- Singer-Songwriter: Andra Cilliers
- Year Started: 2007 (full-time)
- Genre: Alternative/folk/singer-songwriter
- Albums: Secrets and Skeletons… notes from a desert cafe, Ever had that feeling, A sound or something more
- Current Town: Pretoria
- Best for: Intimate to large performances
- She can play: Acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, and dabble in ukulele, mandolin, harmonium organ
My Stories SA: Episode 7 – Andra
Episode Release Date: 11 Oct 2020
Andra grew up in Swakopmund, a small town squashed between the ice-cold Atlantic Ocean and the mystical Namib Desert before moving to Pretoria at the end of 2007. She has independently recorded three solo albums, and extensively toured South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana. Performed at all the major SA festivals (Oppikoppi, KKNK, Aardklop, Splashy Fen, Up the Creek, White Mountain Folk Festival, Innibos, Rise&Shine Fest, Park Acoustics, STRAB in Mozambique). Andra supported the world-famous Sam Bettens (K’s Choice) on a 10-day sold-out European tour.
Andra accompanied SA legend, Koos Kombuis, at Oppikoppi – Bewilderbeast (2013), with a very special performance of his song “Lisa se Klavier”, accompanied by Albert Frost and Schalk Joubert. They managed to silence a 10 000+ crowd of excited festival goers, and it ended in explosive applause of emotional appreciation. Read her full bio here.
“It is impossible to be untouched by the environmental influences that surround you when you grow up in a space that has been referred to as “the land God made in anger.” – Andra
Andra Cilliers Interview
Singer-songwriter, Andra Cilliers, interviewed by Si-lest Gomes.
What’s your story?
To spend your formative years in the company of the oldest desert in the world and the icy Atlantic Ocean is something one can’t accurately describe to people who weren’t surrounded by this enchanting and sometimes ominous environment growing up. There is just a depth and an ancient unspoken truth that is simply felt and somehow innately understood. How do you describe the taste of silence? Or the sound of borrowed belonging?
I started making music when I was about 9 years old. My dad gave me his guitar when he caught me mime-jamming along to Bruce Springsteen on a tennis racket. He taught me my first couple of chords and it just unlocked a world of Sounds and wordless communication that, thankfully, stuck around. I had a some classical training on the guitar and although I have the utmost respect for people who specialise in that, it never resonated with me and how I wanted to experiment creatively.
After exploring studying jazz and contemporary music in South Africa for 2 years, I went back home to Namibia to regroup with the family and re-centred myself. As a family, we decided to open a coffee shop – not only because we are all coffee lovers, but I suppose we all needed to do something ridiculous, creative and fun. My sister and I managed and waitered and my parents taught us about running a business and everything that goes along with it. I still see this experience as one of my greatest adventures and fondest memories. It completely changed my life and I deeply cherish that time.
At Village Cafe, we started a Soup and Tunes evening every Thursday night – where I would perform golden oldie covers while people ate homemade soup. I eventually started taking my own songs out for a spin. I’ll never forget one particular scenario after I played a set, my dad came up to me and asked who’s song that was – he really likes it, is it Dylan? And I could say… No dad, it’s mine, I wrote it. That moment of fatherly astonishment definitely shifted something for me as a songwriter. Eventually we all agreed as a family that I had to explore this Music thing more seriously. The most difficult decision of my life so far, because I was genuinely happy in Swakopmund – working at the cafe, meeting interesting tourists, playing tunes for happy faces, but we all knew it was time for me to go. So, I packed up my guitar and percolator and set sail for South Africa in 2007.
We’ve all had that one interview answer that still haunts us in one way or another…that question that we answered without having the time to think about it or that we just blurted out in panic. What’s yours?
A young journalist approached me straight after I got off stage at a festival. I think it was an Oppikoppi. I was still wiping sweat off my face and putting my guitar away back stage, so I wasn’t really in a contemplative state. “If you were a flavour, what would that be?” — I answered “chocolate” out of flustered panic and it was a complete lie. I should have said “coffee”, of course!! This definitely still haunts me to this very day. I don’t even really eat chocolate… I’m a NikNaks girl! I let myself, my coffee and my NikNaks down that day…
What triggers your creative spark?
I’m not one who receives triggers or sparks of creativity, it is a discipline and a practice – an active and alert space of surrendered listening where I just sit down and start working, and then, occasionally, I catch One! The Songs don’t run to me, I run to Them.
Normally I grab the Music first and then the feelings follow: the ones that the sounds came here to embody. I spend a lot of time with Them and together we find the right words.
Sometimes I do have stories that have to wait a little while for their sounds, and sometimes I have sounds that have to wait for their stories. Some stories are my own and others are borrowed from things I’ve seen. But the Music – I run to. I show up first and, when I’m lucky, so do They.
