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Thursday, January 26th, 2023  

The Return of Amber Arcades

Annelotte De Graaf talks about her forthcoming album "Barefoot On Diamond Road"

Jan 19, 2023 Photography by Paul Kooiker Web Exclusive
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Annelotte De Graaf is back next month with the third Amber Arcades album Barefoot On Diamond Road, and – whisper it quietly – it might just be her finest collection of songs to date. Recorded with Ben Greenberg who also produced the first Amber Arcades record Fading Lines back in 2016, Barefoot On Diamond Road finds De Graaf at her most introspective lyrically and experimental sonically, as dancefloor beats trade places with reverb-laden textures, acoustic segments and the occasional foray into kosmiche territories.

Her first record for Fire Records, having released her last two albums – Fading Lines and 2018’s follow-up European Heartbreak – on Heavenly Recordings, Barefoot On Diamond Road is an album that earmarks a new phase for one of the most innovative artists to emerge this past decade.

Under the Radar caught up with De Graaf prior to Christmas and found her in a buoyant mood, not only regarding her new album, but also having changed surroundings from Utrecht to Amsterdam.

Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): I guess quite a lot has changed since your last record came out and the last time we spoke. How was the whole Covid situation for you? Was it a difficult time for you to work as an artist and musician?

Annelotte De Graaf: I actually really enjoyed it. I moved right before Covid, about six months before the lockdown started. I moved to Amsterdam with a new partner, so I guess it helped. I wasn’t alone and it was kind of weird cos we’d just moved to this new city. You want to explore the whole city, go to all the restaurants. Go to all the clubs and see what’s going on. But then everything closed down and it ended up being quite nice. We lived in the centre of the city. I don’t know if you know Amsterdam, but it’s really just all the canals and the city centre. So, before Covid it was just like, yeah, crazy. You couldn’t go out of the house without basically trying to work your way through crowds of people, even when you just wanted to go to the supermarket or something. So, we lived on the canal, on the water. I just bought a kayak and explored the city in that way. I did lots of puzzles and I think it was really good for my music to have that experience because it forces you to kind of recentre. It brings these questions to the surface of why you’re making music at all. Because your whole musician being is just compressed into the most basic form of just you sitting at home with a guitar or whatever instrument you play and just like, okay, so what’s left then of being a musician, if you don’t have all the fun distractions of touring, playing shows, or having festivals. It’s just the basic stuff of writing music. So for me, it really forced me to go back to why I was doing that. Which was really good because I think the record before Covid (European Heartbreak), I kind of lost the spark a little bit maybe. Even though I’ve always tried to be very conscious of not getting carried away too much with the whole, you know, striving for success and all that. Because it’s all relative and who gets to decide what that is anyway? But then, I still feel like it’s hard in the music business to not get carried away with that to a certain extent because the whole thing is kind of set up that way with al these lists, numbers, airplay and all kinds of factors that are relative to success. So, it was really good to be away from all of that for a while and just really come back to making music.

Did you feel that being in a smaller city like Utrecht was constraining in terms of you’d gone as far as you could go creatively there? Was it difficult to be inspired by those surroundings?

So, before I lived in Utrecht which is a small city and I lived there my whole life. That’s why it was a desire for me to see how I was in different city. I think with the new record I mostly just wrote more closely to myself, just what I was experiencing in that moment. More personal and yeah, so I guess a lot of it comes from that experience of moving to Amsterdam and how that is. How it is to move to a new city and move in to a new house, start a fresh relationship with someone. Analysing my own thoughts and feelings about that. I don’t know if I necessarily felt limited in Utrecht. It’s a good city for music and I don’t know if that’s the case with Amsterdam yet, but it definitely was inspiring to just be somewhere else.

When did the writing process start for this record?

It was some time ago. I think it was probably around Spring 2020, or was it even earlier? Honestly, I’m super bad with memory! It was definitely when I was in Amsterdam, and I moved there in 2019. So, it must have been Spring 2020. It feels like a blur. Was it one year ago? Two, three? Whatever happened these last three years feels very hard to pinpoint.

