Daniël Lohues’s remote house in Drenthe lies at the end of a long muddy road, largely obscured by trees and shrubs. Hidden from the outside world.
Once inside, I discover the living room is cluttered with piles of books. There are baskets in baskets filled with crumpled-up cardboard. Cowboy hats are scattered across the floor. It’s not messy exactly, more like organized chaos.
And of course, lots of musical instruments – a dozen guitars, electric and acoustic. Hanging on walls, laying on the ground, relaxing in various chairs. There are bass guitars. A mandolin, banjo, and sitar. There are countless harmonicas. An accordion, harmonium, and pan flute. And a plastic “practice-trombone”, as he calls it.
Next to the kitchen is a grand piano. The Dutch call these a ‘vleugel’, literally translated as a wing. “The real one’s in the back,” Daniël tells me in a raspy voice.
“Why does one man need two of them?” I ask.
“Birds also need two wings to fly, don’t they?” he replies matter-of-factly, before letting out a chuckle.
Daniël (51) is a Dutch singer-songwriter and producer who has lived in Drenthe for most of his life. As part of pop-band Skik, he gained nationwide popularity singing in the province’s dialect ‘Drents’.
The hit song “Op Fietse” (=on a bike), sung in that dialect, catapulted him to stardom in 1997. He toured the country, performing at all the big TV shows and festivals. Pinkpop, Lowlands, you name it. “We even opened for international acts like Bon Jovi.”
Daniël has since composed film music, released two blues albums, collaborated with the biggest names in Dutch music, taken his storytelling into the theater, and written hundreds of columns for northern newspaper Dagblad van het Noorden.
He now lives in his house and studio in Erica, a small quiet village in the south of Drenthe. Sitting at a table in his living room, illuminated by dull orange lighting, I spoke to the lively, yet modestly-dressed, curly-haired singer.
We talk about traveling, Dutch traditions, storytelling and a recent burn-out, occasionally interspersed with his imitations of Louisiana blues brothers and Prince’s guitar playing.
It’s November 1st of 2022, exactly 25 years since “Op Fietse” shot into the Dutch Top 40 chart.
Daniël remembers drinking his morning coffee at this same table, going out for a bike ride, and returning to write the most recognizable song of his career. “When I was done with the lyrics, I didn’t scratch through any word. I wrote it down and knew ‘that’s something else’.”
And that seems to be the pattern for how he works. “It’s how I do it,” Daniël says, “it’s what you see here. This room. For a lot of people, this is a totally socially unacceptable space, but for me it’s what works best.”
He also often sits at the back of his garden, looking over the flat, green landscape, when music pops into his head, and uses a voice memo app to capture those fleeting moments.
Skik was born in the greenhouse of bassist Maarten’s father. Saturday afternoons consisted of deafening jam sessions using whatever equipment they could get their hands on. “We had a broomstick, with rope, and a plastic microphone that cost €12,95.”
He roars with infectious laughter as he says it.
It’s the quality of the music that’s always been the most important for Daniël. He isn’t out to please any particular group of people or intentionally write hit songs.
Music’s practically part of his DNA. His father played the organ for the local church’s youth choir, while his mother’s half of the family had a real talent for storytelling.
“That was a very lucky combination to be brought up with,” he says.
As a baby, Daniël would crawl toward his father’s organ. By the time he was seven, he accompanied the choir just like his father. But his ambitions lay elsewhere: he yearned for a guitar. His parents eventually gave in to this new obsession. He still has it, albeit in two pieces laying in the hallway.
The man’s entirely self-taught, a quality that guided him to many other instruments.
“Playing an instrument is not difficult for me, because I just really wanted it,” he says without losing his humility. Similar to his musical hero Prince, he’d learn instruments based on what he needed musically and play them in his own way. He grabs a guitar to illustrate.
Daniël holds an empty glass against the strings, emulating the slide guitar technique popularized by Mississippi Delta blues musicians. By tuning it differently and leaving out a string, his play closely resembles the Rolling Stones. He figured this out, which in turn inspired him. “But I’ve never had a guitar lesson in my life.”
He constantly finds ways of reinventing himself. In 2002, his storytelling prowess took him into print media, developing a passion for writing short, relatable stories that catered to a northern public. And he’s still at it, having penned another 25 columns since I interviewed him.
“I never expected it. I know a lot about music, but literature not so much,” he says.
I make a remark about his towering bookcase.
“Yeah, but I don’t have a lot of proper literature. Mostly biographies, dictionaries, cookbooks, travel books.”
He also found his way to the theater, marrying his stories with his musicianship. “That was the best period of my life. I’d started something new again, which was awesome because people also liked it.”
