“I’ve been making music all my life, wherever I’ve been. I do it for love and because it’s the most natural, honest form of expression I know.”
Tell us a little bit about yourself: who you are, what you do, why you do it. Remember: Hype is for PR departments, honesty is for musicians.
I’ve been making music all my life, wherever I’ve been. I do it for love and because it’s the most natural, honest form of expression I know. I grew up in a family of classical musicians, artists and scientists, living in several countries, so I’ve been lucky enough to be spiritually “well fed” from the very beginning with all kinds of good stuff. I think growing up in those conditions gave me a bit of an outsider’s perspective and fostered courage to test the limits of musical conventions. My music has evolved into its current form through many different stages, and hopefully, continues to do so.
When I first started performing my songs as a teenager, I was a one-woman band with a sampler, electric organ and scrap metal percussion instruments. My shows were noisy, confrontational and full of vocal acrobatics, almost like performance art. Nowadays, it’s more like experimental chamber pop. I sing and play the pump organ and autoharp. Janne Lastumäki plays percussion. Katri Onnela sings and plays the electric organ. Juho Alajuuma plays extra percussion and autoharp. My goal is to create a safe space or musical landscape my audience and I can immerse ourselves into, explore, and emerge from feeling invigorated. A dream reality, of sorts.
Do you have anything special you want to accomplish by coming to Iceland? What?
I’m hoping to have a few adventures! If all goes well, lots of new people will get to know and love my music, and we’ll be invited to return to Iceland one day.
Since the festival is a showcase, I’d love to find a good international record label to work with on my next album, at long last. That would be an important step for me. I have some pretty exciting plans, and I hope that excitement will come through in our shows. I’ve wanted to visit Iceland for ages and am really happy we finally have a chance to perform there. I’m fascinated with the fact that as a centre of volcanic activity, it’s a country still giving birth to itself.
We won’t have you pin yourself down in a genre, but maybe you can tell us what musicians you hope your fans also like. What music inspires you?
I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone what they’re supposed to like, but my own tastes are extremely eclectic. What matters to me is a very basic, instinctive kind of emotional and physical pleasure one gets through music, be it through a change in harmony that makes you laugh, a healing rhythm that hits you in the gut and makes you cry, a micro-tonal melody that takes you by surprise, and the interaction between all of these things. The element of surprise is almost always involved, which is why experimentation, breaking boundaries and playing around with cultural context is so important to me. But I’m a very emotional, instinctive musician. I only analyse things when it can help me understand the mechanics of how music affects you emotionally.
Good music is everywhere. Some of my favourites are Nick Cave and his various bands, Balkan vocal and Romani music, Blind Willie Johnson, Einstürzende Neubauten, Farid el Atrache, Prokofjev, Debussy, Stravinsky, PJ Harvey, Gamelan music and Messiaen’s organ pieces.
And what would you want to tell our readers, to convince them to come to your show (remember: you are not in marketing, you are an artist)?
We promise to surprise you, and we don’t sound like anyone else in the world. Besides, when was the last time you came to a rock show where a pump organ took centre stage? It’s not just a curiosity. It’s an incredibly expressive instrument. We are a wild band. We go all-out. Our music is art, but it’s approachable, beautiful, colourful and mysterious. Come experience something new! It will be fun!
What got you making music in the first place? What kept you playing?
When you grow up in a musical family, it’s pretty hard to imagine your life without it. I was singing with my mother’s playing in my crib (or so I’m told), and started playing piano at three. I composed my first piano pieces as a child.
My Finnish side of the family is full of classical pianists, so it was a matter of course that I was made to learn the instrument, but I never felt at home in the competitive, serious world of academic music. It was stifling. I wanted to express myself in a more primal, spontaneous way. Around the age of 13, I realized that popular music, which I had very little exposure to growing up, rather than classical music, might offer the expressive freedom I was looking for. I could make my own rules.
When I wrote my first song, it felt more satisfying than anything I had tried my hand at before. So, I kept doing it, and I still do it for that same feeling of satisfaction, discovery and freedom. It’s what I do best.
What do you like these days? Anything we should know about?
I love Anna Calvi, whose debut album will be released by Domino in a few months. She’s like a cross between Jimi Hendrix, a film noir heroine, a glittering bullfighter, Roy Orbison, PJ Harvey and a flamenco guitar virtuoso. She’s a true original, and adds a greatly needed dose of sensuality and mystery to the current music scene. She makes long guitar solos sound fresh and interesting again. I also deeply admire Owen Pallett, both artistically and personally. He’s a one-man symphony and immensely talented man with a warm, generous, self-deprecating, humorous heart. Finally, there’s a band in New York called Preacher and The Knife. They’re like a combination of The Birthday Party, afro-pop and Taiko drums. Love-love-love it!
You’ve been compared to Björk. Does this seem like a “Yeah, she’s also a strong, Nordic female making music” type thing or does the comparison have any merit?
