Fittingly, for a record whose sleeve is adorned with a close-up picture of organ pipes, that’s the first instrument you hear on Anna Von Hausswolff’s second album Ceremony.
Everything else is built around the sound of the organ – drums, guitar and bass all join on ‘Epitaph of Theodor’ but it’s the huge sound of the church organ that dominates. In fact, the only other sound that matches it for power is von Hausswolff’s voice. That we hear for the first time on the second track on the album, a voice that harnesses enough physical and emotional power to truly shock the listener.
The 26-year-old Swede, now resident in Copenhagen, returned to Gothenburg to record the follow-up to her debut, the light and atmospheric Singing to the Grave, as the key element of her sound was to be found in the city’s Annedalkyrkan. Given the opportunity to use and record the cathedral’s pipe organ, von Hausswolff began to create an epic work influenced by death and dying, and dominated of course by the sound of the organ. A stately work of undoubted brilliance, Ceremony also draws on drone and metal music to create an album that while very cerebral, is also deeply emotional.
We caught up with Anna as she returned from, fittingly, an organ-related trip: “I just came home from a print laboratory here in Copenhagen; I’m making etchings of church organs,” she says, “I’m obsessed with church organs I think.” Where does the love for this particular instrument come from, though? “Maybe I’ve seen too many horror films or gone to too many funerals; I’m a big fan of The Abominable Dr. Phibes!” From the opening moments of Ceremony the organ, along with von Hausswolff’s stunning voice, dominates the record, so I ask if there’s a particular type of organ that the album was built around. “The church organ is the main instrument on Ceremony,” Anna reveals. “The organ that I use on the record is placed in a romantic/gothic church built in Gothenburg 1918. It is not like those grand church organs that you can find in big gothic cathedrals, it’s much smaller.” Anna then explains how she gets the huge sounds: “But the organ sounds really big because of the massive room, with cold walls made of stone.”
There’s such a huge difference in sound and style between Ceremony and von Hausswolff’s previous release Singing to the Grave. The latter is predominantly a straightforward singer-songwriter record based around voice and piano, so I wonder if the record begins with the pipe organ – that it was inspired by the sound of the organ first of all, rather than songs written and then bent to accommodate that sound. Is the organ the inspiration? “In a way yes,” agrees Anna. “Not thematically but in the procedure of composition, the church organ inspired me.” The playing on Ceremony seems so effortless and natural I have to ask Anna if she’d any previous experience of playing the instrument: “I was used to playing the piano, but then I met up with a church organ, fell in love, and decided to change paths.”
What was it about the organ, then, that made so much sense to Anna: “The organ fulfilled every wish I had for my future vision of my sound, and I needed to adapt my style after this majestic instrument. Suddenly I could move from thunder to sunshine in a matter of seconds, and make big arrangements with just one single instrument.” Anna goes on to explain that growing up she sang and played the flute in what was a very musical and artistic household: “Me and my sister sang a lot. Always together, always singing or dancing.” Did her parents encourage this, and what music were they playing as she grew up? “Our parents listened to a lot of different stuff,” says Anna. “My father [sound artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff] had a label together with some of his friends called Radium. We had lots of those records at home. I’ve been told that I was hopelessly in love with the drummer of Sator. I can’t remember listening to that band though.” Anna goes on to tell me what else she remembers hearing: “On the LP/CD shelves we had Union Carbide, Sator, Blue for Two, Cortex, mixed with foreign bands such as Bob Dylan, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode etc.” Is there a band amongst all those that really stood out for Anna? The answer is a touch unexpected: “My all-time favourite band as a young girl was Shampoo!”
Having briefly mentioned Anna’s father Carl Michael, we find out more about the father-daughter relationship. Von Hausswolff senior is a composer, visual artist and museum curator of some renown in Sweden, indulging in some fascinating projects but unfortunately best known for a controversy connected to the 20th century’s darkest moment. In 2012 he was heavily-criticised for an exhibit in which some paintings allegedly used ashes taken from a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, following a visit in 1989. That in itself may have caused some outrage and debate, but once the camp, now the Majdanek museum, said the ashes were taken without permission then accusations of theft and police involvement were added to the mix.
Eventually, the exhibition in Lund was closed down following protests and the controversy seems to have blown over, but I ask Anna if her father has been an inspiration, and if she admires his work, despite the controversy surrounding Memory Works: “I do admire him,” she confirms, “and as a close follower I know what his works are about, and what he wants to achieve.” Does this make it easier to understand what he’s trying to achieve, compared with someone who’s just reading an article about the works of art? “Yes, with that knowledge I can excuse the controversies, as most of it only touches the surface of the matter and are taken out of context.” Moving away from such controversies, was it inevitable that Anna would follow in her father’s footsteps? “I wasn’t aware that I followed in my father’s footsteps, until reporters started to ask questions about our artistic relationship,” she reveals. “I’ve been in so many different places. Once I thought I was going to be a pharmacist! But I never was comfortable with doing regular daytime jobs. I have too much mental energy that needs to be channeled out from my body, and the only way to do that is through art, not through counting pills.”