"I Wish I Would Be A Man": Soap&Skin Interview & Quietus Mix 60
, March 15th, 2012 07:39
Soap&Skin's new album Narrow comes out this month, and it sends Anja Plashg's stark gothic torch songs into even darker and more despairing places. She's recorded us a great mix, and speaks to Stephen Dalton about her new album
Berlin's landmark Volksbuehne theatre is a hulking great fortress of granite-columned gravitas that once served up inspirational Marxist dramas to East Germany's cultural elite. But on this snowy February night, every one of its 2000 seats is occupied by black-clad disciples seeking highly charged drama of a different kind. The Austrian noir-pop siren Anja Franziska Plaschg, aka Soap&Skin, is in town, and her army of vampire admirers is here to feast.
Wrapped in a dark greatcoat and backed by a six-piece mini-orchestra, Plaschg perches at the front of the barely lit stage and unleashes blood-curdling primal screams over a wrenching, harshly percussive string backdrop. Her Wagnerian avant-rock assault is impressive, but she also spends half the night slumped over her grand piano and laptop cooing half-whispered ballads of woozy desolation and inconsolable loss. She is Austria's answer to Lana Del Rey, Nick Cave and Nine Inch Nails in one unlikely one-woman package. And still, amazingly, just 21.
Plaschg's voice is an intoxicating instrument, sometimes smoke-damaged and fragile, sometimes abrasively metallic, often fading away into ghostly vapour trails. Somehow she manages to transform even silence into operatic melodrama. Her Berlin show culminates in the longest and most feverish standing ovation I have ever seen, finally dragging the singer back onstage to perform a hesitant, giggling, howling nine-minute version of the Doors classic, 'The End'.
Already a star in her native Austria, Plaschg recently collaborated on her own line of chocolate, infused with pig's blood and poppy seeds. Yes, really. On the day we speak, she has also just topped the Austrian charts with her second album, Narrow. But rather than embracing fame with open arms, she has fled Vienna to lie low in Hamburg, home base of her record label PIAS.
Narrow is an album of exquisite sadness and extreme beauty, of baroque orchestral electronica and piano laments. It opens with 'Vater', a stormy requiem for Plaschg's late father, who died in 2009. This should also be the album that blows away lazy comparisons between the sombre young Austrian and Nico - having portrayed the icy German chanteuse in a stage show and paid homage at a concert with John Cale in 2009, the parallels are plain. But Narrow opens up a much deeper and broader sound world than her debut Lovetune For Vacuum, invoking a rich avant-pop pantheon from Patti Smith to Stina Nordenstam, Bjork to Aphex Twin.
Plaschg was raised on a farm in a small village in Styria, the southern Austrian state that also gave the world Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek. Classically trained in piano and violin, she attended Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts before music curtailed her studies, initially making her name as a vocal collaborator with various electronic artists. She was still just 18 when she released her debut album in 2009. On the sleeve, artfully swaddled in grey blankets, she looks like a frozen corpse.
You would glean very little of this background from talking to Plaschg. Peppered with chilly silences and broken sentences, our interview is a slow and awkward affair. Coaxing answers from her is like squeezing pig's blood from a stone - a very dark, beautiful, precious stone. This is partly because she is a private and wary interviewee, but also because she only has a fairly fragmentary command of English.
Soap&Skin is a precious artist, in every sense of the word. But Plaschg laughs more than you might expect after hearing her sullen, sultry, sorrowful music. And besides, when you have just made one of the most sublimely beautiful albums of 2012, why explain yourself?
So are you a big star in Austria now?
Anja Plaschg: Well, yeah, ha! I don't know. I'm not in Vienna right now because it was too much. Now I am on Number One in the chart so... ha! Um, yeah, it's strange.
Do you feel conflicted about having success?
AP: No, it's just so strange because I can't remember... it's so unusual that music like this has such attention.
Are you a bigger pop star in Austria now than Falco was in his heyday?
AP: Ah, no! Falco also was hated - he was also very polarising.
Hated? Do people hate you in Austria?
AP: It's not hate, that would be... glam, ha! It's... envy. From musicians and from critics, it's like they want to detect or uncover that I am a real business girl now, with a big company behind me. And it has to be calculated, because they can't imagine this can happen without a big company.
