When Anna von Hausswolff was young, her parents used to tell her stories about a place the family loved to visit. The location is seeped in a complicated history: a home, for example, to Sweden’s traditional folk music, it’s an area of outstanding natural beauty, but once provided the backdrop for a momentous uprising against the country’s king during which thousands of peasants were slaughtered, leaving its landscapes bathed in blood. The tales in which von Hausswolff lost herself – some true, some less so – were on occasions charming, at other times horrifying, but they always lingered long after bedtime. It became, to her, a place of mystery, magic and terror, and, though she won’t say where it is, she still returns repeatedly, if sometimes only in her imagination. She calls the place miraculous.
It was here that von Hausswolff’s mind was drawn when, in 2013, following the release of her second album, the extraordinary Ceremony, she was invited to perform at Lincoln Cathedral, in England’s East Midlands. Earlier that year, during a tour with Efterklang, she’d been reading a book by Walter Ljungquist, the uncategorisable 20th Century Swedish author. The twenty-minute piece she performed on the cathedral organ that October night was inspired by, and named after, it: Källan. It is, she explains, an adventure about “kids on a spiritual journey, their search for something holy, the disappointment of not finding it, their joy in hunting for it, and the importance of letting go of control.” But the book sent her on a greater journey into her own imagination, taking the Swede – now based in Copenhagen – all the way back to her secret hideaway. She realised that this held the key to the next musical steps she wished to take. As she says of her enigmatic inspiration, ”If I were to search for a miracle, just like the kids in the book, then this is the place I would start looking.”
Listening to The Miraculous, it’s impossible not to recognise the similarities between the realms that von Hausswolff describes and the music that she’s making, which conjures up an otherworldly vision of darkness and dread, of myth and wonder, of spells, spirits and serenity. Much of this is due to her use of the Acusticum Pipe Organ in Piteå, Northern Sweden, whose colossal sound – with nine thousand pipes, it’s one of the biggest of its kind in the country – swells heroically throughout the album. Inaugurated in 2012, and designed by Gerard Woehl, it lends the record a unique edge, enabling moments of true drama and supplying the brooding drones and dreamy soundscapes that provide the album’s foundations.
This magnificent instrument’s unusual features – built-in glockenspiel, vibraphone, celeste and percussion, as well as what von Hausswolff describes as “a screaming bird sound” produced by “pipes half covered in water” (as heard on “The Hope Only Of Empty Men”) – also further broadened the record’s aesthetic. In total, five days were spent recording the majority of the album’s substance live with it and her band, Ulrik Ording (drums), Joel Fabiansson (guitar), Karl Vento (guitar) and Filip Leyman (synthesiser), also the record’s producer). Afterwards, they decamped to Gothenburg for a further month’s work, before mixing it Filip’s studio.
The process was a new one: whereas before she’d never revealed her songs to her musicians before they began work, some tracks – like “Discovery” and “Come Wander With Me / Deliverance” – had been developed during live performances, and of the latter’s evolution in particular she says, “every time we played it, it grew bigger and bigger. The lyrics and the feeling of the song seduced me into this mystical yet romantic landscape. It deals with the idealisation of a world that you yearn to know, and the fear and frustration that one might never be able to fully exploit that place due to physical and emotional limitations. It’s about longing and dreaming, while facing the reality of obligations and doubt.”
That sense of seduction into a parallel universe lies at the heart of The Miraculous’s remarkable energy. The album takes one into a world of haunting, haunted imagery, like a sinister, supernatural take on a gothic fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Lyrically full of flickering lights and mirrors on walls, desperate mothers and lost sons, oceans, stars, broken trees and ancient knights – of whom von Hausswolff casually sings, “I ́m gonna fuck him for a while” – its monolithic music is equally evocative.
The Miraculous floats like a ghost, from the subdued elegance of the title track, and the bewitching “En Ensam Vandrare”, to the unbearably tense, Godspeed You! Black Emperor atmospherics of “Discovery” and the brutal, Swans-meets-Black Sabbath savagery of “Come Wander With Me / Deliverance”. It pauses only occasionally for breath: amid the swirling, smouldering “The Hope Only Of Men”, for instance, or on “An Oath”, whose timeless ambience seems to have been passed down from generation to generation, its character twisted and contorted over the centuries.
von Hausswolff’s voice, too, is that of an enchantress. Unearthly, wise beyond her years, she swoops from whispered incantations to ghastly shrieks, as though presiding over a black mass where – accompanied by Gyorgy Ligeti and Jan Welmers – Fairport Convention, Jefferson Airplane, Vashti Bunyan and Diamanda Galas have gathered to raise the decaying corpses of Sunn O))). If Ceremony offered a reflection of a world both unsettling and enthralling, The Miraculous steps through the looking glass into another dimension.
von Hausswolff, however, prefers to compare the record to her beloved Come And See, a 1985 film by Elem Klimov whose depiction of the Nazi occupation of Soviet Russia is both eloquent and harrowing. “Nature is so beautifully and mysteriously portrayed in it,” she elaborates, “and makes such an extreme contrast to the dark story of that place. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and wonder how history has changed and twisted our perception of that gorgeous countryside. One could probably never visit and see only nature. There’d be layers and layers of images and words from the war.”
It’s an astute comparison: equally disturbing and complex, The Miraculous maintains von Hausswolff’s uncompromising approach to her art, adding to the young Swede’s already exceptional catalogue of work. Of its potential commercial impact, she remains unperturbed. “I can´t afford to care about the market´s approval. I would lose too much artistic energy, and that would only ruin me. As Lars Norén once said of his work as a writer, ‘The market is the most lethal of all poisons’.”
Courageously ransacking a multitude of musical approaches – “It seems like everything I do is both a little bit in and out of fashion,” she grins quietly – The Miraculous is single-minded and radical, unflinching in its quest to reveal a world as ugly as it is beautiful. It’s a place everyone should explore, secure in the knowledge that the experience will affect them deeply, and remain with them inexplicably, indefinitely. Only Anna von Hausswolff, however, knows how to take them there. Therein lies another miracle.
Written by Wyndham Wallace
Preorder the new album by Anna von Hausswolff at Bengans and get a signed copy.
The album will be available in November on 2 LP and CD. One of the LP’s will have an etched backside with artwork done by Anna von Hausswolff.