‘You can run into any famous musician in Ireland and they’ll be kind’

New to the Parish: Singer Janneke van Nijnanten arrived from the Netherlands in 2011 and is a fan of the Irish music scene

Janneke Van Nijnanten: ‘I heard that these musicians had started their careers by playing on the streets and I thought that was really cool.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The first apartment Janneke van Nijnanten moved into when she arrived in Ireland was directly above Whelan's bar on Dublin's bustling Wexford Street, near the city centre. Determined to jump straight into the Irish music scene, the young Dutch musician was unperturbed by the prospect of living on one of the noisiest stretches of road in the city.

“You could just sit in the window and watch people for hours; all these drunk, crazy Irish people falling around in their high heels and short dresses. I was sharing a room with a Scottish girl and I could go into Whelan’s whenever I wanted and listen to the bands that played there. Sometimes I’d go along and play a few tunes.”

Van Nijnanten – who uses the name Jane Willow as a performer – spent her first two years in Ireland living off the loose change of passers-by as she busked on Grafton Street and outside the Gaiety Theatre. Petrified at first by playing in an unfamiliar city, words of encouragement from kind strangers who stopped to hear her tunes gave Willow the confidence-boost she needed. "It was just me by myself with the guitar. I didn't have an amp and just sang. It felt like something I had to overcome. I was just about able to live off that money. I had no help from my parents, it was just the busking."

I think music, in a way, is something you can hide behind. But it's also something you can reveal yourself through

Growing up in a household of schoolteachers, Willow always knew her interests lay in the more creative fields of music, visual art and film-making. When she was 12 years old she discovered her love of performing after taking part in a TV show for young singers. “I was good at the singing part but when the guy came on stage to interview me, I became really shy. It was must easier for me to sing a song than to talk. I think music, in a way, is something you can hide behind. But it’s also something you can reveal yourself through.”


When she was 17, she picked up a guitar for the first time. "I found out about the Beatles through my dad because he had a book of their songs and plays a bit of guitar. So I went on YouTube and started to learn."

After graduating from school, Willow stayed in her home town of Breda in the southern Netherlands and went to art school for a year. She then moved to a music school where she studied song-writing. When she was 20, she visited Ireland for two weeks. She had visited the country as a teenager on a family holiday and vaguely remembered her dad enthusiastically pointing out the buskers in Irish cities. However, it was only after she began listening to songs by Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice that Willow discovered her love of Irish music.

“I heard that these musicians had started their careers by playing on the streets and I thought that was really cool. I also heard they would go to this place called Whelan’s and would play until seven in the morning.”

In January 2011, after saving up enough to start over in a new country, Willow moved to Dublin. She spent her first two weeks staying with a Dutch guy through couch-surfing before moving into the flat about Whelan’s. Her initial plan was to spend one year working on her music and then return to the Netherlands. However, plans changed after she began playing with local musicians.

“It was the sense of community here and the emotion that personally I don’t see in Dutch music as much. Closing your eyes when you sing, that’s a thing you would do in Irish culture. You just get lost in the music. In that first year I did about 200 gigs with busking and open-mic nights. I don’t think I was very good at the start but I just kept at it. If you really love something you can’t stop doing it.”

After two years of performing, Willow decided it was time to go back to her studies. She applied for courses in Ireland and the Netherlands and was offered a place on degree course in film-making at the IADT National Film School. She worked part-time in the college library and continued playing her music throughout the four years at college.

“I found it a nice change to go back to school. At that point it felt like the music was becoming a job rather than something I enjoyed. It was so hard to get paid gigs or support slots. I suppose I felt a little bit, not disillusioned, but that I needed to try something else.”

Ireland has given me a new way to connect with people through music. It's given me poetry which I never really cared much for before

Willow enjoyed her studies and focused on developing her skills as a sound designer. However, she felt distant from her fellow classmates, most of whom had just finished secondary school. “When I was 19 and in rock school I didn’t take it very seriously. I’m not saying the students at IADT didn’t take it seriously but I saw this course as way to help me find work as a sound designer. I could finally be self-employed, I didn’t want to be asking my parents for money.”

Shortly after completing her studies in June 2017, Willow was asked to support Glen Hansard’s gig at Vicar Street and in November she raised €4,000 from fans, friends and family to fund her first EP which is due to come out later this year. “The EP will mean that after seven years of honing my craft, meeting musicians, writing, singing and playing free gigs and paid gigs, that it has all led to something.”

Asked if she plans to return to the Netherlands, Willow replies that she has considered moving home or to Germany where she says there is more paid work for musicians. However, for now she's happy to stay in Ireland. "Ireland has given me a new way to connect with people through music. It's given me poetry which I never really cared much for before. It's given a lot of people that are starting out a place to begin through open-mic nights and gigs. And then there's the fact that you can run into any famous musician in Ireland and they'll be kind, they'll listen to your music and they'll care. That's beautiful."

Jane Willow plays at Nighthawks at the Cobalt Cafe on North Great George’s Street on March 24th at 8pm.

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast