I want to make them shine – Anneke van Giersbergen (interview)

My first interview with a female artist and then it is Anneke! OMGoodness! It was so inspiring to learn how she thinks of the metal community, considers her role as leader or motivator in her band and even her attitude towards the afterlife. We spoke of her music and tour, naturally, as well and her approach on the lyrics for the recent album “In This Moment We Are Free – Cities” gives a wonderful example of poetic liberty and the freedom of perspectives and interpretation.

The first time I saw her live on stage was actually on a show with Amorphis and each time I think of it I get the goose bumps again remembering her incredibly touching voice in “Her Alone”. And as she really loved being part of this very unique show and as Esa Holopainen is a close friend even participating in the song writing of the recent album, no surprise we end up speaking quite a lot on this show.

And I Am Always Impatient

VUUR is a rather new band and speaking of the tour (with Epica earlier and now as headliner) I am curious to learn more about the chemistry and dynamics in VUUR. “But it is also on stage because people know us from a lot of different things. But they don’t know the band because it is a new band, new music, new sound. And people really have to take time to get into it or see it live one day or talk to their friends about it one day or … you know, that takes time. And I am always impatient. Because I already wrote and recorded the songs. (I can’t help laughing, patience and me – not good friends) It’s normal. And then I have to find out that people have to get into it. ‘No, it’s really good!’ So, it all about getting into it. But people have to take time and now that we are playing with it, we did the Epica tour, we did this headline tour …” – “And Tuska – it was a great gig and didn’t seem like a new band”, I point out. “The dynamics were really great!” – “Thanks, yeah, that is because we already played together. Most of us were in The Gentle Storm. So the band already clicks and we know each other. But now we are getting really into it. Because we just kind of played those two tours and when you play every day then you get into it and it’s running fine and you can work on details. I love it. And everybody who sees it gets into it. So that’s cool.”

“Is there a point at which it is perfect? Now the show is running perfectly fine?” – “You know that every day is different. Even though like you said we know how to play the songs and it’s kind of automatic and it’s in your system and you play it well and you see it well, then the audience makes it special. So sometimes you have this great audience. And then the songs they lift up to something special because of the people in the venue. Because once you know how the songs are played, it’s up to something else to make it special. The atmosphere. The energy in the room. Or that we play together really well. We had a good night or good vibes or so! So every day is different.”

To me this suggests that Anneke might be a bit more fond of smaller venues so she can be very close to the audience. “Yeah, I like both because of the different reasons. I like the small stages because we now with the headline tour we start small again. You know we have small stages in the UK we really had like small stages”, and she shows with her hands that small here means tiny so we end up laughing, “and we really bumped into each outer. But it gives something special like you say it is so close to everybody. And it’s really cosy and I like this because usually it’s like really warm in the venue and I like sweating, you know. And the big stages are cool because of the big energy and you can do and you can move around and so. You can do a lot on a big stage. And I like both. I like both very much.”

In 1666 …

The new album is a concept album in a way. All songs are associated with cities and listening to them and reading the lyrics I found it quite hard to follow the logic of these associations. Of course a Northern town with the endless summer lights can be easily associated with Light in general (Your glorious light will shine – Helsinki) and I was quite confident that San Francisco related to the fire that was caused by crashing gas lines after the massive earth quake in 1909. But I found it hard to make out the remaining relations.   “It is so cool that you guessed about that one. That one is about an even I wrote about. And some of the other songs I write kind of eclectic. So you couldn’t say it’s about that. The thing you can say is that I can feel this with this song and make it your own feelings. But the …. Of London is also about something that happened in the past: the big fire. In 1666 there was a huge fire. It is very famous. So I talk about that. But I talk about it in a way that the story teller is the fire itself.” Ahhhh… yeah, now I can see it, too. “So I will give you fear, I will …. You know … “ She looks at me and “… now it makes sense!” “And I think when you talk about cities and history you have to be careful not to make it a history lesson. Because you have to be romantic or poetic in a way. Otherwise it becomes strange lyric like ‘in 1666 …’ she begins in the voice of a teacher from a very old movie and we start laughing again. “And for instance, some like Istanbul, I see it like, you’re coming to a city like Istanbul and it is so beautiful with all lights and it is such a romantic city. And then I see the city as a man, an entity. And I see it like being a warrior a big sword and saving me from harm. It is fairy tale-like, comic-book-like”, she explains laughing and very excited to illustrate her ideas. In my imagination I see an impressive warrior rise with Turban and colourful dressed, a majestic beard and dark, fierce features like “… from the Arabian Nights’ tales?” – “Yeahhh! So it is in a way naïve, in a way romantic how I look at some of the cities, you know.”

