Antje Duvekot Has a Lot Of Living — And Giving — To Do
If life begins at 40, Antje Duvekot already has experienced a false start. And that’s just fine with her.
The Boston-based singer-songwriter, who is preparing to teach next week at the Song School in Lyons, Colorado, then perform at the Aug. 15-17 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, is trying to celebrate a do-over year she thinks she gained by simply miscounting.
The working title for her upcoming album is Twenty Dollar Leap Year, which she plans to release in November after successfully funding a Kickstarter campaign that continues through Aug. 18.
As of Monday, she had raised more than $7,000 above her $18,000 goal.
Discovering you’re a year younger than you once thought equates to “finding an unexpected twenty dollar bill in your jeans pocket,” she explained on her Kickstarter page. For a serious artist with a touch of whimsy, Twenty Dollar Leap Year seems like a natural. Even if the days and weeks don’t always add up.
Her father, Peter Hellwig, set her straight about her age by doing the math last year on a visit from Germany, where Duvekot was born and raised until the age of 13.
“I just lost count,” Duvekot said during a phone interview earlier this month from her apartment in Lincoln, Massachusetts, about 20 miles west of Boston. “I think maybe I had anxiety over turning 40, so maybe I rounded up in my head and eventually I skipped a year. I skipped ahead in my mind.”
Of course, it’s unusual when someone develops a reverse form of Jack Benny Syndrome, a facetious nod to the famed comedian whose white lie kept his age eternally stuck on 39. There’s something about that next number that makes even the most level-headed person react in the strangest ways.
Just imagine, though, the possibilities when time works in your favor. Duvekot used that revelation as a source of motivation.
Not only did she write or co-write all the songs that will be included on her fourth full-length studio album, she’ll also self-produce for the first time.
Richard Shindell was at the controls for her two previous records, New Siberia and The Near Demise of the Highwire Dancer, “and he did a really wonderful job,” Duvekot said. “I feel like I’ve just sort of observed the process for my last two albums and I learned a lot while observing.”
Among the final 11 or 12 songs likely to make the cut include the lovely “Half Light” (get a sneak preview at 5:36 of her Kickstarter video) and “I Was Lost,” one she wrote with Heather Maloney, another wonderful Massachusetts-based artist.
The new album, which she plans to record this fall at NRS Recording Studio near Woodstock, New York, with Maloney, folk hero John Gorka, friend and fellow Song School instructor Robby Hecht and New Siberia musicians such as Shindell, Marc Shulman, Ben Wittman and Scott Petito, will come out about the same time she blows out the candles on her birthday cake.
Other than quietly celebrating with a few friends, she has no other major plans to mark the Nov. 15 milestone, but Duvekot reluctantly will recognize officially turning 40. “I guess so,” she said. “I might as well face it.”
Having what she calls a “bonus year” to let the reality of that finality sink in gave Duvekot time to contemplate what it all means.
“Well, it’s such a daunting number,” she said softly. “It feels like the expectation is that one has to be completely grown up and have your act together. I think that’s what was weighing on me. Because I feel like I’m still trying to figure out what I’m gonna be when I grow up. And so turning 40 means, ‘Oh, now I should really know.’ (laughs) But at the same time you can just throw all that out the window and not worry about it.” (laughs)
It certainly will signify another major period in Duvekot’s intriguing life, which was recently thrown another curve when she was diagnosed with Lyme disease.
After attending a wedding in Costa Rica earlier in July, she spent four days at Massachusetts General Hospital, where doctors initially thought Duvekot might have contracted a tropical disease while in Central America.
After a series of tests, they determined it was Lyme disease, caused by a tick bite in Massachusetts before the trip. If undetected, the ailment potentially can lead to serious health issues as the infection spreads to joints, the nervous system and even the heart. Former Bikini Kill rocker Kathleen Hanna detailed her harrowing experience in The Punk Singer, a fascinating 2013 documentary film directed by Sini Anderson.
“I hear horror stories like that all the time,” Duvekot said. “I’m lucky that I got diagnosed.”
The illness forced Duvekot to cancel another opportunity to teach songwriting in Michigan in late July, but she’s determined to feel strong enough to spend next week in the clean mountain air of Colorado while joining an impressive roster of guest instructors, including Mary Gauthier and Peter Himmelman, at the Song School.
“Being a songwriter on the scene and having made a name for myself to some extent just means that I suppose I’m an expert in the minds of songwriting camps and that sort of thing,” she said.
Duvekot made a previous visit to informally check out Lyons’ Song School, a four-day series of classes ending each night with open mic performances, and liked what she saw. For someone blessed with a keen sense of imagery and a kind heart, it only made sense that Duvekot would want to share some of the songwriting skills she’s developed since her teenage years at Alexis I. Dupont High School in Greenville, Delaware.
“It’s really been known to be ‘the place to be among my peers,’ ” Duvekot wrote in a subsequent email about the Song School. “I am incredibly excited to get to be on faculty this year with many of my heroes. The mutual inspiration between staff and students who all share the love of song is electrifying.”
Previous teaching positions at Club Passim’s School of Music in the Harvard Square area and the Alaska Midnight Sun song camp have made Duvekot consider devoting more time to a gratifying avocation.
“I’m starting to toy with the idea of changing my model a little bit,” she said. “I’ve been touring really hard for the last 10 years and then just feeling exhausted. … It’s also a little bit disruptive just trying to have a life at home. So what I really want to do is scale back but without losing momentum. I definitely don’t want to give up music or give up performing. I just want to tour in smarter ways.
