Anna von Hausswolff is well known for her extraordinary and riveting music. Dead Magic is her fourth album and it’s probably her most personal yet mysterious record to date. Going through some difficult times while writing it, Dead Magic is just an exquisite and fascinating effort that came from a really obscure place. Anna told us how the creative process behind Dead Magic was like, the recording sessions on the 20th century organ at Copenhagen’s Marmorkirken, and her collaboration with Randall Dunn for this masterpiece.
Dead Magic is your fourth album and you wrote it in the summer of 2016 in your hometown (Gothenburg, Sweden) and then recorded it the following year in Copenhagen, Denmark. What was your mindset going into the writing of your new album?
It was actually not a very good place when I wrote Dead Magic. I’d been a touring a lot. I’d been working constantly. When I got back home after a very long tour, I felt a little overheated and then I just kinda went numb and passive. I went into a sort of grey area. When I look back at that period now, it was like I lost contact with my imagination, with my imaginary mind and my creativity. I was making music to kind of make my way out from this place and music is something that I do and something that I’ve always done. I was making music, but I wasn’t making fully contact with it. I couldn’t really appreciate and I couldn’t really see the magic of making the music. I just wasn’t in contact with my creativity whatsoever, so I was just writing, saving the songs, finding my way into a certain territory and trying to sing in a way that helped me to kind of get in contact with my emotions… Trying to be a little bit more physical with my body and my voice; standing up and singing and just to kind of activate the body where I would easily get contact with my emotions. It wasn’t until after I kind of came out from the period when I started to make something out of these songs. I started to make interpretations of them and they started to have a specific meaning, but I can’t say exactly what I was thinking at that moment. It was just very passive state. The imagination is a very strong force that you carry around and it can work in both ways. It can be good for you, but sometimes it can be destructive for you as well. I felt like I didn’t have any imagination, but of course that is not true because you can never lose these things, but that’s how I felt. It was just like my imagination was projecting its ideas and thoughts onto me and kind of degrading and destroying itself in a way.
For the promotion of Dead Magic, you have chosen a poem by the Swedish writer Walter Ljungquist (1900-1974) as the only comment. In which way that poem is bound to your new album?
I was asked to make press text and it was very to speak about this album because I wrote it in this state of mind where I was confused. Like I said, the interpretation of all the songs came after, so I can’t say exactly that I’m staying 100% true to the core because I’m changing my idea of the songs. I couldn’t just make a concept or say, “This is about that or about that.” It’s more about the period and emotions that were circulating in my head during that period, but now that means something else. And then I found this quote in a Ljungquist’s book that is called The Black Lady. I thought it was beautiful and fitting for this, like in this context as it’s kind of encouraging people to embrace the mystery and the secrecy of things. When you are presented with mystery or some secrets, you start creating your own world and your own ideas around it. You’re kind of making it yours in a way, because you own the full interpretation of it. I felt that like, “I will take this poem and I will use it as a kind of an encouragement for people to use their perception and their own imagination to make something out of this album.” I think, generally, today people are supposed to be so extremely transparent and all the information has to be out there. Everything needs to be said and our truth should be transparent and they should just tell everyone about their lives and their ideas. I think it’s very good in some fields. I think it’s excellent in politics, for example. You get like straight answers, but unfortunately you don’t usually get straight answers in politics. I would have wished that politicians to be a bit more transparent sometimes, but in art I feel that the magic is kind of taken away from the art if you haven’t explained or if you have only information served because then you can’t make it your own. You can’t make it your own word and world, because when you get to own the tool to interpretation, then you cannot get a more personal bond to the art, to the music or whatever it is that you’re perceiving. But once you start creating something around the art, that’s when you create the true personal bond to it and that’s when you start thinking and your mind starts expanding. You start imagining and you become very stimulated because you feel that your mind is working and the body’s working, so it’s like a stimulant that I’m kind of striving for.
