New York may be the main destination of Australian musicians heading overseas to live and work but Europe, too, has its attractions.

One of Australia’s leading singers Kristen Cornwell moved to Belgium in 2004 and is in the process of establishing a career and new life from her semi-rural base in Flanders. She spoke candidly to Jazz Australia about the joys and challenges of organising gigs and learning Flemish.

JA: What prompted the move and why Belgium in particular?

KC: I moved to Belgium to be with a fantastic man (now my husband) who I met while he was on tour in Australia with the Pascal Schumacher Quartet. I was ready for an adventure so deciding to move to Belgium (where he is from) instead of him moving to Australia was an easy decision to make. Based on what I had heard I also felt that the opportunities for musicians were greater here.

JA: Where exactly do you live in Belgium?

KC: We live just outside Brussels, in Flanders. I guess you could describe it as a semi-rural area which seems crazy only 15km from Brussels but that’s how it is here. Most of the time it doesn’t feel as if there are 10 million people packed into this tiny space but you feel it if you’re standing still in a traffic jam. Belgium is a funny country with three official languages, the complex politics between Flanders and Wallonia, and Brussels in the middle of the sandwich. I like where we live, it is nice to be able to walk out the back door and five minutes later be in a forest. Although it is totally different from the beaches in Sydney where I lived for the last 12 or so years, I really appreciate the sense of peace I get from being close to natural beauty.

JA: Can you describe your current activities?

KC: My life is very busy. As well as learning a new language (Dutch/Flemish) I am combining teaching with performing. I teach 14 hours per week in three different music academies in Flanders and I am also completing the second year of my Masters at the Royal Conservatorium in Brussels. As far as performance goes, my main focus is my own quintet and I do some other projects on the side, such as the History of Jazz concert series. The music and the gigs are still developing and I am working on getting a CD out as soon as possible. We recorded a demo in January 2006 and that’s opened a lot of doors but an album is necessary at this point.

JA: The History of Jazz project sounds interesting. Can you say a little more about it?

KC: This is a project which started last year with a 15 concert tour of cultural centres in Flanders. This year we have only two concerts but I hope that in the future it will continue in some form. I was asked by the musical director Michel Bisceglia to take part and it has been a great experience as I have met lots of people – musicians, concert promoters and producers. It has also exposed me to a large audience as the cultural centres hold audiences of 250 on average and we have played to packed houses.

JA: Does your own group get many opportunities to play?

KC: Since I arrived we have probably done two concerts per month on average. It doesn’t sound like much but when I compare it to what I was doing in Australia it changes my perspective. We have played in clubs and concert halls with the majority of concerts in Belgium and some in Luxembourg, Holland and Germany. In December 2006 we did a concert in the chamber music hall in the fantastic new philharmonic building in Luxembourg. What a pleasure!

Read more about this Christian de Portzamparc designed building

I am also looking forward to playing our first summer festival in Trier (Germany) in August 2007.

JA: What has been the highlight of your European life so far?

KC: That’s a tricky question. I could say getting my driver’s licence (again!) was very satisfying, but what a nightmare after 20 years of driving.

Professionally speaking there are two highlights: the first is singing on the History of Jazz concerts. I have had such amazing responses from audiences and colleagues, and the second is hearing the result of the demo recording I made with the quintet. That was a fantastic thing: I truly realised that I had found an amazing group of people to make music with.

Personally, I would have to say sharing a podium with my husband and having my mum and step-father with us here for a snowy New Year in 2005. It was also a highlight to see the Pascal Schumacher Quartet play in the amazing Palais des Papes in Avignon (France) last summer. I was very proud!

JA: What are the best things about living and working in Belgium, and Europe more broadly?

KC: The best thing about living here is the feeling of being in the middle of things. I have seen a lot of France, travelled to Italy and Ireland but there is a lot more to see. It is nothing to go to Paris for a couple of days or drive to Germany to see Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea in concert. (Well worth it).

I had a short visit back to Australia in May 2005 and I actually felt the geographical isolation and the fact that Australia is basically a European country but located on the other side of the world. It was a perspective I hadn’t had before living away from there. Another advantage is that culture also seems to play a greater part in more people’s lives here. In Flanders alone, which covers an area of about half the size of greater Sydney, there are more than 150 cultural centres. This means that people have easy access to all sorts of culture whether it is music, theatre, art exhibitions or whatever. I think that this phenomenon is also supported by the government’s arts education subsidies. It is very affordable here to go to a music or art school to study and, of course, this creates broader interest and understanding for the arts themselves. This is especially relevant for jazz as it is a music that many people find unapproachable until they have a little bit of knowledge.

