Hugo Van Buuren’s Place For Everything

Hugo Van Buuren’s Place For Everything

On his debut EP, Naarm-based artist Hugo Van Buuren flaunts his sharp lyrical edge, hones his indie-folk inflections, and finds longing, romance, and perfection in the chaos

Image credit: Silkom Powell

The delicate fingerpicking that opens Morning Eyes, the debut single from Naarm-based singer-songwriter Hugo van Buuren, lulls you into repose. Intimate confessions give way to tinkering percussion, with tender scenes sketched in minor moments and sharp asides, the tiny details of an unfurling courtship. It’s a slow-burning love that gains patient momentum, strings and drums folding into the mix, building to a powerful catharsis: “You’re in my head / Makes me want you more, you’re in my head…”

These fleeting moments feel like home for Hugo, who makes much of stolen glances and passing thoughts. His is the remarkable moments of the unremarkable days; the flaring loves and taut connections we make in between tending bar and running errands. His debut EP — he prefers “collection” — There Is A Place For Everything, explores these magical contours of the everyday. The propulsive longing of Difference in Kind, the flickering peace of She Is Endlessly Giving, and the impassioned pleas of What Can I Give You? show not only an ability to evoke melancholy and tranquility, but a lyrical skill that filters life through his beautifully romantic perspective.

God, can you not tell,” says Hugo of his romantic tendencies. “Yeah, I'm a sucker. Hopeless!” It’s a damp Sunday morning, and he’s taking time away from fixing his bike to talk over his new collection. “Growing up listening to a lot of your folk and your singer-songwriter classics, earnestness has always been at the forefront of music that really catches me,” he explains, deconstructing the rich interiority that breaks through on his first collection. For all the depth in his arrangements, the vocals are largely unadorned, lyrics straddling both raw emotions and tangible recollections. “Morning Eyes is probably the epitome of that,” says Hugo, “it's incredibly intimate and incredibly explicit in that sense.”

It’s been just a few weeks since the arrival of that first single, and Hugo’s already released There Is A Place for Everything, a five-track introduction to his musical world. “I've just been hustling to sort of let it go and get it out pretty quickly,” he tells me. “It's been a quick turnaround, but it feels good, to be honest. It feels good to not sit and think and ponder on the songs anymore.” That approach mirrors the intimate and confessional music, the messages within imparted like a spur-of-the-moment admission in the early hours of an eventful night. “When you listen across the EP, it’s made to have a range of all different speeds [and] tempos,” Hugo elaborates. “I tried to have a bit of a balance there, because I love to listen to all those types of music, and didn't really feel like I wanted to make an EP of just one sort of particular kind.”

The uniting thread is Hugo’s own eye, which weaves through indie-rock and alt-folk palettes with an unmistakable character. Hugo’s pen has a sharp focus on fragments of memory — the “mint and tobacco on your lips”; flashes of “running my hand through the back of your hair”; vignettes of “the tide of your breath, the rise and fall of your chest” — that help deepen the tense romantic immersion. “A lot of my music is about place,” says Hugo of his vivid scenes. “It's about specific moments or experiences… but then keeping that the balance of the internal feeling and emotion.”

His pithy mix of setting and mindstate lends romance to even the minor observations, things that only the longing eye would ever linger on. The image of water flows throughout There Is A Place For Everything, those deep, immersive, and ever-changing tempests reflecting the EP’s inception. “To be honest, it wasn't very clear what it was meant to mean at the very start,” says Hugo of the titular phrase, “it was kind of a more of a stream of consciousness.” A collage of untethered images flow throughout the verses, flashes of the abstract and the concrete coalescing in that simple mantra. “At the moment when I wrote that song, it was a time of processing and trying to reground myself… I was going through a lot of moving house, a lot of change in life, and that kind of thing.”

Those unassuming words — “water,” “moon,” “mirror,” “river” — and the disjointed actions — “driving,” “swimming,” “holding your breath” — are personal anchors in a sea of change. “The common thread between all those things [is] they were things that grounded me, or they were things that sort of tethered me back to something,” he explains. “‘There is a place for everything’ was kind of pulling all of that together, saying ‘all these parts and all these things in my life that make me feel whole and make me feel grounded, there's a place and there's a time for each thing.’”

