This innate desire for justice is what drove her to study law and to her role at the Netherlands’ department of immigration as a specialist in family reunification. “To go through someone's asylum procedure and read what they have been through is really intense.” For a time she was solely reviewing Syrian cases but now she works on applications from multiple nations, including a significant number of Eritreans. The job requires her to learn as much as possible about each applicant’s culture in order to be able to make fair judgments. “In Eritrea, people are not used to being able to speak openly as apparently anyone, even your brother, could be a government informer. Therefore they might come off as reluctant to talk which can be mistakenly be interpreted as a sign of untruthfulness or a lack of cooperation,” she says. “Initially, I found it difficult to recognise cultural differences for what they are — for example, Eritreans often don't even know their own birthday, let alone that of their partner or children, so it makes you question their story. But it's just a different way of thinking; precise dates don't have a lot of meaning to them. It’s crucial to keep cultural context in mind.”
Yet despite potential confusion and emotional discomfiture she loves the work. “Of course it's nicer to be able to grant an application than to have to refuse it, but at least that’s also a decision given, which is security in a sense. And that’s fulfilling.” The nature of the process also stands at a marked contrast to her previous role as a lawyer at United Nations tribunals, “Those problems are so massive that they felt overwhelming. With major human rights issues it's hard to see where to begin or what your part could be in solving them. I like my job now as it's focused, there's just this one person and their family, and you decide on that, which is very manageable.”
The feeling of overwhelm when looking at the state of the world is increasingly common as conflicts and disasters proliferate at horrifying pace. The need to recognise people displaced en masse by these devastating situations as individuals is paramount. De Graaf is all too aware for the need to avoid an “us and them” mentality when trying to provide any meaningful assistance to the problems. “The biggest challenge for creating a peaceful multicultural society is a fear of people who we see as ’different‘. A lot of fear of refugees comes from people having these abstract ideas of what kind of people they are, without ever having spoken to one,” she says. “It's up to us to see each other as human beings and practice empathy. It's up the media to not feed feelings of fear that can arise. And it's up to governments to realise that these refugees are a symptom of the state of unrest a large part of the world is currently in and that refusing to accept them, or sending them back, will do nothing to solve the bigger crises in the long run.” She’s also adamant that all of us should put our energy into manifesting a peaceful society. “I don't think we can rely on institutions to create that. We create our own society. I know that sounds totally cheesy, but it's true!”
Delving into others’ lives professionally also provides illuminating personal insights. “It’s pretty eye-opening and also inspiring to see how [Eritreans] approach concepts such as marriage.” Roughly 90 per cent of weddings are arranged, and the couple usually doesn’t cohabit beyond an initial honeymoon period of about two months, before separating to live with their own families once more until they’ve saved enough to buy a home. “It makes it harder to determine if there is a family relationship because we look at it through a Western lens, but there, if you're wife and husband, you’re just going to spend the rest of your lives together. Like — this is your partner, deal with it. And I guess that can offer peace. Here we're always looking for the perfect person and it’s hard to be happy with what you've got when you're always on the look-out for someone better; while there they seem very peaceful with how things are.”
Annelotte says her music isn’t an escape from her work but you have to wonder if the daily exposure to such heart rendering stories isn’t the inspiration behind her busy schedule. A subconscious drive to make the most of her life whilst she can; to pack her schedule with tours and gigs. You’d be forgiven for thinking her music outlet might be a low-key side project of gigs in local bars, however you’d be wrong. Recently signed to Heavenly Recordings, Annelotte’s debut album was released to critical acclaim.
Exemplifying a refreshing mind-set where there’s no such thing as one xed career, Anelotte de Graaf navigates between the worlds of immigration law, music and organic farming on a daily basis. Her skill as a musician is evident on her mesmerising debut record as Amber Arcades, while her legal work provides an intriguing insight into foreign cultures and attempts to bring us all a little closer together.
What defines a life well lived? Fortune or fulfilment? Stability or success? Should we push for these things or leave them largely to fate? These are questions usually left to simmer beneath the rush of the day-to-day. Yet when speaking to Annelotte de Graaf, a human rights lawyer, musician and co-founder of an organic farming organisation, it’s impossible to ignore the existential. “What does it mean to have a good life? Is there even such a thing?” she says while discussing her song Fading Lines, also the title of her debut, which was inspired by her late grandfather. “He was a farmer then, when it got too costly, he became a factory worker and after he retired he went on some nice journeys. His life wasn't spectacular but it was a good life. And it made me question why do I have urges to do all of these things with my life?” So, just how did De Graaf wind up juggling festival appearances, immigration law and organic farming?