It’s on stage and telling stories that Daniël feels most at home. “Like a fish in the water,” the Dutch saying goes. He feels a sort of kinship with the troubadours from the Middle Ages: “traveling from place to place in a covered wagon, or in my case a Chevrolet, on to the next castle-moat to tell my stories.”
In 2006, his show Allennig (= alone) earned him critical acclaim and the song “Annelie” won the Annie M.G. Schmidt prize, crowning it as best theater song of that year. It too was sung in Drents.
This Lower-Saxon dialect is a trademark for the singer. It’s funny without meaning to be funny. It’s malleable and rhymes naturally. It’s home.
“Rather than saying the door is open, we’ll say the door is loose.” He tells me Dutch verbs like ‘gehad’ or ‘gezien’ become ‘had’ and ‘zien’. Shorter words that you can spread out more. In fact, ‘smeren’ (=to spread) sounds more like ‘smeern’ in Drents.
The dialect is such a big part of his music that even his blues albums, recorded in Louisiana with an American band, remained Drents.
Although few Dutch people speak it, Daniël credits its success to its English connection, an Anglo-Saxon language. “The standard language for Rock & Roll, for Pop music, is English. So a lot of early Skik fans who heard it on the radio mistook it for that.”
For those that speak Drents, his music felt empowering. “People took a little pride out of my music. Then you’ve really achieved something.” They might be the “last of the Mohicans,” but as Daniël says “I’m at peace with that.”
Yet some look down on Drenthe, ridiculing its people for being from the countryside and speaking that ‘old-fashioned’ dialect. “Oh, that’s why you’ve got curly sheep’s hair on that head of yours,” his old factory colleagues in Bussum used to say to him.
In 2021, Dutch television show Even Tot Hier featured a parody of “Op Fietse”. Comedians Van der Laan & Woe put on a Drents accent and sang about the danger of e-bikes. But Daniël wasn’t a fan. “It hurts people. You can say they have inferiority complexes all you want, but I think it’s no longer appropriate.” It really got to him.
At the time, Daniël was running on a short fuse. “This wasn’t my brightest period, I was burnt out and easily pissed off.” He was done with performing – his pool of motivation run dry.
“I had done too much, too often, for too long,” he says. “I was doing too many things that I didn’t really like, but you don’t realize that at the time.”
Daniël was also grieving the loss of his mother, Thea, who died a couple years ago at 78. For the longest time, “she took care of my accounting, something she enjoyed doing very much.” And he could always count on her to be proud of his work and success, while he himself frequently downplayed it.
“She died very unexpectedly, which put me in a negative spiral.” His answer was to record more music and relax by drinking wine and smoking hash. Unsurprisingly, his health suffered.
“I got really sick to the point where I thought I was going to die. It landed me in hospital.” Thankfully, having eventually been discharged from hospital, he was able to recover quite quickly.
Shortly after, the pandemic began. It was easy for him to disappear into a place as secluded as his house in Erica. He was forced to sit back and reevaluate his life. Once there were no more lockdowns, he traveled a lot on his own, especially to the US, “thinking about everything, writing.”
In 2014, he collaborated with The Common Linnets on their debut album, the highest-selling Dutch record of that year. Amongst the rubble in his living room, he has the triple platinum award resting against a wall.
In 2019, he and The Common Linnets’ Ilse DeLange went to dinner in Los Angeles with T Bone Burnett, an American producer who’s worked with Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, and Roy Orbison. “What do you do?”, asked Burnett. “I do a little singing, make my own songs, perform in theaters. That kind of thing.”
Later that night, Ilse scolded him for his response. “Are you crazy? This is America, you should say ‘I’m a record-selling, award-winning, performing artist.’” He was somewhat taken aback. But it planted a seed of pride.
“Maybe I should be prouder of myself?” It’s that American attitude. The Dutch view it as being boastful. But it’s okay to be proud of what you’ve accomplished. “I started to believe that for myself. I’ve been living off my own creations for thirty years. And I think that’s great.”
Last September, he announced a series of theater shows that kicked off in March (almost entirely sold out). The unnamed show features a combination of new songs and music from the last thirty years of his career. “I received so many great messages, emails, and letters from fans. I find that just lovely. It inspires me.”
He’s had to break down the “meticulously built-up fear of people” that accrued over the past few years. His already reclusive nature paired with pandemic-induced social isolation meant that going back on stage was a big step.
But he’s ready. And at least now he has realized that he’s allowed to take pride in his work. And he does. Perhaps he’ll even hang that platinum record on a wall someday.