“That’s the freedom of writing. You can put your very own and personal angle on whatever.” – “ That’s true and your perspective might be entirely different and I think warrior and you think something else with that. And that’s the beauty of eclectic lyrics. It is that you can really make it your own as a listener.”

The cities are mostly located in Europe and Near East. Well Rio and Frisco are not, of course. Is there a particular reason? “Hm, not really but of course I visited all these places. And we tour all over the world. So it is just a lot of my favourite places. And I suppose, yes, Santiago is a little bit more Western than Rio.” – “oh that Santiago”, slips my mouth. I considered Santiago de Compostela in Spain to be the referring city. Anneke laughs “Oh yah, yah. It’s Santiago de Chile. Anyway. There is Beirut which is more to the East. But I have never been to and we never played in the East-east. Not in Japan. Nor India. Our main stops are Europe, North and South America which is half the world. So that is cool. But yah, it’s just few of my favourite places.”

“Speaking of freedom: Hm … is it the freedom of writing, by the way? Or is it at least at times, the pressure to come with something new so you can go on stage again? I think in bare numbers the majority of those musicians I have met so far they enjoy a bit more to express themselves on stage than in writing.” – “That’s true. Yeah, me too.” – “So is there pressure to write?” “I don’t see it as a pressure because I always have ideas”, she says smiling happily and knocks on the wooden, old table in front of the couch we sit on as she says: “I’ve never had writing block. And also when I think I might have writer’s block or think what should I write about, I just try to relax and start this idea to the world. And I always think you will come back to me with a good idea, you know. I already have lots of ideas for a new VUUR album. For many things. So I don’t see it as a pressure. But then when we start working on the album, it’s a good pressure to make it as good as it can be. So we have to work hard and that’s why I explain live so when we’re at show and the songs are all in your system then I love like playing every day the same set list. It is for me. I love that because every day is different for me anyway with all the venues, the places to play, the sound, and the atmosphere between me and the guys.”

 A Female Can Sing Romantic Lines Over Heavy Music

Anneke van Giersbergen

Anneke is one of the very early female singers in metal and thereby have become a role model for many to follow her. Our attitude has changed male and female job/career domains have become ‘conquered’ by the other sex. I wonder what it was like for Anneke to be one of the very few ladies in metal back then or is it only an outside perspective that it might have become easier as there are now simply more women. “I think therefor it makes it a little bit easier for us. It’s become more normal that there are women in metal. However, I never experienced that it was hard in the first place. So when I and other women were the first ones in the scene – kind of as lead singers – you know, I like the attention. And it was something new with The Gathering. And we didn’t plan on it.” I hear her voice on the recording and I remember her face in this moment from listening. It was one of these particular moments in which my interviewee is deeply in her mind and world and the face displays pure confidence with the moment.  “They were just looking for a good singer. And I was the best one at that moment. And I happened to be a girl. And that’s how it started. So it’s so non romantic. It’s just spontaneous.  It’s so like ‘Ok, you fit the best with the music and the sound. Let’s go for it.’ And then this thing comes like. And a lot women say like: ‘Oh, it’s possible.’  A female can sing romantic lines over heavy music. But then journalists like you or photographers or sound engineers or instrumentalists – more and more women come to the scene just because they figure this: ‘Why not?’ Last is the sound of the music changed a little bit. Also a little more melodic. And more and more girls liked metal because there is like a certain touch now in certain genres that women kind of like, are listening to. So the answer is there are a lot more women. That’s cool! But I never found it hard. I always liked and was a lot around guys. I like the male world. I like men in general. Don’t need many words.” My frown has grown to laughing which infects Anneke and she adds: “as you know. We have a big emotional life and a man he steps over things. Some a little more easily – in general. I am generalizing. But still when I was young my best friends were men, you know. I have a brother and my brother is very much into science while I am very much into – how do you say – into spirituality, and God, and the cosmos and angels. And my brother is super scientific. And we are the best friends, you know. So I like the prog and metal prog and metal world because I love people like yourself and this I find very interesting working or thinking in science way. Thinking in general and intelligent. And this is an intelligent crowd – the metal world. I like – or at least certain sub genres are very intelligent. And I like intelligent fans.

