Interview: I Am Oak

I Am Oak - Photo courtesy of Nun Cafe

I Am Oak - Photo courtesy of Nun Cafe

To say that Thijs Kuijken, the folk-inspired singer-songwriter better known as I Am Oak, is getting in touch with his roots would be an understatement. Obvious word play aside, the musician – who is based out of Utrecht, the Netherlands – has named his project after his hometown, Bergeijk, which loosely means “oak mountain” in his native Dutch.

In six weeks, on June 1, Kuijken will release his third full-length, “Nowhere Or Tammensaari,” on Snowstar. What is Tammensaari? It’s a small town in Finland, the name of which translates to “oak island.” However, although located in Finland, the majority language there is Swedish, thus the town is also known as Ekenäs, which translates to “oak peninsula.”

Is all this self-referential wording coincidence? Likely not.

Take one look at Kuijken’s past releases and this overt connection back to the self and to nature makes perfect sense. Consider last year’s full-length, “Oasem,” or 2010’s debut “On Claws.” Both are albums full of songs alluding to landscapes and bodies and animals, as well as the raw organic essence of being. And while the word “oak” and its various permutations are an underlying current in everything Kuijken does, he is quick to point out that everything is connected, regardless of whether or not we acknowledge it.

“I see I Am Oak as a band from ‘Nowhere’ or ‘Anywhere,'” he explained. “There’s no real Dutch-ness about it I guess. Of course I am Dutch and I did grow up here, so there
must be something Dutch in me, thus also in the music…but what exactly?”

This non-committal attitude toward specific origins is also apparent in Kuijken’s source of inspiration, which he admitted was “everything.”

Where songwriting is concerned, he begins with the music, adding the words later to fit the structure of the song. This process can take ages, he admitted, pointing to his tendency to be a perfectionist.

“Sometimes… [I] re-write or re-record the same song dozens of times until it’s the way it ends up on a record,” Kuijken said.

Yet other times, things happen much more flawlessly than he could have expected.

One recent example is the four-song EP “Skulk,” which was released in January. Kuijken explained that it’s the fastest time that any of his ideas have come to fruition, with just two weeks between the first thought of making it and the completion of the recording.

“It began with the idea of releasing a new single…which then grew to the idea of releasing that song on a 7-inch record, which led to the idea to fill the entire 7-inch record with songs, so five minutes on each side of the 7-inch record, which meant there was room for four songs,” he shared.

The first track on the EP, “Gills,” is a song he’d written years ago. Consequently, the other three songs were written to accompany it. And once Kuijken had written and recorded them, bassist Stefan Breuer mixed the recording and drummer Tammo Kersbergen mastered it, a process which took exactly one-and-a-half weeks.

But even the fast-paced nature of the recording doesn’t phase Kuijken, particularly in regards to questions of whether or not he should have done things another way.

“When I listen back to some of the stuff I’ve done in the past, I obviously hear things that
I could’ve done differently or better, but that’s always going to happen,” he said. “At the
same time, I accept the fact that a recording is basically a snapshot of a moment in time.
So those things do not bother me.”

As an extension of this attitude, Kuijken also accepts accountability for everything that happens with I Am Oak, both good and bad, something he chalks up to being part of the territory.

“Being the one that holds the reins is both the most challenging aspect and the most
rewarding aspect of being a solo artist,” he said. “I can do anything I like, but it’s also me who is solely responsible for what I do.”

I Am Oak plays tonight at Berghain in Berlin. The show begins at 21.00.

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