As both a solo artist and the front woman for K’s Choice, Belgian rocker Sarah Bettens has long been a staple in the LGBTQ music community, even before she officially came out more than a dozen years ago. Around that same time, Bettens put K’s Choice on hold and settled into a domestic life with her now-wife and two step-children. The couple has since adopted two more kids and Bettens has regrouped with K’s Choice, most recently for The Phantom Cowboy. But something else happened a few years back: After earning her U.S. citizenship, Bettens became a firefighter.
So… the obvious question would be, why a firefighter?
[Laughs] That is not what I thought you were going to ask. I thought it would be about the album.
Oh, I’ll get to that. But first things first. Firefighter. Go.
I had a high need of doing something that had nothing to do with music and was very different in nature. There are a couple of things I felt… you could probably call it a mid-life crisis… things I never really got to do. I never got to go to college and have that experience. Everything got very serious very quickly with the band, so I always had a little bit of a feeling that I missed out on something. It’s hard to do hobbies with music and get into any kind of routine of playing soccer on Sundays, stuff like that, because I was gone a lot of the Sundays. There are just all these things that sound very small — and they are, in a way. But, put together, I felt like there was something I still had to do that I couldn’t find in my music career.
I don’t know how I first came up with it, but it sounded exactly like what I wanted to do. The part I really like about my band is that I hang out with a bunch of guys and that comes easily for me. And being part of something bigger than yourself — I liked the public service aspect of it, I liked the physical aspect of it. And what I really liked about it was that it was outlined, as in 24-hour shifts and when it’s done, it’s done. My life has been a long series of self-starter events and I was craving something that was more defined. I have to show up, do a good job, and then it’s over.
I applied after becoming a citizen. I got an interview and was hired. I remember calling my now-wife and saying, “Shit! I got hired.” [Laughs] It was so incredibly exciting. I went to rookie school with a bunch of 25-year-old guys learning new things, and things that didn’t come naturally for me. It was challenging. It still is. I completely fell head-over-heels in love with it.
Okay, so there are some parallels between that and music, but do you have to switch gears mentally or otherwise going between firefighter and musician?
Yeah. I’ve been so used to that. That comes naturally to me, too. Coming on and off tour, there’s no bigger gear switch than that. We have four kids so, when I go on tour, it’s about as big a shift as there is, especially coming off tour. You’ve been hanging out with a bunch of guys and your family’s been moving on without you. That’s been a real art in itself — coming in and going out and realizing that they’re doing just fine without you in the two weeks that you’re gone. So, my life’s been that, a constant packing and unpacking of bags and adjusting. People will say, “Oh, but it’s such a long flight to Belgium.” And I’ll say, “Yes. But I’m alone in peace.” I don’t mind those nine hours at all.
You have this super-domestic life with your wife and kids and day job. Which really is as rock and roll as it gets, right?
[Laughs] I would agree with that. Yes. Absolutely. That’s my brother’s song and I loved it so much when I heard it. I thought it was so fun to write a song with that kind of music and really still be talking about your kids. And it’s true: It takes a lot of strength to be a parent. It takes a lot of coolness. You’re just not the most important thing anymore. You’re just trying to keep everything afloat. And that’s about as big a challenge as anything that I’ve ever done. When you try to do it well and feel like it’s working, that’s about as cool as it gets, to me.
I talked to Brandi Carlile about this a few months back… I lot of female artists I love got soft after parenthood. Not her. And not you. This new record is one of your most rocking.
Kind of the opposite with this one. Getting into your everyday routine of being a mom and how incredibly unglamorous that is outside of your Facebook pictures. Then you want to feel like, “I’m not just that. I’m a little bit more than that. I have some things left to do.”
Yeah yeah. You get to remind yourself of that other side of you.
You have to feed it. It’s important to be a great parent. But, in order to be a great parent, you have to feel great in your own self. It can’t be all about making sure the kids are happy every second of every day. You have to be a fulfilled person yourself. That’s what your kids see and that’s who they look at. I don’t believe you can be a great parent if you’re miserable. It’s a balancing and it keeps life interesting.
Those are things I still want and need in my life. Even though it takes me away from my kids sometimes, luckily they have two moms. So, there’s another one and they’re very happy and very safe, even when I’m gone. Then I come home and I feel fulfilled in my life. I’ve done things that I enjoy doing and I want them to see that, as well.
It seems like, if you’re getting what you need away from them, then you can really be present when you are with them.
I can relax hard, sit down and have a beer. But I can only do that because I work very hard the rest of the time.
Talk to me about the overarching themes on this record. Because the family stuff is there, but you’re stepping outside of yourself on some things.
It’s the first time my brother and I have written together. We sat in the same room and it made for, musically, a very different record. And I think the music very much inspired the direction we ended up going with the lyrics. We had no preconceived notions of what we wanted the record to be about. On the musical part, we knew what we wanted to do. Somehow, when I started writing lyrics, there was a little bit of assertiveness to it — more than in other records. Less poetic imagery, maybe, and more just straightforward “This is what I want to talk about.” The music demands that.
We’re of a certain age now when there’s no time for BS.
[Laughs] Yes. I like that you said “of a certain age.” Yeah, you take yourself a little less seriously. I don’t take my career less seriously. But not every word in every song has to be the deepest truth ever written anymore. I want to write a fun record. I want everyone to jump up and down when they hear it. That’s the kind of music I want to make. I still want to talk about meaningful things, but it doesn’t all have to be about me, anymore. It can float a little more.
At some point, you really learn to cut through a lot of bullshit. “This is the art. This is what I want to talk about. And there it is.”
I used to think the stars had to be aligned in a certain way and the light has to come through my window at a certain angle, and I have to have at least five hours ahead of me of nothing, and be in just the right space for, “Okay, I think I might be able to write a song today.” This time, it was like, “Well, you’re here. We gotta write. It’s 9 o’clock. Let’s go.” That was super-freeing, too. Why did I take my own songs so seriously? It’s still just a flipping song, at the end of the day. I appreciate that people appreciate it and I’m very grateful for the connection, that there’s an understanding of what I’m trying to say. That’s a special feeling and I understand that. Still, it’s just a flipping song. It’s not a novel. It’s not a life-and-death situation.
None of us are trying to fit into boxes anymore. “Let’s see what the trend is.” If I really cared about trends, I’d get some major cosmetic surgery and a boob job and turn straight again, and probably sell a lot more records. Obviously, none of those things are an option, so…