The Gypsy Jazz Lady: Irene Ypenburg’s Interview

Irene 

Irene Ypenburg is something special… What a thoughtful, kind and wise human being. Gypsy Jazz really has a place for everybody, regardless of their origins, backgrounds or social environment. In this (maternal tone) interview Irene will guide you into some reflecting subjects and life experiences. “Clean your life” and remember it’s never late to follow your dreams.


1 – When did you to start playing music? What has inspired and influenced you?

My parents both played piano really well, and my father played the violin as well. I always loved to sing and dance and was begging my parents for a recorder and for dancing lessons when I was 4. Somehow my parents thought it better to wait till I was 5. So when I was 5 I got my first plastic soprano recorder to play on and started with ballet lessons. The recorder sounded quite awful but I was happy with it. Later I changed to alto recorder, which I kept playing till I was about 35.

My father and I loved to sing and make music together. Often when we had family friends over we would play a game of cards or dice, meanwhile all of us singing in harmony. Silly songs, a lot of fun. So singing, dancing and making music was a natural thing for me. I played piano, alto recorder, guitar, I sang and I danced. My parents are my main inspiration and influence. They taught me the basics of each instrument and I worked out the rest by myself.

My father suddenly brought a guitar home for me when I was 15. He taught me the three chords he knew. Then I worked out the rest by myself by playing records of Joan Baez over and over again until I got it. When I was 17 I performed in so-called ‘Jazz and Poetry’ clubs all over Amsterdam. I played a few simple chords and fingerpicking and sang about the entire Joan Baez repertoire.

Since then I did not develop my guitar playing. Later I lived in a town where music was hardly present. No inspiration, nobody to learn from, nowhere to go. I gave up music entirely, I was just getting worse at it. And then I did not play or sing at all for at least 25 years, till three years ago. Unbelievable in fact!

I moved back to Amsterdam a few years ago and there I got in touch with people who played gypsy jazz. I loved it. They pushed me to pick up my guitar again. I swore I would never play anywhere where other people could hear me. I was absolutely convinced that my playing was terrible and could never get better.

Kevin Nolan (Robin’s brother and incredible rhythm guitarist) kept offering to teach me though, he really believed in me. I turned it down for a long time, and when I finally gave in, I just took one lesson, and the next would be about three months later. Then during almost a year I took regular lessons with him. Now playing guitar has become my most loved and most important activity. Today I mostly learn from playing with musicians who are way more advanced than I am. Which is actually everybody I play with.

2 – Beyond playing guitar, you’re also a web designer, photographer, journalist, painter… Am I missing something? 🙂  How do you manage all those activities and how do you combine them together?

I published several books on psychology: about highly gifted children, about the connection between culture and identity, and a self-help book with exercises to connect with yourself. I translated (from German) and rewrote books as well.

I write a column and articles for Robin Nolan’s Gypsy Jazz Secrets Magazine, which I illustrate with a drawing. I’m also a Reiki master and have taught meditation. I founded and was editor in chief of a magazine for elementary schools about gifted education, helped organize conferences on gifted education, and was the manager of a once word famous opera singer, for whom I organized master classes. Later more and more classical musicians wanted to be represented by me. I did that for a while, but in the end I chose being creative myself over trying to find work for other artists.

I don’t find it hard to combine different activities. Actually, kids in high school are supposed to study many subjects at once, for many years. After high school suddenly everybody wants you to choose for one single field of interest. I never understood why that would be better. I walk on many legs, if one doesn’t go very well, I still have other legs to move forward. I have many ways now to express myself and it really makes me happy. It feels like it gives me total freedom.

3 – What are your current projects and future goals?

Currently I help organizing two guitar camps: one with Dario Napoli in Tuscany in March, and one inside the gypsy camp where Paulus Schäfer lives. Paulus and Fapy Lafertin are the teachers. We did that in 2015, and the next one will be in June 2016. An amazing experience!

Also the design work always continues: posters, CD covers etc., as well as the writing, drawing and photography for Robin Nolan’s Gypsy Jazz Secrets Magazine. Recently I started a new YouTube channel, as an extension of my column, it has the same name: Irene’s Gypsy jazz Adventures. Since I travel a lot and get to meet interesting people and see interesting places, I want to share it with the world, it is simply too good to keep for yourself.

I have a few regular gigs in Amsterdam and play in general as much as I can. This year I will be traveling a lot, so a lot of video editing will be waiting for me.

My main goal now is to learn to play better and become better at photography and videography, so whenever I share things, it will be nicer to watch, and whenever I play, it will be nicer to listen to!

4 – You’ve been working with top musicians like Robin Nolan, Paulus Schafer, Dario Napoli, etc. How does it feel to be so close to the center of it all?