It is, isn’t it? I’ve often thought that myself. We sort of lost two years due to the pandemic and now it’s so difficult trying to really account for them. Almost in some ways it means 2019 seems like 2020 or 2020 seems like 2021. It is difficult trying to pinpoint an exact time frame to those years.

Normally you have all this stuff happening in your life, like events that you can connect memories with. But there were no events or any big things happening, so it’s really hard to connect memories to a certain moment in time. But now that I’ve thought about it, I think it was definitely 2020.

Were there any other songs written around that time aside from the ten that made it onto Barefoot On Diamond Road, and if so, will they be revisited in the future?

That’s always a hard one. I basically have this giant catalogue I keep that all my songs just go into and then I just group them together so there’s one that’s mainly folky songs then another that’s weird songs, or this will be for when I make my punk record in twenty years or whatever. So yeah, they’re in the catalogue so we’ll have to see if I revisit them or not!

One thing that’s always struck me with Amber Arcades is that no two records sound the same. Listening to Fading Lines then onto European Heartbreak then this one is almost like listening to three different artists. Is that something you’re conscious of or is it just part of the organic process?

I think you’re definitely right about that but why is it? I don’t know. As we say in Dutch, if you change what you eat it, it’s good for your appetite. So, changing your food, or dishes you eat makes you more hungry, and I think it’s like that with music for me as well. It’s not that I consciously choose to like do something else. It’s just like, yeah. Or I guess it is a conscious choice, but it’s inspired by desire, in that I feel once I’ve done something then it’s time to do something else. It’s kind of being bored, which doesn’t sound great because that has such a negative connotation. It’s not that I’m bored of the music I made before, but I just have this urge to then explore something else.

Is there a specific theme running through the album? On a personal level, there are certain song that really stand out. “Water Stains” is one which reminds me of “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles if it was like reworked by My Bloody Valentine, for example. Then “I’m Not There”, which is such a massive tune and one that I can imagine sounding colossal when you play it live. It’s a very engaging record on the whole.

For me, I don’t really figure out what the record is about or the themes until like months after. Once I start doing these interviews and I actually have to sit down and think and prepare for these kind of questions ! I think in retrospect I did see but with this record I just wrote very much in the moment. Whereas for the last record I approached it very conceptually. I wanted it to be about Europe, about heartbreak, about politics, and I consciously wrote into that concept. I also feel with the last record I made this whole persona, like wearing the gold suit on stage, which was in a way also kind of like a shield I guess, to protect myself from what the record was about. Which was about some very painful memories. Whereas this record was about learning to get past that and get back in touch with myself again and about my own reason for making music. My own connection to the music and being true to myself form. I also tried to write more, not from a very conceptual approach like beforehand, but more about whatever was happening when I was dealing with this new situation about myself in a new city, with a new house and a new partner. It wasn’t like I was constantly trying to put these themes beforehand. It’s more now in retrospect. I can see some red lines going through these songs, and I think a big one is about surrender. I feel like surrender in English is a bit of hard word because it, again, has some negative connotations of giving up or your flame going out, your passion going out or whatever. And I don’t mean it like that. I mean it more in this idea that you go with the flow of life a bit more. Like you can’t Yeah. Be more in the moment and accept what’s happening around you and try to be at peace with that. Surrender to whatever life throws at you and make the best of that. There’s a double meaning for that in Dutch, because the word for surrender is “overgeven”, which means surrender, but it also means you can do something full of surrender, and surrender yourself to your art or to whatever it is you choose to do, whether it be your work, your family or whatever. Really surrender yourself and put your whole into it, which is a beautiful thing. So, for me it’s also a bit about that and I feel like a lot of the songs on this record are also about that. Like all I talked about earlier, kind of getting back in touch why I’m making music and basically making it for me. This record just feels like a giant thing I made for myself, which is a lot about accepting myself or different sides of myself I maybe struggled with a bit before. So I guess those are two important things.

Barefoot On Diamond Road will be your first release on Fire Records. Has the label set any targets or expectations in terms of commercial success or even critical acclaim for this record?

