There’s a biting chill in the air at Arcade Empire’s acoustic evening. As is starts raining, the few people who were sitting at tables outside flee indoors for cover. Those who were lucky enough to avoid the downpour are talking noisily over beer.
The chatter becomes an irritating buzz that competes with Jonathan Velthuysen’s soothing drone as he takes to the small, sparsely lit stage in the corner. The indifferent audience doesn’t seem to bother him as he moves his broad shoulders this way and that, tilting his head back slightly, feeling every note that he effortlessly strums on his guitar.
Velthuysen has been having a fiery love affair with the instrument strapped around his shoulder for many years. Flickers of it may have started when he picked up his mom’s old Hofner guitar at the age of 13, but this relationship permanently changed after he came across one guitar in particular while living in Scotland.
“It was just a phenomenal guitar,” says a slightly reserved Velthuysen, his admiration for the string instrument still evident. “It made me realise how average I actually was at playing instrumental music and it also inspired me to start singing.”
When he returned to South Africa in 2009, Velthuysen did just that. He formed a folk rock band called Stepdog, which released an EP called Amy After Dark in 2010. The band enjoyed a pinch of success but eventually broke up. Velthuysen wanted to go it alone, so he dubbed himself “The Hollow Body” and steered his sound in the bare, unfussy direction of folk music.
“I’m not very comfortable with pretending and I find that [folk] is one genre that I can write in, sort of as an idiom,” he says. “I can just be who I am and sing what I want. It’s just easier.”
At the same time, Velthuysen also began learning how to build guitars under master luthier JA Tredoux, founder of the Stellenbosch Guitar Company. It’s an incredibly long process to build a guitar, says Velthuysen. He has spent the last two years learning how to craft the instrument and will more than likely still be an apprentice for the next five years, depending on how quickly he can perfect his skills.
“There are a lot of finer things that take a lot of time to get a feel for. When it comes down to it, a lot of it is problem solving because things don’t always turn out the way you want and then you have to improvise. That takes a long time to learn,” explains Velthuysen.
The very guitar that he performs with is the first one that he made. Velthuysen had an idea of what he wanted to do but being a novice, he didn’t quite know what he was going to come out with. He says: “It took me a couple of months to come to terms with what I had created. It’s like anything, you gotta get used to it. It’s a very unique guitar and it sounds good.”
Velthuysen also used his self-made guitar to record his debut album as The Hollow Body. Johannine is an album which allows his rough, scratchy voice to explore how he has come to terms with several events that have drastically shaped his life.
“It’s just a collection of moments of inspiration. And also, some of it is just a painful reflection on it,” he says of the intensely personal nature of his lyrics. The painful reflection Velthuysen is referring to is the death of his father in 2005 and the ending of a serious relationship not long afterwards.
Is songwriting a cathartic process for Velthuysen, then? “It’s essential, absolutely essential. That’s why I do it,” he says. “My motivation isn’t that people are going to like it, really. I’m always happy if people do but I just find that I need to do it. I’m not comfortable with not doing it. I tried it.” Velthuysen is speaking of a time when he thought that he would get another job and just play music on the side as a hobby. “I just found it very, very hard to stay balanced. I need to sing songs to remind me, to remind me of everything.”
Photo: Hendro van der Merwe