The swirling, steely songs on Amber Arcades' dazzling debut 'Fading Lines' are the work of Annelotte De Graaf, a woman inspired by "time, continuity, coincidence and magic," as well as early-morning jetlag (on 'Turning Light') and an artist's plans for a utopian city ('Constant's Dream'). That may all sound pretty dreamy, and these songs do have wonderful ethereal qualities, but De Graaf's dreams are not the whimsical kind. De Graaf's dreams have led to her working as a legal aide on UN war crime tribunals, to inviting skint strangers to share her Utrecht squat, and to spending her life savings on a flight to New York because that's where she wanted to record her first album.
"I made a list of five producers -- I went on Discogs and looked at records I liked and who had produced them, and I made the list and I emailed them with the demos I'd made at home in Garageband," she says. And that's how she found producer Ben Greenberg. "It was kind of scary, because he was definitely the odd one out, looking at the stuff he'd done. The others were more mainstream, and Ben was the weird one who'd produced all this hardcore punk shit. That's also what I thought would make it interesting."
Greenberg has worked with Destruction Unit and The Men -- bands who play punk, skronky jazz, experimental guitar noise and raucous pop -- but he'd never worked with a Dutch artist whose only previous release was an EP of melancholic folk ballads.
"With the songs I write, it could easily have been a very different record," says Annelotte. "One other producer I was talking to was a really West Coast guy, he'd worked with Best Coast, that was kind of his vibe. It would be interesting to compare this 'Fading Lines' with the record it could've been. It would have been very different."
Annelotte and Ben worked with Shane Butler and Keven Lareau of Quilt on guitar and bass, and Jackson Pollis of Real Estate on drums (plus Meg Duffy playing slide guitar on the eerie, clip-clopping 'Apophenia') at Strange Weather recording studio in Greenpoint. They listened to "a lot of Suicide, a lot of Broadcast, Stereolab, Yo La Tengo, The Gun Club..." and worked on the songs that Annelotte had written at home in Utrecht.
"Once I was in New York everything came together so beautifully, with the whole team, the producer and the band. It was a magical time being there, recording. And it feels pretty magical to have finished the album. I always wanted to do it but it was an abstract thing in my mind. Going to record in New York was this wild plan I had -- it never really occurred to me that it would happen until I sat on the plane. I had this money in my savings account and I thought, I'm going to make an album. I'd been talking about it for so long. Then I was making these plans and talking to Ben and it felt surreal. Until I was there and then it was just super magical."
Annelotte's musical ambitions began tentatively, when she was 12 and living with her family in a commune. Her mum told her to "pick an instrument" and she chose guitar, but she wasn't impressed with the "classical stuff" she played in her lessons. "I didn't practice much, but then much later I got interested in playing again, just for myself. It started when I was on exchange at college in Philadelphia. I bought a mandolin because my guitar was too big to take with me, and I met a bunch of punk kids there who were playing bluegrass, just on the street and in the park. I joined them, even though I could only play two chords at that point. With bluegrass you only need two chords, so it was perfect."
That exchange year was part of her law degree -- Annelotte studied human rights and international criminal law at undergraduate level, but then moved to specialise in copyright law for her master's. "The problems are so big when you're working in human rights," she says now. "I did an internship at the UN tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. I was part of the team of judges as a legal aide, and you spend hours and hours in meetings discussing one word in the judgement. Meanwhile, the country is still a mess. I didn't feel like I was making a positive contribution. But actually right now I'm working in immigration law, working with people leaving Syria, so I'm back to human rights again." Of course, a new album and a summer of touring might make that work even more difficult: "It's been okay so far, but if the music takes off I'll have to take a break from law for a couple of years."
Right from woozy, soaring opener 'Come With Me,' this album invites endless interpretations -- or simply emotional and physical reactions of joy, loss, acceptance and "the billions of different views there are to this life and whatever we're doing here." "I just let it happen," says Annelotte. "When I start writing a song, I have a sentence that comes up in my head, a particular line, and I build around that. It's in the moment."
One track on 'Fading Lines' has a more concrete inspiration: 'Constant's Dream' is about 20th-century Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys. "He designed a whole city as an art project," says Annelotte. "He had this idea that machines would do most of our work and provide our basic needs, so humans wouldn't have to work anymore and we could evolve into a new form. He called it Homo Ludens -- 'the playing human.' He painted this idealistic future where we could roam around and be gay and be merry, but I find it quite depressing. Would that make us happy, being free to do whatever we want? I need a function, I need to be useful to others, in order to get joy out of life."
One of the last songs to be completed was the jetlag-infused, swirling single 'Turning Light.' "I had the melody before I came to New York but I didn't have enough time to work it out properly so I'd written it off. Then I got to the studio really early one morning and Keven was there. He was playing this bassline -- dunu-dunu-dunu-dunu -- and I thought, this might work, let's try it. We jammed a bit and recorded what we had, then Ben arrived and built the whole vibe around it with the synthesizers and the effects on the guitar."
The story of how Amber Arcades came to be signed to Heavenly is another tale of Annelotte making friends out of strangers, and working to make her dreams into reality. "My favourite festival is Le Guess Who?, in Utrecht, and about three years ago they started a couch-surfing project. They posted on Facebook looking for anyone local who wanted to host people coming to the festival and I was living in a big squat at the time, so I said yes -- and that's how I met Karolina. She came over from Poland and stayed in my room, and since then she's been coming to the festival every year and staying with me. She started working at Heavenly last year and told me it was a supercool label and I should check them out. They put out so many bands that I love -- King Gizzard, Temples, Drinks -- so I sent the record to them when we'd finished and said, 'I think this is something you might be into.' And they were."