Back in February, when all anybody knew of Cole Williams was the pseudonym he went by, the city he lived in and the handful of songs he’d released, I sat down with him in a cafe in East London. It was the day after he’d won the Phillip Hall Radar award at the NME Awards, and his acceptance speech that night – “Thank you very much” – had me anticipating an interviewee who would be evasive at best, outright uncommunicative at worst. But that wasn’t Cole at all: his speech, he explained, was simply intended as a tribute to the similarly-succinct one his hero Prince had given at the American Music Awards in 1985. As a person, meanwhile, he was warm and effusive, prone to moments of self-deprecation, but serious as hell when it came to his music. After spending months guarding his identity, he seemed to relish finally stepping out into the spotlight.
The Phillip Hall Radar award is given not on the basis of what an artist has achieved, but what we expect them to, and Cole’s first two singles – ‘Heal’ and ‘Give Me’ – marked him out as someone who would go on to achieve extraordinary things. What none of us knew until today was that he already had: Cole’s real name was Martijn Teerlinck, and before he was a musician, he was a celebrated poet, who had won the national Dutch Poetry Slam final in 2010, and whose work had been published in several anthologies.
The Child of Lov, aka Cole Williams, aka Martijn Teerlinck, was born in Lendelede, Belgium on March 31st, 1987, raised in Amsterdam, and also spent time in Paris and London. After taking piano lessons as a child, he started making music from a young age, writing songs and constructing beats on his laptop. He was shy and self-conscious about it (“It wasn’t for other people,” he told me) but through one of the few friends he allowed to hear it, he was introduced to Trey Reames, who had previously managed Danger Mouse and was instrumental in putting Gnarls Barkley together. Domino’s interest was aroused when Reames played them a couple of unfinished tracks, and he was quickly signed to their roster. Through Reames, Cole also came into contact with Damon Albarn and MF Doom, both of whom would appear on The Child of Lov’s debut album. He told me he found collaboration difficult, but that working with Albarn was easy, “because he’s a good decision-maker, and he’s got a clear idea of what he wants. With Damon, if it’s good it’s good, if it’s not, you just move onto the next one. I think we’re pretty similar as far as that’s concerned.”
In the months leading up to his appearance at the NME Awards, the buzz generated by The Child of Lov’s music had inevitably led to all sorts of rumours about his story. That day, I asked him about the most outlandish one: that he was terminally ill, with just months to live. “The rumour was that I would only play three shows on three different continents before I died,” he explained. “Domino told me about it, and that I was going to be asked about it, but it’s still pretty weird. It was an awkward thing to be asked about.”
Looking back over the transcript of that interview, I notice that he never actually came out and categorically denied it. According to reports, Martijn had lived his entire life with a serious heart defect. You can imagine how shitty I now feel about having laughed when, during our interview, he quipped that, “Hopefully I’ll play more than three gigs! Hopefully I won’t die after the first one!” At the time, however, the story seemed like such an obvious fabrication, the sort that often attaches itself to an artist who exists – as he had done – in a vacuum, who doesn’t make every biographical detail about themselves immediately available. Who wouldn’t laugh at something so ridiculous?
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More to the point, nothing about Martijn’s person or demeanour suggested he was ill. Tall, strapping and distinctively-dressed, with a fondness for gaudy silk shirts and outsized bling, he looked like his music sounded: loud, colourful, vibrant and inventive. He also spoke enthusiastically and at length about his plans for the future: he had just been confirmed for Glastonbury, and was in the process of figuring out how to do his debut album justice onstage. I wasn’t at all surprised when he told me he was already hard at work on a second album, which he said was inspired by Sly Stone, who, as a fellow “bedroom musician”, he felt a certain kinship with: “That same sort of rough, bluesy kind of soul,” he said, “that’s what I want to do on the second album, without it being retro-sounding. I think there’s a nice challenge in that, to get that old feel and sound, but make it sound like new music at the same time.”
In May, when he cancelled all of his upcoming live commitments, including appearances at Glastonbury and Bestival, I was disappointed, but not necessarily surprised. A few weeks after our first chat, I’d spoken to him again, via Skype, about the preparations for his tour, where I got the impression that he had a very particular vision for what he wanted it to be, and that he was not of a mind to compromise if it couldn’t meet those high standards. He hadn’t performed onstage since he was 15 or 16, when he’d done a handful of gigs playing “guitar songs”, and although he was looking forward to festival season (he’d never even been to one as a punter before), I sensed that making music was ultimately more important to him than playing it live.
When it was released, Martijn’s debut album received widespread acclaim, including a 9/10 review from NME, but as impressive as it was, I don’t think anyone doubted he would go on to better it. After everything had gone quiet – when the gigs failed to materialise, and he stopped doing press – we all assumed that was what he was in the process of doing. Then, two days ago, we received word that, Martijn had died – at the criminally-young age of 26 – from complications following surgery, in Amsterdam. That he completed more music before then is the meagerest of mercies, but nonetheless, I dearly hope his unreleased songs see the light of day. For someone who was so obsessive about art and so gifted at creating it, what he’s left behind doesn’t feel like nearly enough. It never will.
‘air’ by Martijn Teerlinck (March 31st, 1987 – December 10th, 2013)
all air is bated breath of the world
which is slowly choking
but people have fig leaf faces
and they run carefree in their ages
people swallow everything without wind: earth and flesh
It stinks inside their cloches
and I, though I am dunbevleugeld
and though I have a body of wires
if I had still had lungs
I want to give them to the world
but I have empty droplets
hanging to dry in my chest
therefore I breathe softly, voice together
and I leave the world to blow in me