Singer BALWAKO: “Why so experimental? Because finally, I feel that I can be”
The Polish artist is turning the darker moments of his life into dancefloor anthems.
Words by Caspar Pisters, photos by Pawel Semon Janicki
“Cheers!” It’s only 3 pm but, hell, why not. Balwako (full name Wojtek Balwako, 27) has a tendency to spoil his guests. We’re in The Hague, Netherlands, in the apartment he shares with a roommate. The coffee table in the living room is full of snacks of all kinds, and there is wine.
The Polish singer – he grew up in a small village near Wroclaw – just got out of a three weeks covid quarantine and the Friday before our meeting he signed with a record label. So, yes: Cheers!
It has been two years since Balwako moved to the Netherlands and it changed him, he says. Back in Poland, he created an alter ego to be able to express himself, allowing him to go on stage in an extravagant outfit.
I want to make people feel a bit weird and confused when they listen to my music.”
Nowadays he feels he can actually be that person whenever he wants to be. Every once in a while he will send his mom pics of him wearing a bunch of jewelry and some eye make-up, much to her poor old heart’s regret.
“Yea, she doesn’t like it at all”, says Balwako, today dressed in working-from-home gear; a comfy hoody and sweatpants. “But to me, it feels good. When I put on something special and look in the mirror, I feel this superpower coming over me. I bring that to the set when I’m recording. Fashion gives me that extra energy.”
I didn’t think about wanting to be a superstar, I had to find out how to survive.”
Flatline, the first track he released after leaving his homeland, also feels decidedly different from his debut album. Less of an attempt to please, more of an urgency to take you on his journey. One that hasn’t necessarily been easy.
“Poland is a country that may not be the most tolerant and friendly towards gay people. Here in the Netherlands, I got complete freedom. When I released Flatline people were saying: what is this, why so experimental? Because now for the first time I feel that I can.”
What inspired you to move to the Netherlands?
“Opportunity? A person I knew was already living here, he said he had found a nice job. Through him, I was offered work in a greenhouse and accommodation. They told me it was easy and paid well, neither was true. I shared an apartment with the guy, smaller than my current bedroom. There were mice, when I opened my pasta, one jumped out. I was like: oh my god, that’s nasty. I’m not a princess, but that’s really gross. Perhaps the guy that convinced me to come here got a bonus for it.”
That sounds like the typical route for a lot of Polish people who end up doing the shitty jobs in the Netherlands.
“I did all kinds of jobs. I had to separate trash that came in from stores. It was awful, the hardest job in my life. I lost so much weight – well, that was actually the benefit of it. After that I started working in a bakery, I had to get up so early. I went on to serve the morning buffet in a hotel. Finally, I found a job in a restaurant. Which was nice because they did live shows there. As a waiter, I also got to perform.”
I imagine the gap between what you want to be – a superstar – and what you were doing, felt quite big?
“I didn’t think like that, I had to find out how to survive. It wasn’t what I had signed up for but I was too proud to go back home. [laughs] I wanted to try, see what time will bring. There are periods in life when you are struggling. I came to a completely different country with nothing. I realized I needed to give myself some time to set myself up. Some people are faster than you but never look around, just do your thing. It’s the same with music, I’ve been doing it for so many years. People say: ‘You’re still not famous. Why are you not next to Rihanna?’ Haha. Just give me time. Maybe it will never happen, maybe I will blow up like Cesária Évora, she was fifty when she had her big break. It’s fine, I’m ready for it.”
Flatline describes an experience that I had with drugs, and how awful I felt the day after.”
You have time.
“Yes. I love doing music. I’m happy that I got back the opportunity to do music again. For some time here I didn’t have the contacts. But I discovered this app, it’s like Tinder but for musicians. There I found my producer Vinnie Goyal. He had heard my first album and he was very surprised. It felt very fresh to him because all the instruments were recorded live, it has a retro sixties sound but with a modern twist. I’m not famous but my music has quality. That is always my goal. I don’t want to regret my songs or projects when I’m looking back ten years from now. I put all of my heart into it so later I know that I did what I could.”
Indeed, when I listened to your older music it feels very professional and established. As if you’ve been supported by a major record label. Did you do a musical study?
“I studied children’s therapy but I never worked in this profession. As a kid, I was all over the place. I wanted to play an instrument but my mom wouldn’t let me because I was already doing taekwondo. I wanted to be a priest, I wanted to be a fireman. I kept pushing for music school but my mom never signed me up. Finally, I got private lessons for guitar and singing, and I started signing up for school competitions and anything that potentially could teach me something new. When I was 17 I participated in a Polish reality tv show where I was part of a group, dancing, singing, doing lead vocals, backing. A very cool experience because I had a chance to work with a voice coach and a choreographer for the first time. It taught me a lot about how to perform live.”
