Within Temptation’s Sharon Den Adel: “Sometimes I Lose It, Emotionally”
Sharon den Adel always knew she could sing. What she didn’t realise until later in life was that she had the power to turn her passion into her profession. Within Temptation are now firmly established as one of the biggest rock bands to have emerged from mainland Europe in the last 20 years, but that initally seemed like nothing more than a far-flung fantasy. In her native Netherlands, there was little to suggest rock could be a viable career path. The bands that Sharon admired – everyone from Metallica to Nirvana – all came from America, after all.
Worse still, after returning to school in her homeland following periods spent overseas, Sharon was such an outcast that she became a target for bullying. She put up barriers and suppressed her pain, instead immersing herself in hobbies – music, art and fashion. “For me, it was a way out,” she says today, talking to Kerrang! before jetting off to Sweden for album writing sessions. “I wasn’t much of a talker and these were different times – you didn’t really open up about such things at home. But I used music and art to confront my emotions.”
Happier times were to come at high school, where she met guitarist Robert Westerholt, now her long-term partner and bandmate. As well as building a successful career together, the couple are parents to three children. Each one of Within Temptation’s seven albums to date has outdone its predecessor, either in commercial or artistic terms, and usually both. In 2014, sixth album Hydra entered the UK Top 10 and the U.S. Top 20.
The problem came in trying to following up that triumph. With her father diagnosed with terminal bladder cancer, to which he sadly succumbed in 2018, Sharon entered a downward spiral of depression. Writing music, once the most natural thing in the world, now seemed impossible, and for a while the band’s future looked bleak. Thankfully, when they did re-engage after an extended break, it was with 2019’s armour-plated Resist, an album that boasted a bold new sound bolstered by dashes of electronica and a vast, galaxy-spanning production. It was simultaneously their most accessible and ambitious work, but more importantly it was the album that saved one of Europe’s most-loved rock bands.
You’ve come a long way since you first picked up a microphone. What would your teenage self think of how things turned out?
“It would be mind-blowing for her. I was 14 when I first started singing with a band while at school. That seems so far away now. Growing up in the Netherlands we didn’t have too many examples to follow. There were bands like Shocking Blue and Golden Earring, but they never seemed to reach too far outside the country. Being a full-time singer certainly wasn’t considered to be a future job.”
How did your parents react when you told them that’s what you wanted to do?
“They said I could go to music school but they really wanted me to learn flute, piano, and how to read music. That didn’t sound very cool to me and I didn’t want to do it. I told them I wanted to skip all of that and just start singing, because I believed I was good at that. They wanted to support me, but in their own way. I never did learn to play the flute. They soon realised I was a good singer, but they didn’t think you could earn a living from music without being able to read notes. I still can’t!”
Each Within Temptation album has sounded notably different to its predecessor. Was it a struggle to find an identity?
“It is something we were actively and consciously doing, or searching for. We have always wanted to push the borders of what we felt were limiting us within the scene. It’s a good challenge and it keeps things interesting. We like to reinvent ourselves on every album. If we had to stay the same as we were when we started, I doubt we’d have kept the band together so long.”
In 2011 Robert quit being part of the touring band. How difficult was that for you both?
“We didn’t like it, but it was the best thing for both of us. We had actually come through a break-up before that. We broke up as a couple for a little while in 2008. When we got back together we decided the band didn’t work too well when we’re both touring together. We’re hard-headed people and sometimes it’s too much to be working together all the time. Now it works best with us writing in separate rooms. We send emails to each other rather than talk. It can be a fragile thing, but if you’ve worked with your partner you know it can be horrible. We can get into a fight within five minutes. Within the world of Within Temptation we collaborate with different people, and that works well.”
You don’t ever write music together?
“No, never. I send ideas to him, and he either works on those, or he sends something to me and I work on that. We don’t sit together in one room. We tried it that way for a long time and it wasn’t working. On our first two albums he would write the music and I’d come in and work on the vocals. Since then I’ve got way more involved in the actual music. We can’t write together, but we’ve learned from our mistakes and have found a way that works.”
As a mum of three, how do you balance career and family life?
“I found it hard at first. I had to change the balance of my personal life and the band. In the past I would go on tour for six weeks or more at a time, and I’d be away from home a lot. Now we manage it so that we tour for two weeks and then have a break, and then we go out again. It’s generally two weeks on the road and then two weeks at home. It’s more expensive that way, but it keeps the band alive. Everyone has family commitments.”
Within Temptation songs are always invested with considerable emotion. Which songs are most meaningful to you?
“The last album was hugely important for me, coming after the loss of my father. I was still in an emotional state when I was writing Resist with the guys. Holy Ground is particularly meaningful to me, as is Supernova. The Cross [from 2007’s The Heart Of Everything] is another significant one, but there are so many. It’s not just because they deal with subjects personal to me, but sometimes songs relate to people around me. I may be a bystander, but you get sucked into people’s lives and their challenges because you care about them. I take parts of my own emotions along with things that have affected other people, and then integrate those into a song. Because of that we get through a range of subjects on our albums.”