Hugo van Buuren Press Shot 4 Credit Ton van Buuren

Image credit: Ton Van Buuren

A disciple of folk and indie rock, Hugo calls on the influence of forebears such as Big Thief vocalist Adrienne Lenker, American artist Blake Mills and Canadian singer-songwriter Leif Vollebeck. “The main influence on my music, I think, comes from this looseness and this freedom in his playing, particularly in the way he delivers his vocal and his guitar,” says Hugo of Vollebeck’s laidback approach. “There's a tenderness and this unbridled earnestness, with this beautiful freedom… it’s not blues or jazz music, but there's kind of that improvised feeling and nature to it, in a folk or alternative folk context.

This freewheeling philosophy manifests in Hugo’s taste for “creating expansive worlds that can snap, really suddenly sometimes, between ethereal, dreamy soundscapes, and… the recording of me literally on the edge of my bed, holding the mic.” The EP’s swelling conclusion, title track There Is A Place for Everything, juxtaposes a rich orchestral suite with vocals recorded in his Preston sharehouse. That juxtaposition offers insight into Hugo’s writing process, charting the journey his compositions take from infancy.

They mostly start purely on guitar for me, throwing guitars through weird tunings, mostly on acoustic,” he explains of his writing process. “I felt like I wasn't connecting with a really acoustic-backboned folk sort of sound at this point, so I reached out to my friend Luke [Mosley]... he plays under his own project called Butternut Sweetheart.” Mosley soon became the project’s most invaluable collaborator, providing production and engineering assists, as well as instrumental flourishes and backing vocals. “I took the songs to him and said, ‘I want to try and flesh these out and make them into something a bit more expansive, or something that can exist in a bit more of a band context.’”

That collaborative approach helped deepen Hugo’s songs, embracing string flourishes, synthesizer flairs, and band-based dynamics. “At the core they’re mine, but they’re so much stronger, and they breathe so much more and have so much more life, when I invite those trusted and special people into them,” he says of their self-contained worlds. “You're only making it stronger when you have fun with it, and it's much more fun with other people,” he continues. “To be honest, it sort of lifts the burden and the stress of it all and makes it fun.”

I grew up listening to a lot of folk music that uses moments of classical music and orchestration,” says Hugo, explaining the soft string backing that runs through the six-track cycle. “I wrote all the string parts, I got it done in an afternoon,” he says of There Is A Place for Everything. “I can't play these instruments, but I can write for them, so I took that song to my friend, Emma Kelly.” In her solo project Happy Axe, Kelly creates what Hugo calls “a phenomenal sort of alternative, ambient songwriting vibe,” qualities she generously lent. “I sent off the track to her and she recorded herself layering strings one after the other and sent it back to me in the afternoon. Before I knew it, I had like a full orchestral arrangement for that tune.”

The process of vision and revision, conception and collaboration, is ultimately cathartic process, one which helps exhume the guarded pieces of the self. “In my day-to-day I would be too scared to talk about it with the people around me,” Hugo admits, “but for some reason, when it's through this medium, it’s a safe place where I get to do that.” It’s an almost paradoxical vulnerability — as he talks about his upcoming headline show at The Gasometer in Naarm, he’s excited by the prospect of baring his soul to a collected crowd of friends, colleagues, and collaborators.

It's really a celebration of the community that helped me pull this together and make it,” he says of the show, which features friends and collaborators such as Butternut Sweetheart, Happy Axe, True Salt, and Geography. “I think being in a room with everyone and making that happen in real life is going to be fantastic.”

That celebration will double as a brief farewell, with adventure calling him abroad. “I'm just going traveling for a little bit, going to see some gigs,” says Hugo, excitedly. “I bought a ticket to see Joni Mitchell like a year and a half ago, so I'm actually doing a little pilgrimage to go and see this Joni Mitchell gig.” There’s no romance without life, and Hugo’s journeys are already leading him back to his guitar. “The plan is to meet up with a mate of mine over there and start the next set of recordings. I’ve got plenty of tunes together, they're always on the burner and always moving,” he says, tentative. “The next little collection is definitely underway.”

Hugo van Buuren's new EP There Is A Place For Everything is out now

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