It’s rare when a group manages to sustain its former success upon replacing its lead singer. Astonishingly, Belgium’s Hooverphonic has had this experience three times yet is thriving. Turns out, fourth time’s the charm with their latest figurehead, Noémie Wolfs.
It isn’t just the voice of Hooverphonic that keeps changing—the group’s overall sound is constantly evolving. Over the course of seven albums since its inception in 1995, Hooverphonic’s sound has been classified as trip hop, electro-pop, alternative and now orchestral-pop. No matter what the genre, the group is a favorite of music supervisors everywhere, turning up in films, television shows and commercials internationally. The band was even commissioned to write and perform a song (“Visions”) for the European Football Championship 2000.
Hooverphonic’s most recent album, The Night Before, has gained the band the kind of traction they haven’t experienced since their ubiquitous 1996 track “2Wicky.” The recent U.S. release of the album (it’s already been out in Europe a few years) comes enhanced with the group’s cover version of Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy” as well as live versions of standout tracks “One Two Three,” “Anger Never Dies,” the title track and a new song, “Harmless Shapes.” With its sweeping orchestrations, lavish melodies and insistent pop hooks, The Night Before is the perfect showcase for Wolfs’ pliable yet distinctive voice.
Only 22 when she joined core band members Alex Callier and Raymond Geerts, Wolfs doesn’t take center stage only when performing. Gregarious, friendly and confident, Wolfs brims with personality. She likes to talk and has opinions on everything, which she shares in a close, personal tone suggesting the sort of whispered confessions typically heard at an all-girls’ slumber party. Though promptly thrown into the limelight, Wolfs seems comfortable there, just being herself.
Taking it in stride, Wolfs is handling all the attention like a pro. Her smile fills the computer screen on a Skype session conducted from her second home, Callier’s studio. Boxx Magazine contributor Lily Moayeri spoke to Wolfs and her barely hidden alter ego, a potential James Bond theme song vocalist.
Lily Moayeri: What were you doing before you were asked to join Hooverphonic?
Noémie Wolfs: I was in my last year of art school, studying graphic design. When we were recording The Night Before I was traveling between school to do my final exams and to the studio. I was always one of the best in my class, but the last year was going down slowly. My teachers were asking, “What’s happening? Why aren’t you interested? If we give you some Master’s classes you’re not interested. If we do some workshops, you’re not there, so what’s happening?” I told them, “I found my real passion: working in the studio making music. That’s where I want to be. That’s where my heart is.” My teachers were very open with that because I had a connection with them. I could explain, not on a student-teacher level…that I wanted do to something else and they agreed. When I walked into Alex’s studio for the first time, I immediately knew: this is where I want to be.
LM: How did Hooverphonic go about searching for a new singer?
NW: They did an audition. They spoke to different media channels. They used their website. Twitter and Facebook weren’t as prevalent in those days so they used the Belgian media. They used online newspapers. You had to send in a demo, then got invited to their studio to sing “Mad About You.” That was the test. If you couldn’t sing “Mad About You,” then [you were not an] option because it’s a song Hooverphonic has to do the rest of its life. They got applications from all over the world: Russia, Poland, Kenya.
I auditioned two times. I saw an ad on TV and my father said, “You’ve made a demo recently; send in your demo, you have nothing to lose.” I sent in the demo, they invited me, then I didn’t hear back from them. I was on the train a couple of weeks later, reading a local newspaper and there was an ad again. I was like, “You never called me back and here’s your ad again?” So I applied for the second time. They weren’t going to get rid of me. I was very persistent. Alex told me later they were quite surprised I applied again—that was when they knew I had balls of steel and that’s why they invited me a second time.
I didn’t hear from them for half a year so I put it aside and went on with my life. All of a sudden I got a phone call saying, “Oh hi, this is Alex,” and I was like, “Alex who?” “Alex Callier from Hooverphonic.” It was a nerve-racking six months, I can tell you that.
LM: How did you make the demo?
NW: It was just a homemade thing. I searched for karaoke versions [of songs] online. Alex told me later that the reason they wanted to invite me the first time was because they loved my choices. They got a lot of classic songs and cover versions of Celine Dion and Mariah Carey. I chose Minnie Riperton, Sheryl Crow, KT Tunstall and Michelle Branch, the song she did with Santana, “The Game Of Love.”
LM: Do you have a musical background?