What is that one song that intimidates you – that song that you dread to perform live, and why?
I never perform the song “Still Here” because it is loaded with a deep sadness that I can’t process or translate on stage. For some reason I struggle to detach from that song. It is someone else’s story, so, out of respect, and because I know I wouldn’t be able to do it justice in front of an audience, I just don’t ever play it live.
For technical reasons, I also don’t often play “What If” or “Are you free” live, because my drummer, Eben, isn’t always in town with my gigs and I just hate playing those songs without him. I miss him too much.
What would you ask yourself in an interview?
I think there are a few questions that nobody has ever asked and I often wonder why they haven’t (yet).
Like…. “The dreams. The feelings. Do they scare you sometimes?”
I’m just here to feel all the things and to anchor some light. Be it through Music or through allowing someone to cut in front of me in line at the grocery store.
Nothing needs to be scary if you know who you are and why you’re here.
People are often taken aback when they hear your soft-spoken speaking voice? How did you shape your singing voice into the hoarse gravely sound that you are known for?
My parents encouraged us to create, not to imitate. The tunes that chose me must have just wanted these sounds? I never tried to be particularly peculiar or to have a gimmick for “effect” of being different – I just do my thing. I never received vocal training, in fact, I actually tried once, but the instructor said she doesn’t think I should ever sing at all. So, I just kept doing this thing and sang along with artists like Chris Cornell, Pearl Jam, and Springsteen as vocal warm-ups. Much later I learned about Mongolian throat singing, second or “false/mock” vocal cords, and overtone singing and felt a lot better about my apparent “strange” vocal expression. In the end: the Songs dictate and direct – I stand back and let Them.
You are compared to Eddie Vedder, Jeff Buckley, Tom Waits, Marianne Faithful, Janis Joplin…but who is Andra?
I honestly prefer not to describe myself, my style, genre, sound, or anything like that. I don’t have an opinion about this. I’m just being this.
I really wish folks didn’t have this need to compare. It makes me very uncomfortable. I have immense artistic respect for these creative people and I don’t find it flattering or accurate to be compared to such songwriting legends. It’s horrifyingly overwhelming actually. For introduction purposes, I suppose I understand why music needs to be categorised, but I don’t like it. It feels unnatural.
Some of my favourite cover songs to play is “Tower of Song” by Leonard Cohen, and “Baby’s Insane” by Diamanda Galas.
Touring Europe (opening for Sam Bettens from K’s Choice), Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique. Any favourite or stand-out gigs, and how did the European market react to your music?
Some of the gigs we did were in the most beautiful old churches. They rent out these magical spaces as fundraisers for their community projects, and they even sold beer in the back. It was so bizarre and brilliant.
I have so much gratitude that Sam Bettens allowed me on tour with them.
I found that the European audiences were much more readily appreciative than some here in South Africa. Perhaps because their ears are more attuned to variety. They show up to enjoy and experience, not to judge or criticise. A large amount of audiences around here tend to just stick to what they know they already like and don’t explore beyond that, which is so sad really.
The entire tour was sold out way in advance, which already shows how the support over there is quite different from here. We played smaller, intimate audiences of about 250 people, and larger crowds of about 1500 people, if I remember correctly. I loved all of it. I especially loved feeling safe everywhere we went, and eating the most delicious food truck shwarmas at 3am with my sister who went along on tour.
If you could collaborate with any creative person on earth (dead or alive) – who would it be and what would the project entail?
I would actually really love to create a body of work in collaboration with all of my close artist friends, which includes dancers, painters, illustrators, builders, engineers, choreographers, designers, animators, musicians, writers, filmmakers, actors, photographers and programmers. It’s definitely a realistic dream… So, you never know. Someday.
You started out playing in your family-owned “Village Café” restaurant in Swakopmund (one of the bucket list places in Namibia). Is this where your love for good coffee started? Take us through NAM – some of your favourite places to visit for those looking to explore the country as a tourist?
Just go. Go there and experience the whole of Namibia. Go for as long as possible. As far as possible. Stop often. Take it all in. Namibia is a feeling… and you will know exactly what I mean once you’re been there.
Village Cafe is part of a dying breed of genuine, original neighbourhood cafes: it evolved over time and became even more colourful, more “culture-full” and comfortable in its own being for the last 16 years! Nothing is deliberately Instagram-worthy or planted for facebook-sharing: shucks – we existed way before any of that even became trendy.
We just love coffee and unpretentious, homemade delicious food. We love different kinds of music, people, art, and silliness. We have a bond with our locals who come here to celebrate, mourn, decompress or to experience a touch of nostalgia. Tourists feel embraced like family and keep sending us postcards for years after they have been here.
Village is like Namibia: you have to FEEL it.
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