Flatline has a very dark vibe. It’s attractive, but it is not an easily accessible song compared to your older work.
“It makes you feel a bit odd, yes. That was my idea when I was in the studio. I want to make people feel a bit different when they listen to it. Weird and confusing was what I was going for.”
What inspired that?
“It literally describes an experience that I had with drugs, and how awful I felt the day after.” It happened in a period in my life that was dark. The second track, Lost myself, talks about that same issue.”
Which would explain the intensity of the chorus to Lost myself. It really sounds like someone slurring something out of their system.
“The song pinpoints the moment when I changed my life for the better. I wrote it the day after I met Vinnie. I was struggling to find a job, again. The restaurant job had ended because of covid. In the second lockdown I was working in a warehouse when it was minus fifteen degrees. I was going there with tears and they just literally froze on my cheeks. I was so close to going back to Poland. And then Vinnie found me, telling me how much he loved my music and that he wanted to work with me. I thought: thank you, I don’t know who you are but oh my god, thank you. With Lost myself, I decided to bring a more serious topic to my music. It talks about me kind of losing my life, dancing with the devil, trying things to forget about my life. In the lyrics, dancing is a metaphor for life. I ask myself questions: Looking around, is this the place where I wanna be now? Like a self-confession. Now, one year later, I’m in a better place. Much better.”
I didn’t want to write about love for a while, after some unpleasant experiences with an ex.”
Was there a moment when you really struggled with drugs?
“It was not a struggle. There was just nothing for me to do. I didn’t have a job, I needed to stay home because there was a curfew. What do I do? At that moment I thought: let’s do drugs with some random people. Looking back I think I was looking for some relief, after a tough beginning here in the Netherlands.”
Did you have any experience with drugs before?
“Yes, I did it a few times. I’m a busy person, and when I’m busy I don’t have time to do these things. But during quarantine, when I’m being put in a house and told to stay there… It affects me in a bad way. It felt like I could lose control.”
What was your drug of choice?
“I’ve tried several things. But as I sing in my song Hollywood: ‘Dating on Sunday with Mary Jane’. And we definitely date more often than just on Sundays.” [laughs]
How do you feel about Flatline coming out of this dark experience?
“As long as my mom doesn’t know it’s alright.” [laughs] “It was also an opportunity to include new topics into my music. My first album was a lot about happy love kinda-ish music. I didn’t want to write about love for a while, after some unpleasant experiences with an ex. We broke up two months before the pandemic. He couldn’t let go and tried to turn my life into hell. In the end he sent a letter to my mom, in Polish, telling her I’m gay.”
Did he out you?
How did your mom react?
“She’s an old person, she’s 70 this year. My sisters knew already before, as well as all my friends. My mom felt it I guess, but my parents raised me in an old-fashioned way. The warm, fluffy parents, hugs and kisses, I don’t have that kind of relationship with them. I’m from Eastern Europe, we’re cold. I don’t like cuddles.”
I’ve become more patient after my last relationship. He was great for me.”
Haha, I’m a bit hesitant to stigmatize the whole of Eastern Europe as cold people here.
“What can I say. This Latino mentality of kissing, singing, and touching each other, we don’t do that. We are cold. It’s why we have vodka.” [laughs]
How is your mom dealing with the subject of you being gay?
“I went there four months later and we had a conversation. I said: if you wanna ask something, ask. I think she will be happy for me to be in a relationship, even if it’s with a guy. She once told me that: ‘I just don’t wanna see you lonely, that’s all’. She knew about the partner that came after him, I sent her pictures of us.”
You told me you just came out of that relationship. Why did it not work out?
“We were together for almost two years but we felt that both of us have some healing to do separate from each other. It’s sad of course, but we want to keep the friendship because that’s how it started. I’ve become more patient in my relationship with him. He was great for me.”
How have you become more patient?
“Well, I’m really a fire sign. When something bothers me, in simple situations sometimes, it can heat me up in one second. I just explode and it’s awful, I hate that part of myself. I try to control it and be diplomatic. My ex-boyfriend is a very patient person, I could be honest with him always, we talked about everything. I think this is because our relationship evolved from a Grindr hook-up. We had already seen each other in a certain way, so there was no shame or need to cover sides of ourselves that we were both aware of having.”
Will I be dancing soon to your current break-up?
“I’m going a bit Taylor Swift, yes, the ending of this relationship turned me into a machine for broken-heart anthems. I’m working on four new songs, one of them has me going out of my comfort zone with lyrics and music. It is sexy and poppy. It’s hard to say what is coming up next because I don’t know where my creativity will take me. I’m so happy to be making music again. I can’t explain it with words, but I hope you can hear it in my songs.”
Make sure to also check out these two amazing remixes for Flatline, and follow Balwako so you’ll be around when all that heart-ache stuff drops.