Olaf Caarls — Folk Road Show
Olaf Caarls, 35, is an award-winning songwriter from the Netherlands. He has released 2 albums and 2 EPs with his solo-project Long Conversations. He is also a founding member of the international collective Folk Road Show, who are currently on tour in Europe in support of their new single “I Thought You’d Never Ask”.
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And then the barrier between audience and performer broke down and it’s like you’re all feeling the same thing. One big organism experiencing the same emotions.
When and why did you start playing?
I started playing drums when I was 10 or 11 and then moved on to guitar two or three years later. I wasn’t all that interested in the instrument itself. I just wanted to write songs and sing, and I needed an instrument to accompany that. Since playing with Folk Road Show I’ve also started playing other string instruments; bass guitar and mandolin to be exact.
What was the first tune(s) you learned?
My dad had this big book of all the guitar tabs of Beatles songs, so I started playing those. I started with the easy ones and then would try to find songs that had a chord I didn’t know. So I’d learn that song and learn one new chord in the process. Then I moved on to Nirvana.
Describe your family member’s musical interests and abilities.
My dad played guitar. My mom sings when she does dishes. Off key. Very much off key.
What are your fondest musical memories? At your house? In your neighborhood or town?
I remember sitting in the car with my mom, singing along to the Beatles, and I’d kinda come up with this alternative melody — I can’t remember the song — and it seemed to work. And my mom looked at me all surprised. Like I’d made the song better at that moment. That felt good.
How do you balance your music with other obligations — mate, children, job?
I work part-time jobs when we’re not touring. I don’t go on holidays. Dating can be difficult sometimes, especially when you’re away for months on end. But the upside of that is it also means I don’t have any kids yet. I don’t know how musicians have kids. I know some of them do. I just don’t know how they do it.
What drew you to the music industry?
I used to hate the industry part of it. Absolutely despised it. But a few years ago I worked for this small business in Leiden, the Netherlands, and really started enjoying making that work. Since then, I’ve kinda approached bands — and Folk Road Show especially — like a small business that we run with 4 or 5 people. I like the challenge and camaraderie of that. There’s still a lot I don’t particularly like about it, but it’s not as bad as it used to be.
Just a bunch of guys and gals in a van moving from one place to another, seeing all this beautiful scenery and meeting new people.
What is your favorite part of this line of work? Your least favorite? Why?
The traveling has gotta be my favorite part. Just a bunch of guys and gals in a van moving from one place to another, seeing all this beautiful scenery and meeting new people. Least favorite: soundcheck. I hate soundcheck.
How do you seek out opportunities? / How do you “put yourself out there”?
Play. Play. Play. You’re never gonna convince anyone with a well-crafted email, or a beautiful website, or a great Youtube video. All that shit is necessary, but it’s also very much secondary. The first year of the Folk Road Show we played every bar, every house show, every street corner, every city and town we happened upon. That kind of got us a following, and that led to bigger shows.
It’s like a penalty shootout; yes you can practice kicking the ball — and you should — but you can’t recreate the tension that comes with the actual shootout.
How often and for how long do you practice?
With Folk Road Show we usually get together for a few days before a tour and work on some new songs. Personally, I think practice is overrated, but it also depends on what kind of music you play. It’s like a penalty shootout; yes you can practice kicking the ball — and you should — but you can’t recreate the tension that comes with the actual shootout. So you just gotta do it. Over and over, in front of people.
What do you practice — exercises, new tunes, hard tunes, etc.?
I like to play cover songs by myself in my room. It’s a good way of seeing how other people work, how they write, and you might even learn a new chord along the way.
Do you collaborate with others? What is that process?
Collaboration is probably the hardest thing to do in music. It takes a lot of empathy because the point of collaboration is to see someone else’s creative process and to accept that they might be right, even if it’s not the choice you’d make in a song. Sometimes I write lyrics for other people, that’s easier because we just match the words to the melody. But writing with 4 or 5 people, as we do, is a lot of giving and taking. And sometimes somebody will come up with something, I’ll disagree, and it works in front of an audience — and then I still disagree, you know what I mean? Having said that, it’s also very exciting to combine your strengths and end up creating something you could never have created by yourself. To see them lift a song you’ve written to a level you didn’t think possible.
What was your best performance? Where? And why?
Two shows come to mind, and I think they were on the same weekend. One was a hugely intense show in this place called Burnstown, in Ontario, Canada. There was something insanely emotional about the performance. This tension in the air, but in a good way. And then the barrier between audience and performer broke down and it’s like you’re all feeling the same thing. One big organism experiencing the same emotions. Afterward, we had all these long talks with various audience members about really deep shit — death and life and suffering — that was special.
And then the next night — I think it was the next night — we played a basement in front of 120 people, and it was that same sort of feeling but completely positive, completely euphoric. We just had this massive party for 2 hours and joked and laughed, and then afterward we all drank beer and jumped into the pool together — audience and band I mean.
Do you get nervous/anxious before a performance or a competition? What method do you use to cope with it?
Yes. Drink beer. Haha, no actually sometimes making your first mistake can help. That takes the pressure off. But I’m always nervous, usually for most of the set, maybe until the last 2 or 3 songs.
Have you been to competitions? Any prizes?
I won a local competition when I was just starting to play music live, in 2008, and then made it to the final of a national competition the same year. It turned me into a really cocky, shitty, arrogant asshole for a while. I’d advise anyone to stay away from competitions if they can help it.
