I am interviewing Menno Kuijper, a great cabaret artist based in London, a very clear mind and a lovely person. I wanted to know more about his views on Cabaret and the way that music and song writing has become an important part not only of his career but also of his personal development. Our talk was long (it will give me scope for a second episode on Cabaret). This is an excerpt of our discussion.
Maria: When did you start writing?
Menno: From a very young age I was always writing stories, or singing or drawing, I used to draw loads, and all these things are about story telling, but just in different ways. In my teens, and especially in my twenties, I gravitated much more towards the songwriting, but always more from the point of view of the lyrics and the idea of the song rather than melodically putting a song together. I don’t really consider myself a ‘melody’ person as I’ve never learned to play an instrument and think ‘OK, I should work together with people who really understand music and melodies’, but having worked with composers I’m now beginning to think more in terms of melodies and instruments, how we could harmonise it…so that’s quite new to me.
One morning I woke up and I had a melody in my head and I didn’t know where it came from! It was just there in my head, kind of sad and melancholic, and the words where just there! So I quickly got my phone, recorded myself humming the tune and wrote down the words, and within minutes had it all down. I looked at the words and the thought “What the hell is this? What the hell is this song? Where did it came from?” It’s called “Fuck me senseless!” I just thought “How bizarre”, and I looked at the lyrics and I thought “Is this me?”, “Are this things I feel?”, “Is this desire on my part?” or “Is it just something that came out of a dream?” Who knows!
Maria: You are a very good lyricist. Do you see yourself as someone who tells stories through music?
Menno: I’ve always seen myself as a storyteller before I call myself a singer or a performer – its about the story telling. I like to write, I like to perform, I like to sing, I like to draw, I like to put songs together… it’s all about taking something and find the right way to express it. So, what form is it going to take? What I really like is when something takes shape by itself, to have a very organic approach. And I think this is something I’m focusing much more now, like you have an idea and you just go with it, you don’t have a plan, you just see what happens.
Maria: Has story telling help you survive to some extent?
Menno: Yes, I guess, I was always in this fantasy world. I remember my mum, she used to check up on me when I was supposed to be sleeping and then she would say “You’re still awake!” and I’d say “Yes, I’ve got too much going on in my head”. Now, of course, as a child, you don’t have stuff like bills or your job to worry about, so it was all fantasy and weird stuff!
Maria: so did you get rid of so much stuff going on or you always got more?
Menno: Well, I think that from the age of about six-seven I got bullied a lot in school because I was quite girly, and not like a ‘traditional boy’, so I think it was part a escapism. My dad would say to me “get out of that pink cloud”, and by “pink cloud” he meant this fantasy world I lived in, because I was always bumping into walls or breaking things. I tried to sit on the sofa once and I sat over the side table instead and broke this beautiful lamp that my mother had inherited. So that was always like a drama because I was like “in another world” most of the time, so he just wanted me to get my feet on the ground. That’s why he said “get of that pink cloud!”, and I never liked that because I didn’t understand it, I would think “what pink cloud? I’m not on a cloud! I can’t see it!”. But I would just be writing, writing, writing stuff…and then when I was a teenager I wanted to perform, I had seen cabaret artists and comedians on TV and I thought “Oh, I wanna do that!”. And I started doing some performing in high school. And then I started to write songs, but in Dutch.
Maria: Cabaret has to do with critic. It can be very political. Does that help you express your ideas?
Menno: For me, nowadays it’s even more like that, I have a clear point to get something across. As a teenager it was mostly whimsical stuff, but now I want to write a whole play about religious based homophobia, which of course, stirs up a lot of emotions.
Maria: The song you sang the other day “Equal opportunity shagger”, makes a point!
Menno: yes, and what’s really interesting about that is that I’ve performed it in different places and it does make a point on how people today face online dating, and how we use apps and meeting apps for sex purely, how you commodify people and you don’t see people as a person but just as a body, people can look at you as a collection of body parts, and “Do you have all the body parts that I want in one body?” Or “Do I even care about your body? –I just want a particular type of penis”. It get’s broken down and compartmentalized so much. It’s not about knowing someone anymore.
Maria: that’s interesting, specially coming from someone who also works for the beauty industry. Do you relate those thoughts to that other job?
Menno: I see it as something very different and separate, I’ve never consciously related it to the work I do for hair salons (because I also work with hair salons and spas and beauty saloons).
Maria: That has a lot to do with people who want to look good.
Menno: Or feel good.
Maria: We do live in a day and age where the physical is very much emphasised all the time.
Menno: Yes, if you look at all those girls in adverts and see how much they’ve been enhanced, through lightning, through make up, afterwards in photoshop their eyes are made bigger, the jaw line is made sharper…or whatever, so much of what we are presented is fabricated, and I am quite political about this. “Equal opportunity shagger” is about, “Lets be a bit more open minded”.
Maria: and it’s a beautiful song.
Menno: I did it in a bar in Dublin, and one guy heard it and came to me afterwards and he was saying “Actually, that really made me think”, and that is to me a great compliment, because as a story teller I like to do two things: I like to inform and entertain. Together. But if someone gets more from the informing part that I do, that to me is the end goal. And it’s not that I say “I know everything and this is what you should be thinking”, that is not what it is about, but obviously, you go through life, you observe things, and you want to address them.
Maria: what is beauty for you?
Menno: Away from performance?
Maria: Away from performance.
Menno: it’s all about the eyes and the feeling a person has around them. At the end of the day if I find someone who is very grounded a very calm, then that’s beautiful, ‘cause I tend to be all over the place and need someone to balance that. And someone who is understanding and is open, that is beautiful.
Menno and myself spent some minutes improvising, and this is part of what happened next. A most enjoyable morning!
© Maria Soriano 2014, Singing4Health