Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Amber Arcades Portraits 1

Balancing Act

09 June 2016, 10:00
Words by Ed Nash
Original Photography by Sara Amroussi-Gilissen

A year ago, Annelotte de Graaf headed to New York to record her debut as Amber Arcades. She talks to Ed Nash about self-funding the process.

Annelotte de Graaf is not your typical modern musician. When she’s not creating music, de Graaf has a career in government law. Whilst many bands juggle a day job with their musical lives, it’s fair to say de Graaf’s is more demanding than most.

The structure in which independent bands get signed and fund themselves has changed dramatically in recent years. The advent of downloads and file-sharing has created a very different business model, with revenue primarily generated through live performances, merchandise and the odd decent publishing deal, rather than lucrative recording contracts.

Consequently, many musicians now have to think creatively when it comes to making an album, often investing their own money, which de Graff has done with Amber Arcades’ debut Fading Lines. And what a record it is, packed full of stunning pop songs that range from the euphoric choruses of “Right Now” and “Come With Me” to the mellower “Apophenia” and “White Fuzz”. Two decades ago major labels would have been fluttering their cheque books at her, but mindful of the current mechanics of the music industry, de Graff took the brave path of recording it herself and then finding a record deal, signing with the venerable UK label Heavenly.

“Times are different now, for bands starting out you need to have a day job, it can be working in a bar or what I do. I heard a story of this Dutch guy who got a pretty nice deal that allowed him to buy a house and he doesn’t make super-commercial music, so it still happens, but not a lot. Also, I can imagine at some point in my life it will be less nice to be away on tour, so it’s good to have another job that you like, that you can start doing more of later.”

“...for bands starting out you need to have a day job, it can be working in a bar or what I do."

We meet in London Bridge the day after Amber Arcades played two well-received sets at Brighton’s Great Escape Festival and wander down to the South Bank. When we get to the Tate Modern, de Graaf and Sara, our photographer climb up a wall to take some portrait shots, prompting a grumpy passer-by to ask me ‘Are you with those young women? They’ll break their backs doing that.’ When I tell him ‘They’re artists mate’, he looks at me like I’m an alien and walks on. We then sit down to talk in a pub next to Blackfriars station so de Graff can get the tube to Victoria and catch her coach back to Holland.

When talking about her job de Graaf has to be careful about what she says, “I have a lot of opinions about policy but being a government representative makes it tricky, like if there was a headline that said ‘Government worker thinks that a policy is fucked up!’” An internship led to her working as a legal observer in a courthouse that decided if immigrants could stay in the country. She’s now at the immigration service, where she initially worked on the huge backlog of Syrian refugees arriving in Holland, “but we worked through that, so now I’m doing all nationalities.”

Amber Arcades by Sara Amroussi-Gilissen

“You’re making some very serious decisions that have an impact on people’s lives and their stories are sometimes pretty gruesome, but on the other hand it’s just like an office job. Factually the stuff that I do is very boring, just clicking, reading, clicking, but the stuff that it’s about, the broader context, is very heavy.”

The nature of the work allows de Graaf to follow her musical passion and her employers have been really flexible. As the cases she works on can take up to six months to conclude, it’s relatively straightforward to transfer them to a colleague temporarily if she needs to take time off. Thus far Amber Arcades touring schedule hasn’t been too demanding and slotting in music festivals, such as her upcoming appearances at End of the Road and Green Man, is manageable as she works four days a week, “I have Fridays off so the festivals are quite easy to go back and forth to”, but she knows that her work/music life balance might become more difficult if the tours get longer and Amber Arcades get more successful.

“I think it’s the coolest thing in the world that you can access information unlimitedly."

As we talk about the internet and the impact it has on the modern musician, she says she had mixed feelings about it. de Graff wrote the thesis for her master’s degree on the importance of a free internet and she’s pro file-sharing. “I think it’s the coolest thing in the world that you can access information unlimitedly, it’s also very good for stimulating creativity." It’s a double-edged sword for a musician, however, “then again you do also want to get paid as an artist.”

Having previously downloaded music, she now uses Spotify, albeit with some concerns. “I’m not specifically enthusiastic about Spotify, more the concept of paying for access, rather than individual content. I wrote about this guy in my thesis who published a book saying everyone should pay an extra ten euros a month for internet subscription and in return you’d have access to everything online for free. I think that’s too radical to work, but the concept of paying for access, rather than having to pay individually for each song, I think is pretty much the way forward.”

That her music is available on Spotify is down to the decision she made to take time away from her day job and go to New York and make an album, paying for it herself. Even when she was making demos she decided against sending them to labels. “I figured there was probably no use in doing that and seeing if they wanted to invest in the record. I don’t think it works like that anymore; it’s much harder for labels to get back the money that they invest. I felt it would be better to make the record first, so you can get the finished product to the label, it’s less of a risk for them.”

Rather than make the album at home she decided to go the whole hog and record it at a studio, the logic being “I’m going to spend a lot of money anyway so I might as well make my dream record with my dream team of people.” So she drew up a list of five producers she liked, emailed each of them and decided upon Ben Greenberg. Whilst Greenberg’s CV - he previously worked predominantly with punk bands - might on paper not look like the perfect fit with Amber Arcades lush pop songs, de Graff wanted someone who’d get involved in the creative process and challenge her ideas. Listening to the finished record, the decision proved to be an inspired one.

“It’s not the music that I make but I totally love louder music."