I totally agree with you. I think people nowadays are kind of lazy to get their own imagination flowing and have they own interpretation of things. I think that’s really important what you have just said. Your album itself is magical and mysterious, and it makes it more exciting for people to get into it.
Yeah, I think so. I mean, some context need to be explained to some degree, but I still think it’s very important that you don’t undermine people and people’s knowledge and intellect, and that you kind of invite them into the process of thinking and making. I think it’s very important when you make art.
Dead Magic feels like a one piece album, which has five songs extending over 47 minutes. Do you feel the same way about it?
My original idea was to make one long track, but it didn’t work with this album because I was in this state of mind that everything was fragmentary. The process was fragmentary. The emotions were very mixed and so five songs came out of it. I always think about the album format and how I place things and how I want them to kind of grow in and out from each other. I like to see it in a linear way that I kind of have a beginning and then I have an end. It’s like storytelling. Even though it’s not one singular piece, I can still feel that the songs are connected to that and there is a thread throughout the whole album.
“I was making music, but I wasn’t making fully contact with it. I couldn’t really appreciate and I couldn’t really see the magic of making the music.”
For me, “Ugly And Vengeful” is just a damn masterpiece. It’s the longest track of the album and the most intense as well. I would say it feels like the centerpiece of Dead Magic. Can you elaborate more on how was the making of this one in particular?
That song started with just the vocal line. I had this pattern that I started playing on the piano the last two years every time I played on a piano. I always played this pattern and then I just had this vocal lines going over it and not really shifting the piano. It felt like it was disconnected. It was just this own thing on top of the piano. So then I started to take this vocal line because I felt the energy of it. I just had this vocal line repeated and repeated to myself and I was singing it over and over again. It kind of grew from there, but it still is weird because that period is kind of blurry and confusing, but I somehow puzzled it together and then I took the demo to Karl Vento and Filip Leyman who play in my band. They also kind of helped me to come out from this place where I was. Music and friends really helped me to get grounded and make out of this grey zone. I presented this song to them and then they helped me arrange it, so I would say that we arranged it together. I wanted it to feel very physical so I could use my body more and feel more. [laughs] I think that’s all I can say about it.
When I listen to that song, I just feel a vivid connection with my body and soul, because of its intensity and increasing pace within the song.
I can tell you one thing. The overall mood I had when I wrote that song was that I felt let down. I felt down about absolutely everything, including myself, so that’s the main emotion kind of moving through the song.
When you were composing the track “The Marble Eye”, was intentional to be just an instrumental song?
No. Usually it just happens because I play what I feel like in the moment and many times when I go into the studio, I don’t really feel like singing, especially if I don’t feel creative or if I feel super sensitive in a way and maybe I don’t like myself 100%. It’s easier for me to start liking myself if I just play instrumental music, which made me lead me into singing and gives me the courage to sing. But I started playing this song and it was creating harmony inside and calmness in a way and also awakening some kind of curiosity. I felt I was playing on this pattern that you hear in the beginning and I just played that over and over again. That’s how I usually do things. I expanded a little bit and changed it a little and moved into different parts. And then I recorded it and added a melody on top of it, which is good if I don’t feel like singing. It’s always nice to have a melody because then it almost feels as if I’m singing, but I’m not. I’m singing through the fingers. It was very nice to have this kind of melody to it and then just let the melody sing its way through the song. I added layers new patterns on top of the old pattern and just expanding the landscape very gradually. That’s usually how I work in the studio with my songs.
“When you are presented with mystery or some secrets, you start creating your own world and your own ideas around it. You’re kind of making it yours in a way, because you own the full interpretation of it.”
The majority of the recordings of Dead Magic were done on the 20th century organ at Copenhagen’s Marmorkirken, “the Marble Church”, one of the largest churches in Scandinavia, with a chapel inspired by the majestic St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. How was it like to record in such stunning place? Did it have a direct influence on “The Marble Eye”?