Almost all your lyrics are in English, why write in your second language?
AP: Ummm.... I always did it, like naturally, because maybe I feel more connected to an abstract world. 'Vater', the first song on the album, is my first song in my mother tongue. That is just because I wanted to confront myself for this tune with my mother tongue.
Because it's such a personal song?
AP: Yes. It was clear from the beginning that I have to do it in German... um, yeah.
It is a tender song but it also sounds very angry too - are you raging over your father's death?
AP: No, I think it is more like... protocol? Is that right? I am going through separate emotional states. I wrote this song in one year. It took one year.
You also cover the vintage Europop tune 'Voyage, Voyage' - a hit for French singer Desireless in 1986, before you were born. Why this song?
AP: I got a request from an Austrian filmmaker to cover this song and also to play a role in his debut film, to play a prostitute. This should be the theme song of the movie. I knew the song but it was not in my mind, I heard it again and it was like, I waited for something like that. Which released some emotions.
This is the film by Sebastian Miese, who worked with Michael Haneke?
AP: Yes. In German it is called Stillleben - like, Still Life.
Most Austrian films seem to be full of disgust, fear, guilt, horror - is that true of Austrian art in general?
AP: Well, I think yes, but I can't say what's exactly the reason for that - maybe because Austria is very Catholic and, umm...
You are still so young, yet your songs are full of sadness and darkness. Why?
AP: Ummm... [sighs] I don't feel like 21. I don't think about my age.
But are you equally gloomy offstage, or is it a theatrical kind of melancholy?
AP: No. Of course I'm not totally like that, but it's concentrated...
Do you know where it comes from?
AP: Well, after the death of my father and after Lovetune For Vacuum I had a serious depression, like for more than half of a year. And I was in a...
Is this gloomy mood what German-speaking artists call Weltschmertz?
AP: Oh! I hate that word. I don't understand it. It sounds like there is no reason for it, like you are just floating in romantic pain.
Maybe happy people should just be banned from making music?
AP: No! I don't think that.
But don't cheerful, well-adjusted people tend to make banal, boring art?
AP: Pfffff... isn't that a cliché?
Maybe, but that doesn't make it untrue. Have you ever written a happy song?
AP: Umm, I don't think so but maybe I... Umm, no. I made some covers - do you know The Kelly Family?
What? The painfully corny Irish-American folk-pop dynasty who are inexplicably huge in Germany? You covered some of their songs? For a joke?
AP: Yeah, that's the point. But it's not a joke....
It was an Art Statement?
AP: Argh, oh God, no - ha! No big words please. Do you know that song 'Angel' by the Kelly Family? That was their big hit. I sing "I wish I were an angel" sometimes, but I made something different. When you hear it, it is also about strange beauty. I made something different.
Most tragic torch singers are female, very few are men. Why the imbalance?
AP: [Pauses, sighs] Well, I wish I wouldn't be a woman. I wish I would be a man.
Seriously? Have you felt that all your life?
AP: Yeah, even in kindergarten. I was totally obsessed with the boys, they were afraid of me. Yeah, it was very sad.
Do you still feel that now?
Your live show looks emotionally grueling. Does it leave you drained?
AP: Yes, of course, but I don't ask myself the question if it's too much.
Do you have to protect your voice between performances?
AP: Yes... I'm trying not to smoke much, and yeah, I have some training. I can only do three shows in a week.
Are there obvious influences in your music - or too many to mention?
AP: Um. There are too many.
Not one or two major inspirations?
AP: No. When I was 14 I heard a lot of punk music. And Sisters of Mercy.
How do you feel when people compare your music to Nico?
AP: I don't hear it any more. It's true that Nico means a lot to me and I listened a lot to her music, but no, she wasn't really an influence.
Will you do more acting?
AP: I don't focus on that but I'm getting requests sometimes, and watching this. I'm open to it.
What's next for you musically after this album?
AP: Narrow is like a clearance for myself, and it was such a crazy process and now I am still in this process. I still have no idea what is coming after, but I'm sure everything will be different. I can imagine the music I make will be very different, but I don't know in which direction.
Soap&Skin plays the Scala in London on April 11.