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A WRITTEN PORTRAIT
Gerhard van der Merwe, or Gerry, is a singer/songwriter who grew up on the coast of South Africa surrounded by blooming plumerias aromatically stretching to meet the salted sea holding sun-kissed surfers in its warmth, as the soft acoustics of John Mayer’s voice gently fill the air. The safety Gerry feels in things that remind him of home color some of his portrait in tones of cerulean blue, turquoise, and gold. Gerry’s personality seems to be infused with elements of all that has surrounded him; He flows gently and peacefully most of the time, yet he can also be anxious like turbulently crashing waves against the shore. He offers a sapphire serenity to those who watch him, and his depth can be measured through sound waves from his music that echo from a floor of personal experience to the foaming surface for all to listen. Like the tide, he seems free-flowing, yet craves structure and pattern. Gerry tells us that he recalls Harry Styles’ describing an idea in the songwriting process as a wave waiting to be ridden once the surfer is ready to stand, and Gerry is at the beginning of his career floating in the center of a storm of bouncing waves.
Gerry’s voice is most often described by his listeners as “a safe spot” that feels like “finally coming up for fresh air.” On his social media channels, he often covers songs with great emotional depth that resonate with others. His first cover, posted on TikTok, was of Kodaline’s “All I Want” alongside his sister whose voice is just as beautiful. Massive support for him came in quickly and steadily, and he has since released his own song “Outline” in 2020 and is set to release “Boy on TV” on October 22nd. Gerry’s reflections on this past year, himself, and the beginning of his career with humility and openness colors the rest of his portrait with the vibrant shades of oranges, purples, and pinks of an early morning sunrise. Read below for a full written PORTRAY-T of Gerry van der Merwe!
You really gained popularity so quickly on social media. Can you walk me through how this felt and when you realized that this is what you wanted to do professionally?
I’m not really sure how, I think it’s something that happens and you kind of just roll with it. It was definitely quite a surreal feeling at first, just because it started off as something that I wasn’t really taking very seriously. Basically, I posted a video on TikTok of a cover of “All I Want” by Kodaline in lockdown and it just did really well straight away. That was really a surprise because, as someone who has never really put any of my music or singing out there, it was quite a nice feeling seeing people resonate with what I was doing. It was extremely encouraging. I would say the biggest feeling was confidence and overwhelming positivity. The more I posted, the more positivity I saw. I always expected an app like TikTok to have a lot of hate, but it’s something I don’t really receive, which I’m extremely grateful for. Music has always been my passion, but seeing that people actually liked what I was doing gave me more reason to pursue it. It’s a lot more difficult to pursue something when you don’t feel like there’s an opportunity there, so seeing the amount of people really supporting me made me start to think that this could be something. Posting on TikTok was something I was very hesitant to do just because I never had the app and there’s this stigma around it that it’s this kind of cringey app where guys are doing thirst traps, so I avoided it for a long time. I’m very grateful that it’s had such a positive outcome.
"Even if there are 10 comments of people saying 'this has made me feel something I haven't felt in a long time,' that's enough for me. that's enough value in itself."
Especially since we’re in a pandemic, the internet aspect is the only thing you really can focus on unfortunately. I think, in reality, if you start touring you’re going to hear people in person tell you what effect your music has on them and I think that will mean more than when you post something online. So it’s really just a different reality right now.
I often think about that because I’m in this period where I have a bunch of music I’m working on and music coming out soon, but I don’t have a bunch of music out at the moment so I’m looking to the internet for affirmation that I’m going in the right direction at this moment. At the end of the day, it’s easy to sit back if you’re like a Harry Styles who has this overwhelming support, but when you’re just starting out, you’re looking for confidence and any affirmation you can get to keep you sane or make you feel like you’re doing it right. You’re right though, once you can physically see the impact it has on people, you can allow yourself to overlook what’s happening on the internet. You could say “damn, I had this person come up to me at this show and they told me how much my music means to them,” so yeah I fully agree.
Since you really started singing professionally through social media, do you ever find yourself deriving your value from numbers in terms of views and likes and having to pull yourself away from that?
