In conversation: Amber Arcades

Annelotte De Graaf is one of your more interesting headline acts. Outside of recording and releasing her self funded debut record she helps with Syrian refugees get asylum in Europe. In the lead up to her Walled Garden headline slot at Green Man Festival with asked Amber Arcades (Annelotte's performing name) how she balances all that, and was it scary spending her life savings on a record.

Hey Annelotte, how’s your week?
Fine, thanks ☺

First up, can you tell us a bit about you. Your background. And how you first got into music?
I was born, raised and still live in Utrecht in the Netherlands. I studied law here, first (international) criminal law and human rights law and later I focused on copyright. I’ve been playing the guitar since I was like 13 but hated lessons then, I never practiced. I only started again a bit later when I was studying. When I went on exchange to Philadelphia for my law studies in 2010 I decided I wanted to do more with music so I bought a mandolin there and found some friends of friends who were just starting a blue-grass/punk band. I offered to join on backing vocals and mandolin and even though I could only play like 3 chords then they agreed. We started jamming in the basement of the banjo-player’s grandpa and busking on the streets. Sometimes we’d make like 200 dollars in two hours and then we would have BBQ parties at night. Back home I wanted to continue making music so I joined the backing band of a Dutch singer songwriter, also on mandolin and backing vocals. Later we started to write more together and formed an indie-folk duo. In 2012 started to write more on my own and decided to start releasing these songs under Amber Arcades.

What can you tell us about Fading Lines?
It’s a collection of songs I’ve written in a period of about two and a half years before the records’ release, although most were written in the six months right before the recording. There’s not a central theme to the record I’d say, that’s not really how I work… Every song is just about whatever was on my mind at the time I wrote it. Although I guess there are several themes which are on my mind quite a lot so you can find bits and pieces of that scattered through the songs. Those are themes like time, fulfilment, doing the things you want to do for yourself and or for others, people’s lives entangling and untangling again through the years, stuff like that.

What’s the one song on the album that showcases the record?
I’m gonna say the title track, 'Fading Lines'.

Tell me a bit about the experiences you went through to get to releasing your debut album.
I recorded it in New York with Ben Greenberg. Before that I had been making a plan for the recording for about 5 months, first researching different producers and deciding which one would be the best match. Then getting a backing band together and finishing songs, lyrics mostly. It was quite exciting to fly to NYC all by myself, quite scary too tbh. I was gonna spend all my life savings on this record and could only hope that it would turn out well. But I figured there was no other way to do it than to just do it fully and immerse myself in the experience and trust in the people I was working with. So I did and the recording process was pretty magical. Everyone in the team was fully dedicated and motivated to making the record the best it could be which was very moving. Then when I got home I started looking for a label. I e-mailed it to Heavenly and I guess they liked it, they came to see a show in Amsterdam and then they were on board.

What’s your approach to songwriting?
Like I said I don’t really approach it thematically. It’s very intuitive. Mostly it will start with a melody in my head. Then I will think of what guitar part would go well with that and bass part and sometimes even drum part and I sing it all into my phone. I try to make a demo out of it in Garageband but I don’t play drums or keys so it never becomes much to write home about, haha. Words always come last. By that time the melody will be pretty set and I’ve hummed along to the song a couple of 1000 times in my head already and some words will occur in certain parts and I kinda take it from there.

You’ve got a really serious job as well as your music, how do you balance the two?
It’s becoming increasingly difficult tbh. So far my job has been very flexible with allowing me to go touring and tours have been fairly short, like 2 weeks, so it’s easy to let one of my colleagues watch my cases. But I’m finding now that I have no free time left at all to work on new material so I think I might have to take a time out from work soon, to work on a new record.

Are there some stark contrasts between your work with refugees and some of the things (and people) you have to deal with in the music industry?
Obviously they are two very different “worlds” but I like that a lot actually. It keeps you checked into reality. One of the cool things about life imo is that there are millions of different words/scenes which all have their own important things/important people/codes of conduct/ways of communicating. When your whole FB timeline is filled to the brim every day with this or that new band or anticipated release it’s nice to know that there are other things out there to care about, too, like getting this Syrian family to the Netherlands.

