The fires that devastated the South African town of Knysna in the Western Cape Province are long gone, yet the repercussions are still being felt. Singer, songwriter and pianist Chantal’s single “Scars,” the title cut from the chanteuse’s new album, speaks to the wounds left by the disaster, which lasted nearly two weeks in June 2017. The resulting trauma has been both visible and unseen. Even so, Chantal is an optimist. But there is more to the story.
Composition Meet Compassion
The words and music to “Scars” reveal an empathic consciousness for others, thanks to Chantal’s songwriting and sensitivity, especially heard during the title cut: “I put on a smile and life is good for a while. I see your courage and pain. Let me lighten your burden…” “Scars” is a moving piano-driven melody featuring that personalized singer-songwriter touch on vocals and keyboard. Chantal generates an atmosphere of inspiration and hope despite the pain.
Available at more than 600 digital music stores worldwide, another track from the Scars collection, “Children of War,” deals with an age-old question still in search of an answer. Other songs, including “Heal This World,” are more hopeful. In a bit of a change up, “Close That Door” is a fast growing favorite with an inviting radio-friendly syncopated time measure. Chantal’s voice is perfectly angelic on “Time To Go Home.”
An Interview With Chantal
Musicinterviewmagazine spoke with Chantal about Knysna, Scars, songwriting and more.
The title of your album, Scars, deals with the fires that caused severe damage in the town of Knysna. Can you tell us what happened?
On June 7th, 2017, a set of circumstances triggered a disastrous wildfire of unprecedented proportions in the Sedgefield-Knysna-Plettenberg bay area. Not only were vast areas of commercial estates consumed, but lives were lost and damage in the billions was caused to properties and infrastructure. It is probably the biggest fire disaster in South Africa in modern times, with over 1,000 firefighting personnel from around the country deployed to combat the blaze. In the early morning hours, gusty, gale-force winds, the likes of which had not been experienced in living memory, reached speeds of up to 90 kilometers an hour, hitting the area.
Two main fires followed by a number of smaller fires spread within several hours and by the afternoon threatened urban areas that had been regarded as safe. Soon after jumping the Knysna River, the spearhead of the fire entered Knysna’s urban areas, consuming everything burnable in its path and completely surprised the residents of the western portion of Knysna, who were totally unprepared before evacuating in haste. Although, tragically, in total seven lives were lost, mostly from the rural areas around Knysna and Sedgefield, it was a miracle that none were lost in town. No human efforts or devices were able to stop the fire. The strong wind and dense smoke made it impossible. Helicopters could only be deployed from the second day onwards, after most of the assets had been destroyed. The focus turned to saving lives, by evacuating the people. It’s estimated that approximately 15,000 hectares of land was burned.
Was there a precise moment in time when you decided to write a song about the fire and the effect of its aftermath on the people of Knysna? How are they doing now?
Diana lives with us. She was brought up in Knysna and her father built their house by hand from the ground up. Her mother passed away a few years ago from cancer. The fire came so quickly that her father had no time to take anything with him and all the keepsakes, including her mother’s wedding ring and memories of her mother’s photographs are all gone. We had just spent a wonderful Christmas in Knysna with Diana and her father the year before, in their beautiful home. It was so heart-wrenching watching the news footage of the fire and its devastation. I watched in disbelief. There was constant media coverage for several weeks and I was so touched by the kindness of random people and businesses all over South Africa that came to the aid of those affected.
Slowly but surely the media coverage around the fire disappeared. About six weeks after the fire, I can recall sitting at home and thinking about those affected and wondering what they still had to deal with. I thought to myself, these people have scars. They will slowly and surely rebuild their lives, but those scars will always be there. Then I started thinking about other people I know who have been through terrible ordeals and how they managed to pick themselves up. I then started thinking about my own life. Not all scars are visible, but every scar tells a story. We all have scars and therein the concept of the song “Scars” was born.
“Scars” is such a beautiful song. Was it difficult to create the melody?
I wrote the song in about two hours. In fact, most songs take between two to three hours to complete. I have an incredibly strong desire to sit down and write, like something is literally bursting to come out of me. I cannot explain the writing process; it’s almost like being in an alternate state. The melody for “Scars” came instinctively. For me, writing songs is about combining lyrics, melody, harmony and rhythm to create something that transcends the ordinary. Although the concept of “Scars” came out of something horrific, the song itself is not negative. Having scars implies recovery, strength and healing, what the song is ultimately about and that we find the inner strength to go on even when at times we may want to give up. Healing often happens with the aid of earth angels who encourage and show us the way.
“Children of War” is another emotionally-charged track from Scars. What was the inspiration behind this song?
I was sitting in a restaurant with my husband several years ago and happened to look up at the television on the wall which was highlighting some news footage of missiles being shot into a Middle Eastern town. Children scattered on the streets as the bombs hit. I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to imagine what it must be like to live every day in such a war-stricken environment and moments later I burst into tears. I wrote the song “Children of War” shortly thereafter as a plea, a call to action, and my protest song, because I am an activist for peace.
What type of piano and other keyboards did you use to record the album?
I used a Kawai digital piano for the recording. I purchased it two years ago and have been very happy. It has a great sound. Although being fully weighted, the piano is still portable.
Did you write and arrange the lyrics and music to each of the songs? Do any other musicians appear on the album? Who produced Scars and where was the album recorded?
Yes, I write and arrange the lyrics and music to all my songs. I used session musicians in the studio and a number of people for backing vocals, all of whom have been credited on the album. I am very grateful to have three mentors who have provided me with invaluable guidance, support and inspiration. Two of my mentors, Godfrey Johnson and Nicholas McDiarmid, provided backing vocals and Nicholas played the piano for “Burn,” the first track on the album. Scars was produced, engineered, mixed and mastered by Jo Ellis at Blue Room Studios, Ladismith, Western Cape, South Africa, in 2017. Assistant Engineer is Christian Burgess.
How has Taoist philosophy played a role in your life and music?
I spent a decade studying Taoist philosophy, which helped me work through trauma and to find peace in my life. Taoism is simply a “way,” a “path” and recognizes that physical actions have a spiritual effect and so there are physical practices, including tai chi, qi gong and meditation, all working with energy flow and breathing. We need to embrace the scars of our past because they are a part of who we are and have shaped us into the people we are today. But these scars do not need to define us. I know it is possible to change because I have changed. We are not one decision, or one mistake. We are evolving beings, a complex myriad of ever changing possibilities. We decide the person we want to be and when we know better, we do better. The Taoist philosophy has given me the tools to do better, to manage myself, my emotions and my stress better. In most songs, my view on Taoism is not apparent, while in others it is. The song “Catch Me Now” is about someone dying and imparts some of my views on death and reincarnation.
You have a South African tour planned for November 2018 with an international tour to follow in 2019. Can you tell us a little about that?
South Africa is an incredibly beautiful country and I am really looking forward to seeing the countryside and to meeting people in both small towns as well as major city centers. Next year, I am looking to tour the UK and possibly New York in May or June of 2019. But we are still in the planning stages. All details of the tour will be put on the website and broadcast on all social media closer to the time.
What’s next for Chantal?
To keep performing and doing shows. I am planning a second album for 2020 and have started writing new material. I would like to do some recording before the year is over and will try to tag this onto the end of the South African tour.