When the choir dies, only the whistle sounds. His whistle. Unconcerned and reassuring, while birds chirp and the sound slowly dies on the horizon. The end of the song ‘Café de Oude Maas’ is a moment to hold your breath. Because although Trijntje Oosterhuis visually sings the story about a favorite pub at closing time, Henny Vrienten also sounds again. Whistling, four months after his death on April 25.
“Sweet, isn’t it?” says his son, bassist Xander Vrienten (35), still feeling moved. „For the new version of this song, it is on Henny’s album Still from 2014, Trijntje completely follows his singing. But we were still at the end. Trijntje said: ‘Maybe you should bass that’. Until technician Frans suddenly had the brilliant idea that he still had the recordings from then. He could get the whistle right there.”
A farmhouse in the North Holland village of Limmen. Lots of wooden panels, Persian carpet, table lamp, sofa, built-in recording equipment and a cozy kitchen diner through which you enter. This is the sound studio of engineer/producer Frans Hendriks; many Dutch artists have already settled there for recordings. Also the singer, (bass) guitarist and composer Henny Vrienten (Hilvarenbeek, 1948). He recorded his autobiographical solo albums there (three decades after Doe Maar). But also the happy album Limming Tapes (rappers made new versions of Doe Maar songs in 2012) comes from there.
Now a new record with Vrienten songs is in the making: Trijntje sings Friends with Friends. Xander, bass player for years in his father’s band (also the house band of The world goes on), by pop singer Jett Rebel and van Trijntje, takes on the role of producer for the first time in his life. With the Residentie Orkest they have become symphonic arrangements of Henny Vrienten’s most personal triptych – Still (2014), Everything is different (2015) and Between the lines (2019).
In 2018, singer Henny Vrienten turned seventy, he got a party from his family. That was really nothing for his father, such a surprise. „Out of character”, Xander Vrienten calls it. But it turned out to be a bull’s eye in the Kleine Komedie with performances by artist friends. For example, Trijntje Oosterhuis released ‘It is not about’ by Vrienten’s intimate, fragile album Still on which he – slightly hoarse talk with a Brabant accent – mused and reflected. Because of her singing voice, something else suddenly happened to that song. How she lifted it stood out.
“Henny was moved by it,” noted Trijntje (49). “He said, ‘I never knew it was such a good song. You touched me, I’m going to write something for you.’” A few weeks later, she sees him arrive on his bicycle, guitar on his back. “He really came to bring that new song.”
The singer, who released another album at the end of 2021 with songs by American composer Burt Bacharach, picks up her phone. She wants to say something. A questioning look at Xander next to her. He nods. In the old telephone recording of ‘Milk and honey’ you can hear how Henny plays it to her. Guitar sounds. Henny hums and sings soft lines. Trijntje repeats them, looking for the tune, the right pitch. When Henny starts a wordless bridge – „du, du du” – he interrupts himself with: “You can skip that too if you think it’s better.” No, you hear Trijntje say. Just beautiful.
The making process of this upcoming record is entirely in the spirit of his father, says Xander. In the computer near the mixing desk he snorts up the new version of ‘Milk and honey’. He knows no better than his father composing humming, somewhere in a corner with a guitar. “Meaningless humming notes as his fingers searched the strings. I remember his old-fashioned recorder with tapes, even on vacation. Sometimes one with several tracks, then a bass line could be added. Later, of course, that became the telephone.”
Loud about the studio boxes, Trijntje now sings and wonders who will count the stars. ‘Who frames the silence? Who provides milk and honey? Who is never in the wind?’ And now Xander is singing along.
That birthday sown a seed: Trijntje wanted to record Henny Vrienten’s solo work as a tribute to his oeuvre. The singer felt honoured, but said emphatically: this is your project, I don’t interfere with it, but I can always think along. “Because we had to feel the freedom to make our own musical choices,” says Trijntje. Henny strongly encouraged that Xander would produce. He felt strengthened by this again, especially with his father listening in “in the back seat”.
But that turned out differently. In September 2021 it was suddenly announced that Henny Vrienten was ill. What he suffered from was never disclosed by the family, but that it was serious was shown by the resolute cancellation of Doe Maar’s last tour. Nobody talked about procrastinating anymore. End of project, thought Trijntje. “Everything took a different turn.” But, Xander continues, it was Henny who kept on encouraging: “Just go and do it, then maybe I’ll hear it again.”
“It came,” he swallows. “Because I suddenly realized: yes, this is how we do it as musicians. When it became clear that he would die, this may sound pathetic, I felt very strongly: you thought this dope and I got you. We’ll finish it.”
I think I’ve checked it ten times, isn’t this a too fanatical survival mode?
