With a comic strip collection based on murder ballads, the Dutchman Erik Kriek created an international bestseller. The Brussels Jazz Orchestra and singer/soundscape artist Lynn Cassiers are now transforming the murder and manslaughter of In the Pines to the concert stage.
The Brussels Jazz Orchestra (BJO) has previously made the multimedia production Graphicology using the stories by the Antwerp-based jazz illustrator Philip Paquet as a leitmotif, but Erik Kriek is completely foreign to the jazz world. The Dutch comic strip artist and illustrator who made his breakthrough in the mid-1990s with the Gutsman Comics series, will sometimes play the old bebop of Charlie Parker or the orchestras of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, but what he really loves is bluegrass and country. In the Netherlands and Germany, copies of In the Pines even came with a CD by the Blue Grass Boogiemen, on which Kriek featured as a guest singer with renditions of some of the murder ballads that are now taking the world by storm as comic strips. The American troubadour Steve Earle, a version of whose “Taneytown” Kriek sang commendably for the CD, even sells the book on his tours. The bluegrass singer Gillian Welch, who is still grossly underrated here, has also complimented Kriek on the way he illustrated her “Caleb Meyer” with pencil and paintbrush. “The Turkish and Arabic translations are now ready, and I have been asked about the film rights,” the illustrator tells us, underscoring the long life expectancy of his celebrated comic strip collection, of which the BJO project is also a part. “As an author, this is a dream come true. But I didn’t really meddle in the production.” Lynn Cassiers confirms this. After collaborating with Frank Vaganée, the BJO’s artistic director, for the theatre company Arsenaal, she is now singing the four murder ballads that he arranged for the BJO and supplying soundscapes for them with her effects deck. But before all that, we got together to Skype Kriek, who is recovering from a cerebral infarction at home.
How do you express horror?
Lynn Cassiers: The important thing is not to imitate it. As a singer, the point is always to find a link with yourself. I have listened to Johnny Cash and Gillian Welch, of course, but I am not a country singer. The performances that move me most are the subdued ones that plainly and rather coldly recount the facts. In my favourite, “Caleb Meyer”, the text has enormous power. The description of how the protagonist’s hands are pinned down is very physical.
Erik Kriek: In cases like that I agree that it is better to keep some distance as a performer. It is generally not a good thing when you can see the director’s instructions in a film actor’s performance. It shouldn’t become a caricature. Incidentally, “Caleb Meyer” was the instigation for my book. As a comic strip artist, music is your best friend. You spend hours at your drawing board and there is always music playing in the background. In my case, it is mostly country and folk, and thus also this painfully beautiful but shocking song that Welch, a punk girl from Berkeley who sings as though she was formed from the clay of Kentucky, wrote with her husband.
Cassiers: But you adapted it?
Kriek: Yes, just like all the other murder ballads, the lyrics are a trigger. For example, in my story, the female character is pregnant, and I do not specify whether the pregnancy is the result of the rape. I thought that would be a good dramatic addition.
Erik, what appealed to you in the tradition of murder ballads?
Kriek: Murder ballads were the Twitter of three hundred years ago. When hardly anybody could read, they communicated via ballads. Due to immigration from Ireland and England, murder ballads became particularly prevalent in the United States, but they exist in all cultures. In an age without the TV news, they were a way to deal with misery, and perhaps also a form of sensationalism. The nice thing is that they have no extra adornment. Packaged in a jolly tune – upsidaisy – somebody else gets his throat cut.
That simplicity in darkness fits your visual style like a glove. Your art looks almost as though it was created specifically to depict murder ballads.
Kriek: For this book, I looked for something with a more minimal style that was more akin to folk art. It is not that I started drawing more efficiently because this book took longer than my last, but it is true that the stories and my drawings are a good match.
Lynn, what is it like as a woman to inhabit the roles of all those rapists and other scum that these songs are about?
Cassiers: Without even realizing it, I had actually written a murder ballad called “Cookies for Jack” for my first album. But in my song, it is a housewife who murders her husband with a kitchen knife.
Kriek: See, the genre is alive and kicking. (Laughs)
Cassiers: But in the murder ballads I am singing now, the villains are always men. It is only in Nick Cave & Kylie Minogue’s “Where the Wild Roses Grow” that the female character is not an innocent angel, though she is still the victim. Sadly.
Kriek: Ninety percent of murder ballads are variations on the same theme: if I can’t have you, nobody can, so you have to die. My book might have been very boring, but fortunately, my girlfriend always gives me critical feedback, and she ensured that the women are not just secondary figures to all the male characters.
Cassiers: Because I have a very light voice, I sometimes unconsciously adopt the role of the victim, even though I sing from the perspective of the perpetrator. My voice simply doesn’t have the gravelly depth of Nick Cave or Johnny Cash in “The Long Black Veil”. My voice is more in Kylie’s register. (Laughs) Incidentally, that song is always performed from the male perspective, even when Joan Baez sang it.
Kriek: It is based on an urban myth. A woman veiled in black puts a rose on the grave of Rudolph Valentino every day. But it is only the voice of the Hollywood legend that rises up out of the grave. Her motives are not discussed.
Cassiers: But it still sounds romantic.
Kriek: When I sing murder ballads, I do not necessarily identify with the lyrics. The great thing about country is that it gnaws at you. If I hear a banjo or a fiddle, it cuts to my soul irrespective of the lyrics.
You have just mentioned two instruments that are never used by the BJO.
Cassiers: Wait a second! Frank’s arrangements are influenced by the origins of murder ballads and he has integrated a banjo and a dobro. The result is a beautiful mix of country and jazz orchestra.
Kriek: Great! I’m really curious. The four-string banjo was actually first played by African Americans and is an indisputable part of the prehistory of jazz.
> Brussels Jazz Orchestra, Lynn Cassiers & Erik Kriek: In the pines 14/3, 20.15, Flagey