People like Paulus, Robin, Dario and also Christiaan van Hemert and more musicians I know, are not just very good musicians, they are also people with a very good heart, and that is why I love them.

I have a lot of respect – in general – for people who work hard, I really like that. And I very much prefer people who have a heart for others, who are genuinely honest and kind. The combination of great talent, hard-working, good sense of humor, intelligence and kind heartiness I find most attractive in a person. They all have those qualities.

I never think of myself of being in the center of it all, I just feel grateful and lucky for everything that is currently happening in my life.

5 – Do you feel you are a driving force of the Gypsy Jazz scene nowadays?

It would actually never occur to me that I would be a driving force in the Gypsy Jazz scene. I am not even sure what that is. I did notice though (mostly because other people keep telling me) that the combination of the things that I do helps to bring other musicians to get to know more about each others existence.

There is an inner journalist in me. Whenever I see interesting people or things, I feel that it should be documented. Without thinking twice I do that and share it with the world: “Look at this great 17-year-old kid in Boston! Look at this amazing sunset and listen to Wawau Adler’s music at the same time! Look at this city and the people in it! Wow! Have you ever seen people in the Philippines hand build guitars?!”

That compulsory journalism keeps me quite busy, making all these photos and videos and edit them. I just can’t help myself. Also when I meet people, I automatically think of what would be great for that person to do, or whom he should really meet, if that would be good for both of them. And then I immediately take action upon that.

6 – There aren’t many women playing Gypsy Jazz Guitar. What are your feelings about the subject?

Actually I don’t have feelings at all about that. At first I didn’t even notice that wherever I was playing, I was almost always the only woman with a guitar. Every girl is totally free to pick up a guitar and start playing gypsy jazz.

If women in general are not that interested in doing so, that is their choice. Making music is what it is about for me, I don’t care with whom I play as long as I love to listen to them.

7 – How do you motivate yourself into practicing guitar?

When you practice, you are mostly doing something that you are not good at yet, so I don’t like hearing myself practicing.

Stephane Wrembel once said: “Practice is practice. Leave out the judgement, just go through the routine.” And that really helped.

Also I know that the first ten minutes I seriously dislike it, and after a while I am actually enjoying it.

What motivates me is that I have these nice opportunities to play with guitarists who are much more advanced than I am, and I want one day to be really worthy of accompanying them. My greatest motivation is that I really want to play better than I do and I know I have it in me to still make quite some progress. So when I find it difficult I tell myself: Look at what you achieved in not even three years… Just keep practicing and you’ll get better.

Also from all the other things I learned in the past I learned that as long as you work hard and structured towards a goal, you might just get there. Studying is like possessing a magic wand: just wave it around enough and miracles will happen. I have faith in that magic wand.

8 – Does playing professionally (meaning: main activity) feels differently than playing just for fun? 

No it doesn’t. When I do something, whatever it is, I always take it seriously. I don’t pursue something if I don’t like doing it, and I know I won’t enjoy it if I don’t get the best out of myself. I am not there yet, I hope some day I will!

9 – Have you ever had a practice process? Did it changed through the years?

I have only been playing for three years. Due to my living circumstances I did not make any music at all for 25 years, and never had formal music education. For gypsy jazz I had about one year with Kevin Nolan as a teacher.

I made a routine for myself, which of course changes from time to time. In general I try to work on ‘sounding good’, more than on ‘knowing much’ at this moment.

At this moment I start with practicing some chords that I find hard to grab. Then I practice different rhythms La Pompe, Bossa, Rumba and so on. And then I go through the repertoire I have to play at the next gig.

I play with different people, and always adapt to their repertoire, because I can learn so much from them. That means that with one person I play entirely different things than with the other, so I keep learning new tunes and forgetting tunes as well unfortunately.

After that I allow myself free doodling on the guitar, which I think is also very useful, to start feeling free and at home with your instrument and get a more relaxed and natural sound.

 10 – Tell us about your routines. How does a regular day in your life looks like?

First thing in the morning is coffee and answering emails and Facebook messages. A lot of my work goes through Facebook.

Then usually I go out to a coffee-house nearby where people bring their laptops. There I do computer work like organizing or writing or design I have to do, because there I am surrounded by other people who are working and that helps me to focus.

Then I go home, take a lunch break and do some other chores. After that, usually around three or four in the afternoon I practice guitar, at least an hour, sometimes two or three.

Then cook, eat and go out to play a gig somewhere, which lasts mostly around three hours. Of course not every day is the same, and I don’t play a gig every evening, but quite often.

