I have no fear. I have no fear.
"When I was a child, I toyed with dirt. I killed the slugs, I bored with a bough in their spiracle.” For almost 15 years, the exceptional Austrian artist SOAP&SKIN has been singing about death and pain, about nature and healing. Her voice pierces into us and cuts off our air, only to let us breathe better afterwards. The lyrics to “Spiracle” read differently when you know that 30-year-old Anja Plaschg grew up on a pig-fattening farm in a Styrian village with 200 inhabitants. A conversation about sugar-cube witches, talking trees, and how impressive and depressing rural life can be.
"I was always a black sheep."
Eva Holzinger: The Internet says you grew up in the small village of Poppendorf in southern Styria. That sounds like pure province.
Anja Plaschg: Actually, I’m from the neighboring village Katzendorf. It not only sounds much nicer than Poppendorf, it also fits better. We always had cats on the farm. In the heyday, there were 25 at once. Unfortunately, with about 200 inhabitants, Katzendorf is so small that it even vanishes off the Internet. I wanted to correct it on Wikipedia once, but someone changed it back to Poppendorf.
Did you have a good childhood?
I am quite grateful I could grow up like this, even if bad things happened. Country life and childhood on a farm can be wonderful. Everyone knows each other, everyone helps each other out. But I think my hometown is still something fascinating and inspiring for me today mainly because I left at a young age. The distance lets me dream. I don’t know how I would feel about it if I had stayed longer in Katzendorf.
"When I came home, there was often a dead pig in front of the door."
How can one imagine your everyday life back then on the pig-fattening farm?
I only realized later just how absurd my daily life really was. For instance, my way to school led through the cemetery. Each morning, I would greet dead people in their graves. When I came home, there was often a dead pig in front of the door. Sometimes, I was excused from school because the pigs had escaped from the barn. Then the whole village had to help catch them again. The pigs always fascinated me. I fed them secretly and gave them names. It was especially exciting when the people from the rendering plant came. When the gates of the transport vehicles opened, we would climb on top of the silo to take a look inside. I became a vegetarian when I turned 14...
Province and puberty – how did that go together in your case?
I can only speak for myself, but I was rather precocious. I wanted to experience everything as early as possible. By the age of 12, I was already smoking and taking part in alcohol excesses at various fire department festivities.
Country life can be quite brutal...
... it is full of morbidity and dreariness. For me, the province also has something oppressive and depressing. If you’re different, you stand out. I was always a black sheep, but at some point, I downright anticipated this role and used it as an engine for my creativity.
"Everything was a sin."
Has country life influenced your music?
Definitely. Besides this psychological oppression that takes hold in a village community, it was Catholicism, above all, that influenced me: the village chapels, the arch-Catholic rituals.
Was your family religious?
My parents less so, but my grandmother was a very devout person. Once, she called me a witch because I stole a sugar cube from her room. Everything was a sin. I experienced the death of my grandparents up close. It was a prolonged death in bed. “Heavenly Mother, help!” my grandmother kept screaming. This adoration, these cries for help are burned deep into my memory.
On your album From Gas To Solid / You Are My Friend, there are many references to nature in the content and imagery.
Yes, nature and especially water are the theme of this album. I think it’s a huge problem that humans have become so disconnected from nature. You don’t have to take drugs to perceive a tree, to recognize its beauty, to understand what it does and what stories it tells. Engaging with nature is not just for hippies or esoterics. If we continue like this, the Earth will die. We can’t look away any longer. People cling to hollow things to distract them from the gloomy conditions of the world. If I don’t sense a connection to nature in an artwork, it doesn’t interest me. During the pandemic, an opera house in Barcelona staged a string quartet by Puccini for over 2000 potted plants. That moved me to tears, for example. It was a call for a more careful approach to nature.
"When I came to Vienna, my dialect was suddenly gone."
What are you working on right now?
A film project in which I play the lead role and do the film music. For 40 days of shooting, I played a poor and very devout peasant woman from the 17th century. As preparation, I spent a lot of time in Katzendorf, I had to learn my dialect again.
When did you lose your dialect?
When I came to Vienna, it was suddenly gone. It just fell off me, it wasn’t a conscious rejection. It was an interesting process to return home again, also linguistically.
Could you imagine moving back to the countryside?
Being on the countryside gives me peace of mind like nothing else can. Animals also manage to somehow draw me right up into the here and now. Their presence is so invigorating because they do not judge. The intelligence of nature is an approachable and permissive one. In its order and cycles, it tells everything about life. But there’s no reason to romanticize about country life. Perhaps, it is again something so typically human, that one has to first be completely separated from it – driven out of paradise, so to speak – in order to truly return to it.
Thank you very much for this conversation!
Anja Plaschg, aka Soap&Skin, born in 1990 in southeastern Styria, grew up in tranquil Katzendorf. At the age of 16 she moved to Vienna to study painting with Daniel Richter at the Academy of Fine Arts. Two years later she dropped out and at the same time celebrated her first, much-acclaimed musical successes. In her music, Plaschg combines experimental electronic sounds with partly classical instrumentation, sometimes quiet, sometimes harrowing, but always carried by her unmistakable, unique voice. Especially on the first two albums, these musical elements condense into a melancholy, but beautiful, atmosphere. In 2013 her daughter Frida was born, who gets to sing the last verse on Heal on Anja's last album From Gas to Solid / you are my friend: "I have no fear. I have no fear." The work has something conciliatory, it sounds optimistic. And the chances of healing this world increase even more towards the end of the album: the last track is a cover version of Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World.