That’s a very good question. 100%. I think that it’s something that everyone gets sucked into. I’ve spoken to a couple other artists as well who have put their music or covers on social media and you get to a point when you need to tell yourself that your value shouldn’t be coming from numbers. As much as you can say the numbers don’t matter, it’s encouraging when you put a lot of effort into a song and you see a lot of positive feedback coming out of it. For me, I think you should be seeking value from the impact it has on other people. It doesn’t need to reach 10 million people and have 100,000 comments. Even if there’s 10 comments of people saying “this has helped me out of such a dark place” or “this has made me feel something that I haven’t felt in a long time,” that’s enough for me. That’s enough value in itself. I’ve also realized that on an app like TikTok, a video doing well or not is such a random thing. I’ve had a lot of videos that I was most doubtful or insecure about but I still put it out there and those are the ones that do the best. My first video that ever got 1 million views was probably the video I was the most hesitant to put out at the time. That was really re-affirming because you’re always gonna look at yourself very critically and it’s not necessary. It’s easy to get caught up in numbers, but the core way to not let it upset you is to look back and realize why you’re doing it- not for the numbers, but for impacting people. That’s not to say numbers don’t matter, but I think it should be about impact over reach for your own benefit.
Speaking of live shows, you did a live show in Dallas a few months back, were you nervous or did you get on stage and feel like it was what you wanted to do forever?
It was amazing. I was extremely grateful for the opportunity, it was a surreal feeling. Obviously there’s a bit of nerves because it was my first time and I was playing new songs that I wrote while I was in the United States. I wasn’t really used to it yet so I had some nerves, but as soon as I started singing I felt instantly comfortable and it fully felt like I was doing what I was meant to be doing. One thing that was really encouraging was that there were a couple of people that actually came specifically to watch me. A few of them came up to me afterwards and asked for a photo and chatted to me and that was extremely surreal. It’s kind of what you said where the social media stuff doesn’t matter because an actual interaction with a person because of your music is absolutely wild. It was incredible and made me so excited for the future to be doing these things on a bigger scale and to meet more people who I’ve had an impact on even if it’s just small.
"As soon as I started singing, I felt instantly comfortable and fully felt like I was doing what I was meant to be doing."
GERRY VAN DER MERWE
So, I want to get a picture of music in your life growing up. Is the rest of your family musical and what kinds of songs or artists would you listen to?
My family wasn’t a musical family, actually. Everyone always asks that and it’s kind of strange because no one in my family, except for my sister, is musical. I have two sisters, and one is extremely good at singing. If anything, she’s a lot better than I am. She plays the piano as well. Music that I listened to growing up, I would say, was mostly John Mayer. His album “Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles” in the Nokia Theatre has always been massive to me because having a live album is huge- it’s so pure. There’s no gimmicks, there’s nothing else there. In terms of guitar, listening to Eric Clapton and that kind of music is great. I also like listening to modern music and a lot of current artists like John Vincent III. There’s also an artist called Aeris Roves, he’s a British artist who is really underrated in my opinion. Growing up I really listened to everything, but if I had to pick one person it would be John Mayer. I also listen to a lot of rap like Mac Miller and J. Cole. It’s obviously very different from my kind of music, but I find them very inspiring.
So you knew you could sing growing up but songwriting is something that doesn’t come as naturally to a lot of people. What has been your experience?
I think some people are just born with this gift- they have all these words inside of them that they need to get out. For me, I’d say it’s something I’ve kind of always had but have had to practice and learn how to articulate how I feel. It feels like there’s so much to say, but it’s difficult to get it out there. I saw an interview once where they were speaking to Harry Styles about songwriting and he said it’s a lot like surfing in the sense that you need to know how to stand up when the wave comes; he used that analogy to say that the idea of the song is the wave, and learning to stand is being able to articulate that idea. He said sometimes the wave comes and you can’t stand up, and other times, you’re willing to stand up but the wave doesn’t come, so it’s kind of that perfect moment of putting in enough effort to articulate so when an idea comes you can write it down.