Henny Vrienten passed away in April. His heritage became tangible in a flood of reactions, publications and tributes. At the Buma Awards in May, he was posthumously honored with the Lennaert Nijgh Prize, the jury prize for best lyricist. Trijntje and Xander performed a soulful song together. A month later the recordings were already with the Residentie Orkest in Amare, The Hague. The plan was from a year ago.
“I thought that you wanted to continue straight away, really bizarrely clever and special,” says Trijntje. “I think I checked ten times, isn’t this too fanatical survival mode?” Right, says Xander. “That was early. But Henny would have wanted it. However? Not theatrical of ‘go aaa son, do it’. But ‘logical, above all do it’. Music helps to process, this is our support system, you put your grief in it.” So also, he immediately continues, more than a week after the anniversary of his death, the start of the tour with singer Jett Rebel. Although everyone sympathized and urged him to rest and process, he still went on that tour bus. “All the musicians knew Henny well. There was warmth and every night I played something for my father.”
A soft look at Trijntje. “That one got me through it. It was all very loving.” Trijntje, maternally: „My heart broke. We called continuously. It was an intense time that solidified our music relationship.”
Henny Vrienten’s legacy triggers many initiatives, from film, book proposals to music. In terms of content, Xander prefers not to go into that. Although he scornfully cannot suppress how “allegedly authorized biographers” come forward. But, he underlines, behind this musical memory are Henny’s wife Gala and all five children. Xander’s eldest brother Polle and sister Meke sing along with backing vocals, youngest brother Melle has a solo. Every step has been discussed with the family again and again, that was the most important. “It’s all about what he would have wanted.”
There is a lot of him online where you see and hear Henny talk. But in these songs is his ingenuity, humor and especially feeling
Demos of the songs, recorded in the lockdowns of last winter with only the band, his father was able to hear. And? “He thought it was very nice. But like his whole life, he also immediately started hammering music content.” Xander laughs. “Henny was uncompromising in his music. But also in his advice: honest and direct. In music you have to be straight. Such as: let something be real and don’t put some decoration in between. You had to be able to withstand his directness. It always helped me a lot.”
The contrast between Trijntje’s vocal elasticity and Henny’s more limited singing capacity is great. In some of the songs she stays close to his talking vocals, vulnerable and small as in ‘Even Leven’. But she interprets a song like ‘Het goes Niet Over’ – just like at that party back then – much more loosely. High notes. A single jazzy note. “Sometimes I swerve a bit, but I mainly tried to sing without inhibitions,” she laughs.
From Xander, the band had to keep playing ‘rootsy’. “With an orchestra, there is a chance that it will become much too Disney-esque.” Trijntje, laughing: “Ha, no frills.”
Henny’s earlier solo work – more time-bound, eighties synths – was dropped. In interviews, the singer said he considers his last albums to be his sung autobiography. There is much to be found about him: his childhood, the ex-Catholic in him, his declining mother, wavering friendship, forgotten dreams and the fear of being forgotten.
Xander: „You don’t get much closer to him than those songs. There is a lot of him online where you see and hear him talk. But in these songs is his ingenuity, humor and above all feeling.”
“And the loving perspectives he always chose,” adds Trijntje. “I am very concerned about that. In ‘It’s Not About’ or ‘Even Leven’ it moves me how he observes and names what he feels. It’s very layered but it remains very real and yet it comes straight from the heart. I love that shape so much. What a professional.”
He saw the beauty in the small everyday, she continues. “Look, when I perform another song, sorry this sounds vague, it goes past my heart. Then it must be true. ‘Cause you’re gonna be that song! Though it sometimes feels is too light, too folk, artistic or puffy. I can always stand behind Henny’s lyrics.”
The fact that he now operates in the foreground as a producer and band leader is a role for Xander to get used to. He enjoyed being in the studio with the orchestra lifting his band and the contact with the arrangers. But sometimes it gnaws: that Henny isn’t there to hear it, “but I don’t have the illusion that I would do better than him.”
Trijntje wants to calm down immediately. “As an artist you jump in at the deep end for every record. The feeling that the music has to come is stronger. And believe me, it’s a gift how your talent has emerged.”
Hesitantly, Xander says it might be the load on him, too. Recording music so soon after your father passed away. That’s why he wants to tell you how it went. „And I also wish that no one could say: what a sell outthat Trinity. I want to emphasize that Henny was proud to do it.”
Would the record be different if he were still alive? Silence.
“Perhaps a little less emotion here and there,” says Xander. “But I think exactly the same.” Except, says Trijntje, “that you had let him play something yourself”.
The album Trijntje sings Friends with Friends will be published January 27. Concerts: 27/1 Amare, The Hague; 31/1 Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. Television: Saturday 3/9 at Matthijs Continues.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 3, 2022