Ian Van Dahl burst into the European consciousness in 2001 when debut single, ‘Castles In The Sky’ became the soundtrack to the summer. With its beautiful trancey chords and perfect sunny lyrics, it encapsulated feel good pop-dance crossover music, and sparked a burning debate – why would such a pretty girl be called Ian?
In fact, Ian Van Dahl is a collective, fronted by the impossibly beautiful singer/songwriter Annemie Coenen, and also comprising producers Christophe Chantzis, Erik Vanspauwen, who together with Annemie were responsible for the first album, and Peter Luts and David Vervoort. At their live shows, Annemie is supported on stage by two to six dancers, renowned for their energetic bordering on acrobatic routines. Whilst famed for their chart success, the outfit is equally at home on the clubscene, with around 10 to 12 remixes of each single finding their way into the record boxes of everyone from Tiesto to Armin Van Buuren.
“Ian Van Dahl was just a project name,” laughs Annemie. “The record company wanted something that sounded a bit Dutch or Flemish – it wasn’t until the track got really big that we realised Ian was a male’s name – everyone in the UK was expecting a man and looked really surprised when I turned up for gigs!”
Born in a small village, Herk-de-stad in Belgium in 1978, Annemie had always loved singing, but got her first real taste of the music scene when she joined a dance band aged 17. “We played on a big stage, which was my first real singing experience. It was in a theatre, so the audience was sitting down and it was very quiet. There was just a piano, and I had to sing live; I was so nervous. I had written the song myself, and when I performed I got a really positive reaction; it made me think ‘wow’ – I really enjoy this!” However, the idea of a small town teenager scoring a recording contract seemed like a pipe dream, and the naturally creative Annemie, who was already showing a flair for art and fashion design, set her heart on attending the highly prestigious fashion school in Antwerp. The prohibitive fees led her to take up a host of jobs – everything from working in a factory, a carwash, and a shop selling outrageously expensive clothes, to working with a doctor. Then a friend, horrified at how hard Annemie was striving, dragged her off to Ibiza to chill out. The visit extended to two summers, converting Annemie from an alt-rock chick to a club disciple. “I couldn’t believe how many different styles there were within the dance scene, and I was getting bored with listening to mainly rock music. I was clubbing everywhere, I loved Space, Pacha, Privilige, Amnesia, and I made so many friends over there”.
On her return, Annemie recorded a demo “for fun really, I didn’t expect anything to come from it”. But it found its way into the hands of Stefan Wuyts, a label A&R, who was looking for a vocalist for the song ‘Castles In The Sky’ by new Belgian act, Ian Van Dahl. Immediately drawn to the mellow style of her voice, he called her into the studio to try out for the role.
After one audition, Stefan and the rest of the group knew they had found their singer. Everyone who’s kept an eye on the top of the charts in the past few years will know the rest – ‘Castles In The Sky’ blew up on international dancefloors and went on to storm single charts around the world. They’d pulled off a global hit with their debut release and were suddenly being talked about by everyone from Smash Hits to Mixmag. They then set straight to work on a debut album, ‘Ace’, and having discovered Annemie’s ability to write strong lyrics, went on to include eight of her songs on the release. Anyone who thought the act was a one hit wonder were proved spectacularly wrong when the album went Gold in the UK alone after just three weeks, and spawned two more Top 10 hits, ‘Will I’ and ‘Reason’, and Top 15 single ‘Try’ – not bad going for the young Belgian singer’s first professional venture.
“We were all on the same level, so it was really great to work together on that first album. We all had the same background in terms of musical tastes, and the guys all have a great sense of humour!”
The outfit has since gelled and evolved, making work on the second album a more exciting and organic experience for all involved. “For me writing music is therapeutic”, says Annemie. “I started writing because I was looking for a way to deal with my emotions. When I was feeling a certain thing I’d try to write about it, so my lyrics often reflect things that have happened to me, or to my friends. Almost every song that I’ve written for Ian Van Dahl has a story behind it, and it gives me so much pleasure when people come up and tell me that they relate to our songs. I don’t think people always appreciate that happens in dance music, because sometimes as a genre it’s considered to be shallow and superficial. I want to have emotional depth in my songs – that’s the only way I know how to write”.
