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Amber Arcades Long Read 3 9 18 Photo by Rory James roryjamesphoto 8

"Europe, I’m Lonely"

25 September 2018, 08:00
Words by Charlotte Croft
Original Photography by Rory James

She might be “all alone in the eurozone” but Annelotte De Graaf of Amber Arcades has a message to share with the masses. Charlie Croft gets the low-down on her new record, European Heartbreak, and its inspection of social media, memory, the personal and the political.

In January 2018, over 3 billion of us were diving into social media sites across the globe. It’s an alarmingly big number, yet it continues to grow by the second. Endless scrolling has become a solid part of of our daily routine; no matter how busy we are we still find the time to check Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. We also do it more often than we like to admit. We’re always online, always connected....

Open. Refresh. Repeat.

Somehow, a few people have managed to slip past social media unscathed. Step forward Amber Arcades’ Annelotte De Graaf.

The front cover of the Dutch artist’s new album, European Heartbreak, illustrates the idea of increasing correlation between technology and alienation. But what’s fascinating about the photograph, she explains, is that it wasn’t intentional.

“During a week off we went on a road trip to California to take some cool photos, maybe use them for press or whatever,” De Graaf says amid the hustle and bustle of a late summer afternoon in east London. “We went to five different national parks but when we were taking the pictures, it wasn't really connected to what the songs were about.

Euopean Heartbreak album cover

“On one of the last days we went to Death Valley to watch the sunset and as we were standing at the viewpoint in between some tourists, we thought it was actually a pretty cool sight, and ended up going with it. The tourists were taking a picture of me taking pictures – it was all very meta,” she laughs. “That’s how it happened. It all sort of clicked and made sense of what the record was about.”

Social media hasn’t infringed De Graaf’s own daily life in this way. “I’m really bad with social media,” she explains. “I think I’m just a couple of years too old to really be affected by it. I always have to remind myself to post something, so I’d say somehow I’ve escaped that.”

The image of De Graaf standing in front of a group of tourists, holding up her own phone in the air perfectly encapsulates the modern-day hustle to get that one shot. And the irony is that by connecting to the digital, we inevitably detach from the landscape we’re trying to etch onto memory.

In the photo, De Graaf is seen standing in the ‘selfie’ position that we’re all so familiar with now, but she enhances feelings of being disengaged by looking at the camera and not at her phone. Beside her, tourists connote escapism from the drudge of everyday life to see new things, meet new people, and feel alive in the moment.

De Graaf also depicts how this quest for experiencing new things doesn't always live up to what you thought it would be. “It’s impossible to escape the mundanity of human existence,” she says. “Even though we try to romanticise it and make a cool story about it, you can’t escape being human.”

“When I was on this road trip, at this viewpoint, taking a picture – was I really experiencing it? Is this meant to be a special experience?”

Social media’s part to play in this wasn’t a conscious theme for De Graaf when she was writing the album. But a conversation surrounding the pressures to “live your best life” and other similar sayings within the digital discourse did surface. What does it mean to experience things?

De Graaf explains: “When I was on this road trip, at this viewpoint, taking a picture – was I really experiencing it? Is this meant to be a special experience?” She recalls sayings such as, “If a tree falls in the forest but no one is around to hear, does it even fall?” Or, “If it’s not on Instagram, are you actually having that experience?”

Our growing need to document everything can often dilute the depth of experience. The album’s sleeve offers a brief but important snapshot of this mindset.

“We tell ourselves a lot of made me think of how we structure our realities."

Drawing on the past to inform the present influenced De Graaf’s creative process when writing the album: a pursuit of defining the nature of memory. “When I started writing [European Heartbreak], it was coming from a place of some personal stuff and I had to start dealing with it and that gave me the motivation to start writing,” she says.

“Bad stuff had been happening but what can you do with it? You have to move on, embed it into your life story and tell yourself you can learn from it or that it will make you grow.” De Graaf goes on to question the truth of whether we just discuss our the past because it’s ingrained in our thought patterns or if it actually does make us feel better.

Some other themes woven into the record are those of inescapable human traits, particularly the ability to over-romanticise life events. “If I was to tell you my life story right now, it wouldn't be objective,” says De Graff. “I would leave out some of it and highlight some events. It wouldn't even be a conscious choice to do that, but subconsciously everything is just fabricated...into a big life sausage, she laughs. “It can get twisted.”

She continues: “My friend was telling me about something they do in psychology or psychiatry that’s called ‘narrative therapy.’ When some people are depressed, they help them to look back on their life and make a nicer story of it so they can feel happy about it. And that’s probably what a lot of people do in their minds. To what extent can you trust that? So, yeah that was something I was thinking about a lot.”

The need to have a sparkling showreel of life events in order to embellish our life narrative also mirrors how we highlight aspects of our lives on social media. What if we only remember the parts we want to? What if we only show what we think people want to see? To what extent can we trust our memories and the ways we record it?

