had been dominating the airwaves ate the quirky Belgian band up, making hits out of both the fast, jazzy guitars on Nah Neh Nah and the slow, sultry Dani Klein classic What’s a Woman.
Between the never-ending tours and television appearances, audiences continued to be surprised and delighted to meet the Belgian whose voice they thought must belong to a southern blues woman. After two decades, it still has the power to jar. Deep and moody and completely confident, Dani Klein’s voice lingers in your head long after the CD is finished.
The pressures of fame are infamous, and the band soon broke up. Not long after, Dirk died tragically, and Dani had to pull herself together and make a decision. She decided to carry on with the name Vaya Con Dios as a solo artist, a tribute to the musicians who created the band and to those who wanted to help it continue.
It was clearly the right decision. Three more albums and two compilations later, Vaya Con Dios has sold more than 10 million albums and has fans across the world. The lyrics of Dani’s string of hits, including Puerto Rico, Heading for a Fall and Don’t Break My Heart are deeply felt and poetical, lamenting broken relationships and stubborn denials.
Comme on est venu... continues the tradition. Calling on her love of great French-language songwriters, such as Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens and Barbara, Dani sings metaphorically of love as a shipwreck, of the simple beauty that assuages grief and, in the title song, of life and death and the pettiness that comes in between.
“I’m going back to my roots a little bit,” says Dani, who grew up listening to French singers on the radio. “It’s like I’m going back to my very first influences.”
As a teenager, however, dancing to the sound of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin in Brussels nightclubs, Dani became addicted to soul music. “Rhythm & Blues is really about warm voices and groovy rhythms, where with French songs, the lyrics are what’s really important,” she says. She has tried to marry the two ever since, and Comme on est venu... is a perfect combination of those two musical styles.
Collaboration was one of the keys to getting the lyrics right. Dani co-wrote most of the songs on the album with a diverse, talented set of musicians, including Manuel Istace (better known as Uman) and Luc Weisser (who wrote Dani’s previous hit Don’t Break My Heart), author of four of the songs on the new album.
“I really like what Uman writes, and that made me feel secure,” explains Dani. Carmelo Prestigiacomo, with whom Dani has written songs before, such as Time Flies, “would come to my home with all of his recording equipment, and he would just play something – play it, and play it, and play it, and I would start singing. And then all of a sudden, I would write it; the song would come out immediately. But then with other songs, sometimes it would take more than a year just to find the right sentence.” Luc Weisser's French songs stuck in her head since the first moment she heard them, 20 years ago, and time was now right to sing a few of them.
In addition to this blend of talent, two living legends, both Belgian, perform on Comme on est venu...: Toots Thielemans, the world-famous jazz man, who 50 years ago literally re- invented harmonica playing, lends the instrument to Il restera toujours, and the jazz guitar virtuoso Philip Catherine lends his hand to La vie c’est pas du gâteau.
Another tribute to French songwriters, two of the songs on Comme on est venu... are covers of work by the legendary singer-songwriter Leo Ferré. One, Vingt ans, is one of his original compositions and the other, Pauvre Rutebeuf is a poem by 13th-century Parisian Rutebeuf that Ferré set to music.
The album closes poignantly with an instrumental written by Dani’s father, Charles Schoovaerts, who passed away shortly after it was recorded.
All of this eclecticism needs a strong producer, and Dani Klein’s own son, Simon Schoovaerts (aka DJ Le Saint) took control, working closely with top musicians, such as William Lecomte, Salvatore La Rocca, Hans van Oosterhout, Red Gjeci, Tim De Jonghe, Francis Perez, Rony Verbiest and Bruno Castellucci, among others, to instil the perfect sound and atmosphere in the final project. This was made possible through a close working relationship with Daniel Léon, engineer at Brussels’ Igloo Studio.
In addition to writing and recording with the musicians, Dani has been touring the world with them non-stop over the years. From Istanbul to Helsinki, Jerusalem to Montreal, St Petersburg to Beirut and back again, Vaya Con Dios has played hundreds of shows in more than 40 countries, most of them sold out.
Those familiar with the substantial catalogue of Vaya Con Dios will notice that Comme on est venu... is more orchestral, with an influx of strings and horns, but also adds an occasional groovy lounge beat.
“People who have listened to this new album say that it still sounds very Vaya Con Dios,” smiles Dani, “which is quite amazing.” Not really. You can change the language, but you can’t change the conviction, the voice and the passion in Dani Klein.