BLUAI presents debut EP at the AB: 'Yes, we are a girl band, so what?'

Tom Zonderman

Forget the football kings of Qatar, the best hat-trick of the year was scored by BLUAI: the all-female band came, saw and won all three of the main Flemish song contests, Sound Track, De Nieuwe Lichting and Humo’s Rock Rally. Just months after their triumph, the four women curl their debut EP into the nets of the AB.

Who is BLUAI?

  • BLUAI began a few years ago as Cat(herine) Smet’s bedroom project. She studied television in Brussels at RITCS and then photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. The 26-year-old native of Beveren has since been joined by guitarist Amina Parago, bassist Caitlin Talbut and drummer Mo Govaerts
  • In one year, the band took gold at the three most important Flemish music competitions: the Antwerp edition of the stage and opportunity competition for new talent Sound Track, Studio Brussels’ pop competition De Nieuwe Lichting and Humo’s Rock Rally
  • BLUAI debuted late last month with the six-song EP Junkyard, a collection of dreamy indie rock songs with tender guitars and sharp words about Smet’s fledgling loves and the hurt she suffered as a result of them. They are now doing their first tour

LUAI (pronounced ‘blue eye’) came into life a few years ago in Cat(herine) Smet’s bedroom in a Flemish town called Beveren, near Antwerp. Back then, Smet was in her late teens and wanted somewhere to put her feelings. “Music was pretty much my diary,” she says in the offices of her Ghent record label. “I penned small, intimate songs about my emotional life.”

Last month, the tender love songs that the young girl from the Waasland region wrote at the time ended up on BLUAI’s first EP, Junkyard, a collection of six melancholic indie folk songs and dreamy rock tracks that listen like a classic coming-of-age story. “I do like looking back at my young, naive self through those fledgling songs,” Smet says. “Not that I have stopped being young and naive. (Laughs) When we perform those songs live, I turn back into that person I was then. With some lyrics, I sometimes think, ‘Oh, where was I back then?’ ‘One Night’, for example, is written out of self-pity. I had a mega-crush on a girl but it wasn’t mutual.”

We still do not talk enough about well-being, I think. A band is like family, you have to take care of each other

Cat Smet

BLUAI has since broadened from solo project to a four-piece band. Smet recorded the songs on Junkyard together with drummer Mo Govaerts, bassist Caitlin Talbut and guitarist Ilayda Cicek, who has since been replaced by Amino Parago. All women, indeed. And there is no need to be shy about it, Smet says: yes, BLUAI is a girl band, so what? “Like the Flemish pop trio Bazart is a boy band,” she says with a big smile. “We deliberately call ourselves a women’s band, because we are referred to that way all the time anyway. Unfortunately, a group with only female musicians is still an exception in the music business, and so we stand out.”

Jehnny Beth of the British post-punk group Savages always hated it when her group was called a “women’s band”. But you clearly don’t.
Cat Smet:
It remains a difficult boundary, do we want to call it that or do we want the opposite? We embrace it because we see it as an opportunity for more visibility for women in music. Whenever we perform at some festival, the share of women on the bill immediately significantly increases. This is disconcerting, but at the same time we think that drawing attention to it is the right thing to do. Some seem to think that what we are doing is exploiting that, and try to stand out by promoting ourselves as a women’s band. How do you come up with that?

Had you made up your mind in advance that you wanted to be in a band with only women?
Smet: Absolutely, and I deliberately only looked for female musicians.

If any man had turned up, would you have turned them away?
Smet: Yes. (Smiles)

I assume you specifically looked for a drummer called Mo, like Moe Tucker of The Velvet Underground.
Haha, no. I only knew her vaguely through Facebook and she was the only girl I knew who played drums, so she was my first and only option. (Laughs) I was very glad she said “yes” when I sent her a message via Messenger. Same with Caitlin: I didn’t know any other female bassist. When I saw on her Instagram page that she could sing super beautifully too, I was immediately sold. Ilayda I knew through Tinder. I knew immediately that she would be a good lead guitarist.

Ilayda, meanwhile, has left BLUAI to concentrate on her own project, ILA. Was that a difficult moment for the band?
Smet: We were still starting out so it was a bit of a shock, yes. But in the end, it was mostly an agenda issue. We did not want to get in the way of her project, nor did she want to get in ours. We just encourage each other to go for it. Ilayda is a great songwriter and musician, and she is doing really well with ILA, as she should be.

You and Ilayda were an item for a while. Are the songs of Junkyard about her?
There are certainly some songs inspired by that. Or at least one. Ilayda knows which number that is. I guess.

When an original member drops out, it inevitably upsets the balance of the group. Was Amina able to restore that balance easily?
We found her pretty quick, Caitlin has a friend who is Amina’s roommate. At that point, Amina had only played on the streets and then her fourth live show with BLUAI was in the Ancienne Belgique’s main hall. It was pretty cool how she managed that. Amina had had a terrible year. She has completely recovered now, but she had bone cancer. Fate drove us together, she needed something good in her life. We’re not going to ask her to lug around heavy amps and stuff like that just yet, but she goes all in when she’s on stage.

Bluai 2022

| Cat Smet (third from left): “Some people say we are exploiting the fact that we are an all-female band. How do you come up with that?”