The very end of the day often is for having a coffee or dinner with friends, that gives me something to look forward to. Often in the evening if I am at home I just put on the television for background noise and either practice or do design work, till late at night. Drawing on my iPad comfortably in my little corner on the couch till 1.30 in the morning is not unusual for me.

11 – As a sideman (or should I say, side woman) one experiences the stage and the musical process differently than being the soloist/star. What do you consider to be the fundamental aspects of a master sideman (personality and musicality)?

Of course it is important not to have the desire to be on the foreground. Kevin Nolan is for me a good example of a very good rhythm guitarist who is a good sideman as well. He stays in the background still displaying lots of imagination, never dull or repetitious. Incredibly steady and pushing without speeding up.

What I admire so much in Kevin Nolan’s style is that he never draws attention to himself, his playing is in perfect control and he can bring in many variations, without it being disturbing. His playing is very supportive and makes the soloist sound better. That is probably what it is about: the rhythm player is there to make the solo come out best. I think Kevin and Robin Nolan are both at their best when they play together.

For the side(wo)man it is important that you like other people to shine. And you must like rhythm and have a feeling for the tune that you are playing. I personally don’t like it if people play everything the same way: sad tunes, happy tunes, all sound the same, only a bit faster or slower.

Some soloists prefer the rhythm guitarist to just keep playing like a machine, no variation at all. I am not very happy when someone expects me to play like that. Some others like it when they start to play with fire, the rhythm player should be more fiery as well. I understand and appreciate that approach better.

12 – What were the biggest challenges you have faced in order to progress in your practice, performance and musical career?

Maybe for everybody the biggest challenge is your self-image. Especially in the beginning I found it hard to imagine that good musicians would really like to play with me. That reflected on my playing. It is like when you are telling somebody a story and deep inside you think he is not at all interested, you start to mumble and cut it short, instead of making it the interesting story it really is.

I didn’t dare to be audible, I thought every stroke on my guitar would irritate the hell out of everybody who heard it. No difference whether I was practicing at home or playing with others. I told a friend at that time that my biggest goal was to play with others without them getting mad at me! Not that anybody ever did, I just thought they probably should…

I tried to teach myself to enjoy practicing instead of dreading to hear myself play. I always find it hard to hear myself; I would love to play so much better than I do…!

13 – What do you value the most in the music/musicians you love to listen? What key ingredients do you cherish the most?

I love it when they can really swing, Wawau Adler often really swings like crazy! I love that!

I also appreciate it very much when a musician dares to follow his own path, without trying too hard to be different. When they distinguish themselves just by being themselves. Robin Nolan and Stephane Wrembel are good examples.

I like a sensitive, musical approach of the music, with a beautiful tone, whether it is genius warp-speed playing or a slow ballad. Fapy Lafertin has an amazing tone, and the different ways he bends the strings and brings out every tone individually, giving each tone its own character, I admire a lot.

I like a musician who listens while he plays.

So in short: to be yourself, to swing, to be sensitive, to listen. And of course a good technique is crucial to sounding good.

14 – Do you still practice meditation or any activity alike?

I am a Reiki master and have taught Reiki as well as meditation for many years. Nowadays I do not really practice meditation, but I regularly sit down to make contact with what I really feel and think and reflect about that.

15 – You know I love inspirational quotes and epiphanies. I bet you have a lot of wisdom to share with us. 🙂

In my life it was important to ‘clean up my life’, like you clean a house. Get rid of what bothers and blocks you.

Make positive choices instead of negative choices: go for what you love to do and people you love to spend time with, instead of fighting what and whom you dislike.

Everything you do, say or even think has an infinite stream of consequences. And every consequence multiplies into new consequences, and those new ones again, like a cauliflower effect. So making very deliberate choices is incredibly important.

Create harmony in your life, without sacrificing your own happiness. Your choices should create harmony within yourself as well as with others. This means you too have to clean up your life.

16 – What’s the most important aspect of your life’s journey that you’d like people to remember?

Probably what I just mentioned above: Be aware of the fact that all your choices have an expanding, infinite stream of consequences. So clean up your life and create harmony within yourself and with what and whom surround you. Then ultimately that will multiply as well.

17 – What would you say to Django if you had the chance to meet him? 

“Thank you for the effort you took to become the musician you are, to be this great inspiration and example for thousands of people all over the world.”

In fact I would probably scream: “Are you really Django Reinhardt?! I thought you were dead! May I offer you a drink in this nearby cozy café? I’d love to spend some time with you!”

18 – What record, musician or song would you give Django for him to hear?

A song becomes interesting because of the interpretation musicians give it. I’d like to know what he’d feel upon hearing “Sitting On The Top of The World”, by Ray Charles. And the version of “Stardust” Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond recorded in 1975 – the way the saxophone opens up the sky as a door to a different world.

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