De Graff delves into the idea of everyone being the protagonist in their life story, where everything is leading to an epic crescendo that offers clarity and sense and the quest for meaning is accomplished. “We tell ourselves a lot of stories,” De Graaf says. “It made me think of how we structure our realities. If you’re doing something to your life story, you’re doing it to give meaning to your life.”

"I made this link to how we glorify our own memories – these right-wing politicians are now doing the same.”

And how we shape and mould our stories is also intrinsically linked to the political sphere, asserts De Graaf. On European Heartbreak, De Graff shows how the personal and the political can intertwine in a relationship between two lovers but also in the relationship of a people and their country.

The record hears De Graaf speak louder about politics than in her previous releases. “When I was writing the lyrics last summer there was a wave of elections in Europe where a lot of these right-wing parties were doing really well," she says. "The rhetoric was changing and they all seemed to focus on the past.

"For example, when you look at Brexit, we heard a lot of ‘we need to take back control of our country.’ It was the same with America with ‘make America great again.’ It’s all very much focused on glorifying the past. So, I made this link to how we glorify our own memories – these right-wing politicians are now doing the same.”

The album carries this motif of glorifying the past throughout and offers a glimpse of how this appears across both the personal and the political spectrums.

“Something’s Gonna Take Our Love Away” is a prime example for the personal, which unpicks the underlying feeling that a relationship is drawing to a close. “Soon we’ll be dreamin’ / About the love that we had / And long for those forgotten days,” De Graaf coos, juxtaposing turbulent lyrics against a silky, smooth melody. Lead single “Simple Song” delves into De Graaf’s belief of everything moving in cycles: when things can lead to change but also just stay the same. “It doesn’t matter what you do / Nothing will stay the same / And we’ll wake up and realise / It’s always been this way / So I just wait.”

“Goodnight Europe”, is more explicitly political than other tracks and, as De Graaf admits, was one of the most challenging songs to write: “Europe, it's not you / I'm starting to think it could be me / My left ideals and university degree / Europe, I'm lonely / Everyone got bored and moved along / Now I'm left here, wondering if I still belong,” the lyrics read. A nod to the “it’s not you, it’s me” break-up trope calls to the “heartbreak’” in the album title and also provides a seamless link to a citizen’s feeling of disillusionment in the midst of a changing political climate.

De Graaf brings up the case of her hometown, Utrecht, in The Netherlands. “If you go back to the ‘60s, ‘70s, even the ‘80s, Holland was very liberal and invested in art and education and now it seems like we’ve gone the opposite way where art is just seen as a hobby. So, these stories move in waves, just like feelings do I guess, and this was another link I was making.”

This non-linear pattern filters into De Graff’s writing process. The album is a product of both an organic and structured system, which uses ideas from the past and the present. “I was pretty much combining touring with a full-time job [as a human rights lawyer], and that was really hard,” she says.

“I was writing here and there but didn’t have time to sit down and really focus on writing so I just got to a point where I was like, ‘Okay I’m getting too tired from this shit – I really just want to start writing.’ I had been touring the first record for quite some time so I quit my job to start writing again.

“The songs from the record are pretty organically written: they’re from all over the years and some of the songs from the new record are even from the time I was writing the first. With the lyrics though, I really sat down and wrote them in a very specific time, being the summer of last year.”

The first part of the album was recorded in LA, marking the first time De Graaf had ever ventured stateside. “I went there because I really wanted to work with Chris Cohen [ex-Deerhoof] and I went to see my friend Meg who played a little bit on my first record. I love her as musician as well. I had this database of songs from throughout the years ‘cos that's kinda how I write. I never sit down and think, ‘Okay, I’m gonna write this record or I’m gonna focus on writing just songs’ [...] they all pile up in this database and then when I feel like writing the record, I just go to it and can just pick and choose what I want for the record. So, I found a selection of songs that I thought would be really cool to work on with Chris and Meg in LA.”

When asked if her creativity is affected by the change of location, De Graaf says that LA “didn’t have too much influence on it” because she had already written most of the lyrics.

“But it wasn't quite there yet, and being there made me realise what direction it was going in and it helped with tying it all together,” she explains.

European Heartbreak is a more striking and weightier album title than most. With so many recent releases being doused in Americana references, such as David Byrne’s American Utopia, LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream, and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”, De Graaf wanted to play with the word ‘European’. This is despite some of the writing and recording taking place in LA and Richmond, Virginia.

“A lot of the music I listen to comes from America. And in the niche of the music I make, 95% of it comes from the US,” she says, “which is fine, but I thought it would be interesting to toy with the idea and set the album in Europe.”

Indeed, listeners are taken on a tour along “Berlin sidewalks” and hear about van rides to Switzerland and buying houses in Spain. “Using the word European almost feels like a statement in itself, De Graaf adds. “The word American doesn't really mean anything anymore. ‘European’ sounds a bit more loaded.”

De Graaf certainly doesn’t shy away from topics that may unsettle listeners; it shows off her musical maturity by the bucket load. All that's left is to stick the new record on and embark on the European dream.

European Heartbreak is out on 29 September via Heavenly Records. Amber Arcades kicks off a headline tour across the UK on 10 October at The Dome in London.
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