Interview | FFS 5 with Judy Blank

Photo by Satellite June

In September, singer-songwriter Judy Blank made history by becoming the first Dutch artist ever to play AmericanaFest playing a number of day parties, several radio appearances, an official showcase and Grimey’s Americanarama. In 2014 she released her piano-driven debut album, When The Storm Hits, which earned rave reviews and quickly positioned her as an international artist to watch. Since then, she’s been making a name for herself playing all over the world, from surf festivals somewhere in the south of France to open mic nights in Louisiana, to performances at major music festivals including Pinkpop, the Lowlands, Songbird Festival and North Sea Jazz in Rotterdam.

She recently released her EP Morning Sun in the US to critical acclaim, landing coverage in PopMatters, Ditty TV, Glide, The Boot, Wide Open Country, and Americana Highways. Up next is the release for a second EP this fall called Morning After.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?

I’m currently residing in Utrecht, The Netherlands. I’ve been calling it home for a little over five years now. My hometown is a very old, quaint place with a lot of history. I live in the old city center, which allows me to walk or ride my bike anywhere I need to go. Utrecht looks a lot like a mini Amsterdam, but without the tourists (and a lot more friendliness). It’s a cool town with a lot of like-minded musicians that are inspired by the ’70s, and mostly American music. It’s not always had my interest, though. 

I started playing the piano when I was 13. I grew up in a house on the levee (”dijk”) and a few doors down lived a piano teacher with a home practice. I wrote her a little note and asked if she could give me piano lessons. A few years before that, my dad had bought a decorative piano that was horribly out of tune, but I somehow managed to learn a few songs on it by ear, and then decided it was time for lessons. It was my main instrument for a few years. Until I traveled to southwest Louisiana and interned as a music teacher at Welsh Elementary, a small elementary school for a few months.

This was in 2015. The kids sang folk songs, and they really struck a chord with me. The simplicity of them. There was no piano at the house I was staying at, but someone loaned me a guitar. I played every day and I improved rapidly. At the end of my trip, I got asked to play a Sunday afternoon gig at a coffeehouse in Lake Charles called Stellar Beans — a 45-minute set of just playing guitar. The whole room was quiet, and it was a magical moment to me. When I got back to Utrecht, I bought a Gibson J-45 with my last savings, and I haven’t brought a piano to a show ever since. Changing from piano to guitar changed everything I knew about music. Singing while playing the guitar adds so much emotional depth. You can feel the sound resonate in your body, and not just in the room. The guitar feels way more natural to me and I’ve never regretted making the switch. 

As an artist, how do you define success?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve learned success is a very relative thing. When I just started out, I thought success equaled playing on big stages, have your songs played on the radio, touring all over the world and making lots of money. But when I realized that that was just a fantasy image created by the media after my first album flopped, I really had to dig deep and rediscover why I loved music so much. I was nineteen years old, had just released my debut album and kept wondering why ‘they’ (whoever ‘they’ may be) wouldn’t play my songs on the radio. I was very insecure and took every form of criticism very personally. I thought everything would be alright if I had ’success’ in my career. If only someone would pick me up and give me the opportunities I deserved. T

he truth is: you’re never simply going to get what you deserve. And there’s also no evil force that is keeping you from getting the things you want. You have to do this for you, and not for the validation you’re getting from the world. Ever since I lost my angry bone towards the industry, other artists, and the world, and started focusing on my personal development as a person and a songwriter, people started noticing me. Helping me out. Started playing my songs on the radio. I had nothing to lose when I recorded ‘Morning Sun’.

I just had a handful of songs about my growing pains as a young adult in the 21st century that I felt like were so close to me as a person, I wanted to share them with the world. Regardless of what people would think of them. Songs are my way of navigating through life, and there really isn’t a good or a bad song as long as its meaning is true to me. I trust my musical ears now, too. I have tons of goals, but they shift all the time. And that’s okay. Success to me now is staying inspired, enjoying working hard, traveling a lot, making new friends and realizing I have a pretty awesome life. The rest will take care of itself. 

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

The greatest trouble would probably be that you’re expected to be your best self all the time. Especially with social media these days, everyone is constantly sharing only the best parts of their life. It creates an image of a person that’s always happy, always available, always nice, and that’s just not true. People feel like they know me through my Instagram stories, but they don’t realize my online appearance is just a small part of who I am as a person. And with so many different social media outlets these days, people have a gazillion ways to reach out to you. I know I appear to be very approachable, but nobody sees that I’m only human and that I can only take so much information before I crash.

Random questions or comments can be overwhelming, considering the number of things people ask me on a daily basis. I honestly feel a lot of pressure to answer everybody’s questions, and fix everyone’s problems, even though I know it’s not realistic. I’m still learning how to deal with that. My other struggle is people not understanding that this is a 24/7 job, or talk about it as if it’s something I just do for fun. The whole: ‘’but what do you do for a living?’’-thing gets old pretty quickly. The support from the music community in Nashville is incredible, though. They all get it. Maybe that’s why I feel so complete when I’m there.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist/band? What do you hope to achieve?

I’m extremely happy with all the things I’ve accomplished so far. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought Morning Sun would get so much international attention. It allowed me to play South By Southwest in Austin, do my first European tour as a support for SUSTO, and even got me my Americanafest showcase two weeks ago. Especially that last festival felt like a jumpstart for my career. Eventually, I hope to be able to work and live in the States for about half of the year. I’d love to connect people through songs I write, make them feel things on a global scale. I love playing in the US and in the UK, because there is no language barrier. People in English speaking countries notice the subtleties in my songwriting, which is so cool to me. I feel like most Europeans usually pick up on about 70% of what I’m singing about. I’m new to full time touring though. My next goal is to do a solo support tour in the US soon and play more festival shows with my band throughout Europe. But then again, there are only so many goals you can set. I usually end up doing cool stuff that comes up last minute. Like I said, goals shift a lot. But if my career keeps growing gradually as it does now, I’m sure I can keep doing this for a long time. I just need to work on balancing my life the right way, so that creating music will always remain the thing I love most. That’s the ultimate goal. 

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

I have a pass that allows me unlimited access to a few small movie theaters in Utrecht, my hometown. The best twenty bucks I spend every month. With a career that’s as time-consuming as mine, it’s really nice to have a place to zone out. For me, that’s ordering a cup of coffee and watching the latest indie movie that came out at 11 in the morning. It’s like being transported to a different world for two hours. Westerns, socially charged dramas or maffia thrillers; I take something away from each one of them, whether it’s confusion, joy, or just a vibe I want to use to write about. I make notes when I hear characters say a line that sounds like a lyric to me. I wrote the saddest songs on my record, ‘Unbroken’, after watching a Flemish movie called ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’. Absolutely heartbreaking. But oh so beautiful. Inspiration is everywhere, it really is.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm