Holding Anna Von Hausswolff's new album Dead Magic in your hands, you are immediately struck by its black and blood-red cover shot of a young girl. The smudged and somewhat impressionistic image is unsettling, and it's difficult to know why.
Talking to the 31-year-old Swede at her home in Gothenburg, I'm intrigued to know more.
“What I can say right now is that it’s a photo I’ve had in my possession for 16 years,” she says. “My sister took it, and it’s a very, very personal photo. I’ve made a decision not to tell the story behind it yet, but I will tell it eventually – that’s a promise.”
Hausswolff certainly knows how to draw you in, and while she and the adjective "enigmatic" are a good fit, her somewhat inscrutable stance never seems like an affectation. Dead Magic's compelling 47-minute journey is bridged by just five, truly epic songs. They are potent and mysterious entities. To fully explain their subject matter, Hausswolff knows, would be to weaken their spell.
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She says she wrote the album when she was "in a bad place", that she "was experiencing fear, anxiety and melancholy", and had "lost contact with [her] imaginary mind". And although the singer had shaken off her depression by the time she came to record Dead Magic, she still describes it as "a portal into darkness" and a work in which "there is a clash of negative and positive energies".
With its spidery strings, astonishing vocals and drama-rich support from Hausswolff’s five-piece backing band, the album comes on like a horror-film soundtrack in waiting. It’s a work of palpable daring and ambition, and Hausswolff’s signature pipe-organ playing is a key feature. This time out, she used the hulking 20th-century instrument that graces Copenhagen’s Marmorkirken, or Marble Church.
Hausswolff and her producer, Randall Dunn, needed special permission to record at the Marmorkirken, and she speaks passionately about the uniqueness of each church-situated pipe organ, and about the power and versatility of pipe organs in general.
“It’s a very dynamic instrument that allows you to play very quietly or very, very loud,” she says. “The room is just as important as the instrument. When you make the pipe organ you have to take the room in aspect, every single centimetre. How long are the walls? What material are they made from? Where is the balcony?
“It’s an instrument you can never tire of,” the former architecture student says, “but it can be physically demanding. You are working with your hands and feet, and you have all these stops that you are pulling in and out to make flute sounds, or maybe trumpet sounds. If you are playing fast it’s like dancing – you have to move the entire body to make it work.”
Hausswolff's deep interest in the arcane and the esoteric was also evident on previous albums such as 2010's Singing From The Grave and 2015's The Miraculous.
Her father, Carl von Hausswolff, is an avant-garde composer and artist who has attempted to record “paranormal electronic interference”. His daughter acknowledges the influence of him and his collaborators.
“They would have conversations about not owning the world and not thinking that you know everything about it,” she says.
“Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there, so I like the idea of being playful towards your surroundings and trying to understand different forces.”
Her psychologist mother loved classical music, Bob Dylan and Nick Cave, and Hausswolff has a strong memory of she, her sister and mother listening to Tchaikovsky and eating waffles on the same day each year.
But what of her striking surname? Has it empowered Hausswolff in some way? Would she be a different person if her surname was Johannsson?
“What an interesting question,” she says, pondering. “Yes, I think I have been empowered by the name Hausswolff. It’s a unique name and I have some great ancestors who have done amazing and weird things. But my mother’s surname was Wassberg, and if you separate [the two syllables] it means ‘pondweed mountain’ or something like that. A ‘hausswolff’ sounds a little bit like something wild that has been tamed, so maybe the pondweed and the mountain are more powerful and pure [laughs].”
Other inspirational touchstones on Dead Magic include the avant-garde American soprano and pianist Diamanda Galás – "she's extraordinary and she showed me it's OK to be ugly or extreme with your voice as long as it comes naturally" – and the Swedish writer Walter Ljungquist, whose mystical 1975 novel Källan part-inspired the album's hypnotic closer Källans återuppståndelse.
Hausswolff describes the Ljungqust book as an obsession that she keeps coming back to, partly because he writes so evocatively about Kisa, the small locality in Östergötland County, south-east Sweden, where many of her ancestors are from, and where Hausswolff spent many of her childhood summers.
“When I read this book I can recognise myself in the characters and the nature he is describing,” she says. “I can recognise the smells and the magic of the place. Ljungquist has this ability to help you read between the lines, so his books are very stimulating and you almost feel a part of the creative process. I would like the whole world to read Walter Ljungquist.”
There is one song on Dead Magic that Hausswolff has been a little less tight-lipped about. Titled The Mysterious Vanishing of Electra, and packing tubular bells, a backbeat of formidable heft and all kinds of whoops, shudders and sandpaper-throated expulsions, it's actually one the album's more concise songs at just over six minutes.
"It's a story about different, separated people who all have one thing in common," the singer says. "Their beloved one has gone missing, so they are dealing with the loss of this person, and with the separation and the anger and the sadness of not knowing where he or she is.
“But it’s also a story of two voices, and the other voice I’m inhabiting is the voice of the missing person, who is expressing the fear and anxiety of never being found. When I go into these different characters I exorcise their different emotions and feel sympathy and empathy for them. For me, music is a way of connecting to people so that I can understand them better – even bad people.”
As an interviewee, Hausswolff seems relaxed, upbeat and engaging. It’s a bit of a relief to discover that she’s much less scary in person than she is on record.
She says she would love to come and play in the UAE, meet local people and explore. “For me, music is the thing that is pushing me forward,” she says.
“It’s helping me to expand my mind and understand history better, and I love it when it is able to transport me to new environments.
“I look at art in general and music in particular as something eternal; something I can never lose interest in. It’s a spiritual and healing thing. It’s not superficial – it’s magic.”
Dead Magic is available from today on City Slang records