Anneke van Giersbergen – Breaking through the DarkSunday, 21st February 2021
A well-established veteran in the scene due to her work with bands like The Gathering and most recently VUUR, Anneke van Giersbergen has a rich history at this point with solo albums and even guest appearances with other acts in the metal community (Devin Townsend, Amorphis, etc). Her honest nature and way that she genuinely expresses her thoughts into music is surely one reason that many people have followed her along the way, and as such, will get a thrill from her latest solo effort, The Darkest Skies are the Brightest. An intimate, acoustic-driven release written about some problems she encountered a few years back, both personally and professionally. We chatted with her to get some further insight on the poignant release and some of its meanings to her, as well as learning experiences, the pandemic, and much more.
Dead Rhetoric: What does the title mean to you, The Darkest Skies are the Brightest?
Anneke van Giersbergen: In life, we have so many things that are challenges. We have to go through them rather than trying to avoid the difficult things in our lives – our issues and so forth. We have to go through a little bit of darkness to get to the light. To gain some wisdom, to gain perspective, to gain a little inner peace. Therefore, the darkest skies are the lightest, they bring you growth in your life. It’s another way of saying that every cloud has a silver lining.
Dead Rhetoric: The album is deeply personal – what do you hope a listener gains from hearing it?
van Giersbergen: Perhaps just the universal feeling and belief that everything we do has a purpose. A big thing in all of our lives is to find love and meaning. I try to put a bit of balance into the songs and the album, because it came out of a sad situation but on the other hand, if we go through what we have to go through, life will get better. There’s also a lot of hope in this album. All of it is universal – everyone goes through the same things. I was a little reluctant to talk about it, because in the end of the process of writing and recording the album, we came into this whole pandemic situation. So I was thinking, “Now that the world is on fire, my little things may be futile.” But a lot of people are just going through the same things. So I decided to talk about it a little bit and share all of these things – we can all go through it together.
Dead Rhetoric: When the pandemic hit and you view your own issues as being smaller, I think people still need to see those smaller things because sometimes it’s impossible to see that big picture because you are too focused on what’s happening within.
van Giersbergen: I totally agree. With the pandemic and this global situation we are in, it’s still something we can take into our own lives and see how we will deal with it. Will we get angry? Will we start hating each other? Will we ignore it? Or will we go through it? Will we help ourselves and the community and at least try? I think in any situation, especially this global situation, we can always choose the dark path or the light path. I’m always for the light path.
Dead Rhetoric: So it’s important that the material has that positive outlook?
van Giersbergen: Yeah, it stems from something sad – my relationship wasn’t going well and things in the band, VUUR, were very tricky and difficult. Yet, as they say, you put your shoulders underneath you and carry it.
Dead Rhetoric: How did you come up with the idea of tying in kintsugi to the album?
van Giersbergen: I read about it a while ago, and it’s this philosophy which kind of goes towards the same thing. If something is broken and put back together again, it’s actually more interesting. You have a vase and it’s perfect but it falls down. You put it back together – there’s so much effort in putting something back together. The Japanese say that if you put something back together and you use this glue – gold or silver – then it’s even more beautiful, and the emphasis will be on the cracks in the vase instead of the vase itself. I think that’s so beautiful. This vase has had a life – it’s interesting. It has fallen down and it now it’s back together again. It’s the same with human bodies. If you have a scar – I always think, “Ohhh, this guy has lived!” He had an operation, or he was in a war, or in an accident. It’s way more interesting than being perfect.
Dead Rhetoric: What makes acoustic the best choice for a release like this?
van Giersbergen: I suppose it was just the thing that was coming out of me. I was actually in the process of creating a new album for VUUR, so I was trying to write heavy metal songs but everything that came out of me was soft and melancholic – from the acoustic guitar or piano. I tried to turn that into metal songs, thinking it would be fine if I just put a metal riff under it. But it wasn’t! It was just a natural way of the songs coming out of me. I suppose I had to make this album first – also in a therapeutic/cathartic way at the time. It just asked for soft, quiet songs.
Dead Rhetoric: You also did the acoustic tour with Amorphis and Delain over here in the US not too long ago – what were your thoughts on playing that quiet and intimate performance before heavier acts?
van Giersbergen: I’ve been doing solo/acoustic performances for a long time. In metal environments, like festivals or venues – these shows are my own, in front of a metal crowd that’s following me within the scene. It’s never a problem, because metal and prog-oriented audiences are very open-minded. As long as you are serious about the music and songs, and you deliver a quality performance, they are interested because you are so into the music…and they are too. In front of the metal and prog crowd, I am so creativity free. I can do a metal show, but I can even sing Dolly Parton songs in front of a metal crowd – it’s fun and they love it because it’s a good song. It’s fantastic to be in this scene, with these crowds.