I've been looking for a finished portrait of the one
Oh, instead of the outline of the portrait not yet done
If you don't feel like a stranger I always, always new
That doesn't mean the outline can’t change to suit you
What do you find most difficult about songwriting?
The most difficult part is breaking the routine of writing the same things. For me, it’s very easy to write about sad love songs, but writing positive music is more difficult. Writing happy music is harder because it’s less of an emotional thing. The biggest thing, for me, is that it feels like there’s so many ideas out there, but I don’t know where to start. There’s so many things to write about that it feels overwhelming sometimes. The more you flex that muscle, the easier it gets. Now, I’ll have a random spurt of inspiration or a line that comes into my head and I can write that down, whereas before, I wasn’t really exercising that muscle so those things weren’t happening.
What was your first experience of songwriting?
The first song I put out on Spotify was a song called “Outline.” I was writing about something that I knew would be a timeless thing in terms of how I perceived what I was writing about. It’s something very personal to me and kind of this whole story of how there’s this theme in society of love at first sight and that whole trope of falling for someone as soon as you meet them. The song is about how your love isn’t any less special or real if it isn’t love at first sight. Growing to get to know someone is just as beautiful and I think, for me, that song came pretty easily. There’s lyrics I look back on now and I’m like “damn, dude that sucks you could have done that so much better” just because I’ve learned so much, but it’s a learning curve. There’s definitely also some lines though that I’m proud of for the amount I knew back then. The experience was definitely a positive one, but looking back, I can definitely see where there’s been some growth. Some of the lines that I’m still proud of now are things that I didn’t necessarily need to learn to articulate.
You have a quality to your voice that has so much emotional gravity that people really want to listen to every word you’re singing. Does this put pressure on you when you're writing lyrics to make them really emotionally resonate with people?
Firstly, thank you. Regardless of whether you’re someone who has a voice that transfers a lot of emotion or not, the goal of songwriting should be to put something out there that has meaning behind it. You don’t want to put something out there just to put it out there. When music has personal meaning, it’s a lot more rewarding when you see people gravitating towards it and resonating with it because it makes you realize that you’re not alone in your feelings and there’s other people that really appreciate vulnerability. If anything, for me, the pressure would just be wanting to put something out there that’s personal because it could make someone else open up about something that’s personal for them. They can say “this guy put something out there so personal without any shame, so I can open up about how I’m feeling too.” So, there’s a pressure, but not a negative pressure, more of a positive encouragement to always put something out that has meaning, not just something that you think will do well because it’s relatable.
I was thinking about the meaning behind “Outline” and how it’s kind of an ideal vs. reality concept in how the song speaks on the ideal of finding your soulmate and ends with the reality that many don’t just find the perfect picture of someone at first sight. You’ve also described “Boy On TV” as having a similar concept of people falling in love with others on TV or over the internet who are showing their ideal self so people tend to forget about those in their own reality. Did you write these songs coming from the perspective of a realist or an idealist?
I’m definitely, in general, a realist. I wish I could be more of an idealist sometimes. Pessimism isn’t always a fantastic thing to live with. I wrote the song from the perspective of a realist trying as hard as he can to have some elements of idealism inside of him. “Boy On TV” is a song that I wrote with a friend of mine called Danny Spadaro and it was an idea he had for a song and I really resonated with it- it’s cool that you related it to “Outline” because I never thought of it that way. It’s written from a realistic standpoint. If anything, “Outline” is about this idealistic view of meeting someone and it’s love at first sight and it’s perfect, whereas realistically that’s not necessarily the case. “Boy on TV” would have a similar element, where in an ideal world you want them to see you as well, but realistically people are so infatuated with others that are on the internet. That song is a lot more light-hearted and up-tempo to give people something a bit different. People were expecting something slow and sad from me, but I wanted to show a different side.
In over a year's difference between “Outline” and “Boy on TV,” what has changed for you creatively?
