Solas was putting its career on the line. The Irish supergroup had risen to international stardom with its Celtic repertoire; but it would now release an entire CD of works by contemporary songwriters. They spent months hunting for just the right songs. As Solas founder Seamus Egan recalls now, "We knew it became much less risky if we had great songs."
"The Edge of Silence" was a critical and commercial triumph. And which songs made the sale? The Bob Dylan cover? Tom Waits? Jesse Colin Young? Nick Drake? Not according to music industry bible Billboard. Both it and the Irish Echo said the CD's clear highlight was the writing of an obscure German-American songwriter named Antje Duvekot.
Egan still feels the rush he got when he first heard her songs; unpolished, raw, taken from a cassette she'd made for a friend, who had a friend, who had a friend, who said he knew a guy who was looking for songs for Solas.
"Our reaction was immediate, like lightning," Egan says. "Her songs stood head-and-shoulders above anything else we were listening to. There's no one writing like her today."
That's why Egan produced Duvekot's first major studio CD, "Big Dream Boulevard".
It is hard to recall when a fledgling folk songwriter has been more highly touted by her musical peers.
Legendary producer Neil Dorfsman, who produced "Edge of Silence," and CDs by Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Dire Straits, says, "Her songs are stunning paintings of color and shade, and always generate the heat and light that real art should."
"I think she's going to be the next great American folk singer-songwriter," says folk-pop star Ellis Paul, who has been introducing his audiences to Duvekot, and sings on her new CD. "She's writing songs we need to hear right now. I feel like I've been waiting for her to come along and join the club of traveling musicians that I'm in because we need a fresh voice to shake things up for all of us."
What's causing all the commotion? It's all there, on her new CD, from urgent topical songs like the aching lament to war-torn "Jerusalem," to the ominous innuendo of "Sex Bandaid," to the tender urgency of "Hold On."
"Somehow, she's able to open the personal out to be universal," Egan says, "which most songwriters aren't able to do. You know, they're able to get one or the other, but not both. That's something that separate Antje from the rest."
But first, you notice the voice. Where so many songwriters stretch for their highest notes, hoping to impress and astound, Duvekot bravely mines her deep reaches, where the dark feelings lurk. It softens her phrasing, leading us in with whispers, letting us know she believes every word she sings.
Her melodies seem like suddenly occurring thoughts, matching the hushed, conversational allure of her singing. They feel so immediate, so in synch with her lyrics; and yet also snugly rooted, oddly familiar, like memories you can't quite recall.
She sings, and writes, as if she thinks songs are important; not means to an end, but tools of survival. And for her, that's just what they are.
Duvekot [DOO-va-kot] was born in Heidelberg, Germany; and her biography is a tale of two chldhoods. She remembers her German years as carefree, scampy, and filled with song. Every day in school, they sang old folk songs. When camping in the summer, and all her chums went playing in the woods, she stayed behind, enchanted by the sound of adults singing around the campfire.
The old melodies drew her, giving such knowable emotion to the words; but more than that was the sound of private feelings being shared. There was power in that, she knew even then, power and something else. Healing. Community.
When she was 13, her carefree world shattered. Her mother remarried, and her new home was as filled with strictness and coldness as her old one had been with songs and laughter.
This new family moved to Delaware. She barely spoke English; she knew no one. Music became even more important to her, but for very different reasons.
"I was so confined by my stepdad and my mother that I really didn't have a life," she recalls now. "So I had to kind of exist in an abstract environment, and I just poured my whole existence into music. Because it was the only thing I had access to. Since then, I have always looked at music as a lifeboat; I don't know how I would have gotten through that long period of loneliness without it."
She discovered the subterranean folk world of urban songwriters like Paul, John Gorka, and Ani DiFranco. She made little tapes of them, and listened while she wandered through her strange new world. As she told the Boston Globe in 2005, "The only time I was truly happy as a teenager was walking around the neighborhood, listening to my folk tapes."