The new album is called ‘Lost And Found’, a title that Annemie thought up in an airport whilst standing at the desk trying to locate yet another misplaced collection of CDs and books.
“I’ve spent more time in the airport in the last three years than anywhere else! It occurred to me at the desk that all the songs on the album are about things I’ve lost and found. In the last year with Ian Van Dahl, I’ve sadly lost Two Friends and my grandfather, and seen a relationship end, so I’ve had to deal with that. But on the flip side I found so many things that are positive – the support of my fans, the success that we’ve had, and I’ve also made some great friends and met really interesting people around the world. For me that’s what life’s all about, positive and negative”.
This down to earth, spiritual nature that drives Annemie has proved her brand of cathartic, emotional lyrics combined with layers of peak-time melodies is the perfect recipe to set alight charts and dancefloors alike. One such example is the forthcoming single ‘Believe’, whilst the follow up, ‘Where Are You Now’, she describes as having “a kind of Pulp Fiction feel to it. We’ve already made an unplugged version to play live and it’s so cool, I’m really proud of it: I don’t think people expect that from a dance band!”
Other feel-good tunes on the 16-track album include ‘State Of Mind’, and the optimistic, upbeat ‘Do You Feel The Same’, which is pure 3am Ibiza but wouldn’t be out of place at peak time on any dancefloor. ‘Waiting 4 You’ is a beautiful but melancholy ballad, reminiscent of Madonna’s William Orbit collaborations, that should come with a health warning for anyone going through a break up. The next single, ‘Inspiration’, is out late summer and showcases Annemie’s vocal maturity against tougher production and typically irrepressible chords, whilst ‘Time 2 Go’ neatly entwines her strong harmonies with driving synth riffs, and is followed by chunky electro gem ‘Rollercoaster’. ‘Without You’ is destined for the boxes of euphoric trance purveyors worldwide – expect to hear it down the front at the summer festivals with hands in the air and a smile on your face. Annemie credits the range of producers as giving the project a fresh direction, thanks to the inspiration of having different people all with their own individual ways of making music. “We’ve got a lot of new ideas and sounds going, though the overall style is a typical Ian Van Dahl sound. We’ve all matured – Peter Luts and David Vervoort especially wanted to move on and had a lot of the same ideas that I had – it was just so easy and it came really naturally.”
Peter and David are also known for their productions with Lasgo, and with whom Annemie wrote their recent hit ‘Surrender’. The support of this co-operative scene has nurtured numerous exciting collaborations and directions, and Peter and Annemie are also working on underground dance tracks outside of Ian Van Dahl. “It’s really important to respect each other; I hate the whole jealousy and hypocrisy thing in show business, and its great to be around people who are always so encouraging”.
The band’s huge success has seen Annemie perform regularly all over the world to crowds of 60,000, including festivals in Russia, Dubai, Scandinavia and the States, and in the clubs in Ibiza where she herself was partying only a short while ago. They’ve also picked up numerous awards including Best Dance And Trance Act at Dancestar, and Annemie’s favourite, the Top Of The Pops Award for Best Dance – “I’ve been watching that show since I was very young – all my idols have been on there, so I was so blown away when I realised they were calling my name!”
As for her increasingly busy future, Annemie is happy to revel in Ian Van Dahl’s continued success with their hands in the air brand of chart sensitive pop, and it’s still her main love.
“I still have mixed feelings about the fashion school. I hope one day to launch my own clothes label, but I’m enjoying my singing too much for now! Our album has been signed in 60 countries, which I see is an achievement already – it’s not that easy to get an album signed these days – but we worked really hard on it and I’m very happy with the result. I’m in this band because I love the music so much, not because I want to be a star, I really don’t care about that side of things.”
For now, Annemie keeps her hand in fashion by styling Ian Van Dahl’s stage performances and videos, having been bemused at the tacky appearance of some other pop dance bands, and she makes t-shirts when she finds a spare moment.
But don’t expect her first collection just yet. Annemie and the boys embark on three US tours in the summer, and if the success of the first album is anything to go by, then the second album looks set to reduce that spare time even further! Annemie couldn’t be happier though. “I’ve had so many great times, and I feel incredibly lucky – this sort of success is very rare for a girl from a small village in Belgium!”