I lived in Amsterdam for a couple of years in my mid twenties. When I was around Rembrandtplein, I would often go to the art deco bar, Cafe Schiller, where the soundtrack always seemed to be Marvin Gaye’s ‘Here My Dear.’ But my local bar in the Jordaan would always play Dutch artists and it was here one evening I was introduced to the extraordinary Mathilde Santing. It was the debut LP ‘Water Under the Bridge’ they were playing and as I gazed through the rain spattered window at the canal and the bridges, and listened to her words detailing love’s flows and flaws, it was one of those moments where time and place conjoined with the music engulfing me.
That LP begins with ‘Too Much’ where a gentle harp is plucked before Mathilde’s ethereal. pure voice states, “I’ve been sitting on my hands for a long time /In the company of hopes and fears /In times when I was not so low I used to go out.” And so I was entranced by this voice declaring that life had simply got too much for her and “I’ll hide until the day is through.” ‘Our Days’ is brighter, breezier whilst ‘(I’m Not Mending) Broken Hearts’ finds her brazenly contemplating “This ain’t meant to last for life / I’ll just have you on the side.” It is this mixture of effervescent joie de vivre and contemplative heart break (“Can you turn your heart / Like you turn your head”) that makes this an LP to treasure and yet, amazingly, she would turn away from original composition to become an interpretive singer of others’ songs.
There were clues that this was to be her metier – she had released a mini LP of covers prior to ‘Water Under the Bridge’ and two of the songs on the debut LP proper had lyrics by the poet e.e. cummings. The follow-up LP, ‘Out Of This Dream,’ found her covering songs by artists as diverse as Tom Waits, Todd Rundgren and Squeeze whilst there is even a musical version of a Sylvia Plath poem. She had an excellent ear for upcoming artists, championing and interpreting songs by Stephen Fellows (of Comsat Angels), Green Gartside and Roddy Frame as well as more recently the excellent Josh Rouse. In addition to having an impeccable choice of source material, she was always willing to reinterpret and subvert songs to reinforce her lesbian, feminist politics. And so Peggy Lee’s ‘He Needs Me’ has a sex change whilst there is a radical reinterpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s classic which becomes ‘Hey Joan.’ Time and again Rundgren and Waits songs are covered on her records (‘Too Big For Me’ on ‘To Others To One’ is particularly affecting), as well as surprises such as John Cale and Colin Vearncombe (Black). However, the peak of her interpretive skills comes with the whole LP devoted to Randy Newman, ‘Texas Girl and Pretty Boy.’ Just like Tom Waits, Newman’s voice isn’t always the prettiest but when you ally Santing’s voice to the supreme songwriting skill of Newman, you truly have something special. Hearing her taunt the ‘Pretty Boy’ with ‘his cute little chicken shit girlfriend’ and then spit out the venal, “How about it you little prick? How about it?” is something to behold. Newman himself commented that this LP had “”some of the very best recordings I know of my work.”
Whilst Sinatra was the ultimate interpreter of popular song in the 1950s and 1960s, I would venture to say that there have been none consistently better than Santing in subsequent years. She has a knack of choosing the right artist, the right song and then making it her own. Anything by her is worth is investing in but ‘Water Under the Bridge’ and ‘Texas Girl and Pretty Boy’ are essential records in any collection.