We drift a bit into thinking of the overlap of science and music, especially mathematics and its role in composing in particular of computer-based composing before making our way back to the point that in the end surprisingly many metal heads have career jobs. “And you see the same people here and you see them there and after some years, you kind of talk to people and then you learn what they do for a living and their like f* airline pilots. Or a doctor. And you don’t ever know because they wear like you and me, they wear just like a metal shirt and they have weekends and they put on the black shirt and you have no idea. And then they wear suits and hats and they make tons of money, way more than we do. And I find it so interesting that every time I find out how intelligent our audience is in general and especially in progressive music and progressive metal that are people that like our music. You know they like sourcing out how is it played and they can process this kind of music.” – I couldn’t agree more but then – all the more because I love progressive music – I point out that I find it too demanding to really sell.

“Who takes the time nowadays it takes to get into the music so deep and listen to it 10 times before you start to understand and really begin to comprehend its beauty? So it’s so hard to sell this.” “Oh yeah, we are totally in a niche market. This is a music that I love so much but a business person would say to me ‘Go, make other music, if you really want to make a good living.’ But I don’t care anymore. You know I do a lot of solo acoustic shows which are going very well for me. And I make my living, you know. And I can take care of my family and I do this and you know it is my perfect world. And it is. Metal is a niche. And then subgenres in metal are super niche. But still there are many people who love this. And everybody who does come to the show is way into it. There is nobody there who doesn’t mind or who doesn’t care.”

Everyone is Kind of A Black Sheep

I have experienced that myself. “If you ever got caught of it, it’ll never let go of you again.” – “Oh yes, absolutely.” – “It’s so infectious and growing inside of you.” – “Oh yeah, that is true. And if you say to a friend I listen to this and also if you tell somebody how people who listen to this kind of music, how it’s more of a brotherhood than just a group of separate fans, that everybody knows each other and that everyone is kind of a black sheep in the family, and they can find each other somehow in this music scene, it’s great. It’s great to be part of it.” I could not agree more.

We speak of the loyalty of the audience over many years if not decades. Actually we speak of another band than VUUR that moment. VUUR is a new band. But later during the show I experience the very same loyalty among Anneke’s fans and that of her former bands, The Gathering and The Gentle Storm.

We change the topic to something totally different. Anneke is clearly the band leader but not every person in a team or band leading position is really happy and confident with this task. How about her? “Yeah, I am not like a born leader. But I do have a lot of ideas. So that’s why I started this band. So automatically I am the leader. Or the one with most ideas. Or the one who tells everybody what to do. But I don’t see myself as a born leader. No, I don’t”, she repeats contextually as if her thoughts needed more confirmation. “My husband is also my manager and he does the production and the logistics. So he is the thinker and I am a doer. And I have a lot of ideas and so we do this together. So I really get a lot of advice from him on how to cope with the whole business. End of it, you know. And just how to be good at it – hm, how do you say? To keep a bet rolling really. And I love each and every one in the band, you know. So I my passion in this is not to let it break up. My passion is to make such good things so that we stay together. So that we can build from him. Because we started from nothing. We started with my ideas like ‘I wanna make a heavy album’. And these guys were perfect. So I asked them. And we didn’t have the sound. We didn’t have  …. like I was the only one with an idea. So they had just kind of follow blindly what I was having in my mind and then this comes out: this album which is great.” A very excited “Defintely!” slips my tongue. I blush a bit and Anneke laughs, we both do, actually. “Now”, Anneke continues, “now, we have a platform. And now we can build even more. We can build even more, we can go even more on together.”

“So your part was the inspiring as well as the integrative?” – “Yeah!”— “Ok. That’s a big task.” – “Yeah, I mean you put it well, your words. You say in two words what I try to explain in one and a half minutes. Yes, yes, yes.” I laugh a bit a hiding. “I know band leaders, you know of the bigger bands of our genre, who really talk in business mouth. No?” she waits for me to nod.  “And really, they have big bands. They do something right which is really fantastic. But I like … I’m not a person like that. I am very much on intuition.”

If We All Shine Together …

“That’s what I find very interesting”. I explain that despite one could group bands by their approximate structure, such as those with a strong mastermind and leader and others in a more basic democratic structure – in the end each band has its own dynamic and way of functioning. Not two do work the same way. In the neighbouring room someone has begun playing a slow and sad tune on the piano. Some bands have motif that works as integrating factor uniting the musicians to an aim, for example. “Does the VUUR have such a motif?”– “I really try to motivate everybody to do what they do best. So if I try to make the drummer sing good that wouldn’t be smart because the drummer is really good in drumming and in a certain style of drumming. So obviously you try to broaden your skills and try to deepen your skills. But they are all such good players, and I want to make them shine like in the best possible ways. And then if we all shine together I think we have some kind of a super group here, you know. Because they feel comfortable with me because they know how much I respect them and I love them. So the feel free to do the best that I can do. And otherwise I’d say you should all do this because that’s what I want or that’s whatever than they wouldn’t be completely themselves. And I think all these characters are so different and I think if you let them the best that they can be, and we put that together on a stage I think you have the best band in the world.”