I’m not sure. I mean, I just release this record, so I guess I still have to find out. What I can tell so far is they seem like very sweet people who really have a heart for music, which resonates with me making this record also trying to get back in touch with that. So, so far so good. I don’t really expect them to be the kind of people who will expect me to produce hit singles. They put out a lot of records that they know these aren’t necessarily going to be super successful commercially, but they just love the artists and can find a way to make it work financially. So, I really like that about them. I think the stuff they put out tends to be a bit more experimental maybe than what Heavenly goes for, which I feel is a good home for this record as well.

You worked with Ben Greenberg on this record who also produced the first Amber Arcades album. Was that a conscious decision and would you choose to work with Ben again in the future?

It was definitely a very conscious decision and I think it had two parts in it. First, as I said earlier, I was trying to go back to feeling the fun in making music again, and I just remembered making my first record. I feel like first records are really special because you’re new to that so you don’t necessarily feel a lot of pressure yet. You’re just throwing yourself in there, seeing what happens, and approaching it in this very playful way. I made my first record with Ben of course. So, when I was thinking about wanting to find fun in making music again, I immediately thought back to my first record and how fun it was to make that with Ben and how we just have such a really special energy working together. Which is just very fun and experimental. Any idea you can say and we’ll try it, so it just feels like a very playful collaboration. So that was definitely a big part of it. As soon as I emailed him the demos, he immediately responded. He has a super enthusiastic way about him, and he was like, “Oh this is amazing!” So I immediately yell all these ideas which he thought were great, and that was a big thing for me. The second thing is that when I made the demos I really heard them almost like film music, like very expansive. And Ben had been doing a lot of film soundtrack work ever since we made the first record together. He did a bunch of soundtracks with his studio partner, Randall Dunn for horror films like “Mandy” and stuff like that. He made a record with Danny Elfman (Big Mess), so I thought this would work in that he can bring that aspect to these songs. So I guess those were the two main reasons why I worked with Ben again.

It’s almost seven years now to the day when I first saw Amber Arcades play a lot of shows at Eurosonic in 2016. You’re back in the UK playing a bunch of shows at the end of January and beginning of February. One thing I’ve always noticed with Amber Arcades is that your band members change all the time and the sounds tend to change with them. So, what can audiences expect from the live shows in 2023?

That’s a good one! I’m kind of still figuring it out. We have our first rehearsals for the tour scheduled for early January and it’s gonna be quite a challenge I think to translate this album into the live set because there are so many classical instruments used like cello and harp. Obviously we won’t be able to bring all those on tour, unfortunately. So, I think it’s going to be a mix of using some backing tracks maybe. Which I’m usually not a big fan of it, but also I’m like, whatever. Pop stars do it, so why not? We’re going to have to try so it doesn’t become over the top, and then maybe translate some cello parts into more of a synth or whatever. So, it’s gonna be a mix of that. It’s yet to be determined, but I’m definitely looking forward to it. It’s gonna be exciting and I think these songs are going to translate really well live. I’m just super excited about them.

You’ve released two very, very different sounding records in Fading Lines and European Heartbreak previously. If you had the benefit of hindsight, is there anything that you’d do differently on either record? Is there anything you’d change?

No. I don’t believe in that. Both the records reflect so well where I was at those moments. Even though European Heartbreak wasn’t about the happiest moments in my life, I feel like the record also helped me to deal with that in a way which allowed me to move past it. So no, I think the beauty of any sort of creative work is that it forms such a strong link to where you were in that moment. Even if it’s not perfect, that’s the beauty of it, right? That makes it meaningful, for you and maybe also for listeners too. I don’t know, no one’s perfect but then you know, everyone’s different and that makes it nice.

European Heartbreak came out just a year or so after the EU referendum vote and a lot of people were still feeling quite down over the result, so it was almost like a soundtrack for that grieving period when Brexit started to become a reality. Now Brexit has finally happened, a lot of people are suffering as a result of that so in many ways that record has become synonymous with that whole period.

Yeah, I get that.

Have you got any other projects or collaborations in the pipeline such as the Boner Petit EP you recorded in 2018?