I think in this case it can be a valid reference. She’s had a strong influence on me and I have enormous respect for her. I admire her emotional capacity and range, her ability to marry sophistication with spontaneity, the organic with the artificial, her deeply engrained sense of experimentation and again, pure musical pleasure. I see her as an artist who will pursue her instinctive pleasure in her work to the very end, without letting any conventions hold her back.
I strive for all of these things. I think we both have a strong connection to nature that comes through in our music, and I identify with her habit of re-inventing her songs in live performances. It’s something I love to do, as well.
Tell us about spiritual ecstasy.
Ah. It’s not something easily put into words. I experience it in my best performances when the music takes on a life of its own and I’m able to transcend my ordinary self. It’s akin to a shamanic state of consciousness that emerges from the collective energy, concentration and emotional pitch of the musicians and the audience. It’s the sign of a successful show. I think any performer who completely throws themselves into what they’re doing knows what I’m talking about.
What inspires you to make music? When does it come? Is composing a labour for you, or something that comes naturally?
It comes from the subconscious, emotional experiences, insights, love of music itself, and a pressing need to externalize the internal. In-between-states, like lucid dreams, insomnia, crises and travel are important windows for epiphany. These are some of the most fruitful creative situations for me. I draw a lot of inspiration from dreams, because it’s impossible to lie in a dream. You’re forced to confront your true self. Things you didn’t know about yourself, sometimes things you didn’t realise about the universe itself, are made tangible in a poetic dimension through images, sounds and sensations. I want to create that kind of dimension in my music.
Lately, I’ve been inspired by natural disasters, the end of the world, and how we are going to be forced to change our ways or be obliterated either by nature or our own greed. I go through different creative phases. Sometimes everything flows easily. Songs come out all at once, the words and music together. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth, or the process just takes a maddeningly long time. It’s gotten harder over the years, partly because I keep raising my standards. So, nowadays, if I actually finish a song, I tend to be pretty happy with it. I wish I could be a bit mellower about the whole thing. It’s not like you run out of songs by writing more of them!
Do you have any role models in the field of composition? Are there special moods/ideas you try to evoke?
Sure, I’ve had plenty of role models, many of whom I’ve mentioned already, but I’ve worked very hard to “kill my idols” and find my own voice. There’s no point in making music if you’re going to emulate someone else. Bring something only you can bring to the table!
Nick Cave and Björk are two of my most enduring role models, because of their ability to create alternative worlds in their songs. I love evocative inventiveness in arrangements. Also, there’s a bittersweet expressiveness in Prokofjev’s ballet music, such as that of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Cinderella,” that strikes an incredible balance between the lush and the strident, harmony and discord. I wish I could figure out exactly how he did it. It’s like all the pieces of the puzzle are there, but they’re arranged in a weird, de-constructed way that defies normal musical logic.
Bulgarian choir music, Messiaen, Stravinsky and Debussy all share a similar feel. You could compare it to Modernism in literature. Some of my biggest heroes are film-makers like Tarkovsky and Kubrick. There’s a cinematic aspect to what I do. I suppose a lot of my music could be described with platitudes such as “atmospheric” and “moody,” but I hope that what I do goes beyond a shallow kind of Goth aesthetic. Lately, as Nick Cave has also mentioned, I’ve been very interested in characters, especially performers, who are “all Id.” Primitive, driven, completely present in the moment: Ziggy Stardust, Freddy Mercury, the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. (The fact that all of these are bisexual men is a funny coincidence).
Maybe that’s why my artist name is Vuk, which is a Serbian man’s name that means “wolf”. Look at any fairytale – The Wolf is all Id! The problem with such characters, however, is that they eventually tend to run away with your sanity and self-control. I suppose that’s part of their allure.
Make a five track playlist for your plane ride over. Tell us why each track is there. Your scenario: you’re just about to land, and you want to mentally prepare yourself for whatever you think is going to meet you.
Fong Naam & Sombut Simlah -The Wind in The Coconut Trees – This is a breezy, flute-y Siamese court music song that evokes the feeling of wind very well. I’d like to touch down on Iceland with a clear mind, and I think this would blow any dusty cobwebs out of my head.
Fever Ray -When I Grow Up – This song always makes me feel self-confident and happy to be who I am. That’s the best state arrive in a new place, and also the best state to play a show in.
Magyar Posse -Witchcraft – This is a majestic instrumental song by my friends in Finland, and I think it would fit the Icelandic landscape very well.
Björk -Aurora – It’s a bit obvious, but a song about sunrises on glaciers should set the mood, shouldn’t it?
Tamaryn -Sandstone – Tamaryn’s song has a strong oceanic feel to it. Island-shore music!
Anything to add?
I can’t wait to get to Iceland! Come see us play!
Vuk plays Risið Friday 15 at 22:30
Posted October 13, 2010