Deviant Hearts: An Interview with Charlotte Wessels of Delain and Phantasma

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Georg Neuhauser and Charlotte Wessels (Photo by Fabio Interra)

You’d think that the people behind Serenity and Delain would have their hands full by now. With both bands touring relentlessly and releasing a constant stream of albums, you’d think that there’s little time to do anything else. Somehow, they disagree.

Phantasma are, well, a super-group. A band made up of musicians from accomplished acts that come together to deliver a new product, a new act. This time, the product is a concept record, intertwined with a short novella written by Charlotte Wessels. I met with her to find out more about this new project.


MB: Let’s talk about Phantasma. How did this collaboration come to be?
Charlotte: It all started with Georg Neuhauser from Serenity, who really had the ambition of starting this story-based concept album like those you see a lot in our genre, with the rock operas. He was a big fan of those, so he asked Oliver Phillips [from Everon] if he wanted to join him in that endeavour. They were brainstorming about it, and were very excited about the idea of making a concept record, but they didn’t actually have a concept. This is where I came in.
Georg had told me about this project before, and he asked me whether I would like to sing some lines when it’s all done. I had said sure, because I’ve toured with him a lot, with Serenity and Delain. I’ve even already done a collaboration with Serenity already, so we’ve worked together before. I’ve worked with Oliver even more, for over 10 years; he was involved with Delain‘s very first record, and has been always involved in one way or another in all the releases after that. I was approached by them if I’d want to join them not only by lending my voice, but being a full part of the creative team. They asked me if I could come up with the full concept and all the lyrics.
Right away I was very excited. I knew that I would be in good company. Also, I’ve always liked to do some things on the side that are a bit outside of my comfort zone, just to keep challenging myself creatively. Still, I had some reservations, since I personally never had the ambition of doing a concept record, and I know only a few of them. Of the ones I know, I either love them a lot or I kind of dislike them, so I was hesitant about whether I should do it because of my lack of experience and, until then, lack of ambition. I thought for a really long time about whether and how I was going to do that, but in a way that was meaningful and special. A lot of people told me to listen to this or that record, but I deliberately did the exact opposite so as to figure by myself how to go about it.
It wasn’t until I had both the story in mind for Deviant Hearts, but also the idea of presenting the story not only through the lyrics but also separately on a book, that I realized this could be something I could really make mine. Then I was not only excited about joining, but also confident that I could do so in a special way. That’s how it all started, and everyone contributed their songs, and I think we did most of the work in a year or so. It was a really fun ride.

MB: Since you mentioned that there are some concept albums that you’re fond of, which ones are those?
Charlotte: I’m a big, geeky, fan of musicals like Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ Superstar. One of my favourite concept records of all time is Tommy, by The Who; I even loved the movie. Also, The Wall, of course, since it’s one of the most brilliant concept albums ever written.
Now, those records were not really of any use to me in regards to whether I was going to do this or not. I tried to shut myself off and find for a solution myself. The issue for me was that I really like to consider every song in a record as a story in and of itself, since I like each song to be autonomous. Of course, in a concept record they also have to make sense in the bigger picture and tell a story together. I was afraid that in the end I would have a bunch of stories that worked really well, but that then I would need a bunch of fillers to get the story from A to B to fill in the gaps. This is where the book, next to being a great ambition of mine, was also a very practical solution to the problem, since it allowed me to not have the lyrics do all the work. Now people have the story on the one hand, and then have the record where the songs offer a poetical perspective to certain characters, events or challenges from the story, and they complement each other.

MB: The concept behind Deviant Hearts is, indeed, your own literary work, this short story that accompanies the album. Can you clarify, more or less, what the plot is?
Charlotte: Well, one can take the title quite literally. The story is about two children, two siblings, a boy and a girl, who have a rare (fictitious) disease that makes their heart grow larger or smaller according to their emotions. As you know, both a heart too small and a heart too large involve a very severe risk for your health, so the kids are raised very protectively and so they have to learn to enjoy themselves within the walls of their home and the fences of their yard.  The older they get the more they realize that life won’t be about challenges to be overcome and adventures to be lived, but rather about ambitions to be curved and expectations to be limited. They grow a great frustration because of it.
I have used a lot of myths and legends and unceremoniously weaved them together for the story. One of the most important ones that I used is a Japanese one called Senbazuru, which states that if you fold 1000 origami cranes, then you will be granted a wish. Within the story, one of the things that one of the protagonists does to entertain herself without running into any risks is practicing origami, so at one point, from boredom, folds 1000 paper cranes and this is the action that catapults the story into the adventures that they will live. But here is where I feel I should stop talking so as to not reveal the plot, because it would take the enjoyment away from reading it.

