Making his debut UK performance at Cross Rhythms festival '96 will be RALPH VAN MANEN from the Netherlands. Jan Willem Vink investigates.

Ralph Van Manen
Ralph Van Manen

Ralph van Manen is one of the few Dutch artists operating on a full time basis. He's an artist that musically can be compared with the likes of Michael W Smith, Geoff Moore and Steven Curtis Chapman. He is also one of the few artists who has been able to maintain popularity and has been consistently active over a period of years in Holland. Since Ralph van Manen released his debut album 'Face The Feeling', there have been a number of successful albums for the Dutchman. 'Live (Unplugged)' documented one of his live performances and last year's 'Old Feet, New Shoes' featured Ralph and friends singing songs from the Dutch Youth For Christ songbook.

'Language Of Love' must be one of this year's most important European CCM releases. The album was produced by Henk Pool, who previously worked on Adrian Snell's 'Beautiful Or What?!' with assistance from Chris Eaton who produced 'Language Of Love's fluid vocals. Phil Thompson and Paul Field assisted with the lyrics for the album. The basis for the album was recorded in Henk's studio in the Netherlands, with help from various members of the Ralph van Manen band. Ralph and Henk then boarded a plane to Nashville, where they had hired some of the finest studio musicians in Christian music. People like Steve Brewster (drums), Jackie Street (bass), Jerry McPherson (guitar), Tom Hemby (acoustic guitar) and Chris Rodriguez and Michael Mellet (backing vocals) have added significant contributions to the album.

Ralph admits to some trepidation about sharing the studio with such prestigious musicians. "I was scared to death," says Ralph. "Take for instance the background vocalists. I seriously considered looking for another job when I heard them sing. That's part of my personality. Especially in the past few years, I have experienced thinking about myself in very negative terms. It tended to come back during the recording of 'Language Of Love'. I had to choose not to go any further in that thinking. And besides, we got a lot of positive feedback from the American studio musicians.

One of the best compliments for Ralph and his Dutch colleagues must be the fact that it is very hard, nearly impossible to distinguish which parts were played by Dutch guitarist Robert Riekerk and Jerry McPherson and what backing vocals were done by Tommy Riekerk or Chris Rodriguez and Chris Eaton! It means Ralph has gathered some fine Dutch musicians around him, who are very competent and have been complimented a lot by their American colleagues. Ralph: "Jerry McPherson played all his parts in a day. But he was very enthusiastic about Robert. I think that's very special."

Ralph has had the time of his life in the States, but on the other hand has been able to experience with enough relativity. "It's dangerous to get too impressed with going to the States. People start to have expectations that are bigger than life. I'm very happy with the results. It's not overproduced. I like the clean sound of the album."

Recording 'Language Of Love' was a different experience for the American studio musicians in some ways as well. Ralph: "I think we were better organised. We were so scared things wouldn't work out well during the limited time we had. On the other hand we kept room for improvisation. I think we found a nice balance between the two. On 'Face The Feeling' a lot of my demos sounded better than the end result. If you will only allow your own ideas, you are limiting yourself. An album like Amy Grant's 'Lead Me On' was very much born as a result of the contributions from the various people involved. That's one of my all time favourite albums. I think that's a very exciting process and on my next album I want to go further down that road. On the one hand knowing very much what you want to do and on the other hand having the liberty for creative things to happen."

Ralph was really impressed with the lifestyle of the studio musicians he met. "The better they are, the more humble. Everyone does not talk a whole lot, but is trying to do the best he can. Jerry McPherson for instance, is simply a very nice person. He's someone who is glad to be able to play and be allowed to play. Those are his own words. He just enjoys what he does. He certainly does not play on the automatic pilot. He's someone who is concerned with the total picture."

'Language Of Love' is a very personal album for Ralph. It's very autobiographic. "There are a lot of songs dealing with the way I experience life at this point in time. The album is very confrontational, very black and white. My songs can't be explained in multiple ways. On one hand there's the Gospel and on the other hand the reality of life. Everyone who takes life seriously can't ignore all the hurt and misery."

According to Ralph, the title track best describes where he is right now. "It's a song that's partly autobiographical and partly fiction. In the first verse I sing about a person who communicates being a Christian through his deeds. That's his or her language of love. I know a lot of people like that person. A lot of people look up to me as an artist. But the people I look up to aren't operating in the spotlight. They are never seen. That's wonderful and very pure. In the next verse I talk about the fact that I often experience life as being hard. You can be very concerned about certain things. That's a very biographical statement. But then I look at my children and am able to see how relative it all is. I had a picture of my children on the mixing desk in the States. When things didn't work out, I pointed at my children and said to Chris Eaton, 'That's more important.'

"In the next verse I talk about the fact that God wanted a relationship with mankind. God did not send his son into this world to condemn, but to save. Essentially, this whole album is dealing with the love of God. That's also the reason 1 Cor 13 is recited in the song."

Talking about God's love and having a personal relationship with him hasn't always been a normal thing for Ralph. A couple of years ago Ralph went through a deep crisis in his life. He came to a point where he had to deal with lots of things in his life, like his image of God and his utter perfectionism. "I was afraid of God", says Ralph. I wasn't sure whether he loved me too. I was looking for affirmation. I was looking for those things in living a lifestyle that weren't godly."

Panic attacks led to stress and stress led to breathing difficulties and attacks of hyperventilation. Even though Ralph was known as the lead singer in the Dutch Christian band Target, Ralph says he became a Christian only three years ago. "You can break out of the vicious circle by choosing to step out of it. It's been a long process for me. It took me three years.

The main element for me was my fear of God. I have met God in a new, different way. I had carried a lot of ballast from the past, but I discovered that's the reason why Jesus has come to this earth."

Lots of people helped Ralph in this process. "I talked with a lot of people, that's what I had to do; otherwise I wouldn't have been able to come out of it. At a certain point, I got phone calls from people I didn't know at all, but who knew they had to pray for me. That was a big signal for me: it's not too late."

Ralph says he has discovered acceptance. "Faith is so powerful. Even when times get difficult, God knows. Later on, you'll come to understand. That has to do with God's love and righteousness, how unrighteous everything may seem. Our view of this world is only limited. If we would know everything that happens in the spiritual realm, we wouldn't be able to carry that. So it was really a change of heart for me personally.

Ralph agrees his attitude towards being a Christian musician has definitely changed. "I'm communicating who I am now. Prior to that I tried to hide a lot of things. If I have a hard time, I talk about that, but my foundation is my faith in Jesus Christ. I have discovered people recognise themselves in that process and you get response. People are not able to handle spiritual megastars who tell only nice stories. People only get depressed by hearing those stories. That's not the type of person you read about in the Bible. Being open and honest is essential for me, and it has everything to do with being a Christian. That's my reason to share. I use that to break down walls between me and my audience. I do some school concerts from time to time. I find it very scary to entertain people with guitar or piano only. When you try to get in touch with your audience it comes down to a personal story, not only the music." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.