"My English wasn't so good yet," she recalls now, "but I just loved the kind of melancholy, solitary aspect of the songs. And I could tell that these people were saying something important. That was profound and meaningful to me, even before I knew just what it was they were saying. It was like these artists were actually talking to me, not just making sounds."
She is uncomfortable talking about these years, but this other childhood is the key to the powerful, even revolutionary, empathy that informs everything she writes. It is the empathy of the exile, the outsider; the quiet one, wide-eyed and wary, staring out at a world that will not see her, will not show her a single place, or even moment, that feels like home. It is the empathy of someone who understands what it means when hurt becomes a way of life.
Listen to it in the furiously truthful "Judas," in which she compares the Biblical villain to the lonely kid at the back of the school bus, teased, bullied, left to smolder until he finally ignites ("Last night, Judas' father threw his son against the wall/ That's how you learn to be invisible")
In "Dandelion, hear how deeply she understands the vast, unnavigable chasm between the private world of the wallflower ("Of course, you would pursue me, I was Julia Roberts"), and the outer world, that does not even notice her. And yet, in the undulating "Go Now," she boldly reminds these outcasts that only they can break out of their shells, however hard and necessary they have become.
She refuses to offer the cheap escape of happy endings that come only in bad pop songs and Lindsay Lohan movies. In the starkly gorgeous "Hold On," she warns of waiting too long for those endings: "Now you're waiting for a rescue/ But no snow white horse shows up for you." Quietly, sadly, with wincing and crucial honesty, she urges us to hold on. Not because the happy endings are coming, but because - well, what's the alternative?
Duvekot believes that her bicultural upbringing, and her relative newness to English, helped shape her unique way with a song.
"When I came to America," she says, "I wasn't communicating very well to other people, just to myself through my art. And I think that's a different way, not as linear or analytical. I was just kind of making up my own guerilla English, my own way of saying things. I didn't understand the right slang and clichés, so I made up my own. And my brain kind of works in funny ways, anyway."
It gives her a startlingly original poetic palette. We somehow know just what she means when she sings "You're walking in a shoe box, mapping out a dead end." Offering a beatitude for the wallflower in "Dandelion," she lets her say to the boy who doesn't notice her: "You were looking for a tea light/ And I will always be/ A forest fire." Tea light? And yet, it's perfect.
"She gives us these fresh twists on what we take for granted as the obvious," Paul says, " and reminds us that we're all partners with the victims, in a sense. She's a bit of a psychologist, but also a sociologist and anthropologist, looking at the big picture through the human minutiae. She can focus on a tiny moment, get deep inside somebody's head, and spell out details we might not think about. I think Dylan did that at times, in songs like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." But I can't think of a songwriter around today who's doing it this well."
Being an immigrant helped shape that vision, too.
"I have a bit of an outsider's perspective on wrong and right," Antje says. "I know that there can be different possibilities. A lot of Americans think, 'This is the way it is.' And in Germany, it's more, 'This is the way it is here.' I've seen that things aren't the same everywhere. So in my writing, I challenge the norms of our value system. I want to explore the 'what-if's' about all that."
When Antje discovered the substream folk world, where the Ellis Paul's and John Gorka's plied their wares, she was immediately hooked. In the secret cellars, where honest songs were sung, she found kindred spirits, fellow exiles, a society of outcasts.
"I love that it's an underground scene," she says, "because that means it's based on the merit of the songs, not the marketing. It's a very real scene that connects the fans to the artists without a whole lot in between."
As she hard-travels from open-mike to bohemian bar, coffeehouse to veggie cafe, singing for anyone who will listen, her songs have become her press agent, as fans and fellow artists spread the word about this remarkable new songwriting voice.
Asked what she hopes people get from her songs, she laughs shyly.
"I hope they get softened up inside," she says, "emotionally moved. And happy. Because I think it makes you happy to be moved, even if it's by a sad song. I've never found anything like songs, that can get so many elements of my heart and brain working all at once. They're just a few minutes long, but you can live a whole life in a song."