Yes! It did! It was absolutely amazing to go into that space. It’s a dome shaped building. It’s all made in marble. It’s fantastic space and visually it’s extremely inspiring. When I heard the sound and the acoustic, it was just amazing and how the organ was the corresponding with the room. It was just a very magical place to be in and to record that. I remember when I sat up on the organ balcony, I was playing by the organ console and I just had this a great connection with the room because the dome was kind of projecting the sound in a way, so it was kind of flooding all over me. The pipe organ is such a big instrument and so it can be very dominating when you sit that close to it, but with this organ I felt that the pipe organ wasn’t too dominating that actually I was in connection with the room and there was an ambiance that I loved and an ambience that I could play with. Randall Dunn (producer) brought some really perfect equipment for that specific room and for the organ. I think the combination of the room, the organ and his equipment added another level to what the organ could sound like. Both me and him were very excited to be in there and to hear all of these weird new textures being created on top of a layer that can be done before and all of this clashes between different sounds in the pipe organ and that was inspiring to. “The Marble Eye” was intended to be a soft song first, like the buildings are more or less the same as my demo and the arrangement is actually exactly the same, but the sound is completely different than my demo, because when I played this marble organ it just had this extremely interesting and harsh notes in the upper register that both me and Randall felt like using and working and experimenting with it. It was perfect in this song because the notes were so clear and so they could present the patterns in this song in a very interesting and fresh new way. It also created a lot of weird overtones. We really fell in love with these overtones. In the mixing process, I remember the first mix that he sent to me was basically only almost the overtones and I was like, “Ok Randall, I love the overtones and they are amazing, but can we also have the song in the song?” [laughs] And then he sent me a new mix with the song and all the arrangements and all the layers, but the texture and the ambiance of the overtones are still there like half dominating the soundscape. It’s very interesting in an unexpected way. Unexpected things can happen when you create something.
Randall Dunn is definitely one of my favorite producers at the moment. How did you end up working together and how was it like the experience?
Randall contacted me on Facebook and he wrote, “Hi Anna. I’m Randall Dunn and I love your work. I would love to do something with you. Here’s the link to my website, please feel free to contact me.” I recognized his name, but I couldn’t truly figure out who he was. I went into his website and I saw the list of the bands that he recorded and I was like, “Oh my god!!!” [laughs] They were all of my favorite bands. [laughs] Really, all of my favorite bands were in that list. I was just like, “I think he gets it. He can understand what I’m going for.” He contacted me, which means a lot, and I knew he would put in a lot of passion into the project as well, because he thinks he can do something good out of it. I felt very comfortable telling him that I would love to do something to him. I answered him and we kept contact. We spoke a little bit about it and once I had the songs we set a date and had 9 intense days of working together. It was great. I think he’s a fantastic producer.
The album has the contributions of Karl Vento (guitar), Joel Fabiansson (guitar), Filip Leyman (synthesizers), Ulrik Ording (drums) and David Sabel (bass), with string arrangements on “The Truth, the Glow, the Fall” and “Källans Återuppståndelse” by Úlfur Hansson. Did those musicians have any input on the writing of the songs?
No, the writing of the songs is just me and it’s my project, and so it’s my emotions, my ideas and my thoughts. I need to be consistent with that at the moment. I’m not the best improvising musician, I’m not like jamming musicians, but with organizing sounds I think that’s one of my strongest qualities. I usually have a mission or an idea and then I can present it to the band. We work around it, shape it and we find songs together and once we have the structure then we can start to play around with it and jam a little bit on it and improvise on it, but usually I have to have like the main structure to be there for us to make something out of it.
You have recently released the hauntingly beautiful video for your first single, “The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra”. Starring Siri Wigzell and yourself, the video was directed by your sister Maria von Hausswolff, who recently won the Cinematography Debut award at the prestigious Camerimage film festival. Congrats on that! Can you tell us how was develop the concept for the video and how was it like shooting it?