The easy assumption would be that she was forced down a “sensible” career path by overbearing parents while secretly hankering after an artistic existence, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. De Graaf was raised mostly within communal residences in her current hometown of Utrecht. “My parents were total hippies,” she says. “They instilled this sense of magic realism in me, but at the same time I'm very cynical, so it's a weird combination. And especially with my job; it’s hard to be convinced by the power of positive thinking when you see so much shit going on in the world.” This openness to the esoteric while not disregarding reality is a large part of what makes her so engaging. Another factor is her straight-up altruism. “Music is the only art form that has a direct impact on my emotional state. I really like the creative process and playing live, but I don't have any illusions that it’s making the world a better place so, for me, it feels selfish. I guess, I've always had this inner voice that wants to fight injustice,” she says, without a hint of pretension.
She started making writing songs whilst living in Philadelphia on a college exchange programme, “I just wanted to give it a try to see what it was like and it turned out I really liked doing it.” And as evidenced by her first record, she also turned out to be a natural. Her album roams the emotional spectrum exploring elation, peacefulness and melancholy all at once. It brims with brilliant, expansive guitar-driven pop songs. Inspirations for tracks came from all directions, the personal and ordinary blending with the metaphysical. Lyrics were mostly written as streams of consciousness, which transpired in curious song titles, such as Apophenia, after the human tendency to look for patterns in random data. “It’s something I do a lot, I guess you could say I’m a seeker,” she says. As well as cerebral treats, the LP also exudes that addictive quality that leads to endless repeat plays.
She picked up a violin as a child at her mother’s behest, before switching it for the more “badass” guitar as she was older. “By the time I started playing in bands at 21, I thought I'd missed the boat. There were all these people my age putting out records and I was just playing four chords on my mandolin, like, ‘What am I doing? I'll never be at the level I need to be.’ Then I thought, ‘Whatever, I'll just do it anyway and see what happens’.” Which sounds more laissez-faire than is perhaps the case, as De Graaf is a self-professed perfectionist, albeit a generous one — “I'm also happy to leave a lot of freedom for people that I work with.”
She recorded with producer Ben Greenberg of acclaimed punk rock band, The Men, who she selected for his contrasting sonic identity as a producer of punk, rock and hardcore. Before recording she prepared between 20 and 30 references for each nascent track. Up to that point, Amber Arcades’ sound had dwelled on the folkier side of pop, and she didn’t have the faintest idea what the collaboration would produce. Her references were the first thing to go. “Ben said: ‘We have to find your own style.’ So we tried all these different things and the record turned out unlike anything I would ever have expected, but I feel this was the only way it should have turned out.” The band, which includes Real Estate’s drummer, Jackson Pollis and Quilt members Shane Butler and Keven Lareau on guitar and bass respectively, convened serendipitously. “At that time, I definitely thought, ‘I’m really supposed to be in New York with these people, working on this record.’ Everything came together beautifully.”
So beautifully in fact that De Graaf’s summer will be spent juggling live shows with immigration work, as well as her role as a founder of the Dutch branch of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). The role was inadvertently borne of her desire to work out what makes for a good life. Attracted to the idea of setting up a farmstead in her later years, she wanted to find out if this was a romanticised notion or a real possibility. So, after finishing her degree, she set off for a fortnight on an organic farm run by deaf people in Sweden. “It was really nice and inspiring,” she says. “Then when I came back to the Netherlands, I realised there wasn't a Dutch WWOOF and as I had some free time, I thought, ‘Well I can just set it up, that will be cool.’ I found out that other people were doing the same thing so we decided to combine forces and make it into one organisation.” Right now, as music makes more demands on her schedule, she expends a little less energy on WWOOF but still attends meetings and is involved in legal work to enable Dutch farmers to accept volunteers without potential repercussions from inflexible laws. And on that note, a final question: “Do you sleep?” The response: “Not much. I should sleep more!”
Words by Suze Olbrich
Photography by Valentina Vos