Interview with singer-songwriter Marlene Bakker

Marlene Bakker sings in Gronings, the dialect spoken in the Dutch province of Groningen.  We had a chat with her and talked about what this minority language means to her and how it affects her music.

Hi Marlene! Who are you?

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My name is Marlene Bakker, I am a singer/songwriter. About 7 years ago I started to study the Groninger language and started writing in dialect. I liked it so much that I wrote an album together with Bernard Gepken. Last summer, my debut album was recorded, containing my own work fully in Gronings. The album will be released in early 2018.

You released a new single on 10 November, Waarkhanden. What is this song about? What does this song mean to you personally?

The song Waarkhanden is about going back to your roots after being away for a long time. The feeling of being homesick together with the fear of going back are mixed in this song, in which you can conclude that blood is thicker than water. Now that I look back at the song I think it’s also a declaration of love for Groningen. I grew up in a small village called Smeerling in Groningen with a lot of cultural heritage. I think this place is magical, there is so much history in the air and I feel connected to the area. When I was 17, I moved to Brabant [a province in the south of the Netherlands] to study at the Rock Academy. Once there, I became very aware of my roots and I really missed Groningen. As a result, I started listening to Ede Staal, a singer who sings in Gronings. I have been living in Groningen for a number of years now and I do not intend to leave again.

You sing in Gronings. Was this a conscious decision, and if so, why did you make this choice?

I always wrote and sang in English at the Rock Academy. The idea to do something with Gronings was always in the back of my mind, but I put it off for a long time because I was raised in Dutch. My whole family is Gronings, my parents speak dialect with each other but have always spoken Dutch to us. At one point I just tried it to see if I could write and sing in Gronings and moreover, I was curious to see the reaction of the audience during performances. After that, I attended a number of courses in Gronings and I started reading a lot of Groninger literature. When I started to write in Gronings, I noticed that I was writing differently. I discovered that the dialect is very close to my heart and that many of my English songlyrics were much better when I rewrote them into Gronings. Apparently I had unconsciously incorporated quite a lot of it into my English work.

How does the audience respond to your choice to sing in Gronings?

The response from the audience is very enjoyable for me. Last summer, for example, I played at Noorderzon [a festival in the city of Groningen]. Here you reach a lot of people who have never listened to music in Gronings and are very open-minded. There was a couple that thought I came from Norway! I often get reactions like this, from people who come to me and find the sound to be very Celtic or even Scandinavian. In addition, some people say to me that they didn’t like Gronings until they heard my music. Gronings is often said to be very harsh-sounding. I try to show the poetic side of Gronings in my singing, because there is certainly poetry in the Groninger dialect! What I find particularly special about singing in dialect is that it gives a very unique atmosphere to a performance. The public listens much more attentively, and the response is more emotional. It often reminds people of their past, their youth and their hometown. It’s a very special experience, and reason for me to focus completely on writing songs in dialect.

What does the Groninger dialect mean to you and how does this affect your writing?

Because I started to write in the dialect I became very aware of my own dialect. There are eight variants of Gronings and I found out that I am very inclined to East Gronings. In addition, as a songwriter, I am very much aware that you are also some kind of a role model. My texts are listened to and also read, so they must be correct in terms of spelling and grammar. After performances, people often come to me and say they speak differently from my singing. In the beginning I was pretty insecure about that, but I’ve learned that everyone speaks their own dialect and that there is no right or wrong in which version you use.

Furthermore, it is very interesting to be working with the dialect. I have to make choices with every song: What spelling do I use, is the sentence structure correct, am I going to use this old Groninger word, which is very beautiful but is hardly used at all? In November I gave a lecture together with Jan Glas and Goffe Jensma about the future of the Groningen dialect. In this lecture Jan and I explain how we deal with Gronings and which choices we make when we write in Gronings. People often do not realize that as a poet you make completely different choices than when you speak a dialect. On the one hand you have a lot of freedom as a songwriter, but on the other hand it has to be accurate. In addition, Gronings is alive like any other language and dialect. It changes, words disappear and new words arise. I would like to write texts in Gronings that I would also speak. That means that my Gronings is a younger version of Gronings than what other people might speak. This sometimes causes a discussion, but that doesn’t matter, everyone is entitled to dialect. And as long as we can discuss Gronings, it is alive and kicking.

What are your plans for the future?

In february my debut album RAIF comes out nationwide. I will then tour with my band. On January 17th, I will be playing at Grunnsonic/Eurosonic in the city of Groningen.

Do you have a message for people who speak a minority language?

Keep talking your language and pass it on!

Read more about Marlene on her website, watch the video Waarkhanden by Marlene Bakker below, or see her live at her next performance in Groningen at Grunnsonic / 17 January 2018 / 21:50 / Nachtcafé Warhol.