Irenka * Brings European Pop to Nashville
Nashville’s most unique singer/songwriter, Irenka *, born in the Czech Republic and raised in Belgium, brings her own brand of world-inspired alternative pop to Nashville. That’s Irenka singing “Comme Si”, from her album “Wait 4 it. . . “, you’re listening to now.
IndieMusic Nashville was fortunate to get to talk to her recently. She happily shared her thoughts on her childhood in Europe, coming to America, and her upcoming tour. Read on…
Tell us about yourself, Irenka.
IndieMusic Nashville: Tell us about your childhood. Where did you live? How did the place you grew up and the people there inspire your career in music?
Irenka: I grew up in Belgium but as a foreigner. My mom is Czech and my dad is American so I grew up in a trilingual home, which is a culturally enriching experience in itself. The great thing about radio in Belgium is that they play music from all over the world – mainly European and American, along with some from the African continent. So I got exposed early on through my multi-cultural parents and through the Belgian culture to a lot of different influences. I danced to many rhythms.
My mother loved to sing and dance so the theory that I would have inherited those passions from her is entirely plausible. [laughs] There is a baby video of me shaking my head in rhythm before I could do anything else.
For me, music has always been a source of joy and comfort, and I see how artists change the world and impact lives, and it’s the most beautiful thing. But where I grew up, there wasn’t a single person who was a full-time artist, musician, songwriter, producer, manager, label owner, or such. I only knew it was possible from watching people on TV.
The stories of my musical idols are the ones that kept me dreaming about pursuing something my immediate environment would deem “a crazy dream”. It was so unconceivable and unspoken about that I kept it to myself.
One day, an older friend of mine turned me on to a French indie metal band called Mypollux and we went to their show. It was the first time I was confronted in real life to some strong-minded individuals who believed so much in their art and dreams that they set up everything themselves from their garages and were making it happen all by themselves. I was taken aback. Especially by Lussi, the lead vocalist and lyricist. Eventually I thought “if she can do it, I can do it” and set out for this long adventure!
IndieMusic Nashville: You have a beautiful voice with an amazingly wide range. Did people you cared about ever tell you that you couldn’t make it in music? How did you overcome the naysayers?
Irenka: Yes. That is a big dark part of my childhood. Here’s a short version: My older brother was very jealous and abusive towards me. Despite that, as my first experience of unrequited love, I would look up to my brother and have high admiration for his opinion. I loved singing and dancing above anything else. But he couldn’t stand my voice. It was the most annoying sound to him. He would hit me to stop me from singing and mock me constantly.
At the age of 15, most of my self-esteem and joy was gone and I wanted to disappear from the planet. I kept singing quietly to myself but at some point I realized my dreams had been stolen from me, and I thought everything was over. I was barely singing anymore. I was very upset that my parents let that happen to me under their roof and never acknowledged it.
As a result I had to make a drastic decision to turn my life around and start living again. I cut my whole family out for several years. It has taken me over 10 years to slowly rebuild myself and is still something I carry around and work on every day.
People will only see you where you are when they meet you, and compare you to what they know, but inside, you know how long of a journey you have traveled. So make sure to take their opinions with a grain of salt and be kind to yourself. Feedback is good but I stay as far away as possible from anyone whose motives are negative and destructive towards me and my art. And I make it a point to always be supportive of others and encourage/empower them to follow their dreams.
Why did you decide to come to America?
IndieMusic Nashville: When did you first dream of coming to America? Why did you want to come to America?
Irenka: What a great question! I wanted to come to America for many reasons and I don’t think I can list them all here but here are a few.
Music and America go somewhat hand in hand. My dream is to be an international artist and tour the world. It is very hard for non-American artists to be known in the US because of how closed the market is here. European artists can be known all over the world but completely unknown in the United States. The idea to come to the US was probably floating around somewhere in my brain, but definitely crystallized around the time I decided I wanted to seriously pursue music. I figured if I ever wanted to touch the American audience, I would have to come here and do it from the inside. If I can make it here, the rest of the world would follow.
If you think about it, contemporary American pop music reaches the rest of the world, but is mostly introspective and self-centered. That is a problem. Nowhere else around the world where I have been do people only listen to music in their own language and only know of their own stars. Other places and cultures also have great music and I feel that America is missing out.
