Today, I’m doing something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I am going to interview the person whom I consider not only to be one of the best voice overs in the Netherlands, but one of the best VO’s, period. That’s high praise, but this man deserves it. So, why haven’t I interviewed him before?
Here’s the thing. He’s also a personal friend of mine. This means I am totally biased in his favor, and I can’t be critical or impartial. That’s never a good thing for someone with a background in journalism like myself. It’s good to keep one’s distance to those that are being interviewed.
But you know what? This guy is worth breaking the rules for.
His name? Bob van der Houven.
In the industry, Bob is more than a triple threat, as you can hear in this commercial. He can act, he can sing, he’s a popular emcee, a radio announcer, an audio book narrator, he owns and operates his own studio (Bobsound), he directs, coaches, and he recently released a new CD. More about that later.
I got to know Bob when we were both announcers for Dutch National Radio (that’s me, on the left). Both of us were at the continuity desk for different networks, and during long breaks we kept each other company in the well-stocked break room. To kill time we would improvise skits where I did the voice of Donald Duck, and Bob did Huey, Dewey, and Louie. At that time Bob was the Disney-approved Dutch voice of these characters.
Most people in the Netherlands know van der Houven’s voice from the immensely popular documentary series “Rail Away.” It’s everyone’s guilty pleasure, watching trains ride through picturesque landscapes wile you listen to Bob’s calming narration.
Here’s a sample.
I asked Bob van der Houven how he would describe the sound of his voice to someone who has never heard it. This was his answer:
“Warm, mellow, soothing and trustworthy. I inherited my voice from my father, who was a singer. He was a typical crooner, and so am I, I suppose.”
What type of voice work do you tend to book most?
“My assignments are very diverse. I regularly voice audio tours for museums and historical sites. Of course I record in Dutch, but also in English, and German. Next up, are safety instruction films for construction companies, but also prompts for telephone menus. And of course there’s “Rail Away.” I have done the narration for that TV show for over 25 years now.”
You are being very modest by not mentioning that you were the Dutch voice of ET, you voiced Dobby in the Harry Potter movies, and you’re also Dr. Doofenshmirtz in “Phineas and Ferb.” And that’s just film and animation.
Now, I think it is true to say that most people in the Netherlands have heard your voice in one way or another. But what about outside of the Netherlands?
“I have had some assignments abroad as well. One day they approached me for an American documentary about a man who emigrated from Austria to the States, and then after 20 years or so returned to his home country. I did the voice of this man, who had to speak American with a German accent. Since I was born in Germany, where I lived for 8 years among American military, I was the right man for the job. The narration was recorded in a studio in Switzerland.
Another international job was the voice of Stitch in the Disney Classic “Lilo and Stitch” in 2002. After I had done the Dutch version, they asked me to go to Berlin to dub the German version. While working there I was called by a studio in Brussels. They asked me to do the Flemish version as well. And after that, realizing that it wasn’t easy for Disney to find actors who could produce that strange, alien voice, I called the Disney Headquarters and told them that, if necessary, I could do the role in Italian as well. And indeed, I was invited to come to Rome to voice the Italian Stitch. A fantastic experience!”
The video below shows Bob recording the part of Stitch in the studio.
Have you ever actively pursued an international career?
“Well, Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch” certainly was the most international job I ever did. But to be honest, I never tried to actively ‘build’ my career. It just all happened to me spontaneously. Of course I sometimes intuitively followed a certain track. But I never planned much ahead.”
Let’s go back to the beginning. Did you always want to do something with your voice, or did people have to “talk you into it?”
“I was four years old when my father showed me his tape recorder and microphone, and he allowed me to play with it. I was instantly fascinated by this miracle. Still in primary school I recorded radio shows and -plays at home, together with a school friend. And when I was a bit older, say 12 years, I did the same with the two daughters of my parents’ friends. The shows and plays were completely scripted. Before the girls came to our house I wrote down all these crazy scenes, and my father would copy the scripts at his office. So from a very young age, I loved to do things with my voice, not realizing that I would eventually make my job out of it.”
