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My Brussels: Singer-songwriter Typh Barrow is a distinctive voice in a crowded market

10:43 18/09/2018
Singer Typh Barrow on her musical journey, overcoming setbacks and what living in the capital means to her

With a smoky voice and a style combining pop and soul with jazz and blues, singer-songwriter Typh Barrow has been described by some as the Belgian Amy Winehouse. But her musical influences growing up were all men, from Stevie Wonder to Bill Withers.

Born Tiffany Baworowski in Brussels to a Polish father and a Belgian mother, the 31-year-old has been writing songs since she was 12, performing since the age of 14, and has just brought out her debut album. The Bulletin caught up with her ahead of an October gig at Brussels’ Ancienne Belgique.

When did you know you wanted to be a musician?

Music was always there – it was what I wanted to do. My parents loved listening to soul, but you don’t want to hear them sing! When I was five, they asked which instrument I would like to play and I said piano. They thought sport and music should be part of a child’s education and I’m thankful for that. It gave me my vocation.

I’ve always had this raspy, boyish voice. Sometimes people would call me Monsieur on the phone. My father would confuse my voice with my brother’s. My music teachers always made me sing in the boys’ group. They would tell my parents: this is not normal, you should see a doctor, there is a problem.

But this is my voice, it’s who I am. When you’re a teenager, though, feeling different is not OK. I tried to sing the songs of Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and it was impossible with my voice. I felt like I couldn’t be a singer if I couldn’t sing their songs. Then, when I was 10, I discovered Stevie Wonder. It was such an amazing moment; I felt like this is exactly what I want to do.

But singing men’s songs wasn’t right for me. When I was around 12, I started to think: I’m going to create my own songs, and then I felt in my zone. When I started to accept my voice and to get to know it, I started to get to know myself and accept myself the way I was.

How did you end up singing for a living?

I had a teenage job as a waiter in a piano bar on the coast to earn a bit of money. I was terrible, I’m so clumsy. At the end of one shift, there were no customers in the restaurant and I asked the piano player if I could play something to make me feel better. The boss heard me and asked if I could play for two or three hours straight. I said yes, so he fired me as a waiter and hired me again as a performer.

From that moment I never stopped. I kept playing small venues, then bigger ones. I met my manager and there was a connection and an artistic trust right away. The debut album, Raw, took longer than expected; some songs involved a lot of travel and planning. I’m someone who’s very impatient, but I’m glad we took the time. I feel like this is an album I’m still going to be proud of in 20 to 30 years. We didn’t make any compromises. We just took the time we needed.

I’ve never really listened to French music, except maybe French rap. Music has always sounded right in English and it’s not natural for me to sing in French. I’ve not written much in French and when I tried, it didn’t sound good.

What challenges have you faced along the way?

The most important one has been the trouble I’ve had with my voice. When we launched the first song on the radio in 2013, I started to do more concerts, but the pressure wasn’t easy to handle. I’d just been on a big trip to Africa and wasn’t paying attention to my health. When I came back my whole body was weak and I lost my voice on stage. I had a vocal cord cyst. It was such a trauma. I thought: what’s happening to me? This should have been my biggest dream coming true.

The doctor told me I needed surgery, which could have changed how I sounded. I said: no, this is my voice. I asked what plan B was. The doctor said: don’t speak, don’t say a single word for a month, and we’ll see how it evolves. Afterwards we did a test and it looked totally fine. The voice is a muscle and you need to train it and you need to get to know it.

What does Brussels mean to you?

When I was younger I wanted to be anywhere except in Brussels. I wanted to travel the world and I thought other cities were much more exciting. Brussels isn’t the city that moves the most, but it’s a place where it’s easy to live, where you can grow up, have a good education… you have pretty much everything except perfect weather.

It’s not huge; everything is close to everything. You can be in the centre of the city in a few minutes and then you can be in the middle of a forest, enjoying nature.

Typh's best of Brussels

Ancienne Belgique
This place is iconic. While it’s a big concert place where you can see big artists, at the same time it’s intimate. Wherever you are, you can see well and the sound is really good.
110 Boulevard Anspach, Brussels

Sounds Jazz Club
I love to go and listen to jazz concerts here. It’s a really nice place where you can enjoy a beer and listen to amazing jazz artists. You feel like you’re not in Belgium any more, you’re in some hidden place in New York.
28 Rue de la Tulipe, Ixelles

I love everything about it – it’s a very lively part of Brussels. My dream weekend involves a trip to the Flagey market and a nice crepe and mint tea in the sun at Soul Kitchen food truck.

Sonian Forest
I never get tired of this place. I come here to run, walk, meditate and reconnect with nature. The forest is so huge and so peaceful. The colours change depending on the time of the year, it’s different and beautiful. I love the city, but it’s so important to be able to disconnect a bit and reconnect to myself.

A great Asian restaurant near Place Sainte-Catherine.
19 Rue de Flandre, Brussels

Italian restaurant in Ixelles. It sells amazing pasta with blue cheese and pears.
149 Rue Washington, Ixelles

Typh Barrow’s album Raw is out now. She plays the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels on 5 October. Photo: François Leboutte. This article first appeared in The Bulletin Summer 2018

Written by Paul McNally