“Ben did the second Beach Fossils record, which I really liked and he also did all this hardcore punk stuff, which might seem odd, but I listen to that sort of stuff a lot. It’s not the music that I make but I totally love louder music.” de Graff sent Greenberg “forty or fifty” demos of songs before she went to record it. “A shitload! I didn’t even realise how many until he told me afterwards, I thought it was something like twenty. I just write a lot of random blurbs of my life, but the ones we ended up recording were definitely the most finished products.”

For the recording she enlisted Keven Lareau and Shane Butler from Quilt, Real Estate’s Jackson Pollis and Meg Duffy from Kevin Morby’s band and they decamped to the Strange Weather Recording Studio in Brooklyn. Going into the recording process de Graff initially had a lot of musical references she wanted to include on each song, but Greenberg “threw them all out of the window as soon as I got there and said ‘We’re not going to do it that way, we’re going to make it your record.’” I tell her I heard less obvious references, such as the bassline on “Perpetuum Mobile” sounding like “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King? “It does? Oh, yes it does… maybe!”

She was in New York for a month and says making the record there was “an easier way to get in, it’s super hard to get anything done outside of Holland if you’re Dutch. There are lots of amazing Dutch bands but no one gets out of the country because no one pays any attention to what’s happening in Holland, it’s so small. So my ambition was to go outside of Holland, it made the project feel more international.”

Amber Arcades by Sara Amroussi-Gilissen

Whilst funding the recording herself was a risk, it paid off as she found the perfect home on Heavenly. “The short version of the story is I emailed them, they liked it, they signed it, but the whole thing that goes in front of it is quite nice.” As with lots of events in de Graaf’s life, there’s a touch of serendipity about it. She met her friend Karolina through couch-surfing for the Le Guess Who? Festival in Utrecht. Before de Graff flew to New York she met up with Karolina in London, who had started working at Heavenly and de Graff went to their offices to collect the keys to her friend’s flat.

“I’d never heard of Heavenly before then, in Holland they’re not a super well-known name, but she told me they were a great label that put out records by great artists. I looked them up and they had some great artists, so when it was recorded I emailed it to them and I asked Karolina if they’d listened to it, it obviously wasn’t the decisive factor, but it may have helped in terms of getting them to listen.” Heavenly then flew to Amsterdam to watch a show “and that was it.”

de Graff says one of the songs “Apophenia”, (which means ‘the ability to perceive meaningful patterns in data’) sums her up, it certainly fits with how the record came to be made and released. “I have a tendency to go with my gut feeling and if I see some lines adding up and pointing in a certain direction, I’ll go there. It’s just like working with Ben and being in New York with the team, its serendipity. Jackson and Ben knew each other, but it turned out the rest of them all had a shared history, so it was all these lines pulling together.”

Similarly, when she writes, the songs aren’t about one specific person or memory, “it's connected thoughts, ideas and memories combined in one song, I guess you could say it's stream of consciousness in a way.” Indeed, the only song written with a preconceived idea of its content was the lovely “Constant’s Dream”, about an architect who designs a utopian city. It’s the oldest song on the record and was written three years ago, when she had a more thematic approach to writing songs. The majority of the songs on the album were finished six months before recording them and the epic seven minute “Turning Light” was written as the recording took place.

Live Amber Arcades sets have been tailored to get to get the audience engaged as quickly as possible. “At showcase festivals you get thirty minutes max, so we decided to focus on the faster songs, because no one knows it yet, it’s the easiest way to keep everyone’s attention.” But their upcoming headline tour will see them add the slower songs to the mix too. “I’m really looking forward to including those in the set and making it more interesting, dynamic wise, I think that will work really well, we’re going to do that in the next couple of weeks.”

de Graff is cautious about her expectations for Fading Lines, saying she doesn’t want to jinx it. The first reviews have started to appear, including a rave write-up from Uncut, she starts laughing when she says she hadn’t heard of the magazine before. “They don’t do a lot in Holland. I told my British friends and they were like ‘What?!’ An eight from Uncut is really good!’ I was like ‘Oh, OK…’ because I’m from this different world where I don’t know these magazines so I don’t know if it’s a big deal if they write about me or not. As I said, it’s hard being from Holland, it’s such an isolated country.”

“If it takes off or not, if we’re going to be touring a lot or not, so it remains to be seen."

She’s keeping her options open about what will happen when she finishes promoting the album, but is applying for a subsidy available to musicians in Holland, which provides funding for writing new records. “I applied for it with this record and didn’t get it because there wasn’t enough going on, but we’re going to try again for the next one.”

Getting the funding would allow her to head off somewhere for three months and completely focus on writing, rather than having to work. She has hundreds of voice memos on her phone with ideas for new songs; it’s just a matter of getting time to finish them. “It’s hard writing right now, I’m working full time and then touring and having meetings and interviews every free moment I have.” Whether she applies for the funding also depends on how Fading Lines fares, “If it takes off or not, if we’re going to be touring a lot or not, so it remains to be seen.”

However the writing is funded, the next record will be released on Heavenly. “They’re going to put out the next two, I think we’ve got budget from them to record it, I’ve no idea how it’s going to work out practically, but I feel like we’re on the same page, that we’ll make them a new record and send it to them when we’re done.”

The mechanics of the music industry may have changed, with day jobs becoming the norm for independent musicians, but with Fading Lines de Graff has created a stunning record that’s incredibly immediate, rich and textured. It has all the hallmarks of a sleeper hit, that will continue to grow as more people are exposed to its beautiful songs. I wager she’ll be putting the law career on ice once people start to hear it.

Fading Lines is out now via Heavenly. Get it on iTunes, Amazon or Spotify.
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