Songwriter Interviews

Sharon den Adel of Within Temptation

by Greg Prato

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With their 2014 studio release, Hydra, Dutch symphonic metallists Within Temptation scored their US commercial breakthrough, when the album reached #16 on the Billboard 200. But the band has been a global force for years, as evidenced by the multitude of awards they have received, and the fact that their last few albums reached the Top 10 on various Euro charts (or topping the charts in the Netherlands).

Since their inception in 1996, Within Temptation's singer has been Sharon den Adel, who is an impressively versatile vocalist - able to switch from Enya-style singing to grandiose heavy metal within the span of a single composition. Sharon spoke with Songfacts shortly after the release of Hydra, discussing duetting, her favorite songwriters, and the stories behind several songs.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): You've duetted with a wide variety of singers over the years. Who would you say are some of your favorite singers that you've duetted with so far?

Sharon Den Adel: Every one that we asked was a signer that we admire for the music he is making or his voice or a combination of everything. That's how the songs that we have written become duets: if it's finished and then we're thinking, This song would probably be even better if there would be a combination of a duet.

And then we look at who we admire, like Keith Caputo or Howard Jones [on the songs "What Have You Done" and "Dangerous," respectively]. All the people that we've worked with so far, including the female vocalists, they've been chosen because we felt they could really do something extra to the song, and because we admired them musically. That's always been the way we have chosen our duet partners.

Songfacts: Are there any singers that you haven't duetted with yet that you'd like to duet with in the future?

Sharon: Oh, there are so many. There are so many good singers and so many talented people out there. But first you have to write the song and then you think about who you could write with, because it doesn't work the other way around for us.

In addition to Keith Caputo (Life of Agony) and Howard Jones (ex-Killswitch Engage), some of the vocalists that Sharon has dueted with have included Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum) on "Whole World is Watching," Tarja Turunen (ex-Nightwish) on "Paradise (What About Us?)," and rapper Xzibit on "And We Run."
For instance, I'm a big fan of Bob Marley, but even if he was alive, we'd never write a song similar to Marley. It's going to be very difficult to write that kind of song. That's what I mean. You first have to write the song and then you can think about who would sing on the song and who do you admire within that genre kind of music.

Songfacts: And who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?

Sharon: Well, probably the bands that I listened to throughout my life. I'm a big fan of Tori Amos, but also, I grew up with ELO, which you can also hear the influences of now. Totally different. That was something from the '70s and I grew up with that.

And also the Eagles were a big influence when I was growing up. It's the music my parents listened to. Deep Purple. I have a lot of admiration for those bands which I grew up with, that kind of music.

Songfacts: Let's discuss a few Within Temptation songs, starting with "Whole World is Watching."

Sharon: Lyrical meaning, it's about setbacks. Sometimes when you finally get back from the setback in your life, the thing that has given you certain problems, you feel like everybody who was informed about the problem that you had - maybe it could be a physical problem or a disease or you've been struggling with a certain kind of thing - everybody who knows it is watching and mentally supporting you while you're reaching that moment that you stand up and you get over that problem.

That's a very positive feeling, a feeling of empowerment, like everybody is watching you while you're getting to this finish line. You finally ran that marathon and you finally reached the finish line. That's what the song is about. That's the feeling that we wanted to grasp. If you had something to battle for, something you've been working so hard for, it is the song when you come back and when you finally made that moment come true.

Songfacts: And then off the last album, The Unforgiving, what about the song "Faster"?

Sharon: "Faster" is about the fact that you have to stay in conflict to get what you want as an individual in life. When you're working with a company or in a relationship, when you're working with other people, you've got to set some boundaries for yourself which you won't cross because ethically it's not okay to go over that boundary for yourself. Because that's what you stand for, that's who you are, those are your values.

That's what the song is about: you can't live with lies. You just have to be who you are and what you stand for. And sometimes you're frustrated about it and you just want to fast forward away from the problem, but you also have to deal with the thing that's happening at that time in your life.

Songfacts: What about the song "What Have You Done?"

Sharon: It was for The Chronicles of Spellborn, which is a video game. We had a whole story of at least a thousand pages that we had to read about what the story's about, and one of the things was a relationship between two worlds and two people. And that's what "What Have You Done?" is based on.

Songfacts: And finally, let's discuss the latest album, Hydra.

Sharon: Well, in the past when we started writing music, we had a really clear vision of how we wanted to sound, and we had a strict regime, like, "Okay, it should be sounding like this and this and this." And somehow we thought also that we could only be inspired by similar bands, or we had to really focus on that. So the way of writing was totally different than how we did Hydra, because with The Heart of Everything, which is two albums back, we really felt like we had finalized a symphonic vision that we had of how we should sound as a band. We didn't think we could ever go over that, and we didn't want to repeat ourselves.

So we thought, Let's try a different way of songwriting. Have no boundaries at all, no strict regime of how we should sound. Let's let that go, because that was such a pressure for us: we had this barrier already before we started that we could only move within boundaries in a certain way.

And when that was gone, it just opened up so many new doors. In the end we still sounded like Within Temptation, but then more diverse. And I think it started already with The Unforgiving album, that we started writing from different perspectives and were inspired by different kinds of music. But in the end, when you finish an album you always have certain things that you never change.

We felt like, We'll write whatever we like and in the end we'll see what does come on the album and doesn't come on the album. I think coming from that perspective, it feels like you're a new band again, like a young band starting to write their first album. And then you have so much inspiration. That was the same kind of feeling, after so many years, after so many albums, that gives so much energy and so many new ideas. That's the way we're going to write for the future, as well.

And what happened was, when we started writing, we didn't have anything that it should sound like or any particular vision. Just, Write and we'll see in the end. And somehow we came closer to our roots than ever before. We never will be a band like Soulfly - very heavy or extremely manly - because I'm a woman and I don't grunt. [Laughs] So if you can let that go and still sing, it's the heaviest album we've ever written so far. And still very melodic.

It made us very happy, because we had fun and we have written an uptempo album, something that we had a lot of problems with in the past. We've had uptempo songs, but not as uptempo as this album and also still melodic, because that's something which is very difficult sometimes without getting a "too happy" kind of feel. Because if you're uptempo, sometimes you get to a certain border of songs which are cheesy, to our opinion. There's a very fine line of what you can do with uptempo songs in a heavy genre and still be melodic. It's a fine line, and we felt we were on the right side of that line, and we're really happy with this album.

And we found out that if we used a certain kind of tempo when we're writing a song, then we can speed it up later on. You can write a ballad in the beginning, but you can transpose it to a heavy song, because it has the right rhythm. Then it's easier to write songs. That happened on the song "Paradise" when I wrote it with Martijn [Spierenburg]. That was really awesome, that really helped us a lot.

November 24, 2014.
Sharon photo by Paul Harries, band photo by Patric Ullaeus.

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