INTERVIEW

At the heart of Anna von Hausswolff’s latest, doom-y record is an enormous 9000-pipe organ, but it’s a secret landscape in Sweden that’s informed ‘The Miraculous’ most of all.

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“I feel like – and I’m sounding like a hippy – that nature is listening and if you want to be heard then nature is a good place to go to.” So Anna Von Hausswolff tells me over the roar of intense background noise and endlessly screaming children, as she sits in a Copenhagen café. It’s not the sort of words one might have expected to hear from someone who has been described as “Sweden’s bad vibes queen” and who, as a musician, is capable of creating compositions so vast and amazingly immersive that they swallow you whole – organ-led drone pieces that are like stepping into a dense moorland fog, only to be met with a soaring, surrounding vocal that somehow feels as enormous as it does contained.

Whilst there is an overtly ‘dark’ tone to what Hausswolff produces, often because of the naturally gloomy tone of the organ used – along with a propensity for using drone techniques to create funeral-like churns – it’s really only a surface level assumption (and largely inaccurate) to associate it with any inherent bleakness. You only have to look at ‘Mountains Crave’ from her 2013 album ‘Ceremony’ to see the sort of pop-tinged material she is capable of producing, or any number of moments on her latest record, which go from doom metal blasts to inspired, almost traditionally structured song craft. Her most recent album, ‘The Miraculous’, opens with a booming pipe organ, one that blasts like an angry foghorn, like a boat’s off-course warning signal as it sails towards an inevitable collision. The album, however, is not inspired by an impending sense of doom; it is more a sonic realisation of the power of nature, imagination and improvisation.

Hausswolff and her band travelled to Pitea, a small town in Northern Sweden, about 14 hours drive away from Gothenburg and with a population roughly around the same size as Retford. Within this town is one of the largest pipe organs in Scandinavia, consisting of 9,000 pipes. The instrument features a built-in glockenspiel, vibraphone, celeste and some forms of percussion. It also contains a sort of built in water feature in which some pipes are half covered in water, creating a bewitching howl in the hands of Hausswolff, rather than the fluid ambience you may expect from such a set up.

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As an instrument it’s a towering presence over the album but, says Hausswolff, its magnitude was a tough thing to tackle. “The organ just sucked everything up,” she notes, “so we had to work super hard to get the drums and guitars to come through in the compositions to make the details be there and not drown. That was a struggle but I don’t think we could have done it better.” Another child screams in the background with the intensity of someone who has just seen their parents kidnapped.

Another integral environment to the album’s existence is based on the album’s title – a secret place that Hausswolff has visited regularly since she was a child and now refers to as ‘the miraculous’. She won’t tell anyone it’s real location, or actual place name, instead describing it as a place steeped in rumour, beauty and mysticism, as well as bloodshed from a historic uprising that left many dead atop of its picturesque site.

Hausswolff talks me through her experiences of the place, saying: “It’s an open place, it’s for everyone but it’s also a very private place for me. I go there every summer and have done since I was a kid and sometimes in the winter or when I miss it. For me it’s a fantastical place; it has a very deep and dark history to it. It’s a very weird place; I was told a lot of stories about it; my family told me lots of stories about it and I don’t know if half of them are true. It’s like this uncertain idea of what’s really been happening there. It’s strange because I think I know this place very well but my aunt can come up to me and tell me a different version of a story and then I can meet someone in the village who can tell me something completely different to that. So the history is twisted and it’s constantly changing and it seems like the history of the place is really important to people but none of them have a clear idea of what’s been happening there. It’s a place you want to tell stories about for some reason.”

Whilst spending a great deal of physical time in this literal space in Sweden, it’s also the time spent there imaginatively in Hausswolff’s mind that has led to a great deal of inspiration for this new record. “It’s a blurred line between fantasy and reality. You start to create your own stories and your head starts to do twisted things to other stories and you then change those…. This place boosts my creativity and puts me in a different state of mind.”

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“I like to romanticise a lot about it,” she continues. “Sometimes I go there and I don’t understand why I’m so fascinated about it, I don’t get it, it’s like, ‘oh, it’s a beautiful landscape, what else is there?’ But then I always – when I come home after a few days or a week or something – start to long to go back to it and begin to romanticise the landscape again. ‘Oh, I remember the smell there and the noises of the wood cracking under my feet,’ and this love and romanticising takes over. I think it’s an important detail of the record because I did all the writing in Copenhagen, not there, so it’s like the idea – I like the idea of this place a lot, it’s the idea that fascinates me.”

