Antje Duvecot - living the American dream
We’ve heard a lot these past few weeks about living the American dream, the idea that anyone from anywhere can arrive in this great big country and achieve anything with hard work. The US president-elect himself is being cited as proof of its existence. Antje Duvekot is not quite such a high profile example, but the Boston-based singer-songwriter is a classic case.
Having arrived in Delaware, from Heidelberg in Germany, at the age of thirteen with barely a word of English in 1989, she’s worked her way to hot ticket status. Those enthusing over her latest album, Big Dream Boulevard, include America’s top rock writer and former Rolling Stone magazine editor, Dave Marsh, leading record producer Neil Dorfsman (whose production credits include Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Sting) and Boston-based singer-songwriter Ellis Paul.
Ellis Paul’s approval is particularly sweet for Duvekot, since in her early attempts at songwriting she tried to emulate him and another favourite, John Gorka. Now she and Ellis share a manager, and Ellis has been introducing her to his audiences as America’s next great singer-songwriter.
“I don’t know about the American dream because I never really thought about that,” says Duvekot, whose name is pronounced Aunt-ya Doo-va-kot. “But having people like Ellis Paul as a supporter and just being able to make a living playing music, that’s a dream come true for sure, because it’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Duvekot’s move to the U.S., when her parents divorced and her mother announced that they were going to join a new family over the Atlantic, wasn’t a happy one initially.
“I joined a new school in seventh grade, which is a tricky time, going on fourteen, and it was a big culture shock,” she says. “I hardly knew any English and my mum and stepfather were very strict. I didn’t get to go out much, so I spent most of my time in my bedroom and withdrew into myself.”
Music became her escape. She’d always sung back home in Germany and when she got her first guitar while in high school, she taught herself the basics. Her early songs weren’t exactly high on poetic content, though, she says.
“I’d listen to John Gorka and Ellis Paul and try to sound like them. The lyrics I was writing weren’t important, they were just jumbled up words, almost anything that came into my head and they didn’t make any sense. I was more concerned with getting a sound than getting a message across.”
When she was seventeen, another hero, the outspoken DIY singer-songwriter, Ani DiFranco, came to Duvekot’s attention and she immediately thought, I want to do that. DiFranco had taken charge of her own career from the off, setting up her own record label and selling discs from the back of the car she used to get around the country to the gigs she’d organised for herself. Duvekot wasn’t quite so hands-on but she was just as determined – once she got college and a day job as a tour guide out of the way.
“My parents wanted me to become a dentist or to get into science, something secure,” she says. “So they weren’t too impressed when I told them I was going to concentrate on music. My father’s beginning to come round now that he’s seen me playing to a big crowd and selling CDs. He understands that it’s the real thing and it’s what I want to do but I had to be very single-minded and pretty driven because it took me about ten years to get to the stage where I could live by music alone.”
Having cut her teeth as a performer by playing to her dorm mates at the University of Delaware and then around the local gig scene, Duvekot moved to New York and tried to make it on the folk scene there without too much luck. She found the city and being among so many creative people inspiring but the audiences were cool – in every sense – too concerned with image and careers and not so receptive to creativity. Moving on to Boston, she found her spiritual home. With a well-established folk scene, which has launched singers from Joan Baez onwards, and a friendly environment to work in, she was able to get herself and her songs heard sympathetically.
By this time she was expressing herself clearly and fluently in English. Her days of still having to think in German and translate her thoughts into English were long gone, thanks in part to her keeping a diary, where she jotted down feelings both personal and more universal that she turned into song lyrics.
“I see my songs as therapy for me and if saying these things can make me feel better, then maybe other people who can relate to what I’m saying will feel better, too,” she says. “A lot of my songs are about me and the things I’m going through in my life, although I can be inspired by what’s happening in the news, too. But what I love about music and art in general is, whereas you wouldn’t go up to complete strangers and tell them about your inner emotional landscape – well, I wouldn’t anyway – art, songwriting and performing gives you an excuse and the means to do that.”
In 2000, Duvekot won the Grand Prize in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition and later she took the Best New Folksong title at Texas’s prestigious Kerrville Songwriting Contest. Nice though such awards look on the resume, she says, however, a more tangible breakthrough came when the mighty Irish-American group Solas featured her songs Black Annis and The Poison Jester’s Mask on their 2002 album, The Edge of Silence.
A departure from the traditional music they’d become known for up to this point, The Edge of Silence was Solas’s survey of contemporary songwriting and Duvekot’s were the songs that particularly caught the attention of critics and Solas fans alike. The group have gone on to record more of Duvekot’s songs, including Merry Go Round, which features on their For Love and Laughter album, released over here a few weeks ago.
“Having Solas cover my songs has been as much of a dream come true as making the Ellis Paul connection,” says Duvekot. “I’ve been a fan of the band for a long time and to hear such great musicians working with something I’ve written is a real validation of my music for me. I’m a songwriter first. I’m not a musician, certainly not in that league, and I tend to accompany my songs very simply on guitar, and when you’re starting out, it’s also very difficult to assess your own work. For a while I would wonder if what I was doing was any good but Solas kept me going, helped me believe in myself.”
With Merry Go Round being picked up also by The Bank of America last December for a national TV advertising campaign seen by millions in the States, including a Super Bowl audience, all the hard work Duvekot has put in, honing and re-honing melodies to fit her thoughts, is paying off. The girl who spent her teenage years alone in her room with her guitar because she wasn’t allowed out is getting out to play plenty now.
From The Herald, November