“That’s sort of everyone’s goal. Make the tours count more and not burn out. But I’d like to maybe augment it a little with teaching. I like the idea of it but I haven’t really figured out how to do that.”
The lonely touring life also makes it tough on relationships, and Duvekot at the moment remains unattached, but plans to team up professionally with another folk hero, Ellis Paul, for a duo record and series of shows next year.
It should prove to be a nice diversion for a solo artist who has had to deal with isolation, rejection and sadness since leaving behind her “happy childhood” in Heidelberg. That’s where life “was very simple and natural and pure” while she became obsessed with singing — whether it was by herself or huddled around a fire with a group of adults.
“All the other kids were off playing,” Duvekot recalled. “Wherever there was music I would try to get there.”
By the age of 13, that serene existence ended.
Feeling like “my adolescence was lost,” Duvekot was pulled away from her 11-year-old brother Jens and German father when her American mother got divorced and moved back to the States, taking only her daughter.
The Duvekot children were never taught to speak English, so adjusting to life in Delaware was understandably traumatic.
“That is kind of what got me started on music as a refuge,” Duvekot said of her passion for folk songs by artists based in New England (Cheryl Wheeler) and beyond (Dar Williams and Ani DiFranco, her “utter teen idol” who is among Lyons’ impressive lineup of performers). She soon went from listening to music to writing it, first learning to play the guitar and other stringed instruments, then later the piano.
Deeply personal and powerful works or art emerged, especially after her mother decided to cut ties with all members of her family, including 19-year-old Antje, who was attending the University of Delaware, where she studied history and German literature. By the time she graduated, Duvekot was on her own in the States.
“She just disappeared,” Duvekot said. “My stepdad was part of the equation. He didn’t really want my mother to have family or friends, so he got her to reject everyone in her life, including her own children.”
In a follow-up email sent Aug. 4, Duvekot shared further details about their situation:
“I suppose it’s an inescapable part of my story,” she said. “I was going to college and I came home to visit one day and all my stuff was in boxes on the driveway. My mother and stepfather that day said, ‘We never want to see you again. You are a disappointment. You have gone behind our back.’
“My ‘crime’ was that I recorded a little tape of original songs while at school that they found out about. My mother and stepdad had explicitly forbidden me from ‘pursuing’ music. In fact, when I left for college they had confiscated my guitar and all my music tapes. … So that day I was ousted. When I went through my boxes of things, I found a little gift mug from my mom with a note inside that said ‘I love you’ she had snuck in there.
“A few weeks later, she showed up at my dorm with groceries (all secretly from my stepdad). Then I never saw her again. As many times as I tried to contact her over the years. She sent messages through my grandparents that she never wants to see me again. It’s all very strange and essentially must be coming from my stepdad, who has her brainwashed. I saw her last twenty years ago.”
Duvekot said her stepfather “is and was abusive,” adding, “He was mostly abusive toward me, so in truth my mother’s disappearance probably has to do with guilt. Music made me strong and I have since discovered that non-biological family offers infinite support.”
Hearing that they moved to Holland after staying in Delaware for a while, Duvekot is left to wonder. “I don’t know what I did,” she said on the phone. “I don’t think I did anything.”
She still has other relatives to lean on, and tries to visit her father in Heidelberg and her brother and his family in Regensburg at least once a year, usually around Christmastime.
Primarily, Duvekot finds solace in song, and started out by winning prestigious awards at the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in 2000 and the Kerrville New Folk Competition in 2006.
“It was kind of a big deal at the time,” she said, sounding almost embarrassed that it was a necessary evil for an unknown to get noticed. “It’s so far back now that I don’t really think about it anymore.”
Songwriting became cathartic for Duvekot, who on her most recent album, 2012’s New Siberia, took her mother to task in the moving “Phoenix”:
I rose up like a phoenix rose up from your ash
You just turned your back and I’ll never understand
Though I had no armor you just let me go
Into the night to battle with your ghosts
“My early 20s were really tough and I think that I struggled just to get through because I didn’t have anyone teaching me how to get by and that sort of thing,” Duvekot said. “That’s what kind of led me to my artistic path.”
Scars, whether emotional or physical, often provide painful reminders, but Duvekot hopes she can help in some way to ease the suffering the community in and around Lyons experienced last September. That’s when flooding caused approximately $50 million in damages to a town with a population of 2,000.
Following a songwriting competition that opens the Folks Festival on Aug. 15, Duvekot will be the first official performer on the main stage at 1 p.m. in Lyons, the home of Planet Bluegrass, which also went through a major rebuilding process while recovering from the devastation.
Knowing a little bit about healing old wounds, Duvekot plans to do her part to comfort those who need it — hopefully with a little help from friends in town such as Hecht and Justin Roth, another Song School instructor who has written, “Rise,” a song for Colorado flood relief.
“A lot of my songs are … they’re sort of therapeutic, but they’re not necessarily obvious about what they’re about,” she said. “But I think a lot of them, they sort of hint at hardship and at perseverance and resilience and all those things that I think people can relate to.”
Chances are all those things will come into play when the unifying occasion signals a rebirth for Duvekot and the people she’ll undoubtedly touch with her songs.
Performance photos by Jake Jacobson. This series previewing the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival continues next week.