‘The Miraculous’ feels too far spread and multifaceted to be a record that follows one particular line of thought. Hausswolff has taken influence not only from the depths of the Swedish landscape and its literature but also from cinema and particularly the 1985 Soviet war film Come and See Me. It was within the bloody murder and societal turbulence of the film that Hausswolff forged a connection to the fantastical landscape of the miraculous place she has visited and thought about so often.

“When someone tells me a story about a place that is stirring up my emotions, that place becomes a person,” she tells me. “It becomes more than just nature, more than just trees and flowers and the things that you see. You become emotionally connected to the place and I think it is important to have people tell stories about these places. The more brutal or horrifying a story is the more sad or scared you get – those emotions are very strong. That’s why this film speaks to me and why this place speaks to me because there has been so much horror and sadness there, so it stirs up a lot of emotions that makes me connect to the place on a more personal level.”

That said, the songs didn’t present themselves fully formed, swept away by the power of influence – Hausswolff starts in the abstract, she says, adding: “You have shattered thoughts or shattered songs, small pieces all over. Then you realise these pieces are connected and it becomes a puzzle.”

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‘The Miraculous’ seems to manage to somehow feel both of a place and also removed from one, existing in some sonic middle ground between Hausswolff’s blurred explorations of reality and fantasy. Yet when asked about the impact of the physicality – ultimately the real world – and the role of nature, it’s clear it has a crucial place in both her life and work. “I think it’s extremely important for me to feel that I have some sort of purpose or that there is more than just nothingness,” she says. “I feel that nature is like my God, and I’m not religious but I think going out in nature is probably the best thing for me to do when I need to rationalise my thoughts or become more connected to myself – it’s just like a good place to be heard.”

Like a lot of what Hausswolff is involved in creatively, there seems to be a thematic connection to be made here. Three of the album’s nine tracks occupy almost half an hour in duration, and are pieces that reflect the enormity – the engulfing omnipotence – of nature and its endless possibilities. In creating these pieces – such as ‘Come Wander With Me / Deliverance’, which was built up, grown and stretched out on stage, live – Hausswolff creates pieces that become huge overpowering compositions; ones that seem intent on eradicating boundaries and overtaking the role of the composer. It’s something which, thankfully, Hausswolff seems to agree with as I try to spit out my point over the sound of screeching infants.

“I think that’s a very good description of how I work and what my goal in general with music is,” she says, “it’s to make it larger than myself, so that sometimes I feel like I have no control over the material – I like that feeling. Not always but sometimes, I think it creates a space where as a musician I can go forward with my writing. To not be scared of embarrassing myself and not be scared of trying out new things, if I’m fascinated by something I try it, maybe I feel super uncomfortable but at least I’ve tried it. That’s why I love playing live because you have the chance to squeeze in these little moments of experimentation.”

It was one of these little moments of experimentation, albeit not on stage, that led to Hausswolff’s favourite track on the album – the ten-minute title track. “For me that song stands out for the reason that it’s improvised,” she says. “I wasn’t thinking about recording it but when we recorded the organ I had one hour left and I had recorded everything else so I wanted to try that out and maybe it was going to turn out shitty but I thought let’s just see what happens and that just happened and it was fun. It was a funny contradiction to the lyrics I had, which were about growing old and losing your present self to the past, to nostalgia, and then I think this song was the one where I was most present because it was all an improvisation, completely unpredicted, it became a symbol of finding a miracle. That sounds cliché but it was just both totally unpredictable and completely right at the same time.”

I ask if the overall process has been something of a spiritual one. “It is like a sort of meditation to me, to channel certain emotions or certain energies, so in that sense it’s a spiritual thing.”

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Taking a 9,000 pipe organ on the road is not something that is feasible for Hauswolff’s upcoming tour dates, but that’s not to say a pipe organ tour won’t happen in the future. “My dream and my vision is to do concerts with pipe organs, but I have to work a little bit more [to reach that stage] so now I’m going to do rock club settings and I have a really nice synthesiser organ with pedals. It’s two different things, the club environment and the organ and church environment – those two things are very separate from one another. At a rock club you are facing the audience and you maybe become more extroverted and when you’re in a church or concert hall I have my back to the audience and it creates a more introverted mood, for both me and the audience.”

As we wrap up an hour of conversation that whilst sincere and open, is also punctuated with many moments of laughter and jokes, I query if Hausswolff really is the bad vibes queen of Sweden. “Maybe people want to think of me as the bad vibe queen but I can’t relate to that. I don’t know, maybe – I think I’d rather be the bad vibe queen than the good vibe queen, I’d rather stir some emotions up than sooth them.”

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