On a practical note, Flanders was a particularly easy place to function in the beginning when I spoke little or no Flemish as most people here speak some English. If I had have moved to France that would have been a different story! In terms of working here, I have experienced good and bad… not that different from Australia.

JA: What are the challenges?

KC: Naturally learning a new language has been (and remains) a great challenge. In my professional life I have had to get used to a certain feeling of having to prove myself. That could be seen as a positive as I have never been one to really put myself ‘out there’ and maybe my confidence has grown as a result.

The main challenge, though, is that I really miss Australia. Not only my friends and family but the place itself – the landscape, the open skies. There is nothing that can compare to home and the feeling of being at ease that you get when you are there. That said, I also have a home and a life here now so in a way I feel a bit torn. Life here is lived at a much faster pace and I am still adjusting to that. I certainly find it harder to relax here. As a writer and composer I am someone whose creativity thrives on peace and enough time to conduct a few daily routines but as yet I haven’t found a balance here. Somehow time seems too short. I didn’t have that feeling in Australia.

**JA: Much is made of the fact that a European base offers gig possibilities in a
number of neighbouring countries. Have you found that to be the case?**

KC: To a certain extent but perhaps not as much as you might think. I work with musicians from Belgium (**Frederik Leroux** – guitar, Christophe Devisscher – bass), Luxembourg (**Pascal Schumacher** – vibraphone) and Germany (**Jonas Burgwinkel** – drums) in my band and that helps with those countries but France, for example, is a pretty closed scene.

I haven’t actually tried to get in to France yet myself as an album is necessary first but I know from other musicians here that it can be difficult to break in there. Musical politics exist here as well but as an Australian I have the advantage of having a bit of distance from this and not being strongly associated with a particular European country. I’ll certainly give France a go when I have an album as my calling card. The festival season there is amazing, as it is in Italy and so many other countries.

JA: What comparisons can you make between the European and Australian music scenes? (If indeed one can talk about Europe as a single entity.)

KC: I don’t think you can talk about Europe as a single entity as every country has it’s own scene and at this point I can really only talk about Belgium. The Australian and Belgian scenes are not so different in basic flavour. In Belgium, too, there are musical ‘factions’ and localised scenes and this is further complicated by the language border.

The Australian music scene is brimming with talent and musicians with initiative – the Jazzgroove organisation and SIMA are a testament to that. However in Australia I always found it a challenge to keep my music and my band developing as performing is so essential to that development and the opportunities to play were few. I was fortunate in that in the last few years I was included in the terrific SIMA regional touring program but before that on average I think the band only played about five or six concerts a year.

There are bands here that play 50 or 60 concerts in a year and I’m not talking about functions. Nor are all the concerts government supported. This of course leads to bands developing strong identities quite quickly. That culture of ‘the band’ is very important here and that is demonstrated by the fact that many of the competitions that happen are for bands and not individuals (**Hoeilaart International Contest**, Tremplin Jazz). I think that is something that could be picked up in Australia a bit more.

One thing I have also noticed here is that there is a lot more discussion within bands. After a gig there is almost always a ‘post-mortem’ with everyone being very direct about what they liked and didn’t like. I hadn’t really experienced that before and it was confronting for my laid back Aussie nature. I have really learnt to see this as an important way to help the music forward.

JA: You teach as well as perform. Is that something you enjoy?

KC: Teaching feeds a part of me that performing doesn’t but it is important to keep the balance right. I have always enjoyed it but I have a new challenge here as I am teaching in another language and that takes a bit more energy. When I started in the Acadamies in September 2005 it was very difficult but it gets easier all the time and I have the added advantage of being able to help the students with their English pronunciation. Teaching also gives me the financial freedom to be able to choose exactly which gigs I want to do and invest in my projects.

JA: What advice can you give to Australian musicians who might be thinking of basing themselves in Europe?

Get to know as many musicians as you can and then form a band. If you can, get into neighbouring countries as well to hear what musicians are playing there. Learn the local language. Be proud of your Australian musical background.

JA: Which of the European players you have heard should we look out for?

KC: All the players in my band naturally! Pascal Schumacher is about to record a third CD and the music from this band continues to develop at a great pace. I have also enjoyed discovering David Linx, a Belgian singer who lives in Paris, and also a lot of Portuguese music which I had not been exposed to in Australia. There are really too many musicians to single out.

JA: You have a presence on the social networking website MySpace. Is that a useful professional aid or more a way to keep in contact with friends?

KC: I am a recent participant in MySpace and I’ve found it not only a way to catch up with friends also a way to make contact with musicians all over the world. It is a great way of being exposed to what other people are doing in their music and that is inspiring. It’s fun too!