I smile and add: “And the best leading approach by the way, at least in my experience from many supervisors, team leaders etc. in my day jobs. Those who took the greatest effort to make their team happy and motivated turned out to be the most successful in the end.” Anneke confirms several times and says: “And also if everyone gets proud of themselves and then they will open up. “ – “And develop a little more” –  “ Yeah” – “Get braver to try more and achieve more.” – “Yeah, exactly.”

He is A Good Translator of His Feelings

Anneke van Giersbergen

I have one more retrospective question. It is not a very innovative one but still interesting: What would Anneke recommend a new band of really young musicians for their future? “I am a bit shy like people ask me for advice. But what works – I think – is to be yourself also as a singer but also a band. Maybe what we talked about, getting out everybody’s character, show what you’re best at, and then go with that, because we all have our role models, yes? Singers we love the most and we look up to. And if we try to sing like Kate Bush or whoever, there is already Kate Bush. And she is on top of the world. So you’ll never get there or top her. So you should find your own voice, your own sound as a band. And therefore will you be unique. The best songs of the biggest singers in the world, aren’t really singers at all, like Neil Young. Or Bob Dylan. They’re like [and she imitates them a bit] and still they’re huge. Why? Because he is completely himself. This character. His lyrics. The way he looks at the world. The way he speaks. That makes him big. If he would say or sing like anybody else, he wouldn’t be going anywhere. But he is so himself – in case of Bob Dylan, it’s a good example, ‘cause he is so not a singer – but then he is such a good singer because he is a good translator of his feelings. No? And you should find your heart. And find your soul. Oh that’s not a top three, sorry.  That’s one big answer”, Anneke ends in laughing. “So find your own character. Yeah.”

I come to my favourite question. “What is metal to you?” And this is a question Anneke never had before. She explains me that in the end it is a lot more about the people, whom she call the brotherhood than anything else. She says that people in the Netherlands avoid speaking of difficult topics but the metal community does speak of it so that it adds depths to the life (read her full reply and check out “What is metal?”) I have experienced that, the open arms from all sides … And she continues: “But people like in our interview right now is way more in-depth than an interview with the newspaper or … and you know that is the best thing. Now we talk about something and we learn from each other. And we walk away with new inspiration.” – “Many” – “Yeah, that’s great.”

Time for my odd question. And it is about where would you go if a giant bird, like Roc from the Arabian Nights’ tales could bring you wherever you want – independent of time and space.  “I would go to the heaven, or cosmos or how you wanna call it where the people are who are dead to see if they are happy and then come back. And then I had the answer. And then when I die I would go there and know that it’s good.” – “Because you know what is to be come from there?!” – “Because I read a lot of that stuff. And I firmly believe in afterlife. And I think it’s good. I read also about the lights and something wonderful. And I know that we don’t have bodies just souls. Or angels or what. I am just so curious. So I would like to take a sneak peek and come back.” I tell her about the Megaherz song “Von Oben” and that her idea of a sneak peek reminds on checking out if this is true. “And see my grandmother”; Anneke says, “Oh I’ll check this out, this song. Is in German language?” – “It is.” – “German is a beautiful language. You can say so much in German. Maybe it sounds sometimes harsh.” – “It does” – “Especially if you’re in Ramstein.” We both laugh. “But it’s very poetic language.” To me this depends on many things but I agree that it can sound poetic. …

I exceeded my slot and so I hurry away to not steal even more time from the next one waiting already. So after show I wait for her near the merch – amidst the army of her mostly male fans. Anneke takes all the time it takes to take photos, sign covers and whatnot, accept presents and listen to stories. With adorable patience she remains even quiet when this one overexcited fan fails to respect her wish – well readable in her face – for more spatial distance.

My aim was no more as to say my thanks for the amazing conversation and a dear good bye wishing all the best for the remaining shows. But Anneke would not let me go without a sound and heart-warming hug. The brotherhood of metal – it works among the sisters just as good!

Photos: Ms Cesar Little. More

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I want to make them shine – Anneke van Giersbergen (interview)

About The Author
- "It has always been this way!" - I heard this phrase too often and it became the best reason for me to make it (whatever it is) my own way.

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