The Belgian who enchanted David Bowie: interview with Ozark Henry

Ozark Henry with David Bowie - credit to the owners

David Bowie and Ozark Henry in Ostend, Belgium, 2002 – provided from Piet Goddaer’s private collection © to the owners

Multi-platinum musician Piet Goddaer, best known by his stage name Ozark Henry, is a Belgian singer, songwriter and trailblazer in the pioneering field of 3D  immersive sound.

The records he released in his several decades in music range from avant-garde to pop, from symphonic melody to rock and beyond.
His first album, titled I’m Seeking Something That Has Already Found Me, was publicly praised by David Bowie as ‘debut of the year’ in 1996.

Appointed Goodwill Ambassador against human trafficking by the UN Office On Drugs And Crime in 2015, Piet is constantly experimenting with audio, visual, technology and a unique blend of music genres and groundbreaking 3D immersive sounds through collaborations with artists like Jah Wobble, Martin Glover and the late Jackie Liebezeit, and ensembles like the National Orchestra of Belgium and the Metropole Orkest in The Netherlands.

He is in for an interview about his many trades, his one big love for music and what it felt like to receive the blessing of The Thin White Duke in person.

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Piet, what achievements are you most proud of?

I’m proud of being able to take care of my family both emotionally and financially. And I’m proud I’m making a difference in fighting human trafficking and inequality through my appointment as a national goodwill ambassador against human trafficking. There are more people victims of modern-day slavery and human trafficking now than ever before in history: it is something we witness every day, and still, we let it be as if the victims were invisible. It’s a crime we should all be ashamed of. Fighting human trafficking is fighting inequality, and if we decide not to accept inequality anymore, people will understand immediately whether they are victims or not. Human trafficking affects every nation in the world, and most of the victims are women and children. The Blue Heart Campaign I’m supporting was established in 1997, but even after all this time, it’s still a struggle to get something that urgent on the agenda and give it the attention and the support that it is so desperately needed.

What was your dream job as a child? Did you have a plan B?

I wanted to be a sculptor, but not having the means or the support, I started my career as an art painter and set designer. Music was part of my set designs and, in the end, became my main activity, as it still is. I don’t think I ever had a plan B. Let’s hope I’ll never need one.

Who are your sources of inspiration in music?

People, people, people.

What does avant-garde music mean to you?

It means music that lies at the forefront of innovation, and today it is exploring the potential of the immersive sound.

How did it feel when David Bowie praised your first album as ‘debut of the year’ in 1996?

It felt one hundred per cent surreal, especially when, later on, his assistant called me on my landline, to say that David Bowie was inviting me to hang out with him. David Bowie taught me that ego doesn’t matter. It’s the work connecting us – the music we leave behind – that matters most. I never forgot this lesson.

Are there any artists you would like to collaborate with?

If I don’t need to be humble, I’d love to work with Kate Bush. She’s one of the most complete artists of all time.

Your 2004 album, The Sailor Not the Sea, features Jah Wobble playing bass: what was it like to work with him? He once said that he cannot “just help that all his friends are born in April”. You were also born in April. 

That was such a great experience! He also brought the late Jaki Liebezeit with him. Jah and Jaki together were pure, just pure magic. John [Jah] on his ovation bass, the amp full-on, his fingers whispering to the strings on his guitar, Jaki with a tiny minimal drum set, no pedals, even playing his bass drum with his sticks. Both of them are artistically so generous. Jaki was very introverted and most of the time John was talking on behalf of them both, but with a very deep respect for his friend and fellow musician. At the end of that session, John went back home to England by train and Jaki stayed a bit longer to avoid traffic jams as he came from Germany by car. And then, all of a sudden, he started talking and talking and talking, and then he stayed for another day. These have been and still are by far the most amazing rhythm sections I’ve ever worked on. 

What do you think of talent shows like The X Factor?

I don’t watch much TV so I’m not familiar enough with it to have an opinion.

Belgium is a trilingual country with Dutch, French and German as recognised languages; what language are you most attached to, and why do you sing in English?

I’m most attached to Flemish, my native language, which is a dialect of Dutch influenced by both French and English but with a pronunciation closer to English rather than French or Dutch. Since there are only a handful of people left who still speak Flemish, it seemed like I didn’t have the option to sing in Flemish.

What are your feelings towards the UK after Brexit became effective?

I love the UK and its rich cultural identity but I don’t get Brexit, and the answer to what Brexit really is probably obscene, shameful and sad. It’s not about the people as it should be, and the recent crisis painfully revealed that.

What does your song We Will Meet Again mean to you?

It was 2020 and the worldwide tour I was preparing was cancelled. I wrote We Will Meet Again after being in lockdown for four weeks. I set up an online concert for everyone in my small coastal village in West Flanders called Oostduinkerke, to create a moment of togetherness, and when I was thinking about what I should play, this song popped into my head. For me, it means embracing reality, showing resilience, and living for now but dreaming about the future.

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