You might think that someone who grew up in Sweden would be used to the cold. Yet here was Scandinavian singer-songwriter Anna von Hausswolff, who performed recently on a 39-degree-evening at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge, asking, “When we go down to San Francisco, is it going to be warmer?”
Von Hausswolff — who has raised eyebrows for her adoption of a church organ as her primary instrument — was in the Rose City on the last leg of her U.S. tour, which began in Washington D.C. and ended in Los Angeles.
Audiences outside of Scandinavia and Europe are just now beginning to discover von Hausswolff, whose first album, Singing from the Grave, was released in 2010 and most recent album, Ceremony, came out in early 2012. Recently von Hausswolff was featured on NPR Music, who, with the help of WNYC, recorded a Soundcheck Session with the Swede at Christ Church in New York City earlier this summer.
In addition, von Hausswolff has received praise from All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen who called her album “great” in its “ability to be instantly distinct.” He went on to describe the record’s vibe as “dramatic and stark.”
The 27-year-old has been performing as a solo act for about four years, but she has been studying music since attending a high school known for its musical curriculum. During those years she found it difficult to discover her artistic identity.
“The school was very conservative, so I felt that I was restricted to the rules of the school,” she says. “I was just kind of insecure, but still I always enjoyed music. I just didn’t really know how to approach it because I felt that I had to play in a certain style.”
Von Hausswolff later moved to Denmark and it was there that she began to find her musical pathway. Armed with a synthesizer that she intended to use as a means to help compose songs, she found that it only had one sound that she actually liked: an electronic rendition of an organ.
“I felt like that was the opening to me playing the church organ,” she says. “This was a sound that I found very interesting and that could create these heavy, thick textures and layers of sound, but it also felt that because it was in my synthesizer, it was a bit un-organic,” she recalls. But choosing this instrument wouldn’t be without its obvious sacrifices.
The organ may seem a bit out of place in mainstream and even alternative music and it also might appear to be a bit impractical for a touring artist. Issues of accessibility, mobility and the practical logistics of working with a church organ rule out a lot of standard practices for von Hausswolff, playing gigs being the biggest among them.
“Recording the songs, I remember spending hours and hours in the church in Gothenburg where I recorded the sounds for the album, but I know that I will never be able to ever recreate the exact same sounds.”
So for shows like the one at the Doug Fir, where loading in a full-size pipe organ is clearly not an option, she relies on finely tuned and sophisticated keyboards and synthesizers to achieve a sound that she is comfortable with.
Due to the aesthetics of her albums and their titles, as well as the fact that she has pent a lot of time inside churches recording her music, it would be easy, lazy even, to label von Hausswolff’s music as a kind of “emo-gothic-pop.” It would not be unusual or out of place, for example, to find images of stained glass windows and gargoyles illuminated by a bolt of lightning perched atop a crucifix on her album covers. But that’s not indicative of von Hausswolff trying to create a certain style or image — it’s simply the authentic backdrop that the churches provide.
Von Hausswolff doesn’t necessarily embrace the “gothic” label; she laughs at the suggestion and quickly tries to make distinctions among the several different interpretations of the word.
“‘Gothic’ in a classical sense or in a style — like the modern ‘gothic’? I haven’t seen so many gothic kids in my concerts, so I guess not,” she says with a smile. “Since people keep using the word ‘gothic,’ I guess I just have to accept that it belongs there somehow.”
Though many have compared von Hausswolff’s voice to artists like Kate Bush, listeners may also sense Madonna-like flourishes throughout the album’s sometime spare vocal arrangements, similar to those heard on Madonna’s “Secret” from her 1994 album Bedtime Stories and “Frozen” from 1998’s Ray of Light. On a surface level, some of the Material Girl’s nods to spirituality and Judeo-Christian imagery and themes might be considered another touchpoint between the two singers.
But one thing that is clearly unique to von Hausswolff is her connection to the pipe organ. After experimenting with the flute and the piano (and she also played a little guitar during her Doug Fir performance), von Hausswolff has accepted that this is going to be a long-term relationship.
“I think I found it, I can rest in it. I feel that this instrument allows me to kind of rest … With other instruments like the piano, I always felt like I had to be in the front of everything and take up a lot of space all the time to make my voice heard. But with the church organ, I feel the opposite, that I can relax, lay back a bit and just let the instrument take up the space and kind of blend in my vocals smoothly.”