Kato De Boeck and Flo Van Deuren made their debut on VRT last month with Roomies, a Flemish TV series with women as main characters. That representation was something that they had missed during their teenage years. Have you experienced something similar as a musician?
Smet: Good question. Mo and I, like Flo and Kato, are queer. Queer female musicians making cool music was not something that I saw much of when I was growing up. A lot has changed since then, though, and artists like St. Vincent and the late Sophie have been very open about it. So far, we have not really made a thing about it, like Flemish indie pop duo Kids with Buns has now done. But if I write about a relationship, I will not hide the fact that it is about a woman. I have already been told not to lay it on too thick. Just like that we shouldn’t focus too much on helping women move forward, because then people will start thinking we hate men. To be clear: we don’t hate men! (Laughs) It’s a shame you still have to deal with such things.

“Have we found the Flemish Phoebe Bridgers?” the Humo’s Rock Rally jury wondered. Are you happy with that label, or is that the kind of stuff you want to break free from?
Being compared to her is, of course, super cool. Her debut, Stranger in the Alps, got me through a lot of things. The way Phoebe Bridgers articulates things, exposes a world of feelings, that is really unseen, I think. I sometimes hear people say that that is too ambitious, that we cannot do that. Of course, I am not trying to imitate her. I also don’t think we really sound like Phoebe Bridgers, our new songs certainly don’t fit that bill. When we do them live, we shuttle between the earlier more sensitive songs and the new, harder stuff we are writing now. She inspires me more in the way she presents herself, and how she incorporates that into her lyrics. There are also so many other artists who inspire me, such as Julia Jacklin, Lucy Dacus, Soccer Mommy, Haim, Tomberlin... All women that are feeding me.

Who was that originally introduced you to music?
I was 10 when I saw my cousin playing drums, and I immediately wanted to do the same. I don’t remember what music I listened to then, maybe the stuff my parents put on. Céline Dion, Robbie Williams, terrible things like that. (Laughs) Later on, I picked up the guitar too because another cousin played guitar. What you see, you want to do. That’s why we think it’s so important that we are all women. It’s like saying: “Girls, you too can do this.”

Do you have had any musical schooling?
No. Mo studied audio engineering and music management at PXL University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hasselt. Caitlin did cabaret at the conservatoire in Antwerp, and Amina is now majoring in song writing at PXL. Everyone does or did something with music, except me. (Laughs) I am more visual and was interested in fiction and so I studied television at RITCS in Brussels, and then photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. I’m still mostly working on photography, because it’s something individual and it helps me focus better. As a director, you have to manage a whole team.

Don’t you, as the frontwoman of a band, have to manage a team too?
Yes. Managing a group is not easy, you try to get everyone on the same page. But I’ve been incredibly lucky to click so well with the rest of the band. There is not anyone I see as often as Caitlin, Mo and Amina. Then you have no choice but to be good friends too. Knowing what is going on inside someone or how they feel is only positive for the group. We still do not talk enough about that kind of well-being, I think. A band is like family, you have to take care of each other.

In other words, Mo, Caitlin and Amina too are familiar with that “emotional, yet hopeful wrecking yard” you describe in the press text of Junkyard?
Smet: Those songs were already written and everything happened so fast that the content passed somewhat by, but with the new songs, Mo, Caitlin and Amina really want to know what they are about. That also helps them empathise. I like to use harsh words that are then framed by soft, comforting music. A bit like American singer-songwriter Skullcrusher. Hence the junkyard. Someone recently said that in a junkyard, you can smash everything and just leave it behind. I like that.
For me, the EP delineates a chapter of my life. They are songs that made me grow up. I turned 26 last weekend. It’s time for something new.

When you are 26, you are a bit too young to have consciously experienced the 1990s, but they are certainly back. Young women are wearing high-waisted mom jeans again, Friends is being binged en masse on Netflix, even gabber music is back in fashion. Your music also contains echoes of popular rock bands of those days. Do you have a special connection to that period?
Smet: I don’t actively listen to the music of the time, but I understand the fascination. The music scene seemed free-spirited, the sounds allowed to be a bit sloppy and casual. These are not necessarily terms that suit us, but I find that charming. Nirvana, The Breeders, none of that is too strict.

A true fan of sloppy nineties guitars did, of course, come to the Royal Circus for the Pavement reunion show a few weeks ago. Were you there too?
Smet: (Laughs) Unfortunately. But I think they are super cool. That band name has been dropped many times in our rehearsal room.

Does this nostalgia for the 1990s among millennials include a yearning for a simpler time?
Smet: Yeah, I think so. My generation has never known a time without the Internet. Look at how our band formed, it is not a romantic story that I met someone on the train and it went on from there. Back in the days, my father hung out in a park in Sint-Niklaas because he thought my mother would be there too. That’s how he made her fall for him. I think that that is so beautiful. We hardly know that spontaneity, naivety anymore.

You overcame your own youthful innocence in the time span of one year by taking part in the Flemish music contests Sound Track, De Nieuwe Lichting and Humo’s Rock Rally. All three of which you ended up winning too.
That was really awesome. Personally, I never thought I would be on a stage, or doing this. In the beginning, I had gigantic stage fright, I got really sick of the thought of having to stand in front of an audience. So I then organised a living room concert for my closest friends. I thought, that’s the hardest thing I can do, because they all know me well and you don’t want to fail. That was dying a few times and making a lot of mistakes. But in the end, they all embraced me. I can’t say I was over it after that one time, but that affirmation, from people you like, did help.
I still suffer from an imposter syndrome. Having had three guitar lessons in my life, I cannot read notes. Can I call myself a musician? But when you get that confirmation by winning those competitions, I do realise that maybe I should look at it differently. I also think we have come far in a short time. Our self-confidence has been boosted. We couldn’t say that a few months ago, back then we knew nothing. (Laughs)

You should feel proud, you have scored a unique hat-trick. No boy band has managed this!
Voilà. That’s another great thing.

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