The latest album from Anneke van Giersbergen is the solo acoustic effort The Darkest Skies Are The Brightest. I spoke with van Giersbergen about the inspiration for the album, recording in the midst of a pandemic, possible future albums from Vuur and The Gentle Storm and other topics.
Chad Bowar: It sounds like your new album was really born during a stressful and uncertain time for you and your family.
Anneke van Giersbergen: True. As life does, everything happened at the same time, in about a year or two years. There was so much going on that I had to at one point pull the brakes and clear my head. And from that process came this album, in short.
You wrote the songs in a little cabin. Was everything written before anybody else heard it or were others hearing it as you were writing the songs?
This album, I really wanted to write the songs on my own, at least the start of it. Make the demos, write the songs throughout. And then just only in the end of the process, I would ask Gijs Coolen, he’s my friend, guitar player and producer, to produce and finish the songs with me and produce the album. But initially I wrote all the songs myself. There was a bit of a surprise what came out of that because I didn’t think about anything. I just wrote and wrote and wrote, retreated to this little cabin near the woods and just wrote and recorded all the songs. For the first 10 songs. I didn’t dare to play them to anybody because I didn’t know if they were any good. I just knew that they were pure and honest, but that’s not necessarily the same as good. (laughs) But obviously I had to let people hear them. My husband, Gijs, they were all like, yeah, this is really great stuff to work on. So we did.
When it came to deciding on the arrangements, what led you in the direction of strings and horns as of the musical palette?
For some reason, a lot of songs when I wrote them, I could very soon in the process of a song hear violins or a trumpet solo that was needed for this particular song. It was all in my head. And then when we were in a later stage, when we were finishing songs, Gijs was thinking about the production and saying things about how this song needs percussion, or this needs one more instrument and so on. So then we worked together on the arrangements and everything. But I don’t know where it came from. There are some folky elements there and there’s some groovy elements there. And obviously I listen to all these kinds of music, but it never came out of me like that before.
At what point in the process did you come up with the album title The Darkest Skies Are The Brightest?
Quite soon. It’s actually a line from one of the songs and it captures the whole feeling of the process that I’ve went through and the feeling of the album. The fact is that we all have difficulties in our life. We all have to go through a little bit of darkness to get to the light, and to learn in our lives and to move forward, to learn and to become a little bit wiser and to gain a little bit of inner peace. You have to go through your challenges head on instead of trying to avoid them too much. So yeah, I thought that was a good line for the title.
Does this album feel like it might be one of the most personal that you’ve written?
Yeah, by far. And you’re right, everything I write is based on my life, my inspiration is me living my life. But this album is different because it was written in a certain period about a certain period. I wrote all the songs completely from my heart. There were no people who said, make this kind of album, or you have to go in this direction. So therefore it’s extremely personal.
Were you able to finish things up before the pandemic, or did you have to deal with that as you were putting things together?
The first lockdown period in March was when we were finishing writing and recording the album. Before that time I was in Gijs’ studio. But after that period, we just continued working online and calling each other and doing everything via email. And it’s that’s same thing you do with people when you work with somebody in the U.S. or abroad. I’d rather sit with him in the studio, but it wasn’t such a big deal to finish it. But I did go to the studio to record my vocals, and then we were at least six feet apart, doing things we had to do, but it was no problem, really.
You weren’t able to play live or do any touring over the past year. So how how have you been occupying your time?
I had a lot of touring plans in this period, so everything was removed from the schedule. So I had lots of time. In the beginning of the first lockdown, I was kind of taken aback. I didn’t understand what was going on. How long this is going to last and how does this make me feel? I was kind of paralyzed for a few weeks, which meant Netflixing, thinking, talking and making plans. But after that I did finish the album way sooner than expected because I didn’t have the tours in between. So I could keep myself occupied on a creative level, which made me feel good. And we’re still in lockdown and now I’m relearning the songs on the guitar, singing them so I will be ready and have a set list when we have the green light and we can go out again.
You’ve also been doing something that you call the homebound guest vocals project.
Yes. That was one of the ways to earn my living in the first lockdown periods. Every once in a while people ask me to sing on their album and usually I’m touring a lot, so I do one or two every year just because I like it so much and it’s something nice. So then I thought, I’m at home, I have time, I’m in need of a little bit of funds. And what if I make this project that I tell people I’m available and for a reduced price, you can hire me for your album to sing a song? And there was a lot of people because it was reduced rates. It was a lot of people who are non-professional, who were making songs or albums, that asked me to sing on their album. So for them was an opportunity. And for me, it was fun and it was great to keep singing, to be creative. So that worked out great. I got a lot of response. I eventually did like 12 of these songs, which I’m now collecting on Spotify as they’re coming out. It’s really fun to do.
A couple of years ago you did an acoustic theater tour. Is this album something that would fit well with kind of that atmosphere?
Yes, totally. That absolutely will fit in a theater. When I’m allowed to go out again to play, I will do some theater shows, but also in a club this works really well because my touring will predominantly be just me and the guitar. Especially in Holland, I do a lot of these theater seated shows. And I will probably do more of these throughout Europe and the rest of the world as well.
You said that one of the stressors that drove this album was the aftermath of the Vuur album and tour. Are you still moving forward with that after taking a little bit of a break?
Yeah, I suppose so. I came up with Vuur as the band name or project name to be able to release anything heavy or prog or rock under that moniker. So it is my baby and it’s there and we have this wonderful first album. But because it was a stretch and it was hard to keep it rolling and to keep this machine going, I had to take a break from it. It’s expensive and it takes a lot of time and effort to get a new name out there. But it is there. With all the stuff that was going on, I had to take a break and do this solo acoustic album. But in the future, when I do something heavy I’ll do it under the Vuur moniker with whoever I can work with, to write songs with different people from the scene or whatever.
Will there be another The Gentle Storm album with Arjen Lucassen?
Hopefully. Arjen and I talk about it sometimes when we speak, we always speak of that, to make a second album, because for both of us it was such a cool experience. But obviously the stars have to align because it’s a huge amount of work. It takes like a year out of everything to create such an album. Arjen just released his Ayreon album, and I’m doing this, so the stars do have to align for this, but we always have ideas when we talk about it.
Is there anything else that you’re currently working on?
Not really, because I just finished this album. However, I still have ideas for new songs, so while we are still at home and we can’t really go out and perform yet, I will maybe just continue writing new stuff for whenever, and focus on this album and the songs and the release. I’m working on something to release when we release the album to accompany it online, to stream.
(interview published February 26, 2021)