I want to do something about that imbalance and educate the US listeners about being able to enjoy music in foreign languages, with exotic sound influences. I want to inspire them to become curious, and interested in knowing more to be able to enjoy a different kind of lyrical poetry and lyrical content. Music and the arts in general are a vehicle to bring different cultures together and create deep friendly bonds with your neighbors for a world with no divisions and ultimately no wars. How can you do that if you only listen to yourself? I came here to make a difference.
In another aspect, the US is known for great production and an entrepreneurial mentality. I wanted to learn those things. Where I grew up, people were very skeptical towards having an independent status and living a lifestyle out of the ordinary. Belgium is a very conservative tiny country where people have a corporate kind of mentality and an inferiority complex towards bigger nations. I wanted to meet and surround myself with artistic people who were not afraid to go after their crazy dreams and were able to make a living out of it, so that I could learn how to do that too, be it songwriters, musicians, label owners, producers, etc.
Another reason is that I always wanted international experience, to live in different countries/continents to have a wider perspective on the world and how it works. Since I have dual citizenship, it was an obvious choice to come to the US to experience a completely new system.
The state of the world is pretty sad, I have seen a lot of things that I would like to change about it. But I believe to make a good and wise impact, I need to understand the world first. I can’t do it from within the comfort of a bubble. I need to explore and put myself in positions of minority, vulnerability, humility, struggle, loneliness, introspection, conversations, more conversations, listening, observing, meeting with people from all different walks of life, and different socio-economical statuses. How would I educate my future children and others if I didn’t know and live what I was talking about? Nothing can replace first-hand experience.
Those are some of the reasons why I came here. I have missed my friends and family and Europe for sure, but I definitely learned and blossomed a lot from moving by myself to the US. I feel I have a better understanding on major cultural controversial disagreements around the world. And if anything, by bettering one person (myself), I am already making the world a better place.
IndieMusic Nashville: Tell us in what ways “Dreamland” was inspired by coming to America.
Irenka: Dreamland was originally a blog post that I wrote after having been one year on the American continent by myself. I didn’t have social media back then and I was just starting to dabble with an online presence, my website. My blog… it was like journaling.
I was feeling sad and doubtful. I had gathered so much courage to book a one-way flight to a place (Nashville) where I knew nobody, didn’t have a job, a car, a place to live. And after a year, I felt completely lost, feeling like I was not getting any closer to my goal, or at least not at the speed I thought I would be going. My blog post reached the eyes of a songwriter/producer, Doug Kahan, who I had just met and who was going through my website. He really loved my words and thought my post was beautiful so we turned it into the song that you all know!
I wrote my post and the song as a metaphor, where building up my courage was like building a ship in the back of your yard, and my goal was my Dreamland towards which I was sailing. And I thought that once the ship was on the water, it would just take off, eager to reach its wonderful destination! But then I found myself completely lost (at sea), treading water, with yet other huge obstacles on my way (sharks, storms…)
It’s a song about all those emotions that I went through – loneliness, self-doubt, feeling lost, scared, nostalgic – but also the courage, the self-empowerment, the daily fights, and will power to keep going despite and against all odds.
How would you describe your “Irenka” genre?
IndieMusic Nashville: Your genre is unlike anything else we’re hearing in Nashville now. – how would you describe it?
Irenka: Hard to define but I usually say alternative pop soul rock electro and sometimes shorten it to “alternative pop”.
Pop infuses and borrows from all other genres – be it rock, reggae, EDM, blues, soul, jazz, funk, folk, Eastern sounds, African rhythms, etc. I am a very eclectic artist, I write in many genres, as each and every song is a story with its own feeling, and some of my material is too obscure to fit that “pop” label, but it’s a good shortcut for a first introduction.
Pop is really just short for “popular”, in the sense that the music is accessible to a majority of people, especially those without any musical training, and that’s what I wish for my music to be – accessible. I add the word “alternative” because my lyrical content is off the beaten pop path, about deeper subjects and different stances that are not necessarily addressed in typical radio pop songs.
Tell us about the early days of your music career.
IndieMusic Nashville: What are some mistakes you made in the early days of pursuing this career?