At what point did you know that you could do this professionally, and what made you make the switch to become a pro?
“At the age of 22, I started working as a reader at the Library Service for the Blind. I was in a tiny studio for 28 hours per week, recording books and magazines. That was my first paid voice job, and I worked there for ten years. While working there I met a British actress who asked me if I would be interested in narrating documentaries. Of course I was! She put me in touch with a television station, and that was the start of my television and radio career.
Since I started narrating documentaries in 1986, I have not spent much time selling myself, but when opportunities came along, I tried to grab them. I learned to run this one-man business just by doing it.”
I think it’s fair to say that you are one of the most successful Dutch voice talents. Tell me, what are the building blocks of your success, and what are some of the obstacles you had to overcome to be where you are today?
“First of all, I have always loved what I do. So I never considered my work to be an obligation, but rather a pleasure and an adventure. Another building block is that I have always been reliable and I put myself in the client’s shoes. That made the number of returning customers grow.
There haven’t been many obstacles, to be honest. Sure, in the beginning it wasn’t always easy to record in my home studio, because it wasn’t soundproof yet. I had to cope with lawn mowers, airplanes, my neighbor playing the piano, and birds singing in the garden. But those problems were over when I finally had my first soundproof booth. And since 2010 I own a beautiful private recording studio. It was built as a music studio, and there’s enough room for a grand piano and other instruments.”
Do you think young people who aspire to have a voice over career must be versatile to survive, or should they just focus on one aspect of the business and get really good at that?
“When you focus on one aspect of the business, you might become very good at it. But at the same time it makes you vulnerable. I always felt comfortable to have several eggs in different baskets. If one of them runs empty, you still have the other baskets at your disposal. Apart from this practical aspect, I have always loved to be as versatile as possible in my work.”
Now… about your CD, “Far Away a Voice.” How should people listen to it? As a new professional venture, or as something you recorded for the fun of it?
“I started singing and writing songs at the age of 15. My new album contains 20 songs that I wrote as a teenager, together with lyricist Tom Frohwein. They were never recorded before, except for a few Dutch-language adaptations. I have always been convinced of the quality of these songs, and always kept dreaming of recording them in a professional way. And now it finally happened.
I asked Bert van den Brink, who is an acclaimed musician, to arrange the songs. They were played by 18 professional musicians, and recorded in my studio Bobsound. I am so happy with the result! The arrangements are magnificent, and work very well for these songs. Making this album certainly was a professional venture, but also a labor of love.”
Your previous CD was all in Dutch, if I remember it correctly. Why this time in English?
“Because all the songs Tom Frohwein wrote with me in the seventies, are in English. I also like to sing in Dutch, but I have always loved the sound of English, and of course my father always sang in English for the American military. Another advantage is that now people from outside the Netherlands can also understand the words. In my family, which is pretty international, not everyone speaks Dutch. But they do understand English.”
What do you hope people will get out of it, as they are listening to your songs? What did you get out of this experience?
“The reactions to the new album, called ‘Far away a voice’ are very positive. I truly believe that many people will like the songs that Tom and I wrote so many years ago. Some of them are melancholy ballads. Sensitive and soothing. Young people wrote to me that they were moved by some of the songs. But the album also contains some musical surprises that make it pretty versatile. It was a wonderful experience to finally fulfill this dream. Hard work, but so rewarding!”
Let’s return to voice overs. Looking back at your career, what piece of advice would your older self give to your younger self, and why?
“Maybe I would change some things about my education. I studied English, which is great. But perhaps it would have made more sense to go to a conservatory, or to a kind of performing arts school, where I could have trained in several aspects of my later work, like acting and singing. But without this specific education, I did manage to do everything I love to do!”
“Far Away a Voice” is available on all streaming platforms. Click here to listen to the album on Spotify.
PS, as always, the bolded text in blue is a hyperlink leading you to additional information and more vids.