This week’s weird artiste makes most other so-called Goth bands look like posers by comparison. Anna-Varney Cantodea is so Goth she never performs “in front of humans,” preferring instead to save her striking, vampire/Butoh appearance for eerie photo shoots and the occasional blurry music video that flickers like a faded silent movie print. Her music is so Goth it defies easy categorization, mixing neoclassical, darkwave and synth-rock elements into long, lugubrious songs that occasionally erupt into densely orchestrated bursts of melodrama that would do Danny Elfman proud. She’s so Goth that her “band,” the Ensemble of Shadows, is apparently her nickname for the ghosts and restless spirits who crowd around her and provide inspiration for her work. Sopor Æternus is, in short, probably the Gothiest musical project ever.
Anna-Varney was born male and now identifies as a transgendered female. She took the name Varney from a 19th century Gothic horror novel, later adding the more feminine Anna and eventually the surname Cantodea, Latin for “I sing, Goddess.” She grew up in Frankfurt, Germany and her birth year is commonly listed as 1952, which would make her 61 or 62.
As a child, she had a vision of her future self in a train station, which she described thusly in an interview: “an ageless creature (of undefinable gender), all dressed in black, with a beautiful, kind of pennate black mohawk.” By 1989, the year she first began making music as Sopor Æternus (Latin for “eternal sleep”), she had apparently modeled her appearance on that childhood vision.
Her early music mixed baroque and neoclassical acoustic instruments with synthesizers and drum machines and was generally categorized as darkwave or a then-popular German Goth-rock subgenre called Neue Deutsche Todeskunst (“New German Death Art”). But aside from sharing themes of death, despair and the occult, especially vampirism, Cantodea’s music bore little resemblance to that of her contemporaries. After parting ways with an early collaborator named Holger, she worked, by her own account, in near-total isolation, battling chronic depression to compose her music and only enlisting other musicians when it finally came time to enter the studio. She’s continued to make occasional use of synths, but mostly her work now is richly orchestrated chamber music, heavy on strings, horns and more exotic instruments like dulcimers and harpsichords.
Since releasing her debut album, …Ich töte mich…, in 1994, Anna-Varney has released about a dozen Sopor Æternus albums, plus EPs, singles, remix collections and a box set of rarities and demos. Many of her releases come in elaborate, limited-edition packages, accompanied by books of lyrics, stories and photographs—if you search “Sopor Aeternus unboxing” on YouTube, you’ll find at least a dozen videos of fans lovingly removing the shrink wrap from their prized copies of her work. Her latest album, Mitternacht: The Dark Night of the Soul, is due out Sept. 23rd and can already be pre-ordered in one of four different packages, offering various combinations of books, CDs, vinyl and T-shirts.
Anna-Varney remains fairly secretive about her personal life, but she does regularly advocate LGBT causes, veganism and animal rights. She’s really into numerology, specifically the numbers 2, 11, 13 and 4, although she won’t explain what they represent to her. She also won’t explain her interest the Roman gods Saturn and Jupiter—she uses a combination of their astrological symbols as a glyph she calls Jusa on all her records, and they appear frequently in her lyrics (especially Saturn), but it’s unclear whether she feels a spiritual connection to them or simply finds them useful as metaphors for death and rebirth.
She’s a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe (having set many of his poems to music, including an entire album’s worth of them on 2013’s Poetica: All Beauty Sleeps) and Rozz Williams, the lead singer of the goth-rock band Christian Death, who took his own life in 1998. In fact, she just visited Williams’ shrine at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery here in L.A. earlier this year. She wrote a blog post about it in which she mostly talks about how much she hated L.A., which I guess shouldn’t surprise me, since everything about her music and appearance pre-dates nearly every aspect of this entire city. Still, I hope next time she’s here she’ll come for Dia de los Muertos, or visit the California Institute of Abnormalarts, or the Museum of Jurassic Technology. L.A.’s a great city for Goths, if you know where to look. But I digress…
We’ll leave you with a few samples of Sopor Æternus’ Goth-tastic music and videos. First up: 2010’s “A Strange Thing to Say,” the first part of her A Triptychon of GHOSTS (or: El Sexorcismo) trilogy. Much of this video was shot in, of all places, Montana, at a ghost town called Bannack. The carousel is in the decidedly non-ghostly Montana town of Missoula, where we can only imagine the townspeople were really confused to see a woman dressed up like Gary Oldman’s Dracula riding the plastic ponies.
Next: “In der Palästra” from 2007’s Les Fleurs du Mal, probably her most famous release. Incidentally, in case you haven’t guessed by now, the warning at the beginning of many of her videos advising that “it’s naturally fabulous, but shows NO signs of humour” is itself a bit of a joke. Many of Sopor Æternus’ best songs and videos have a definite element of camp to them.
Still don’t believe us that some of this stuff is supposed to be funny? Fine, we’ll leave you with “A Little Bar of Soap.” Slippy, slippy, slimy!
We owe thanks to many readers for helping introduce us to the tragic charms of Sopor Æternus: Andres, Rembrandt, Michael from Mexico, Cr0w, Denny, jeanbannon and I’m sure we’re forgetting a few. For someone who never performs live, Anna-Varney has quite the legion of devoted fans.