DATE OF INTERVIEW:
THE GENTLE STORM
12th March 2015
ANNEKE VAN GIERSBERGEN
I'm sure that many would proclaim the creative union of Dutch musical luminaries Anneke van Giersbergen and Arjen Lucassen is what prog dreams are made of. In one sense, it's perhaps always been inevitable that they would, one day, convene to collaborate on a project in its entirety, having already teased just what the combined artistry of an Anneke and Arjen pairing sounds like, with the former's ephemeral vocal contributions on a couple Ayreon albums. But a full-on collaboration? That's a whole different reason to get excited, and it's finally been reified under The Gentle Storm moniker with a double album titled 'The Diary'. It's no ordinary double disc affair too, as they decided to record the same suite of songs twice, offering up both 'Gentle' and 'Storm' versions of each composition; the former styled around multi-layered folk-edged prog, and the latter a heavied up, orchestral metal platter.
And it's an emotionally and exhilaratingly potent convergence. Of course it is, for Anneke's renowned for her affectively moving vocals, with an expressively wide range from emotionally alluring fragility to impassioned, rip-roaring intensity, as evidenced through thirteen years fronting The Gathering, a diverse and prolific seven-year solo career, and collaborations with the likes of Devin Townsend, Moonspell, Napalm Death et al. And Arjen has always been held in high esteem by his peers, ubiquitously regarded as a musical genius (even though he'll argue the contrary) through his various artistic exploits, be they his epically inclined, polyvocal rock/metal operas, now spanning eight albums, within the context of his longstanding Ayreon outlet, or Star One, Guilt Machine, Stream of Passion, etc.
Ahead of 'The Diary's release, Metal Discovery had a natter on the phone with Anneke about this most exciting of ventures - just how it came to be; the conceptual origins of its epistolary-based seventeenth century narrative; working with Arjen; dancing around Amsterdam in a big dress and wig; and a whole lot more besides...
METAL DISCOVERY: Hi Anneke, how you doing?
ANNEKE: Good. How are you?
(Anneke van Giersbergen on working with Arjen Lucassen)
"… he makes you feel very comfortable as a singer, and he lets you be creative and be free in what you do."
The Gentle Storm - promo shot
Interview by Mark Holmes
Photograph copyright © 2014 Tim Tronckoe
MD: Very well, thank you. I think this is the fourth interview we’ve done, actually.
ANNEKE: I think so.
MD: Yeah, the original one was back in 2008 at the Melkweg in Amsterdam when you did that James Bond song.
ANNEKE: Yes, indeed, didn’t you give me that album?
MD: Oh yeah, the Yoav one. Time flies, it doesn’t seem that long ago!
ANNEKE: I know, time flies like crazy!
MD: A belated happy birthday. I gather from your Facebook post that you spent the day playing records on a turntable that Rob bought you?
ANNEKE: [Laughs] Yes, I was so happy! And I got the new Mastodon on vinyl, as well; I played that. And, today, I played The Beatles for my son, so that’s just so cool.
MD: He likes The Beatles?
ANNEKE: He does. He got some songs in school and he discovered them, and I said, “I have an old Beatles record, so shall I play it?” And he really likes it, so that’s cool, yeah?
MD: So, The Gentle Storm, an amazing double album. Obviously, you’ve collaborated with Arjen before because you’ve contributed vocals to a couple of Ayreon albums, but this is the first time you’ve made an album together, so was it the very lovely experience you expected it to be?
ANNEKE: Actually, it was better than I expected, to be honest. Because I know Arjen is a great guy and he’s really, really great to work with - I know from experience and from his Ayreon albums. You know, he makes you feel very comfortable as a singer, and he lets you be creative and be free in what you do. So I knew that, but when we got in touch and said we should do something together… both of us really had the idea to make it a double album. So, really, just the two of us writing everything and writing the story because, of course, it’s a concept album… which, for me, is the first time to write such a massive concept album with the whole story. So the whole thing, coming up with the story, we did together and we inspired each other so much because we had lots of ideas. And, when we talked to each other about the ideas, immediately, the other one would have new ideas. So it went really fast. It was swiftly that we came up with the whole thing and, yeah, of course, we had to write and record it…
ANNEKE: Twice, yeah!
MD: So where did that idea come from? It’s quite a unique thing. I know that other bands have done a heavy album and then re-recorded acoustic versions of their songs, but you’ve done that simultaneously, which is quite an epic undertaking. So where did the idea come from to do the ‘Gentle’ and ‘Storm’ versions of each of the songs?
