Essential Amsterdammers: Lake Montgomery
Essential Amsterdammers every expat should know: Lake Montgomery - Becoming bold in Amsterdam
Queens Day, 2010. I amble along Prinsengracht and hear a cool, tiny woman playing acoustic guitar from a first floor window. I listen for a few minutes, being especially captured by the song "Amsterdam." A friend of hers enthusiastically waves a CD for sale under my nose, bearing the singer’s name.
Who wouldn’t be intrigued by a musician called Lake Montgomery?
A day later, CD in hand, I check her Myspace site and it becomes clear that Lake’s story of our city is very different to mine. Perhaps she might have an insight into the real essence of Amsterdam?
My first visit to Amsterdam was in 2002 to see a friend while still living in the French town of Orléans. I used to come to Amsterdam with my guitar and for the first time I felt like playing in public, and just started busking on the streets.
In America there’s something that really blocks me from performing. If you want to play, it means you must want to be a superstar; you’re supposed to want to be a rockstar.
That kept me from trying to pursue getting gigs and a career as a musician, but there was something about Amsterdam that helped me become braver as a performer.
What was different when I came to Amsterdam? I just felt bold. I was a bit exotic being a black American, bluesy performer, and it felt like this was the right place for me.
The freedom, the diversity, being able to speak English yet not live in America - these afforded some kind of comfort. I was really inspired to play and that is when I started performing, just busking on the streets.
Things fell into place in Amsterdam. There are so many venues to play at here, where it doesn’t matter if nobody knows you. They just want to hear some music.
People from outside think Amsterdam is a huge city - they are often surprised to hear it has only three quarters of a million inhabitants. That smaller, manageable size meant I fell into the music scene pretty quickly. Rapid-fire connections happen all the time and the music scene is very accessible.
The Amsterdam Songwriters Guild (ASG) helps a lot. It’s a group of talented musicians who support each other, do gigs together, make bookings for each other - man, that’s one big reason why I live here!
One example: a couple of years ago I did a street music tour with other ASG musicians and we played 26 streets in the city in three days - we called it "Amsterdam A-Z."
The newspapers covered it; that’s the kind of stuff that still goes on here. It makes me proud. I don’t know where else I could be doing my musical thing.
It’s difficult to improve your Dutch speaking skills here because of the high level of English that almost everyone seems to have.
For me, language is all about touching a native feeling; it’s a must if you really want to get into the people and the society. I don’t think I would feel so "inside" without speaking Dutch.
We all want clarity in communication and you are offered this bridge of perfect English, but then you swim and scramble around in the cold waters of Dutch language while you’re learning and it can be really hard. But if you manage to speak your way through that, there is a secret world of local culture that opens up to you.
Nevertheless, my songs are in English and I tell stories in them. It is a big advantage that, although I am in a foreign country, the audience can understand my stories.
It’s great to play at Dwazezaken, a café with beautiful, high, red mosaic ceilings and an excellent sound system. Occii on Amstelveenseweg is fun too - it used to be a squat but it’s a cultural centre now.
OT301 is another former squat with lots of creative happenings and there is a fantastic organic / vegetarian restaurant inside. You need to reserve, and they serve you a two-course meal priced at a "donation" of between 5-10 euros, depending on your income.
That is the kind of stuff I like, you know, the surprises that you won’t see in the guidebooks.
Live living room CD
I met Suzanne Raes, the film director, through an artists’ project that she managed and we stayed in contact. I talked with her about how much I wanted to make a CD but how I just didn’t enjoy playing in a recording studio. That is something I definitely have to - and will - develop, but at that stage I felt at my best when performing live.
Suzanne said, "No problem - we can do a concert in my front room." I could hardly believe it, but that is typical of her and, I guess, typical of this city. There have been so many people who have given all kinds of support to help me survive here.
We cleared her living room, created a little stage, and she arranged for a sound engineer to capture everything. I felt great with an audience of around 30 friends and we made the CD on a very low budget. I can hardly thank Suzanne enough.
Any gigs coming up?
› On December 11 I do an afternoon Brunch show at the Delicatessen, 2-4pm.
› On December 29th I have a show at the Plantage Doklaan around 8pm.
Part of this interview with Lake Montgomery has previously been published in "Amsterdam... The Essence," by David Beckett.
Photos by Joost van Manen
Movie directed by Philo van Kamenade