Would you prefer to perform one time in front of 1.000 people or 10 times in front of 100 people?
I don’t care. People are people. Playing in front of more people is harder, but that’s something you need to learn I feel.
Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to follow your path as an artist?
This is one of the hardest questions to answer because obviously, I must have decided at some point, but I don’t remember making that decision. There’s this great moment in High Fidelity where John Cusack talks about a break-up and how he found himself working in a record store 3 months later. That’s kind of what it feels like. Like a choice, you made when you were drunk, or unconscious, or somebody else made it for you when you were in a coma, or away on holidays. I remember wanting to be famous when I was younger. And then, later on, I remember wanting to create something that I would be proud to show to other people. And then I started playing gigs and recording and stuff. And I just never stopped. And now I’m still working in a record store.
Can you tell us about the process of making your work?
It usually starts with something I think might be interesting to communicate with other people. Like a thought, or a line, or an emotion, or a chord change. Right now I’m working on this song (tentatively) called “Living Backwards”, and it’s about how as we grow older we accumulate more memories, and sometimes it feels like the past is all around you. I lived in this pretty small city for about 10 years, and now whenever I’m there, I don’t see buildings, or streets, or parks; I just see the things that happened there. So that’s that building we climbed and then we yelled at the students below; there’s a house we played a show at once; there’s the park where you lifted up your shirt at 4 am; there’s the canal I fell into — ruined my phone; that’s where the kebab shop used to be; that’s where Einstein used to live; that’s the street I walked when she texted me and I ignored it for two days; that’s the exact spot she stood when I pulled on her coat and kissed her, after she’d said she was moving to Germany — just to spite me; and on and on and on and on. I think that thought is interesting enough to turn into a song. And then I try to be clever and have all the verses start at the end and end at the beginning. So I might work on that for about 2 months and then pick some chords, like G and F and maybe A minor. I care much more about lyrics than I do about chords.
Which famous musicians/groups do you admire? Why?
Silver Jews. Lou Reed. Bob Dylan. Phoebe Bridgers. David Newberry. Corin Raymond. Bright Eyes. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Wilco. Okkervil River. Belle and Sebastian. Ramses Shaffey. Mountain Goats. Will Oldham.
All of those people have been able to express something I felt but couldn’t find the words or chords for. That’s the goal I set for myself.
Which person (living or dead) would you choose if you could spend 24 hours with them? Why him/her?
Okay I had to have a cigarette to think about this one, and I decided to cheat, so I’m picking three. Either for a dinner party, or just 8 hours each. Your rules I guess.
Jeff Tweedy. ’Cause I think he could tell me exactly what is wrong with my songwriting, but he’d also be really fucking gentle about it.
Maya Angelou. ’Cause I think she’s one of the greatest writers and smartest people ever, and we come from such radically different backgrounds, so she could teach me a lot about myself.
Stephen Curry. ’Cause he combines amazing discipline with great humility. And sometimes I feel like I lack both of those qualities.
How are you currently planning your tour and gigs?
We now have booking agents for the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria — the rest we do ourselves. We try to do two or three tours a year, depending on how much new music we have coming out. April/May and September/October seem to be the best times for club shows, and then if we’re lucky we can get some festival shows for the summer too.
What is the hardest thing about working as a performer and planning your gigs?
The planning part of it is the hardest. Just making sure it works with everybody’s personal lives, and then filling Tuesdays and Wednesdays can be hard sometimes. Every venue wants a weekend date, but to make touring work — for us — we have to play four or five shows a week, so we need somebody to take the less favorable dates. So right now I let the agents fill up what they can, and then I go hunting for more shows to fill up the rest of the week.
What defines a great venue for you? Where do you see yourself performing your work?
The best venues are the ones where you can get really close to the audience. I hate that divide, so the easier you can bridge it, the better. But then there’s also really silly stuff, like a good backstage, good food, maybe a shower, or a chance to get fresh air before a show, not being bothered by or having to bother other bands playing that night. I know that seems stupid, but it just makes the entire night so much easier. Some of the guys in the band really want to play theaters, but I’m not too stoked about that. It’s so static.
Oh and a professional sound person.
That change of perspective has made communicating with venues a lot easier. And way more productive.
How has your practice changed over time? What did you look for before-what do you look for now?
I try to think of it less like approaching a venue and more like approaching a person that wants to put on a good night. Which is what we want to do. You’re looking for a business partner for one night, someone you can work with to create the best experience for anyone who’s willing to visit. So instead of saying: “can I please play at your venue”, it’s more like: “how can I help you realize the best night possible for the audience?” — and the staff for that matter. When I was younger, I honestly thought the venue was the enemy. Like they were The Man. Trying to take our money. I didn’t see that we were on the same side. That change of perspective has made communicating with venues a lot easier. And way more productive.
What do you expect from Gigtor?
Like I described above, a lot of our work is trying to source out venues, filling up next dates. And sometimes it can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. You know the right venue is out there, but it’s just hard to find. There’s endless talking to other musicians, sharing contacts and email addresses. Going over their websites to see where they’ve played, googling the right person, chasing phone numbers, etc.
If Gigtor could somehow help ease that process I think it would be a really valuable asset to any (indie) musician.
How would Gigtor change your workflow?
Hopefully, save me some time! And help me target the right venues in the right areas. Currently, we find ourselves going back to the same places because it can be hard to break into new areas if you don’t know anyone there. I think there’s a gap to be bridged by a smart app or website. Go do it!
Want to know more about Gigtor?
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