A Belgian singer with one arm tells BBC Ouch how she composes lyrics, and also displays a talent for turning negatives into unlikely positives.
As a child, when Ilse Gevaert was teased for having a prosthetic forearm her father bluntly advised: “If you get bullied just take your arm off and hit them on the head with it.”
Unlike many amputees who eventually reject the idea of wearing a prosthetic arm due to it being cumbersome or unhelpful, the Belgian has continued to wear hers into adulthood. And just as Prof Stephen Hawking hasn’t updated his 80s speech synthesizer despite more human-sounding ones being available now, she has kept her original arm and hand. “It’s a little heavy,” she says, “but it’s all I know and I can do everything with it except handstands.”
She admits that the vintage prosthetic isn’t ideal in a number of ways. A middle finger broke recently after attempting to fall properly in a yoga class, and, she says, “I’d love to be able to paint my nails but the varnish won’t stick to the skin.” Referring to an older covering, she says: “On my previous skin I could, but if I lent on a newspaper, the entire article would be printed on it.”
Gevaert, who grew up in the college town of Ghent, and who has loved singing from an early age, studied psychology instead of her preferred subject music. She says this is because her parents were anxious about letting her study an arts subject. “My mom was worried because I couldn’t be a waitress,” she says unexpectedly, going on to explain that most actors and artists wait tables. “Mom told me I had to study something where you don’t need your arm.”
Though she was a little unhappy about taking her second choice subject at the time, Gevaert says that ultimately it has helped her to create better lyrics.
In her day job she mentors young song-writers. The degree, she says, “helps me to get to their core right away, because a young artist doesn’t always know who they are.
“I always go back to their childhood: What did you want when you were a little girl or boy? What did you envision for yourself? That’s who you really are. We change too much I think.”
Gevaert has been living in New York City for seven years and says the first few years there were spent in poverty. “At one point I could only afford to eat bread and cheese, and then I found out that cheese isn’t good for your vocal chords.”
To keep her head above water, she took every singing gig offered but says she overdid it and lost her voice. She had developed a polyp, a fluid-filled collection that forms on the edge of a vocal cord when it isn’t rested enough. She wasn’t able to pay for surgery and her parents begged her to come home. Gevaert was then offered the chance to become a guinea pig for new laser treatment and decided to do it.
“It turned out to be the best surgery out there because they don’t have to cut into your vocal cords,” she says. “It’s exactly the same treatment Adele had.”
Gevaert was told not to speak for six months after having the procedure. She believes this silent period made her a better listener and helped improve her song-writing. In fact, she cites the polyp as a turning point in her career.
The Belgian singer then quickly built a fan base in her adopted home city and went on to sell out the famous New York alternative venue Joe’s Pub. She has shared the stage with Lana Del Rey and worked with producers synonymous with R&B singer John Legend and Mercury prize winner James Blake.
On the internet, the video for I am Human, the title track from her forthcoming album, has received over 300 thousand hits on YouTube and she has 90 thousand Twitter followers.
She puts her song’s success down to it being “from the heart” and says it’s a response to the bullying and cruel looks she got as a child.
Gevaert’s album is due out later this autumn.