In the context of COSMOS, the hybrid stage of Le Guess Who?, Front recorded two live sessions in the historic Marnixzaal. Anna van Rij was the first to play a few songs in the hidden gem on Utrecht’s Domplein. In conversation, the singer of The Visual talks about the personal development that formed the basis of second album The Spirit of Age and her solo material: “If I long for something, I must dare to long.”
Written by: Dirk Baart
Anna van Rij has been living in Antwerp for about three years now. Her accent has softened, and so has her outlook on life. “Antwerp is not that far away from The Netherlands, but it is a different environment with a different culture,” she says over the phone, a few weeks after the recording of her live session in Utrecht. “Belgium is simply not the same as The Netherlands. I have found an atmosphere here that I longed for in The Netherlands, but which I could never find. I think people in The Netherlands are often inclined to say: 'I dream of this, but it doesn't exist. So I'll just stay here in Amsterdam. I know it here and it's fine this way.' You can do that, but I can’t. Of course I have to make a living, but that can be done in many ways. The Dutch are often sober and practical. When you come up with an idea, the Dutch want to know what the goal is and what the outcome will be. You just can't always know. I have the feeling that there’s less emphasis on that here.”
Van Rij will be the first to acknowledge that her loving bond with our southern neighbours came about with a bit of luck. But hey, isn't that the case with every relationship? The fact is that after her conservatory studies in Amsterdam, Van Rij ended up in a nineteenth-century art nouveau building in Antwerp, where she went to live with six other artists, including former classmate Pitou. She chuckles, almost embarrassed, as she describes how big it was. There were fifteen rooms, not counting the living room and kitchen. Each and every one of them large spaces with wooden floors and high ceilings. A gigantic garden for which the word 'idyllic' seemed to have been invented. In addition to a bedroom, each resident had a studio or office. One of them regularly organized salons where emerging bands or jazz ensembles showed their skills to an audience of fifty to a hundred like-minded people. “I had never experienced anything like it, while somehow I felt that it existed. That inspires me enormously, also when it comes to music. If I long for something, I must dare to desire and dare to seek. It's probably out there somewhere, but maybe I'm just not in the right place yet. I have found many people here who dare to dream, but who can also combine it with reality. Of course you have to deal with the world you live in, but you can really shape it however you want.”
"I didn't feel the space yet to take my own place, but I feel it much more now."
The sense of malleability is indeed reflected in the development of The Visual, the formation with which Van Rij has been making dreamy pop noir, roughly between Beach House and Jeff Buckley, since 2017. It is only logical: although The Visual now act as a quartet, Van Rij remains the mastermind that writes the songs and determines the course. The group’s albums are therefore closely linked to the phase of life in which Van Rij finds herself. On brand new second album The Spirit of Age, Van Rij focuses on society and sings about her reflections on the current zeitgeist. On 'Waves', she sings about the people she hears on the street at night from her bedroom in the city center of Antwerp. Screaming and stumbling. Drunk and/or on drugs. “I wonder: is it really so cool to screw yourself up and not feel good at all? I think that's such a weird way of doing things. Of course I understand that people want to indulge themselves. I also like to party and dance. But sometimes I wonder if the way we treat ourselves from day to day is really that healthy. ‘Once’ is about the desire to escape that way of life. The longing for softness and connection.
The fact that Anna van Rij can worry about the state of the world and the people around her is actually somewhat of a problem of luxury. In the period around debut album Moments of Being, a bit darker in nature than its successor, she didn't get to that yet. “The Spirit of Age went from the outside in. What is happening around me and how do I see it? Moments of Being went much more from the inside out. How do I feel and what world do I live in? I had a lot of issues and ran into many things in society. I hadn't found a way to be completely okay with that myself and was looking for my own voice. I didn't feel the space yet to take my own place, but I feel it much more now. You can hear that difference in the two records.”
The difference between the outer and inner world also forms the difference between The Visual and the new musical outlet that Van Rij recently acquired. With the aptly titled 'Fall Into Place' she released a song under her own name for the first time last year. It is a drawn-out song of almost six minutes, acoustic in nature but as enchanting as a Bond soundtrack. Van Rij wrote, arranged and recorded the song entirely on her own. “I needed a project that didn’t put any pressure on me, where I could write without being too concerned with how a song comes across. In The Visual, I work from a vision and an ambition to reach stages of a certain size. For example, with a song like 'Wild Swan' I consciously started from a drum part and I deliberately increased the tempo, because I had never written such a song before. Under my own name I keep it a bit closer to myself and I can be a bit more free.”
The fact that Van Rij allows herself that type of freedom is a sign that she is not worried about The Visual. “A running business in which I see a lot of growth potential,” she calls the band, in a rare comment of business nature. And indeed, the development the band is going through is admirable. It is not necessarily rapid, but cautious yet determined. Little by little, The Visual grow into a band that can take on bigger stages on its own terms and is not afraid to think big. Besides Timon Persoon, a former schoolmate who has been Van Rij's partner in The Visual since the beginning, the band now consists of guitarist Django Trienes (a.o. la loye) and Christophe Claeys, the impressive former drummer of Balthazar and Mark Lanegan Band. But don't be surprised if The Visual suddenly appear with a string quartet in a next incarnation. “It's like a relationship with the band members, in which I am looking for a specific type of musician. Timon, Django and Christophe are hardworking people who take their profession very seriously. They are on time and lead a balanced life. They are professionals, but in addition to their projects, they are also interested in their instrument and its developments. You can have a drummer who plays drums well, or you can have a drummer who is also a real musician and still continues to learn. I think that suits The Visual, because I always keep asking myself a lot of questions about how I can renew myself. In my own way I have the will to grow in the field of songwriting, performance, vocals and guitar. You always have to keep challenging yourself.”
Cinematography: Peter Marcus, Yuma Eekman en Stan Wiersma
Recording: Fokke de Wit en Jasper Boogaard
Mix: Jasper Boogaard
Edit: Peter Marcus
Master: Jasper Boogaard
This live session was created thanks to Le Guess Who?.