Well, I would say she’s as secretive as I am her doing her art, so when I came to the set I didn’t know anything about the plot or the storyline or her idea about it. I just knew what I was going to do. She said, “You’re going to be in the mud, you’re going to be running, you’re going to be singing to this part on the song. Do you feel comfortable with that?” And then I said, “Yes, I think so.” [laughs] Of course I trust her and so if she thinks it can be good, I believe it can be good. I came to the spot in the nature outside of Copenhagen in the middle of the night. We spent the entire night and also a little in the morning in that place recording. For me it was extremely physically a tired song because it was very cold and I was covered from head to toe in mud from that place. It was really cold, nasty mud smelling like bird shit. [laughs] The first scene was me running with the mud, but the last scene that we were going to shoot was me being dug up from the mud, so I had to keep that mud the entire sets. I was covered in mud. I had this all over on top of me. I just walked around like I was some kind of mud troll for a lot of hours. [laughs] It was kind of extreme, but I was just following her orders and doing what I was told the best way I can and trust her. When she works with my music videos, she likes to see it as an extension to the music videos that she has done before. It’s not like an entirely new field in itself. I think she kind of wants you to see the previous ones as well. Just like the album format, the songs can connect with each other and there’s something going on, and she has the same view on her music videos. When she was done with the music video for the first time and I saw myself, it was a horrible. I’ve never seen myself singing to the music before. I never seen myself acting in a music video before and it was really hard. I just called her and said, “This is not possible, we can’t show it.” [laughs] But then she was like, “Anna just try to disconnect from your own body, your mind and from your idea of how you want yourself to be presented. Also try to disconnect from your vanity and your perception of yourself. Ask friends, ask people that you really trust and hear them out before we totally throw this out in the trash can.” I showed to my friends and I got lots of good feedback and people were very surprised to see me in the video. I also felt like sometimes it’s really good to let go of control because then you can open up to something new and you can open up to the possibility of acting out in another project. If I would throw this in the trash can and then I would say “I will never ever be acting out or being in a music video or like looking at myself on a screen. I will never do that again.” But I don’t want to say that because then I would limit myself. Now I feel super proud and happy about the delivery. [laughs] The music video is so beautiful.
The album’s cover is a photo by Maria von and the design and layout was by you and Magnus Andersson. What’s the meaning behind this photo?
Here comes another secrecy. [laughs] I will tell people eventually what it is, but right now I’m getting so many fantastic interpretations and just wild ideas of what the photo is and where it’s coming from, so I want to hear more of what people think of it and what they see in this image. I can tell you that it’s a photo that I had in my belongings for 16 years, so it’s a very personal photo. My sister took it.
On the inner sleeve artwork for Dead Magic, there’s this drawing made by you and it’s called “the marble eye”.
Yeah. There’s the inner sleeve on the LP/CD artwork. When you open up, there’s a drawing of an imaginary place. It’s like a fantastic place, but it’s also kind of a dark and gothic in its presentation, but it’s more magical. I think the inner sleeve cover work is corresponding beautifully to the front cover artwork, because both of them have this dark humor. One has a more dark and brutal aesthetics, and the other one has some more fantastical imaginary and mysterious aesthetics. Um, we’re not mysterious, but yesterday were bright and such students.
Are you currently working on other projects?
I had been working with a theater play here in Gothenburg for the last four months and it’s a theater play called Gösta Berlings saga. It’s a take on the story to by Selma Lagerlöf. I was asked to write the music for this play and it’s a three hour long play and so I made probably like one and a half hour or even two hours material for this play. Once I was finished with the recording of Dead Magic, I started writing the material for this play and so that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been recording amazing pipe organ here in Gothenburg and it’s very different from Dead Magic. It’s mostly instrumental music and a new approach to the writing process, also because it’s a play and so I have already the story and the narrative presented to me. I finished that one in December and now I’m preparing for the upcoming tour of Dead Magic. Now I started to approach Dead Magic material again, but in a live format.