NW: None whatsoever. When we’re writing songs or rehearsing with the band, they’re always talking in this weird musician code, and I don’t know what they’re saying. For me, it’s, “Hey guys, I wrote a song! Here is it, but I don’t know which notes or which chords I used.” They explain this musical language to me in an easier language so it’s more comprehensible. They have told me, “You don’t have to know musical theory to write stuff.” It’s true. I can’t read any sheet music, but that doesn’t limit me in my performances or in the way I write songs. From my point of view now, I’m very spontaneous. Everything I do music-wise comes from the heart. It’s very honest.
LM: So you have been involved in the songwriting?
NW: Not on The Night Before because the songs already existed. For me, the creative part on that album was to make my own versions, make up my own stories and do my own thing with the songs. Alex and Raymond gave me lots of space to do that, walk into my own adventure and tell my own story through material that already existed.
For the album we’re recording now, I wrote a couple of tracks. It’s cool because I told everybody I had the ambition to become more than just an image and the voice of a band. I really wanted to become part of the things I sing. Alex and I have this great connection and I am learning a lot from him. It’s like being in class again, first row, learning from the master. It’s a luxury position.
LM: What was your impression of Hooverphonic before you joined?
NW: I knew they were quite big in Belgium, but I wasn’t a first-row fan. You don’t have to be a fan to sing in a band. The guys were glad because when you’re performing you look at the front row since those are the people you can see. It would have been weird for them if they were playing with someone who was standing in the front for years. For them I was fresh, with an open view, not attached to the old voices. And for me it was a relief because I could do my own thing, interpret the way I wanted to. It was not like I have to fill the shoes of the previous singer. I don’t know her so I can do it my way.
LM: Hooverphonic has changed a lot since its inception. This is yet another change, both sonically and aesthetically.
NW: They’ve evolved so much during their career. If I’m in another country, I go to a record store to check out if our CD is somewhere around. I was in New York a couple of years ago [and went to] check for us: pop, no pop; okay, foreign music then; no, not that section either. It was in the dance section. They were dance, like 100 years ago—they were trip hop. Now it’s something totally different. Every album changes. I think that’s the most interesting part.
LM: Is it boring to be promoting The Night Before all over again three years after it was first released?
NW: Not at all because nowadays it’s a mix. It’s like I’m between two movies. I’m in the James Bond movie, playing my role, being very luxurious and glamorous. On the other side we’re working on a new album, a new movie, a Beach Boys/California ‘60s movie. I can travel between two worlds and that works out very well. I think I’m even more focused than when I was doing The Night Before. And we toured with that album for almost three years.
LM: What are your expectations for when you come to the U.S.?
NW: I don’t know the American market. I get an update from America every week. It’s something totally different. I live in a country with 10 million people and five radio stations. America is huge, so many radio stations, and with the college radio stuff, I just didn’t know. It’s weird for me to adjust.
When the guys toured the US, they were my age. It’s nostalgic for them. They have so many memories. My first Hooverphonic dinner Raymond told me they did the MTV Music Awards and shared a cab with Beck and went into the studio with Lou Reed. That’s not happening now, but it’s the beginning [for me] and I’m really anxious to go there. I can see in their eyes that they are as anxious as I am.
We will be taking an orchestra, not the big one we use in Belgium, but a little orchestra of nine or ten people. It gives it a totally different vibe. Their body language, the way they act on stage with their instruments, it gives energy, it gives inspiration. I’m the one that posts on Facebook and Twitter and keeps track of that. The replies from America are always very spontaneous and very positive. I’m feeling a warm welcome.
LM: What was the idea behind doing a cover of Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy?”
NW: That was a Belgian radio station. There was a period of time that five life-changing records came out: Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Metallica’s Black [Metallica’s self-titled fifth album, also known as The Black Album], Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. They asked us, “Can you do a cover version from one of the tracks on Blue Lines?” Alex immediately said no, because it’s a trip hop band and that’s Hooverphonic’s background. It’s too literal, too easy in a way. If Hooverphonic would do something from Metallica, that would be cool because it’s something you can’t connect together. So he rejected the offer. He was in the studio with a friend and asked him to play “Unfinished Sympathy” on his piano, which gave Alex the idea to do a stripped down piano/vocal version, away from all computer samples of the original. So we did and got a huge response. Everybody was so enthusiastic that we put it in our live show. The orchestra added strings and we’ve been playing it live for a year and a half. It’s weird when a song starts to live another life than what you were expecting.
Buy The Night Before