ANNEKE: Well, in the beginning, when Arjen was writing some new tracks, he’d only finished two songs or so, on the computer with just some string sounds, and he had inspiration but he didn’t know where to go with these songs. So he asked his audience, like, “what do you want to hear?” And, then, lots of people said, “I want a heavy album”, and lots of people said, “I want a folk album”. And then he immediately thought, “well, I’m gonna make both!” Then I, at that moment, emailed him about something random and I said: “You know what, actually, we should do something together.” And he said: “You know what, I’m working on something, see if you like it, and I’m gonna make a double album. Are you in?” And I said: “Oh yeah!”
ANNEKE: So, from really early on, we were together on this and, yeah, like I said, it became really quick that we had this great idea.
MD: I guess it’s like the saying, “the calm before the storm”…
MD: So having the ‘Gentle’ versions and then the ‘Storm’ versions, are in line with that saying, so is that the intended effect there?
ANNEKE: No, but I wish it was because it’s such a great thing to say!
MD: It could be a tagline for the adverts!
ANNEKE: Yeah, it’s perfect! That’s just so cool! But, no, the thing is, for some reason, a gentle album, or more soft-oriented album is usually a B-side to an album, or a re-recording, like you said. When we were making these albums, they were going simultaneously in writing and recording and, for some reason, the ‘Gentle’ album has forty instruments on it and the ‘Storm’ album has ten or so. So Arjen said: “This ‘Gentle’ album is so rich and just so not a B-side or something that goes along with the heavy album. It’s really, on its own, in its own right, a full blast album.” So he was very much of the idea of putting the ‘Gentle’ before the ‘Storm’ album, in this order, because he said, “then people have to take it seriously.”
That’s the reason why he was really keen on doing that, although people make up their own minds, anyway. Now, I see lots of people on the internet, saying: “Which album should I play first when I receive it in the mail?” And then people say: “Yeah, the ‘Storm’, because then, after that, you can relax with the ‘Gentle’.” And other people say: “Yeah, the other way around because you can get into it with the relaxed one and finish heavy.” It’s so cool that everybody has an opinion and questions and are curious. It’s super cool!
MD: Yeah, and it’s kind of interesting what you’re saying about the bigger instrumentations on the ‘Gentle’ one because I expected it to be a bit of acoustic guitar, a few strings and whatever…
MD: …but there are so many instruments on there that it’s so rich, if not richer, than the heavier versions.
MD: I think the two different versions of each song showcase the versatility of your voice really well - more of the fragility on ‘Gentle’, and rockier side of your voice on ‘Storm’ - so what offered the biggest challenge to record?
ANNEKE: I think, because in both traits, I love singing. I love singing loud and heavy stuff and long notes; I love the energy of it and I love singing it because I can express so much. And I love the soft stuff and the introvert stuff because it’s also a part of me and I also do that a lot in my career, both. But the really cool thing about this album and about these two approaches is that, really, it comes down to not singing per se, but performing because, although the lyrics are the same, the melodies are the same, even the tempo is the same, but the feeling of the song… if there’s a song about sadness, you can be sad in a very heavy, bombastic way, and you can be sad in a very introvert, soft, inward way.
And that’s what it came down to because, initially, we thought, “ohhh, we can use some vocals for both songs, like the choruses or whatever.” And then we got to singing and it was just so different in approach that we did everything twice, including the backgrounds, because it was not done to do the same kind vocals on these two very, very different approaches.
MD: Yeah, it’s interesting when you put it like that because, even though it’s the same songs and, interestingly, even the tracks lengths are more or less identical on each version, it actually feels like two different albums, which is quite odd seeing as it’s the same set of songs.
ANNEKE: Yeah, isn’t it?! I think so, and it keeps surprising us, actually, ourselves, because we had this idea, but you never know what comes out if you eventually work on it and it becomes a thing. And then it’s done and you think, “holy shit, we did it!”
ANNEKE: It’s so cool.
MD: The vocal melodies on there are incredible, so were those composed as part of the original music or did you develop those yourself when you started arranging your vocal parts?
ANNEKE: Well, they started out as Arjen’s main melody on his string-sound demos. He did a lot of stuff on these demos, like a lot of melody lines, and I picked out what I thought could be the main one. And, so, we kind of did it together but, I have to say, Arjen and his melodic fingerprint is just so amazing, so I really let Arjen also do the writing for the basic vocals, because I just always love what he does for vocal melodies on his Ayreon stuff; on everything. And, then, Arjen gives me lots and lots of freedom to do whatever I want with it. Obviously, when you write the lyrics, things change but, yeah, that’s how it went.
MD: So he wrote the melodies and you brought them to life with your lovely vocals, of course!
ANNEKE: Awww, thank you! [Laughs]