Did you see spending your life savings on making a record a risk? Or was it an experience that you wanted, and whether it ever got released was irrelevant?
Yeah it was mad scary. I tried to approach it in a way so that, even if no one would be interested in the record and I would never get to tour with it, I would still be happy that I recorded it in the way I did and got the experience I wanted from that, making the record I really wanted to make. I did this by choosing very carefully which producer I wanted to work with, do everything on my own terms and travel to New York rather than have the producer come to the Netherlands. But if I’m being totally honest I think I would have been at least a bit disappointed if no one would have ever been interested in the record and it would just sit on my computer with no one listening to it. Although of course it’s always hard to tell if things are going well, there’s always a million bands going a lot faster and a million going way slower, so it’s always so relative… So I try not to compare.

How did you find the recording process? Enjoyable or painful?
It was great. Like I said, it was pretty scary beforehand to jump into it and spend so much money with no guarantee it would turn out in a good way. I had only talked to Ben like three times beforehand on Skype and I didn’t know Jackson at all. So sometimes it was hard to let go and just jump in and trust that everything would be alright but also that’s the only way to do it once you’ve decided that you’re gonna do it. But it luckily turned out that everyone was very willing to delve into this process with me, there were really good creative vibes all around. It was the first time for me to record in a proper studio with all this stuff and all these instruments so it felt like a playground almost, trying out a lot of different instruments and sounds, almost like a sonic puzzle.

You’re playing Green Man this weekend, and End Of The Road early next month, they’re two of my favourite festivals. What are you looking forward to most about Green Man?
I heard the nature there is very beautiful so I’m really excited to see that. Also the line-up is insane so I can’t wait to check out some bands I’ve been wanting to see. Also there’s some friends playing so hanging out will be fun. The weather is gonna be pretty horrible apparently so I’m not looking forward to sleeping in a tent but I’m bringing like 5 sweaters. Gonna look like a proper rocker on stage with my woollen socks, yeah.

What can people expect from your live shows?
Depends on a lot of stuff. Sometimes it’s more of a rock show and sometimes it’s more of a “vibing off and dreaming away” show.

Where’s the strangest place you’ve played live?
Nothing too crazy so far, just like in stores, on a boat, in basements other than normal venues/bars… With my garage-pop side project Boner Petit we’ve been wanting to do an album release show in a swimming pool though. That would be rad.

What’s the reality of touring for you, as someone without major label backing?
Oh it’s pure glamour, really. Sleeping on people’s floors, begging for a beer at the venue… Although it also depends on where we’re touring. In the EU it’s generally a better deal than in the UK tbh in terms of how venues take care of bands. And also now that we’re starting to do headline shows in the UK things are getting a little bit more comfortable too. The last times we actually got some beers and like carrots and crisps so you know, climbing up the ladder.

If you could only listen to one song this week, what would it be?
I’m really excited to see Cate Le Bon at Green Man and I haven’t really had time yet to check out her new record so it would be a song from her new record so I can sing along at the festival. Maybe “I’m a dirty attic”, that sounds like fun.

What’s the question we should have asked you today but haven’t?
“Would you like to sleep in a warm and comfy hotel on top a beautiful hill that we’ve arranged for you during Green Man?” And my answer would by “Why yes, if you insist.”

Finally, how do you take your coffee? (Or alcohol?)
I don’t drink coffee (caffeine isn’t my jam). I’m not a big consumer of alcohol either (bad at being a rock star innit) but I like a good glass of wine with my dinner occasionally.

Thanks so much for your time Annelotte. Enjoy the festivals, I’ll be there somewhere at Green Man and look forward to your set.

You can buy or stream Amber Arcades debut album now from all the usual places, or you can catch her live at the aforementioned festivals soon, or on a full UK tour in October. Full details are on her website.

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