V is for voice. – that voice, Dani Klein’s voice, the voice of Vaya Con Dios. A voice that turns sound into visions. A voice that can both break and mend your heart . A voice that may well be the missing link between Delta blues and French chanson, between Atlanta soul and space-rock, between new world and new wave. A voice that, when it first hit the airwaves, left most of us unable to believe that it belonged to an ordinary Brussels girl.
A is for ache – the ache that takes us to brighter places. Dani was raised in a grey Brussels suburb where there was nowhere to play but a street leading to a graveyard – little wonder she longed for the future to waltz up and whisk her away from those silent streets. In her parents’ apartment she would lose herself – and find herself – in the colour and swoon of her music-loving father’s records. Jazz, samba, opera, pop, rock ’n’ roll, bossa nova, classical... you name it, she’d play it (she was possibly the only girl in the neighbourhood whose vinyl veered from Dalida to Leonard Cohen, via Eddie Cochran, Maria Callas and Otis Redding). In her teenage daydreams Dani was a singer, a star. Like all healthy teens, she was just aching for life.
Y is for young guns – havin’ some fun. So here we are a few years later, hanging out in über-cool nightspots like the Archiduc, Beau Bruxelles and D.N.A. You could imagine bumping into Bowie and Iggy here – it’s like being in West Berlin! All very dark and intense but, above all, stimulating. Places for hooking up with like-minded souls who are as alienated as you by the creeping corporatisation of the local indie scene. Artists, writers, musicians... Before long, Dani is the vocalist in a band called Arbeid Adelt! They’re amazing (see C is for curios, below).
A is for accident and ambition. What would have happened if Dirk Schoufs – bassist in rockabilly outfit The Wild Ones – hadn’t bumped into Dani Klein one strange and fateful night? What if they hadn’t met Scabs guitarist Willy Lambregt? What was wrong with taking, say, rock ’n’ roll and splicing it with, say, a bit of gypsy music or flamenco or chanson or soul – or all of them at once? What if Dani, Dirk and Willy hadn’t realised that they didn’t have to live on the margins – that anyone is entitled to a place in the limelight if they can deliver depth and quality?
And thus, in 1986, Vaya Con Dios was born. Their debut gig was in a clothes boutique in Ghent; a year later they’d conquered the continent. In the meantime, Dani and Dirk had fallen in love. More after this brief intermission...
...C is for curios. For the full Vaya picture check out the following fascinating oddities. First up, a charming cassette of children’s songs recorded by Dani around 1980. Secondly, get hold of anything you can by Arbeid Adelt!, the unsung heroes of post-punk whose proto-techno has been ripped off by many but equalled by few. Finally, let’s fast-forward to 1999 and Purple Prose by Purple Prose, Klein’s low-key comeback some four years after she’d taken her leave of the pop life.
O is for oh, oh, oh – it’s magic! And o is for oh my God. And o is for being number one almost everywhere in Europe. It drives you all mad with happiness. But the pressure makes the group tire of each other. Willy has already left, Dirk and Dani stay together but start to feel the strain. Not that the music suffers, as N demonstrates...
N is for Nah Neh Nah – the track that contains everything about Vaya Con Dios. All their songs somehow reconcile extremes of joy and melancholy, moods both blue and blissful. Despite their commercial success, Dirk and Dani separate while making the 1990 “Night Owls” album. It was to be the last time the couple worked together.
D is for doubt, dashed dreams, and despair. The group were selling millions and touring furiously. Dirk and Dani’s relationship cracked under the pressure. They split; Dirk left the group. A year later, he was dead. Devastated, Dani went on working, working through the grief – grief that manifested itself on touching tracks like ‘Farewell Song’ on 1992’s lovely Time Flies.
I is for instinct – the instinct for self-preservation. By the mid-Nineties, Dani felt she had lost herself to fame. Now it was time to find herself again. Making 1995’s Roots and Wings album confirmed this. Working and touring with session musicians rather than musical partners, she felt isolated. Her physical health was suffering, but the pressures to perform remained as immense. The final straw came during a European tour when, despite being laid low with a vicious throat infection, Dani felt almost forced to go on stage every night. Enough was enough.
O is for over and out... for a few years, anyway. Dani stepped out of the public eye. For the first time in a long time, she thought about herself – who
she was, what she wanted, her needs. She caught up with her family and friends again; she studied psychoanalysis and philosophy. Ever the vagabond, she traveled the world, exploring the States, Mexico, Senegal, India, Cape Verde, Cuba, and buying a house on a hill in deepest Andalusia. Gradually, the desire to write and record as Vaya Con Dios returned – but this time strictly on her terms. In 2004 she and producer Jean-Pol Van Ham released The Promise, a happy, summery whirl – the work of a woman who had finally found herself.
S is for secrets. For a woman who has spent much of her adult life in the spotlight, Dani Klein has always insisted on her privacy. It’s nothing to do with mystique – more self-preservation.
That’s why the Proust Questionnaire could have been created for her. It is a list of questions compiled by Marcel Proust. Its answers reveal more about someone than any shared confidence.