I couldn’t even compare the two- there’s been such a massive shift. When I did “Outline,” it was the first song I ever finished writing. The guy that produced it was this really talented producer in the area, and I did it without any other real advice. I was kind of all on my own. Flash forward to “Boy On TV,” which I recorded in Los Angeles with Joseph Tilley (producer and artist), and Danny Spadaro (songwriter and producer). They're both legends! It’s crazy to think about how amazing that is and how grateful I am for that massive shift and to be given that opportunity. There’s so much that’s happened in between- I’ve got managers now, shoutout Jack and Kam, who have been amazing in guiding me on this new journey that I'm on and I'm extremely grateful for them.
I also have so much more knowledge on the whole thing. It’s a lot easier for me to articulate things now. Back then, if I was writing about a banana, I would need people to know that I was writing about a banana. Now, I want lyrics to be up to interpretation- they don’t need to be so explicit. It’s given me freedom to write about things more personal, whereas in the past, I wanted to write lyrics that everyone could understand, but now I could write about very specific things in a more abstract sense that creates mystery. I’m more confident in my abilities now and I’ve learned a lot from people I write with. Now, I’ve done so many writing sessions with different people and I think I know the do’s and don’t of writing. Obviously it’s a creative process, but there are some do’s and don’t that I’ve learned. I’m really happy to have the opportunity to look back on that because so much has changed.
What are you currently doing and what’s next for you?
I’m studying law which is extremely different from music. In a sense, I'm very perfectionistic and I like structure, but music allows me to drop my guard. I’m finishing my honors in the next month or two and then I’ll pursue music. Music goes deeper for me because what I’m studying represents the side of me that’s hard on myself and the realist, and the music side allows me to be more accepting and realize that I don’t need to be perfect and I can see the beauty in life rather than black and white. The beauty in that is massive for me. Without being insensitive and just being honest, if it wasn’t for the pandemic I wouldn’t even be here in this interview and I don’t think any of this would have ever happened.
I want to end the interview with three signature questions. First, if you could bottle three scents, what would they be and what do they remind you of?
I would say the first smell would be Sex Wax, which is what you put on a surfboard or on a body board. It reminds me of home, the beach, and the summer atmosphere. The second one would be this one flower- it’s white with a yellow center. It’s called a plumeria. Growing up it was always my favorite flower just because of the smell. It reminds me of home. I also like the smell of rain. Actually, one that I like is the smell of book pages. When you’re reading it's such a relaxing experience. A novel has a fond association. I enjoy reading a lot and it allows you to switch off from everything else that’s going on and you can just be in that little world. All smells I would bottle remind me of somewhere that feels familiar and safe.
Do you have a favorite piece of advice that someone has told you or a saying you live by?
So, I’m a Christian, and there’s a Bible verse in 1 Corinthians 16:14 and it’s “and do everything with love,” and for me you can apply that to any aspect in your life. Love has so many sub-emotions whether it’s kindness or respect. I can be driving and someone cuts me off and I can have the urge to swear at them, but I’m just reminded that I wouldn’t be doing that out of love. It could be something small like that or bigger. In every aspect of your life, if you feel that your actions aren’t coming out of a loving place, then you shouldn’t do it. It’s not easy and I don’t nail it 100% of the time, but I do it as much as I can.
How do you view yourself?
That’s difficult because you don’t want to come across as conceited. I try to be as selfless as I can, most of the time. I try to really empathize with people and put other people before me as much as I can. I try to act out of love and out of a good place. I’m also quite a laid-back person, which is not to say that I’m easy-going, but I’m not argumentative. I’m not very in-your-face, I just do my own thing and go with the flow. If someone is feeling good about something, I won't break their spirit. I’m also an overthinker- that causes me to be quite anxious about certain things. I’m a perfectionist as well which isn’t the best thing. One more- I think I have a good sense of humor, I try not to have everything be so serious. I’m also quite a deep person- I enjoy speaking about deeper things and I try not to be shallow. I like getting deeper.
There’s a word called “sonder” where we all view ourselves as the main character of our life. Even though you can be as selfless as you want to be, you’re the center of your own world and everyone else is kind of a sub-character. The word “sonder” kind of describes how everyone is the main character in their own life and there’s billions of people with all these stories and their own experiences living day to day and you don’t know about it. That’s kind of a beautiful word and crazy to think about because you forget that everyone has so many things they’ve gone through.
gerry van der merwe
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