MB: I actually wanted to ask you about the paper cranes, because in both videos released for Deviant Hearts paper cranes are featured quite predominantly. I wanted to know if that was just an aesthetic choice or if they had a connection to the story. Clearly, they do.
Charlotte: The whole group of cranes that comes to life and guides the children are very important characters to the story. Besides, they are very aesthetic, a very nice visual element to work with in both the artwork and the videos and photos.

MB: Were you also involved in the way your story was presented in these videos?
Charlotte: Definitely. As far as the video goes, Georg had most of the contact with the actual video company, so as to get it together logistically. But when it comes to the visual world of the record, that was very much my department. When you write a work like that, you have images in mind with everything so, for example, I knew that I wanted to ask Marco Mazzoni for the artwork. For the photos, one day I was just checking Instagram and I adored a photo that I saw by a photographer I didn’t know, so I sent him an e-mail straight away and asked him to work with us on our project. Also, all the paper cranes in the video I folded them myself. I made a few hundreds of them so, yeah, I was very much involved.

MB: You didn’t develop carpal tunnel syndrome doing that many cranes? [laughs]
Charlotte: I think that there were 102 in the tree that you see in the video. The saddest moment was when we had to take them out.
It was actually nice to fold them. It’s very meditative.

MB: I think that when people listen to the album they’ll definitely notice that they’re not only individual songs, but also that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. The album does come off as very plot-oriented, and even though there are definitely some rock and symphonic metal elements, I definitely get a very big vibe from the likes of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Avantasia and even some musicals.
How difficult was it for you to transform your literary work into the lyrics, fitting them into the music?
Charlotte: Well, for me it was a bit like jumping back and forward between both the writing and the music. As it turned out, whenever I write song there is always a big scope of them that fits within what we’re doing with Delain. Every now and then there are also a few odd ones that I really like but that I couldn’t possibly use them for that band. Having a side project like this is a very good opportunity to work with that other side of my musical creativity, so as soon as they asked me if I wanted to write the concept I was very eager to do it.
In this album there are different kinds of tracks, and I feel that it has to do with the combination of three songwriters, Georg, Oliver and me. Georg is inspired by this classic rock acts like Queen and Meat Loaf, while Oliver has a very progressive background, and I come from a more alternative corner. We all contributed our song ideas, and then Oliver had the task, which I don’t envy, to make the arrangements for the songs and having them sound like a family again. I think that he did this brilliantly, and made beautiful arrangements for all the songs. I think that they really sound like a whole, while keeping that diversity.
When I hear a song I hear very clearly all those influences from everyone, and it’s something that I really like about it.
For me it was two separate worlds. At one point I’d be very much in my own world writing the novella, and then I would have to go back to the musical aspect of it. This jumping back and forth at one point became a bit of a challenge, mostly because the writing of the novella was hard, because the musical part was really easy going. It was a very fluid process.

Charlotte Wessels (Photo by Fabio Interra)
Charlotte Wessels (Photo by Fabio Interra)

MB: Although it’s a bit of a cliché to say it, Phantasma is a “supergroup.” It’s not just you, Oliver and Georg; you’re also collaborating with people from Evergrey, Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Serenity. How did you decide who you wanted to have in the album? Or was it just an issue of opportunity?
Charlotte: This is one of the parts where I really didn’t contribute so much. These were mostly contacts and ambitions from Georg and Oliver. Of course, I was really excited about Tom Englund‘s part [from Evergrey], and I’m very happy about how it turned out. He’s known for this very metal kind of voice, and here he plays the father of the lead characters, and there’s something very soothing and comforting about the way in which he sings it, and I really love that.
For me there were also some surprises, because I wasn’t as familiar with Chloe Lowery‘s work [from TSO]. Looking back I’m really embarrassed about it, because now I want her whole repertoire and everything she has ever sung, because her performance was just phenomenal. With everyone we had high expectations, and they all met and exceeded them, but since I didn’t know what to expect from her I was really blown away and had goosebumps all over when I heard what she had done. What she sings is something I wrote, and for which I had already sang the dummy lyrics; sometimes you really need to get used to the way somebody else interprets what you sing, but with her the first time I heard it I was just blown away. I was really happy hearing how she did that part.