So actually - it’s not musical - but during Covid, I picked up some new hobbies or maybe I just intensified some hobbies I already had. It’s interesting because it does relate to the music in some way. I got really into foraging things like mushrooms or whatever. I guess I’d already kind of dabbled with it already a little bit because my mom is big into nature. She does all kinds of nature walks where gives she talks about trees and their mythology. She does them about animal planet. She does them about mushrooms. She’s really into all that stuff, so I guess I just kind of grew up with it. But during Covid and being locked in the house the whole time, I made more of a really conscious effort to just go out on a big walk every week in beautiful nature areas and also picked up cooking more. I always love to cook, but during Covid it got really out of hand because of course we weren’t really able to go out to restaurants and you’re just working from home so you had more time to make a big lunch or whatever.

What’s your specialist dish? What do you enjoy cooking the most?

So, I have an Instagram page. It’s called Annelotte.Eatsalotte. You can follow it all! So, I do a lot of basically just very seasonal local ingredients. Lots of foraged and fermented stuff. I guess those are two hobbies that intensified a bit over Covid, and why it’s kind of connected to the music is because it reawakened my love and respect for nature. The mystery of it all, which also was a really big part of my upbringing. Like I said, my mom does all these kinds of walks. I was really raised on all these kinds of fairytales, and I went to a Steiner school, so we had all these big celebrations of the seasons. That was such a huge part of me growing up. The sense of mysticism connected to nature that was instilled in me and going out to these nature walks while doing the foraging really reawakened that. And I feel like that also translated into the music, at least for me. I don’t know if that’s apparent to other people listening to it, but for me it really comes back into this almost kind of fairytale, parts of it. These instrumentations which almost feel like magic. Like the bridge in “Diamond Road” for example. For me it feels almost like fairytale music. So, it’s kind of magic, and then also the folk and nature part. A lot of the songs have more of a country or folk feel like “Water Stains” for example, which I really wrote as kind of like a classic folk song. “Diamond Road” feels to me like a country song with all the slide guitars as well, which are also genres I associate a bit with nature. So, in that way it did inform the record as well.

The Netherlands music scene is arguably one of the most vibrant in Europe. Aside from yourself, there’s bands like Cloudsurfers, Personal Trainer, Global Charming, Rats On Rafts and Pip Blom to name just a few. Are there any other bands or artists you’d recommend that we might not know about yet?

One of my favourites at the moment is Eerie Wanda. She’s great. She puts out records on Joyful Noise Recordings. I don’t know her personally very well, but I respect her a lot as an artist. She just seems to be in this cocoon of herself, just making and putting out really great music. It’s really special, intimate and, beautiful. So, she’s great. I feel like there’s a lot of like hip hop mostly coming out in the Netherlands right now. If you compare the Netherlands to Belgium for example, they play a lot of Dutch language hip hop in Belgium as well. I don’t know a lot about hip hop but there’s this one guy who’s really cool. He doesn’t make hip hop at all, but I just thought of him cos I don’t really know a lot about hip hop, so I can’t really tell you a lot about that. But there’s this guy called Raven Artson, who makes this kind of auto tuned hyper pop, but he’s also quite experimental, weird and punky. So, I guess those would be some of my favourite acts doing stuff right now. I’m just naturally drawn to stuff. I wouldn’t say they’re big names. They’re just people who are doing their own thing, which I appreciate very much.

What advice would you give to a new band or artist just starting out? What would you tell them to do? What would you tell them to avoid?

The advice that I learned myself making this record - it’s cheesy I guess - but really the only thing that matters is making music that you like. You can try so hard to really aim to make a record that’s gonna do well and it might, but it also might not because nothing in life is certain and sometimes it just doesn’t happen for any circumstance and has nothing to do with the music. But then if you just went out there trying to make a record that didn’t really resonate with you on a personal level, that’s such a shame. So, I think that should always be the most important part; to make something that’s beautiful and meaningful to yourself. And then if it’s successful, that’s great. Go with it. And if not, at least you made a record that means something to you.

Barefoot On Diamond Road is out on Friday 10th February via Fire Records.

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