Music Interviews
6:00 am
Sat July 13, 2013

Anna Von Hausswolff: An Artist In Thrall To A Mega-Instrument

Originally published on Sat July 13, 2013 1:22 pm

Swedish performer Anna von Hausswolff is one of the few recording artists in the world who plays the pipe organ in popular music. Her latest album, Ceremony, was recorded over five days at a church in her hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden.

"Getting access to the church wasn't a problem. It was getting access to the church organ, because every church has their own organist, and the church organs are their babies," von Hausswolff says. "So I had to convince the organist that I wasn't going to harm his little baby. ... I mean, it's a really old instrument, and it's kind of complex. And if you don't know what buttons you are pushing, you don't want to push those."

Von Hausswolff spoke with Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon from NPR's New York bureau, on a trip that also included a concert in Brooklyn — her first U.S. performance. Click the audio link to hear their conversation.


Interview Highlights

On connecting to the church organ

"I think when I sat down and played on a church organ for the first time, the first thing that really struck me was that it sounds so huge. It's a very physical instrument, so when you play it, you can really feel it because you're sitting close to the pipes. It's almost as if you're becoming a part of the instrument; it makes me feel small as well."

On her grandfather's recent passing and its effect on Ceremony

"Just before he died, he said to me, 'Anna, you should only write about things that are relevant to you. Nothing else.' And when he passed away, that's what I felt. I felt that I need to write about this situation that I'm in right now, and what I see and what I hear. When someone close to you dies, you start to be concerned about the existential questions in life."

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Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Is this the thing? OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Everybody happy and rolling?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yep.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week, Anna von Hausswolff sat at the console of a pipe organ at Christ Church in New York City and played.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

SIMON: She was recording for NPR Music; feature her in their field reporting series in the coming months. Later that day, she performed her first show in America, at Glasslands in Brooklyn. Scan of comments on social media from the show included: Best show I've seen in a while. And an Instagram picture showing the artist, quote, "making magic happen."

Anna von Hausswolff from Sweden is one of the few recording artists in the world who plays the pipe organ in popular music as in her new album, "Ceremony."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNA VON HAUSSWOLFF: (Performing)

SIMON: Anna von Hausswolff joins us now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

HAUSSWOLFF: I thank you for having me.

SIMON: So what spoke to you about the organ?

HAUSSWOLFF: Well, I think when I sat down and played on a church organ for the first time, the first thing that really struck me was that it sounds so huge. It's a very physical instrument, so when you play you can really feel it because you're sitting close to the pipes. So it's almost as if you're becoming a part of the instrument. It makes me feel small as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

HAUSSWOLFF: It was a struggle actually to get access to my first church organ experience, but I did some home studies, Googling and looking for information about the church organ, then I started to borrow books from the library. And then I realized that wasn't really enough because it's such a complex instrument, so I couldn't understand exactly what was going on just through reading books.

So I started to - I took contact with an organ, pipe organ builder in Gothenburg and asked him if he would have some private sessions with me.

SIMON: Gothenburg, we should explain, is in Sweden.

HAUSSWOLFF: Gothenburg is my city where I grew up in Sweden.

SIMON: Um-hum.

HAUSSWOLFF: Yeah. Getting access to the church wasn't the problem. It was getting access to the church organ because every church had their own organists and the church organs are their babies, so I had to convince the organist that I wasn't going to harm his little baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

SIMON: What church is this in Gothenburg?

HAUSSWOLFF: This is the church called the Annadong(ph).

SIMON: And you were recorded "Ceremony" there, I guess?

HAUSSWOLFF: Yeah, we had five days of recording in the church with the organ.

SIMON: Now, is the church organist just concerned that, you know, you would spill Aquavit in the keys or what? Is there some thing - what are they worried about?

HAUSSWOLFF: I mean, it's an old instrument and it's kind of complex, and if you don't know what buttons you're pushing, you don't want to push those. And also, like, drinking some wine while you're playing the church organ is probably not a good idea.

SIMON: I know you - I've ever seen it during Sunday services, let me put it that way.

HAUSSWOLFF: Yeah. No. Yeah, it would be expensive for them to tune it or fix it.

SIMON: Do you think the organ lends a certain majesty to songs?

HAUSSWOLFF: Yeah, it does. It's such an old instrument, so it's history. And listening to the church organ, that's magic in a way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

HAUSSWOLFF: (Performing)

SIMON: There's a theme to this album, because we have songs like "Funeral for My Future Children," "Deathbed." Your previous album was called, "Singing From the Grave."

HAUSSWOLFF: Yeah.

SIMON: Something we should know?

HAUSSWOLFF: I'm a very happy person, but I do - I'm a bit morbid.

SIMON: Your grandfather left us shortly before you began work on this album, I gather, right?

HAUSSWOLFF: Yeah, he died, and it's like one of the most traumatic experiences in my life, and that was one of them when he passed away. And just before he died he said to me: Anna, you should only write about things that are relevant to you. Nothing else. And when he passed away, that's what I felt. I felt that I need to write about this situation that I'm in right now and what I see and what I hear.

And it's like the - when someone close to you dies, you start to be concerned about the existential questions in life and maybe you start to - concerned more about where we're going and where we are and what we are and what we're doing. So those questions, I just wanted to work with those questions on this album.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

HAUSSWOLFF: (Performing)

SIMON: And what do you think we hear in your music because of it?

HAUSSWOLFF: It's a lot of maybe criticism to where we are now, but also an encouragement, I hope, that one say we'll maybe find the right path towards like a bright future or something. I don't know. It's just maybe a reflectment(ph) of where we are now.

SIMON: Reflection of where we are now.

HAUSSWOLFF: Reflection, yeah sorry, yeah.

SIMON: Well, Anna von Hausswolff, it's been good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

HAUSSWOLFF: I thank you. Pleasure.

SIMON: Anna von Hausswolff. Her new album is called "Ceremony." She joins us from New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN MUSIC)

HAUSSWOLFF: (Performing)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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