Dead Rhetoric: I think that goes back to what you were saying before in trying to put a metal riff over some of these songs and having it not feel right. Being able to be in tune with that honesty allows people like yourself to do different things like this, without people questioning the idea of it.
van Giersbergen: Absolutely, and I think an audience, and especially a serious audience like we have in our scene – you cannot fool them. They are not stupid. If I had done something like that, because it was the plan and we have to go through with it since it is what I promised, I would make an album that is not 100% honest or 100% pure. People would hear that and it would fail anyway. I have no choice but to follow my gut and make the best choice I can make in that moment. For the most part, the audience is totally with me, and that’s great!
Dead Rhetoric: When it comes to go out and playing live, which is somewhat strange to talk about right now, is there a difference in the way that you approach going out and do a big metal show versus an acoustic one?
van Giersbergen: I think so. Both approaches are great, and that’s why I love to go in waves. To do heavy shows with a band and do solo shows. Solo shows are more intimate and I’m closer to the audience. I can tell stories and things – it’s way more intimate and personal. I love that vibe. On the other stuff, when you play a heavy show and there’s a big crowd and a big stage, there’s this great energy that I love. You can move around on stage, you can dance and sing loud – I love that equally. I love doing both sides of this. I’m very eager to play live again, since we haven’t had the chance. So I’ll be like a young puppy dog going out on stage when we are allowed to. In the meantime, I’m singing and practicing my guitar. I’ll be ready when we are allowed to go out again.
Dead Rhetoric: Did COVID-19 give you some time to slow down on some things? Has it made you look at some things that you do differently?
van Giersbergen: It did. I hear this from a lot of people, but for me too – the pandemic forced me to be in one place. To be quiet, and to think things over. What we talked about, with me doing various projects at the same time. I was already trying to do less things at the same time, but now, for sure I have found out that if you really focus on one thing – this album for instance, or a show you are doing in the future – if you put all of your time into that, the album becomes better. It becomes even more personal and of who I am, than if you are doing several projects at the same time. But I did that because I love it so much.
Again, my puppy dog mentality is to do everything at the same time because I love it, but at the same time, it also makes things very tricky. Also, in terms of energy, I have been tired for 25 years [laughs]. This was the first time I was home and going to be at a normal time in like 20 years. I didn’t even remember what my body felt like [laughs]! From that perspective, I find there’s a lot of positivity in the situation we are in. So I took the time to think about those things.
Dead Rhetoric: That was a nice learning opportunity – is there anything else that you feel that you have picked up along the way in being a musician?
van Giersbergen: If you write songs all the time, and you play live – you can’t escape who you are. If you write about your life, and you perform in front of an audience, and they shoot their opinion/emotion/energy back at you, there’s no escaping who you are. You are forced to learn about yourself. If you are insecure in any way at all, you have to learn how to deal with that, because you are doing this for a living. You learn a lot when you do this I find. In 25 years – I was a child when I started in The Gathering. Now I’m a mom and have a family and a solo career. Things change so much, you have to kind of keep up, maybe even more so than with another line of work, in my case anyway.
Dead Rhetoric: With what you said earlier, are you doing anything currently for VUUR or your other projects at the moment?
van Giersbergen: Not really, no. I did focus on the album and I’m focusing on shows for when they are about to start again. I have some things for the future, but not necessarily all set in stone. But I’m also writing songs too. We are at home with the lockdown, so I think maybe I’ll spend some time writing for some future plans.
Dead Rhetoric: Any musical goals or dreams that you haven’t reached yet?
van Giersbergen: You know, maybe it sounds strange, but not really. I’m just really happy in general with where I am with what I am doing with my career, and with whom, and so on. There’s always things like, “Oh yeah, I would love to sing with Mikael Akerfeldt once in my lifetime” – there’s little wishes like that. To be honest, I make a living singing, the thing I love most in the world. I am always growing a little bit – slowly but surely. People come to shows and they are interested when I make an album. For me, that’s sheer happiness. I have my family – I never have big goals like having a huge audience or practical stuff like that. I don’t hunt for it, I am happy where I am.
Dead Rhetoric: That works too – that sort of thing keeps people grounded instead of trying to reach heights and not being happy in the present.
van Giersbergen: If you get older in the scene, there are bound to be young bands, with younger singers and who invent new ways of singing or playing things in the scene. The pit to fall in could be that you are older and you have to stay young. You feel you have to do what they are doing to stay relevant. I know there’s a danger in going about it that way. I try to stay away from that and stay honest with myself and my music. I hope that there will always be a certain amount of people who will follow me around, because it’s exactly that…I can’t be younger [laughs] or better than what I am. I am who I am.
Dead Rhetoric: The album comes out at the end of the month. What else is planned for this year?
van Giersbergen: I am planning and working on something online-ish around the release of the album. Something beautiful to go online with. Other than that, I will continue playing my set and rehearsing until I can go out and play. I hope we can do something live in the summer – something outdoors. But proper touring and traveling, and traveling to the US – that will be 2022. But there are tours, in pencil, in the agenda. We are looking forward so if we get the green light, I will be out there in a minute.