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As Jinte Deprez was plotting the second solo album by his alter ego J. Bernardt, “I suddenly had an image in my mind of what it could be” he says. “The main character is a John Lennon wannabe who wants to play Twin Peaks. In the background, Tarantino waves a Tchaikovsky record at the film composer and shouts, ‘Make it viciously romantic!’, I don’t know if it turned out that way…”

 

Yet the intent behind this image was deadly serious; Deprez wrote the record as a therapeutic way to handle a long-term relationship break-up. “To be honest, I had no choice how the album would turn out to sound like,” he adds. “I just had some songs that wrote themselves out of a broken heart, and this is what came out of it.”

 

The album that Deprez / Bernardt has named Contigo – Spanish for “with you” – is as dramatic, compelling and colourful as his image that he described to his producer, infused with drama and brought to life by sumptuous melody, vocals and production flourishes from a master studio auteur as well as musical inventor and singer. Contigo explores all the phases of a break-up: shock, sadness, anger, denial, hurt, acceptance… and nails ‘viciously romantic’ in the process. “I know a break-up record is a cliché,” says Deprez. “But I’m growing to love cliches! I wasn’t afraid to go all the way. Forgetting about the break-up by singing about it is like self-sabotage, but I’m having fun with it too.”

Deprez is best known as one of the co-leaders of Balthazar, one of Belgium’s most beloved and respected alt.rock bands for over two decades. Left to his own devices, Contigo both focuses and expands his sound and vision. The album hits a mark between sophisticated and loose, emphatic and subtle, steely and warm, drawing on pop, white soul, funk, Spaghetti Western soundtracks and orchestration with something of a ‘60s/’70s palate, reflecting Deprez’s love of Serge Gainsbourg and Ennio Morricone, French and Italian cinema. It’s a soundtrack for every lost and wounded lover, narrated with an ache in Deprez’s heart but also a strut in his step and a wink in his eye.

It just had to sound dusty romantic, funny and dramatic enough to mean it

Jinte Deprez

The two-sided lead single underline Contigo’s musical and emotional scope. Against a backdrop of taut, streamlined funk, with thick bass and guitar twang adding to the contrast of strings and female choir, ‘Taxi’ is a literal trip (“Can you please drive me to a point of no return?”) as Deprez needs to escape so he can process the bad news. ‘A Matter Of Time’ is a dreamier moment of reflection, as Deprez recalls the start (“Like a glitch, like a frozen frame caught your eyes and I wasn’t the same”) but fearing the inevitable end, as the strings escalate like the welling of tears.

 

A classically-trained violinist, Deprez has scored all the orchestrations for Contigo. In these hands, strings can be viciously romantic, or haunting and tender, “to add to the gut- wrenching feeling, the sweep of emotion,” he explains. “I’ve always loved the sound of Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, of a small band with big strings. The old school process. And the violin next to my computer was a more logical musical companion than a synthesiser. As instruments go, the violin is one of my oldest friends.”

Nostalgia might have inspired Contigo but the album is twisted into new shapes by Deprez’s exceptional skill set. He’s something of a generalist; singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, arranger, producer, engineer, programmer. He started producing with the first Balthazar album in 2008 (he’s co-produced three of their five albums to date), and the debut J. Bernardt album Running Days (released in 2016) is entirely self-made. Whilst Running Days’ melange of sound was moulded by electronics, Contigo is old-school band-based – namely a group of Deprez’s “super-talented,” friends that he guided through intense rehearsals and performances, “searching for that spark,” ably assisted by producer and mixer Tobie Speleman.

I just started writing for myself, to pour my heart out and stay sane

Jinte Deprez

The roots of Contigo are spread over a multitude of locations. Following Balthazar’s 2021 album Sand, and touring the album, Deprez found himself back home, alone. “I just started writing for myself, to pour my heart out and stay sane,” he says, “and it came together very naturally.” Various road trips around Europe (Spain, Portugal, Italy, Sweden) to clear his head enforced more isolation. “I started to look outwards, to look back at my emotions,” he says. “Lyrics turn out differently when you have distance. My lyrics are usually more subtle but this time, they’re more personal and honest. Contigo is more than about a relationship too: it’s life in general, questioning everything. I thought I knew stuff but actually I was really naïve!”

From the sweeping overture ‘Rio’ (written on a trip to Brazil), Contigo bravely reveals Deprez’s vulnerabilities. The swinging groove of ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ soundtracks a tale of communication breakdown (“If I don’t read you like I should / don’t mean I’m on a mission”), contradicting the title track (“Contigo with you, I never have a doubt with you, I have it all figured out with you”). “The word ‘contigo’ says so much: that we have a connection – or had,” says Deprez. “The whole album, I’m struggling with the fact we’re not a team anymore. I chose Contigo as the title because I needed another language to express the overall feeling of the music, and the meaning ‘with you’ is fitting for my message, as it’s the last time I’m going to talk about that person and the time we had together.”

Back and forth, Contigo reflects its maker’s mood swings. The big, beaty ‘Mayday Call’ is Deprez’s memory of, “virtually a panic attack” with a suitable coda of blasting horns. ‘Left Bathroom Sink’ strips out the energy for the moment of truth (“I know what to do… I need to step away from you”). ‘I’m The Ghost You Forgot’ is quintessentially breezy pop before Contigo‘s closing two ballads: the sparse ‘Our Love Was Easy’ – tailormade for Sinatra or any number of barflies – and the finale ‘Free’, which builds to one last dramatic sweep of strings and choir and the parting words, “Are we lonely or are we finally free?”

 

Having channelled his feelings and ideas into a unique and substantial piece of work, the John Lennon wannabe who wants to play Twin Peaks with Tchaikovsky’s vicious romanticism might be lonely and free. Free, certainly, after channelling his rush of feelings and ideas into a unique and substantial piece of work, to take Contigo on tour, “connecting with people, fans, who have gone through the same, and my friends who know what I have gone through,” he says. “All in all,” he concludes, “ a lot of love and friendship and fun, over a very honest record.”

 

Find all J. Bernardt’s live dates here.

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