MB: Let’s move a bit to Delain now. Perhaps you’ll disagree on this, but I feel that the symphonic parts that we can hear in Phantasma are something that is not as prominent in Delain anymore, particularly compared with, for example, Lucidity and April Rain. With this in mind, do you feel that what you did with Phantasma in Deviant Hearts is something that you’d also like to do again with Delain, or do you feel that the styles have grown too separate by now?
Charlotte: Maybe the fact that Oliver made more arrangements for those albums makes them sound more comparable, that could be the factor that links them.
The good thing about doing a first album with a band is that there are no expectations about what kind of style we would do. The sky was the limit, and there weren’t any ideas that I had to wave off for the sense of style. The only thing that I told myself, the only reason why I dismissed some song ideas, was if they sounded too much like Delain songs. I figured that this was a side project, so there was no sense in making songs that could be in  Delain album as well. Because of this, I tried to avoid any resemblance with what I do with Delaibut, of course, in the end it’s still me, so I’m sure that there will be people who will hear Delain in it.

MB: Once, in an interview, you told me that you still “struggle” with your portrayal in promo photos, videos, etc., because they’re often photoshopped, eliminating “imperfections,” something that apparently bothers you quite a bit. Is this still going on, or do you assume it’s a lost battle?
Charlotte: No, we work with better people now [laughs] Back then we were working with the same photographer, but she was told to do some photoshop. She thought that the request came from me, so she did it. In the end, the label and the manager were pointing at each other, saying that the other gave the instructions. In the end the manager was telling me all kinds of things, like if I didn’t get my hips to be photoshopped smaller, if I didn’t allow any photoshop on my body, then we would have a problem with the record label.

MB: That’s messed up.
Charlotte: Yeah, just the fact that you wouldn’t have that control over your own body, and that you wouldn’t have control over the image of your body that is sent to the world, is very disturbing to me. I don’t mind a bit of vanity at all. If I have a pimple on the day of the photo-shoot, I will have it photoshopped away because two days later it will not be there; I like to look good on a picture as much as any other person. But for someone else to define what that means, that really gets on my nerves. I can’t deal with it! This doesn’t happen anymore though! Because now we have complete control over our media outlets.
I think that the strangest thing that happened to me lately was a French magazine that did a rendition of the Last Supper using, instead of Jesus and his disciples, all of these symphonic metal singers. I was among them; they painted me naked, behind a pile of cocaine.

MB: Seriously?
Charlotte: Yeah, I mean, it was very artistic, but if you’re going to do that at least you might want to ask before you do it. My parents might see that magazine! [laughs] This is the only thing that has happened, but it happened under the flag of creative freedom. I don’t even mind that as much as someone who might randomly decide that my hips are too big.
The reactions of the women painted to the painting were… well, some thought it was fantastic and hilarious, and there’s this one girl [Zuberoa Aznárez, Diabulus in Musica] who is very modest, and they painted her like a stripper, with pasties on her nipples, and endowed with the largest breasts in the painting. She was definitely not amused.

Cover by Michel Acard
Cover by Michel Acard. Note the classy strap-on dildo attached to Zuberoa’s groin.

MB: And to conclude: When Delain started the band was never supposed to go on the road, but it ended up happening, and the band became permanent. Is Phantasma a one-off thing, or do you also want to continue with this permanently and maybe go on tour?
Charlotte: Well, the reason why we didn’t want to turn Delain into a touring band was because Martijn had quit Within Temptation a few years before for health reasons. He had done his last concert with them sitting in a chair, and he couldn’t really perform or do tours like that anymore. When we started with Delain it was set up as a studio effort because we knew that, physically, he wouldn’t be able to do a touring band. By the time the record came out he was actually doing much better, and as everything progressed we had no reason whatsoever to not go on tour.
For Phantasma it’s a little bit different. It’s the coolest project in the world, but it’s still a side project. I’m very ambitious with Delain, so I need my focus there. If I just look at the 2016 calendar and everything that’s coming up, I wouldn’t know where I could possibly squeeze in another tour and prepare for that in a way that would make it special. My mentality with these things is that you have to do them right or not do them at all, so I feel strongly that this shouldn’t be touring project.
However, having these songs that are so very theatrical, with a story, and with a very rich visual world, I think that perhaps, and this is an ambition that we all share, that it would be very nice to make a nice musical-style performance. Big, in a theater, with all the bells and the production. I would rather do three of those very big and special shows than three world tours with traditional gigs.

MB: Charlotte, thank you very much for the time.
Charlotte: I was a pleasure talking to you. Have a great evening.