As the lead singer of Belgian group K's Choice, Sarah Bettens found fame with fraught anthems like 'Not An Addict' and 'Almost Happy'. Now, 10 years later, she's a succesful solo artist and has swapped the angst of her youth for a long-term relationship and parenthood.
On the eve of a South African tour to promote her new album 'Shine', we speak to her about going her own way, living up to expectations, life at home, the possibility of a K's Choice reunion with her brother Gert, and making deals on eBay.
'Shine' is the second project you've done alone ? what did you learn from doing your first solo album 'Scream' that you tried to avoid this time around?
This time, I avoided having to prove something. The pressure was off, because I had already made that first one and my confidence level was way up. I also wanted to record the songs with the band I had been playing live shows with to give the record a more organic and ?real? feel. When I made the first solo album, I just wanted to do things differently than how I had done them before, I wasn?t too worried about that for the second one. I just wanted to make it in a way that felt right.
Working as a solo artist obviously gives you more freedom to do what you like. But do you miss anything from working in a band setup, or with your brother specifically?
I miss my brother, period. And I miss the sounding board that he provided. I have to decide myself now whether something?s good or not, where before that was always my brother?s job. I still feel like I?m in a band, because I love the guys who play with me and as much as possible, I try to play with the same people all the time.
Are there certain expectations fans have of you? And if so, is that frustrating? Or do you make your music for yourself and hope that the fans like it?
I?m sure the fans have expectations, but I can?t worry about that too much. I make music because I love it and I can only write what I like. I care about what the fans think, but I don?t take it into consideration while I?m writing or while I?m recording a record. And I definitely don?t take it into consideration when I?m deciding what hair color I?m going to have.
Who did the cover art for 'Shine'? Why did you choose that picture in particular?
I organised a drawing contest at our local elementary school in Tennessee, because I wanted the cover art to be real and innocent and full of hope. A seven-year-old boy made that drawing with his interpretation of the word ?shine?. I just think that drawing is so perfect and happy, I loved it from the very first time I saw it.
You wrote the song 'Shine' for your step-daughter. How did she respond to having a song written about her?
She was very happy with it and she felt very loved. She?s a teenager now, so it?s getting more and more challenging to find ways to connect with her. But we?re still close and she?s still on track to turning into a great woman.
'Daddy's Gun' is one of the most striking songs on 'Shine'. Why did you decide to write about gun control?
It?s just something that?s very alive here in the States, because so many accidents happen and gun control is such a hot topic. When I saw the statistics, I couldn?t believe it, yet the laws here are not strict at all when it comes to purchasing or owning a gun. It?s a debate that will continue and I wanted to throw it out there in the hopes it would spark more conversation and eventually change.
What issues get you angry/emotional enough to write about? Is writing something you do all the time, kind of part of your day, or is it something you have to force yourself to do?
Writing is something I do all year long when I feel inspired. Anything that creates innocent victims makes me angry enough to want to write, like war or guns or even things like the environment, ecucation, etc... I find myself interested in politics and what goes on around me more and more, so I feel like those things are going to come up in my songs once in a while.
You did some work with Hurricane Katrina survivors. How did you get involved with that? Is this something you'd write about?
I went to New Orleans to help build houses with an organization called Habitat For Humanity. It was a great experience to really be using a drill and hammer to build someone?s house. I felt that I had the time to dedicate a week instead of donating money. My girlfriend had already gone once and she inspired a new group to go back, so we did with her dad and a few friends. Yes, I could see that being something I would write about, since there?s still so much to be done, and the world is forgetting, moving on to new tragedies.
What is it like living as a European in the US? In the past you have mentioned that people are less accepting when it comes to sexuality for example. How do you feel that so much of the media attention around you a few years ago focused on you coming out?
I don?t really get a chance to miss Belgium too much, because I go back there to play so often. And when I do, I make sure to visit with family and friends. As a country, it will always feel like home, but I don?t miss it. Home now is where my family is and that?s in America. It?s much warmer there. [smile]
I live in a not so liberal part of America and that poses its own challenges sometimes, but mostly I?ve made very good friends there and I love my life when I?m home. The media always wants to focus on something juicy and I guess me being gay fell under that category. It doesn?t bother me at all, as long as people don?t forget to listen to my music.
If you could say one thing to George W Bush, what would it be?
You didn?t do good.
What's an average day like for you when at home?
I wake up at 6 to get one of the kids up and ready for school. While they?re at school, I try to get some work done, like writing or playing or preparing for something. I also work out and stop everything for a daily excellent, healthy lunch with my girlfriend. After school, we make sure the kids get their school stuff done, then we play outside a little, have dinner and do a long nightly going to bed routine. On a week when the kids are with their dad, it?s a whole different deal. [smile]
In the summer, we?ll be out on the lake a lot wakeboarding and waterskiing and going to my stepson?s baseball tournaments. It?s a good life.
How do you stay sane on tour? And now with kids it must be difficult to spend a long time away from them.
I stay sane by living in the moment and surrounding myself with people I want to be with. If I?m doing something that I love and that genuinely feels good, I know I didn?t say goodbye to my family for no reason. Also, I make the most of my time at home. I?m very present and very much involved in the kids? lives.
When you listen back to songs from 10 years ago, like 'Not An Addict', what do you think? And how do you feel you've changed since then?
I think I?ve matured a lot - or I hope I should say - and sometimes it?s hard to remember what I was thinking or what I was like. So much has changed and I?ve found a balance now that was absent back then. I?m much calmer and I have a hard time understanding the part of me that never knew I was gay!
What was it like to put on the K's Choice hat again for your recent "reunion" tour in the US?
I absolutely loved it and it sparked conversation between us about the future. We have no definitive plans yet, but we know we?ll work together again. I would love to make another record with him as K?s Choice and I?m pretty sure he feels the same.
In one of your MySpace blogs you mentioned bidding for something on eBay. Is it something you do often?
I love eBay! Almost more for getting rid of my crap than for finding good deals. It?s such a great way to find things. I buy used DVDs and books and used snowboard gear for the little ones.
What are you listening to at the moment?
Death Cab For Cutie. I discovered them a little late, but I?m loving it.
What recent album could you recommend?
?Comet? by Woodface (my brother?s band).
What's the most embarrassing CD in your collection or song on your iPod?
Barry Manilow. It?s my girlfriend?s!
What song do you wish you'd written?
'I Can?t Make You Love Me' by Bonnie Raitt. It?s the saddest song ever.
What's the strangest show you've played?
Our first American radio station visit. We thought they were going to let us play on air and we were so excited. It turned out that we were just there to entertain them with a few songs around a conference table while they were wolfing down pepperoni pizza.