Jaakko Eino Kalevi is an oddly compelling presence. Usually backed by a small band, he plays languid, hazy, analogue pop music with shades of psychedelia and disco, swaying onstage barely enough to make his long hair move. His eyes remain fixed on the keys of the synthesizer until he addresses the mic to sing in his deep, dispassionate voice, gazing somewhere into the distance. He’s at once a casual and slightly stiff performer—if it’s possible to be effortlessly awkward, Jaakko manages it. It’s a very Finnish brand of charisma.
We meet the day after his packed-out show at Loft Hostel, where Jaakko played a set gleaned mostly from his recent self-titled album, with local percussionist Magnús Eliassen and saxophonist Tumi Árnason. It’s his second visit to Iceland—like many other contemporary musicians, the Airwaves festival was his first. “I played Airwaves in 2014,” he recalls. ”It was a busy time. I played four shows in a week—Gamla Bíó, Kaffibarinn, something for local radio, and then at Kex.”
The Airwaves experience left its mark on the young Finn, both metaphorically and literally. “It was a little bit wild,” says Jaakko, smiling thinly. “There was a lot of drinking. The week after, I had a red mark on the bridge of my nose, and I was wondering how it got there. Then one day I took a sip from a pint glass, and realised the mark was exactly where the glass touched my nose…”
Doing something interesting
Party damage aside, Jaakko quickly found himself feeling at home in Reykjavík 101’s music scene. “It was crazy how many friends I made on that trip,” he recalls. “Reykjavík is such a special place. It’s small and compact, easy to get around, and everyone seems to know each other, and to be friends. There’s no competition—people just support each other.”
His affinity for the place perhaps stems from the fact that Jaakko grew up in Tiituspohja, a town in South Finland that’s not dissimilar in size to Reykjavík. “It reminds me of my hometown, for sure, with just the one main street,” he says, “But the difference is that here everyone seems to be doing something interesting.
But even as a child in rural Finland, Jaakko was engaged in music making. “The 30th of March will be the twentieth anniversary of my first ever show,” he smiles. “The band was called Masterpiece. I was eleven years old. It was instrumental heavy rock—me playing riffs, just one after the other, with a drummer. In fact, after a long time apart, I’m now playing with that drummer again. We have a show in Vilnius on that anniversary.” He pauses, laughing: “Maybe we’ll play the songs. There were only two, and I can still remember them.”
It was after a move to Helsinki in 2006 that Jaakko was first able to connect to a scene of peers, and start to develop his sound. “It was very inspiring time,” he says. “I met a lot people in bands that I’d been listening to, and I could actually become friends with them. I played in a Finnish reggae band, and a lot of metal, then I got into jazz, funk, psychedelic stuff, and electronic music. But I try not to be conscious of where my influences come from. I think that’s the only way.”
These days, Jaakko is based in Berlin, following his slowly migrating circle of musically-minded friends. Asked how he’s settling in, he pauses for a long time before answering: “I have to think about what I want more. In Finland, I kind of always know what I’m doing. Berlin has more possibilities.”
Jaakko’s circle in Berlin still consists mainly of friends from Helsinki, but having connected with Norwegian singer Farao at Airwaves, the two recently found themselves living in the same city. “I first met Farao here,” he says. “We were at Airwaves, and got obsessed with this dancehall song, “Everything Nice,” and we ended up recording a cover of it.”
He’s also been working with Jófríður Ákadóttir of Pascal Pinon, Gangly and Samaris. “I did a remix for a Norwegian band called Apotek, and ended up kind of recording a cover instead,” he says. “I didn’t use any tracks from the original. Jófríður sang on it. I don’t know if they’ll use it, because maybe they expected me to use some elements of the original. But I like it, so I hope they do.”
Jaakko’s self-titled album is a thrillingly fully-formed record. Employing everything from playful 80s pop references to flashes of psychedelia, disco textures and krautrock basslines, it remains sonically coherent, pulling from all over the musical spectrum in a way that feels instinctive and completely natural. If wilfully arty cult stars like John Maus and Ariel Pink had the pop nous of David Bowie, it might sound something like this.
The record is the result of a long period of germination. “The oldest element of it is the bassline of Hush Down, which I took from a hip hop beat I made 15 years ago,” says Jaakko. “I wanted to make the album sound as if it had been made in a studio, at one session, but it was made all over the place—in our practice space, in my apartment in Helsinki, mixed in New York, and some overdubs, and then a synth part recorded in Berlin.”
One constant across the ten tracks is their warm, analogue sound. I wonder out loud if that’s something he strived for during its production. “I wouldn’t want to admit it, but I guess it’s true,” he smiles, haltingly. “I recorded all of it to my computer, but I do like the tape sound. There are no plug-ins—it’s more inspiring to be hands-on. Instruments inspire me a lot. You come up with different stuff. My favourite synthesizer, that I use live also, is the Yamaha CS5—it’s not the greatest synthesizer, but I’ve had it for a really long time and I know my way around it. I like small Casio toy synths too. With toy instruments, you mess around with them more. It’s fun to play around with them—you have to experiment more.”
Station to station
The album has taken on a life of its own, seemingly appealing to a wide range of international listeners. The result is an emerging audience that’s given Jaakko the profile and impetus to tour more.
“In autumn we did a crazy tour, mostly in Europe—54 shows in two months,” he says. “We also went to Australia and Hong Kong. The scene in Hong Kong seemed small but active—we played in a small club, but it was a really nice show. I met a record seller called ‘Paul the record seller.’ He had this crazy life story—his mother had put him into a shipping container when he was young, during the Vietnam war, and he’d ended up in Hong Kong. He lived in the streets, and people started donating records to him. He ended up having a big collection and starting a shop. And now he has 300,000 records in a huge warehouse. He was a real character. I bought some Chinese electronic music and some Japanese stuff. It was a real mess in there, but he knew exactly where everything was.”
“I like to travel, but it can be tiring,” he finishes, looking plaintively into the distance, just like he did onstage at Loft. “Sometimes I find myself somewhere and just think: ‘What am I doing here?’ But I guess you can get those feelings anywhere.”