Are there any you find tough to perform for personal reasons?
“Say My Name [from the U.S. edition of 2004’s The Silent Force] and Forgiven [The Heart Of Everything] are hard songs for me to sing. You’re so naked on stage with those. Sometimes, and without meaning to, singing those songs brings back so much that you find yourself in an emotional state. It’s beautiful really, because I am not ashamed to show that side of me. That feeling – you can’t get closer to the origins of a song than that. You want to connect with the feeling, but not to the point where you lose it, emotionally. But sometimes I do.”
Did the success of 2011’s The Unforgiving and 2014’s Hydra change you as a band?
“Not really. You only see it when you look back. At the time you’re carried away by the flow of everything and you don’t always see things changing. Afterwards, I look back almost with surprise and understand that it was all pretty successful. Of course you note where you are in the charts and that’s always a sign that something’s happening, but it’s only later that you realise how important it was, or how people really understood and connected with a certain song or album.”
Did you feel under pressure to maintain that level of success?
“Success is not something you can control. Even after [second album] Mother Earth in 2000, people were wondering whether we could keep it up. Every album has brought a different kind of success; it might be musically or it might be because more fans have discovered you. The only pressure we feel is about whether we still matter to the music scene. We want to make music that feels important to people. Music is essential to life, so being relevant to people is the only aim we have. It’s like a circle: you give, and you get back.”
What do you think caused the writer’s block you experienced in the build-up to last album Resist?
“At a certain age, things start happening for the second time in your life. When I was younger my grandparents died, and then as you get older more people leave you. It’s inevitable. It’s that circle of life. It causes you to stop and reflect on what’s important. The problems began when my father started getting ill. There was too much emotion and I couldn’t deal with it. For me, when there’s too much emotion I can’t write. I feel overwhelmed by it all. I need to be able to put it in a place, to know where it’s coming from and how to deal with it. Only then can I make music. I can’t do it when I’m right in the middle of it.”
Did the band come close to breaking up?
“In the beginning of that period, I didn’t know if we could come back. Eventually, it was that uncertainty about the future that enabled me to explore the emotions I was having. I was talking to everyone and realised it wasn’t just me going through it. Everyone was having trouble coming up with new music. Of course, we wanted to continue. Music and this band is my passion, but I realised that we had to change the balance. It also helped to realise that there were a lot of new things happening in music, and not just within our scene, so we took inspiration from those sources, too. My heart and roots are in metal and rock, but I like all kinds of music. The challenge was to interpret something that might be happening in pop into our own genre.”
How important was your 2018 solo project My Indigo in getting things moving again?
“It forced me to get out of my comfort zone. It made me look at music in different ways and get creative again. A lot of what I learned helped when it came to Resist. The song Firelight was originally written for My Indigo, for example, but we roughened it up a bit and it ended up on Resist, so it was a sort of bridge between the two. Writing rock music again came naturally afterwards, and that was a huge relief. When you’ve done a lot of intimate stuff, the heavier material then seems to come more easily.”
Resist brought new sounds and themes to the table. Is it a one-off or the start of a new era?
“We felt like we developed a lot on this album, but overall it’s still only a small step and we hope to take things even further, along similar lines, in future. The album was inspired by the way we live today, with everything done on the internet and the way that takes away our privacy. Often we are not aware of the impact social media has on us, or that certain companies know so much about what we’re doing. There are not enough laws to protect our privacy. Back in the Second World War people would burn archives, for example, to not give away the places that Jewish people were living. But now all that information would be available digitally. We don’t see the whole picture. We turn away from the ways in which data about us and our lives is being stored and used.”
Does it worry you that your children were born into a time where this seems normal?
“The scary thing is that the younger generation, such as my children, don’t remember a time when this wasn’t the case. I know it makes me sound really old, but it’s dangerous that young people are so addicted to communicating online, and not in person or even on the phone. They’re in love with it; they don’t want to give it up. When I was young I had to go outside and talk to people and make friends that way. The worst thing for young people now is that they’re trying to do this through a phone screen, and actually they’re alone.”
How do you keep your voice in good nick on long tours?
Nightwish’s Floor Jansen says it’s all down to her consumption of red wine, but she might have been joking… “(Laughs) If I’m honest, I also drink a lot of red wine, but I’m not so certain it’s that good for your voice exactly! In fact, being on tour itself helps you to maintain your vocal chords. It’s like a muscle, so it needs training. The more you do it, the smoother it gets. You just need to remember your warming up time. I drink a lot of ginger tea, too, which helps me out, but really, practice is everything.”
Word has it you’re already working on new music. What can you tell us?
“I’m leaving for Sweden in order to isolate myself and focus on writing. Robert has been working hard on new music, too. That has been going really well. It’s a continuation from where we were on the last album, but in a more progressive way. We’re in a good flow right now. We want to take the sound we had on Resist and refine it even more. It’s heavy stuff that we’ve been coming up with; both heavy and up-tempo. That’s making me happy!”
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