Death Becomes Her: Anna Von Hausswolff Interviewed

The Swedish singer-songwriter tells John Freeman how her album Ceremony was inspired by a love of drone, a fascination with death and the vocal cords of Diamanda Galás

Photo by Anders Nydam

When someone close to you dies, amid the grief and shock comes a purity of thought. In the days and weeks after the death of a loved one, trivialities dissolve away and the truly important aspects of life are brought into sharp focus. It’s an almost universal human reaction, and the phenomenon which catalysed Swedish singer-songwriter Anna von Hausswolff’s second album – the sweeping drama of Ceremony.

As the follow-up to 2010’s primarily piano-based Singing From The Grave, Ceremony is an astonishing sounding record, built around von Hausswolff’s love of the church organ and containing grimly-titled songs such as ‘Deathbed’, ‘Epitaph For Theodor’ and ‘Funeral For My Future Children’. However, Ceremony is neither dour nor morose, as von Hausswolff’s soaring vocal fills its drone-inspired song structures with light and hope.

When I speak to her, she’s just returned from the longest tour of her career ("16 gigs in a row") with Danish choral pop group Efterklang. "It was one of the best experiences I have had in my entire life," she says, peering out at me over the largest teacup I’ve ever seen. As we talk, it’s easy to spot why Ceremony is such a unique listen. She name checks avant-garde chanteuse Diamanda Galás, as well as experimental guitar groups Earth and Barn Owl, while her father, Carl Michael, is a renowned composer of conceptual art. Anna von Hausswolff was always likely to sound extraordinary.

Your new album Ceremony is a hugely ambitious record. What was the inspiration behind it?

Anna von Hausswolff: I was just trying to follow my intuition and my heart. I had grown tired of Singing From The Grave as I wasn’t standing on the same platform as I was at 23 years old, when it was released. I also started to listen to new kinds of music and I moved to Denmark – I now live in Copenhagen – so I had a change of environment and met some interesting new friends. When I moved to Copenhagen I couldn’t bring my piano, so I had to start to play on a little synthesiser, and I found it quite hard to get some good sounds out of it. During the time of writing Ceremony I was into more instrumental stuff, and then I found a St. Peter’s organ, which I fell in love with. I started to write songs with that kind of sound in mind.

I haven’t ever heard of a St. Peter’s organ – what type of organ is it?

AvH: A St. Peter’s organ is a synthesiser based on church organ sounds. It gave birth to my interest in that type of dominating, heavy sound. I started to read about church organs and the more I read about them, the more fascinated I grew, because I had always taken the organ for granted. You just hear it in the church when you are there as a kid. I started to look for bands that played church organ, began to dig a little deeper into the sounds, and I believed I had found my instrument to make my vision for Ceremony come true.

I believe you love bands like Earth and Barn Owl. How did drone influence your new album?

AvH: It was my drummer who suggested I listen to a band called Earth. I looked them up and I fell in love, as I found the music extremely interesting. What I like about that type of music is that it focuses a lot on the sound and textures. You can work with sounds and also time – there is time for you to reflect on what you are hearing and build up expectations. You can hear one chord for ten or 20 minutes and then it will suddenly shift to another tone and that simple shift is so strong.

What type of music were you exposed to as a child?

AvH: My mother would always play Tchaikovsky in the springtime. She listened to Bob Dylan a lot. There was a mixture of my mother and father’s records at home, so we had a lot of Sonic Youth, Brian Eno, Talking Heads, and also Patti Smith and Sex Pistols. They have really good music taste, but I wouldn’t say I was listening to those bands when I was a kid. My sister and I had a band and we were extremely influenced by TLC. I would sing the Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes rap [from ‘Waterfalls’] because she was my idol. I thought she was the coolest woman on earth. Nowadays, I can only do the rap when I’m drunk.

Did you play many musical instruments during your childhood?

AvH: I played the flute but didn’t find it very cool. I started playing piano when I was 13. I sang in choirs, so I have been singing since I was really, really small. I took all the high parts because I was a soprano, but I thought the low parts were more fun to sing in their melodies, so I was a little bit disappointed.

Lazy journalists have likened you to Kate Bush. Have any singers inspired you to sing in the way you do?

AvH: The one singer that changed my view on how you can express yourself through your voice is Diamanda Galás. I got a record by her, Malediction & Prayer, when I was 17 years old, and I felt it was relieving to hear someone express herself – especially a female – and be so physical with her voice. I had seen that physical aggression in black metal music, but males usually sing that, so when I found this extremely strong female character with an amazing voice I was overwhelmed.

Have you ever seen her sing at a concert?

AvH: Yes, I saw her play at a small theatre in Stockholm and she was out of this world. I realised it was okay to be that raw and honest and extreme. She helped me to open up my voice. I have tried to sing exactly like Diamanda but it is impossible for me. I was also fascinated by Björk when I was at high school, and she helped me to get my range and push my chest voice to the high tones.

Many of the songs on Ceremony appear to be about death – I’m thinking of ‘Deathbed’ and ‘Funeral For My Future Children’ as examples. Why is death such a strong theme in your music?

AvH: I don’t think I write about death. I write about life, and death is just a part of it. I believe that death is a great way to start the story and a great way to end one. Of course, death is a fascinating place where all our political ideals and values are useless. It’s a place where you have absolutely no control, and when it happens to someone you love it makes you reflect on your life a little bit more. That reflection happens to everyone when someone close to them dies. It’s a phenomenon that drives you to try and live better and harder. I like to deal with death in a creative way because I am frightened and fascinated by it. Also, I’m kind of a morbid person.

I can totally relate to what you are saying about death focusing you on the important stuff, having recently lost a close friend.

AvH: I’m sorry to hear that. I had a friend who died a month ago – he was snowboarding and the mountain took him. So Ceremony is a tribute to him and my grandfather, who was an extraordinary person and one of my biggest idols, and when both of them passed away, time stopped. All the banalities in life are not important anymore; you become more concerned about the big issues. You are not in that state all the time, so it is easy to forget. Death is a good reminder of what you should be concerned about.

Is writing about death a kind of therapy for you?

AvH: This is something that I need to do, because I cannot keep playing these songs forever. I feel like when I play music – and this is a cliché – it is therapy, and it is a good way to soothe your fear about things. So focusing on these kinds of topics helps me a little bit. It’s also why I need to continue with these themes, not in exactly the same way, but I believe this kind of darkness will linger onto future works. If I want to stay healthy, I need to stick with these kinds of topics.

Anna von Hausswolff’s Ceremony is out on June 17 via City Slang

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today