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Anna von Hausswolff: “Suddenly I could move from thunder to sunshine in a matter of seconds”

Anna von Hausswolff: “Suddenly I could move from thunder to sunshine in a matter of seconds”

03 July 2013, 15:30

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.”


Anna Von Hausswolff -Anders-Nydam-04

As the opening track of Ceremony, ‘The Epitaph of Theodor’, stretches out over eight wonderful minutes, it’s clear that while von Hausswolff has an ear for melody, there’s also the influence of drone music at play. I can hear Earth, maybe a touch of Grouper and perhaps the intensity of Swans – was drone music an influence on the album? “Earth was the first drone band that I got in touch with,” begins Anna, “and they taught me how to include time as an element in the composition. Another band that influenced me was Barn Owl. I first saw them in a small venue here in Copenhagen. We were 10 people in the audience and they made the most mind-blowing concert I’ve ever seen.” It seems this was an important turning point for her.

“After that concert I decided to dedicate myself to drone music,” she continues. “I’m glad you can hear the influences a bit across ceremony, even though it’s a pop record.” Given the drone influence present, which wasn’t on Singing from the Grave, was it a conscious effort to make such a “different” record? “It is a part of a natural process,” says Anna. “I can’t stay in one place, I need to move forward. I think Singing from the Grave was a brave debut album, and without that record I wouldn’t be standing here. Ceremony is a result of intense touring, seeing new places, and meeting new people. After a while I needed to evolve, and the songs of Singing from the Grave became a part of the past.” It’s interesting that Anna mentions something of becoming part of the past as there are a lot of references to death or dying in the songs and song titles; what is it that draws Anna to write about it? “I can’t think of anything more interesting,” she states. “I don’t know death, I only know OF death. It’s so connected to the past and the present.” Does addressing death and dying in her work make Anna more appreciative of being alive? “Working with the topic of death makes me aware that I’m short of time and that I need to appreciate and take care of my surroundings,” agrees von Hausswolff. “I guess it reinforces my affection for life and history. The day I kick in the door of death I’ll look up my grandfather and handle over a copy of Ceremony.”

Not long after hearing my first handful of Anna von Hausswolff songs I got the chance to see her support the excellent Efterklang on tour. Before I get to the audience reaction to her support slot, I ask Anna about the tour: “That tour was incredible. Efterklang made me and my band feel as we were a part of their crew.” Are the Danes kindred spirits of sorts? “They’re very generous people, full of passion for music.” says Anna. “It was a good environment to be creative in.” Is the band on tour the same band that recorded Ceremony? “I have 4 core members in my band, and they are also on the record,” she reveals. “As we’re growing older and people are having kids and stuff they can’t always join me live. Therefore I have added some new musicians to the group as well. It’s interesting to change band members sometimes because your sound evolves.”

On record, it’s a good eight minutes before we hear von Hausswolff’s stunning voice, suddenly piercing the sky with a cry that’s as much a physical outpouring as it is emotional on second track ‘Deathbed’. It’s the same at the show in Glasgow; von Hausswolff is hunched over her organ, rocking back and forth and conducting her band, a mass of blonde hair. There’s a slight pause in the music as she raises her head and begins to sing with her whole body – the stunned looks on the faces of the people around me was quite something, searching eyes silently asking “where the hell did that come from?” So, when did Anna discover this huge gift was lying inside her? “When I found out that I had nothing to lose,” she admits. “I realized at the age of 21 that people will always judge me and have their own opinion about me, no matter what I do – that realization made me raise my chest and push my voice harder.” Are there any vocal inspirations, male or female that pushed you? “The screams of Diamanda Galás, the harmony from Elisabeth Fraser, the rawness of Attila Csihar, and the stillness of Leonard Cohen.”

With an already busy half of 2013 behind her, Anna reveals that there’s no let-up in what she’s got planned: “I’m going to do a show in New York in July. Then I have some festivals gigs in Europe during the summer. In the autumn I have a big tour planned – watch out for that one!” And it’s not just touring that’s occupying time for von Hausswolff: “Also, at the end of 2013 I will be releasing an album as a part of the group Hydra’s Dream. It’s an experimental music project consisting of me and Matti Bye . We are interpreting fairy tales and stories into sound and lyrics. This time we’ve been digging our noses into Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Match Girl’. We ended up making an intriguing journey through snowy landscapes, hallucinations, fire, death and dreams!” In the end, though, everything comes back round to that organ: “I’m also working on a 30 minute instrumental church organ piece that I will perform at Lincoln Cathedral this October.” It’s completely appropriate that music this huge and passionate should find a home in a cavernous cathedral – it might be the only place big enough to hold this talent in.

Ceremony is available now through City Slang.

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