Irenka: I waited a long time to get started, second guessing myself every step of the way. I still do, I overthink things. That is one of the daily battles I have to fight with myself. I waited a long time to get started on social media. I waited a long time to produce my own music, put a show together, share it with the world.
I wish I had started promoting myself earlier, in the sense of talking about my music and my dreams. It takes a long time for the word to get out, for people to find out about you and build an audience. It is a numbers game, where the more people you talk to, the greater the chances to find those who relate to you, so I wish I had understood that sooner.
IndieMusic Nashville: You recently shot the video for your popular song, “Dreamland”. Tell us about the process for making this video.
Irenka: That’s a great question! This song has something magical inside it, it’s very special to me. I needed something magical for the music video concept. And it came to me while I was scrolling through Facebook. Some of my friends were posting about body painting and I thought it was cool, but then I landed on some pictures of glowing body paint shot under black light and it just caught my eye. It has something mystical and magical about it, and the imagery that it sparked just seemed to fit perfectly with the spirit of Dreamland.
I wanted Dreamland to have this mysticism, but very tasteful and artistic, with the idea that any body part painted in black disappears with the background. So I thought, what if I played with the design of the paint and color gradients so that I could transform my human features into an otherworldly creature? That was something I really wanted to explore. I also wanted this creature to be dancing on a boat. Basically a beautiful combination of the arts: music, painting, dancing, video.
I had the idea almost a year ago, but I didn’t know anyone who did that kind of body painting or who would know how to film under black light (it requires a special kind of camera and lenses). I started looking for people in the industry, and I bought some neon body paints and black lights and started experimenting with color blending and design.
I also wanted to get my fans involved through crowdfunding and being a part of this project with me. I wanted to take them behind the scenes of music video production. So I designed some pledges and launched the crowdfunding campaign while interviewing videographers and lining up a production team that could carry out this project with me. The day of the shoot I did several live streams so my video backers could see how things were evolving, the body painting, the studio set up, the filming. It was a very fun video project to work on!
Big tour this summer!
IndieMusic Nashville: You’ve been talking about your big upcoming tour – how exciting! Tell us about it.
Irenka: Yes, I am organizing for the first time a tour up North and along the East coast. I will be starting in St Louis, then go up to Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, then go down through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and finish in Kentucky. I am super excited about it! [laughs]
After that, in mid-July I have my Bastille Day concerts in Nashville where I do a whole show in French, and introduce American audiences to the beauty of the French culture, bridging the continents over the Atlantic Ocean! I’m kind of the official French singer of Nashville, even though I am not even French, as I got four Bastille Day gig offers this year. [laughs]
Irenka, is there anyone you’d like to thank?
IndieMusic Nashville: Is there anyone you’d like to acknowledge for offering financial or emotional support?
Irenka: The list is too long, but I definitely would like to thank all of the wonderful people who have been and/or are supportive of me (they will recognize themselves). There are, of course, all the people who have supported me financially, funding my new music video, buying my CDs and merch, coming out to my shows, and inviting their friends. BIG THANK YOU!
But even if you just stopped for five minutes to give my music a listen: Thank You! If you sent me a kind message encouraging me to continue doing what I do: Double Thank You! If you have ever read about an opportunity for an indie artist (play a show, music placement, etc.) and recommended me or messaged me to let me know: Thank You! If you ever just liked my post or tweet or whatever on social media: Thank You! If you are reading this interview: Thank You! Nobody owes me anything in this world, so I am grateful for all that I get. Every little bit helps, and everything levels itself out.
And of course, thank you, Gail! You are one of those wonderful people I am honored to know! I don’t need to tell you to stay awesome, I know you will. 😉
Check out Irenka’s website (and order physical CDs): www.blackswanworld.com
Listen to more of Irenka’s music:
- ITUNES : http://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/irenka/id1229316290
- SPOTIFY : https://open.spotify.com/artist/7mQBJ0bRwVutO32zPCoWzA
- SOUNDCLOUD : https://soundcloud.com/irenkastyle
- REVERBNATION : http://www.reverbnation.com/irenka
- YOUTUBE : http://www.youtube.com/c/irenka
Connect with Irenka:
If you haven’t been to one of Irenka’s performances, it’s time you went. Her unique style, beautiful voice, and sometimes goofy sense of humor will keep you entertained until the very end!