Ilse DeLange - Under The Spotlight

First Published in Country Music International – November 1998

21-year-old Ilse DeLange made country music history by becoming the first European act to land a major label deal in Nashville, and her debut album, WORLD OF HURT, has topped the charts in Holland

Some artists possess an intangible ‘X factor’ that allows them to ascend to the heights of mega-stardom. Flaxen-haired 21-year-old Dutch country singer Ilse DeLange exudes that quality, and then some. This past summer Holland has had DeLange mania, as she has taken the Dutch music scene by storm.

With a historic joint-venture long-term development deal between Warner Music Benelux and Warner-Reprise Nashville under her belt, she is the first European country act to land a major-label deal in Nashville. Although country music is not big business in Holland, Ilse’s new-found notoriety has come under the kind of media scrutiny usually reserved for the big pop players.

Whisked off to Nashville to work with ace producer Barry Beckett on her first album earlier this year, she became the subject of a documentary televised nationwide across Holland and parts of Germany and Belgium this September. The album, WORLD OF HURT became a chart-topper, knocking the big-selling Acda & De Munnik off the top of the Dutch pop charts, while the single, I’m Not So Tough, became one of the fastest-selling singles of the summer.

“This is like a dream come true,” she enthuses. “I’ve always wanted to sing country, always wanted to make an album, and always wanted to go to Nashville. For it to happen in this way is quite unbelievable.”

In the Netherlands, country music still suffers from the image problems of Stetsons, six-shooters and haystacks, and DeLange knows all about it. “I’ve been laughed at at school, but I couldn’t give a toss,” she says. “I always knew what I wanted. I’m prepared to take the rocky road to success.”

At just 14 years old she came to the attention of the thriving Dutch country music club scene and started singing with the local bands The Neighbors and Silver Streak. She was invited to work with them at shows, not only in Holland, but also in Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland. Through her success in talent contests she was also featured on national TV talk shows like Tineke, Telekids and The 5 O’clock Show.

Country music promoter Kees DeHaan paired Ilse with the well-established Cash On Delivery. This band had been working the European country circuit for a number of years and were able to give the teenager the kind of musical accompaniment and professional grounding so important for a budding performer. She also forged a friendship with guitarist Joop Van Leifland, who not only taught her guitar, but also helped her land opening spots for international acts such as The Goods, Kathy Chiavola, Prairie Oyster and Michelle Wright.

Her talent was also noticed by Canadian artist Bobby Lalonde, who in 1996 invited Ilse to tour in Canada and also cut a demo on her in his own studio. In the meantime, she had unknowingly come to the attention of major international players like Bob Saporiti, head of international at Warner/Reprise Nashville, and Menno Timmerman of BMG Holland. They had seen Ilse perform at the Dutch Country Music Association awards in April 1994, and were impressed by the 16-year-old’s stage presence and vocal skills.

After Timmerman had moved to Warner Music Benelux as product manager the pair were able to put together a joint deal to offer to their respective label heads. The Canadian demos came into play and label head Jim Ed Norman gave the go-ahead for the joint venture.

The first obstacle was to find suitable songs and a producer for her album. Some 800 songs were pitched to Ilse by Nashville’s publishing community and she found that she was to work with her first choice of producer, Barry Beckett, renowned for his work with Bonnie Raitt, Neal McCoy, Delbert McClinton and Vern Gosdin.

“I got all the sessioneers and backing singers I wanted,” she says, still awestruck. “Even my hero, Vince Gill, showed up. I couldn’t believe my luck.” She also got to cut four songs that she co-wrote with top Music Row songwriters Liz Hengber and Rob Crosby. “He stimulated me constantly,” she says of Crosby, who is now a firm friend. “Instead of critising my English, he appreciated my own simple lingual constructions, such as in What does your heart say now? In Dutch that’s a totally normal phrase; in English, Rob thought it came across as quite different and poetic”

WORLD OF HURT is a uniformly compelling album that presents a mature woman who knows what the world is about and who stands ready to handle it. The title tune, a Beth Nielsen Chapman song, veers towards pop, while her own What Does Your Heart Say Now is a nicely-layered track whose infectious power-pop melody and inventive guitar lines have potential beyond mainstream country.

The single release of I’m Not So Tough took Holland be storm. Written by Nashville writers Robert Ellis Orrall, Bruce Bouton and Hillary Lindsey, the single became a major radio add-on, resulting in Ilse being featured in numerous live interviews.

In September she returned to Nashville for CMA week, and the day after she arrived back home, she hit the road with her newly-formed band for a string of one-nighters across Europe. “It’s all very hectic,” she admits, “but this is what I’ve been working for and I must make the most of it while I can. If, by chance, it doesn’t last, I won’t let it worry me, just as long as I can still get out there and sing country music. That’s what I live to do,”