Estonian entrepreneur Mari Martin, founder of Tallinn Dolls, a playful designer brand, wants to speed up the fashion industry, bringing clothes from concept to shelves in the shortest time ever – her new startup, FashLab, has plans to disrupt the way global fashion works; she sat down with Estonian World …
Trad.Attack! is a band that specialises in giving roots and folk music a modern kick using samples of archive recordings in a funky, contemporary manner that is taking the world by storm. The band’s debut album, ”Ah!“, won the group three Estonian Music Awards this year. Estonian World caught up with the band members after their capacity sets at Tallinn Music Week.
Before this interview, the Canadian-Estonian writer and satirist, Vello Vikerkaar, was talking about Estonian music. “Trad.Attack!… I could choke on all the local press they get. Are they worth listening to? I have no clue.” The wizened, cynical old man, whose book, “Tantra Man”, was released recently, obviously hadn’t been near a radio or to the Tallinn Music Week in April, because if he had, he would have been in for a surprise.
The trio calling itself Trad.Attack! has been active as a band for just over two years, although all three members have long and varied histories on the Estonian folk scene. Sandra Sillamaa, specialising in bagpipes, among many instruments; her fiancé, guitarist Jalmar Vabarna; and drummer Tõnu Tubli are experienced musicians who bring a sense of craft to their recordings and performances.
When the multi-tasking of the band’s members is brought up, Vabarna, who is also a member of Estonian folk-scene darlings Curly Strings and made his name originally as part of Setomaa’s legendary Setod (his sister is the current Queen of Setomaa, an elected position) seems a little defensive. “I can name more than ten names who play in more than I do – it’s just that the groups I play in are known. But it’s normal life for an Estonian musician to play in more than one band, because Estonia is small and it can be hard to live off just one.”
Tubli insists it’s not hard to switch perspective depending on which band he is in. “I played classical trombone before I played drums, Sandra’s done symphonic orchestra as well as bagpipe pieces. It’s normal – if I go to a jazz club I know what’s expected of me as a drummer, and when I join these guys I know too. Of course, when you’re a teenager, you always want to have the one band.”
It’s not been an overnight success story for Trad.Attack!, with the band building up its following in an organic way. Although it could be argued that the members’ reputations gained them an early spot at the Tallinn Music Week in 2014, when they debuted with a five-song repertoire and won the audience over with panache and power-chords, ever since then it’s been a matter of near-constant touring and recording. The group’s 2015 album, ”Ah!“, contained tracks familiar to audiences at festivals and concerts all over Estonia and further afield. Although Trad.Attack! has had plenty of publicity, as Vikerkaar mentioned, this has been a slow-burn rise.
“The band idea was to do it for fun, for ourselves,” Sillamaa explains. Tubli adds, “We thought, ‘let’s do a jam band, really simple, don’t rehearse, no hard-core arrangements’, and now here we are.” Vabarna points out the influence of a good profile abroad, saying that when they began getting rave reviews from around Europe, “people here started to think we must be good, if we were playing outside, so they got to like us. Maybe it was a similar thing with Ewert and the Two Dragons.”
Jam band they may have been initially, but Sillamaa and her colleagues could see a future for Trad.Attack!, if they could be accepted by the most committed followers of traditional music in Estonia, their loops of archive recordings feeding into rocked-up interpretations of historic reels. “We said [at the time] we have a folk music police in Estonia. But I’ve studied folk for fifteen years, he [Vabarna] comes from a strong tradition going back to his grandmother. So I think we have the right to use these songs, and we know how to use them, the history behind the songs… If it had been two or three students who had done this who no-one knows, I don’t know what the reaction might have been.” The only real question for Sillamaa has been over the use of some mantras found on tape. “Sometimes I wonder about using some of the chants on the stage, because they used to be very personal… but it’s not a big dilemma.”
“People thought you shouldn’t bring some songs on the stage,” Sillamaa continues, “in the old days it was very functional – people played music for dance. There are some people who think some songs shouldn’t be played on stage. It’s okay now, but ten years ago there were some quite radical people. They’ve grown up with the tradition. Maybe they don’t want to change things, maybe they’re afraid things will get lost – but I think if you want to keep things going you have to change with the times.”
Considering so much of the conversation has been about modernisation, it’s intriguing that Trad.Attack!’s members, particularly Sillamaa, are so interested in dipping into the history and culture of their ancestors. “Actually I’m going to the archive this week,” says Sillamaa. “So much hasn’t been catalogued. It’s a really cool old building in Tartu. I also have a secret agent in the archive! I write to her asking if there is a song with, for example, a specific bagpipe in it, and then she goes to look for it. They’ve started digitising it, so there’s interesting material coming up all the time. I think there are great recordings that I’m so glad aren’t just staying in the museum. I think it’s a way to preserve it. No-one would have thought ten years ago that these archive recordings would become so popular that radio would play it!”
Tubli agrees that it is better to air the chants than not use them at all. “At the Tallinn Music Week showcase we played a song about the moon, and at the moment the moon is growing old. So after the gig we talked about whether it was the wrong time to do it, and whether we shouldn’t have, but at the same time, you’re just presenting the chant.” According to Vabarna, the original idea had been to cover, rather than sample, the words. “We tried to sing those songs ourselves, but it didn’t sound right. Sandra suggested trying the loop, and on the recording it worked. Then we tried it live, and it worked just as well.”
After Trad.Attack! played to converted and unconverted alike at Tallinn Music Week, the band began preparations in earnest for a flight to China, with dates including the Sound of the Xity and Strawberry festival, then a stop-off in South Korea. Finno-Ugric traditional reels seem an odd bedfellow with Chinese folk culture, so one obvious question is how the band’s music would fit the vibe of the festival. “It doesn’t!” Tubli responds. “It’s kind of like when at the Viljandi Folk Festival you have a band from Mali coming. When you go to China, as a band from the other side of Russia, it’s exotic for them, hearing Estonian and so on. I actually bought a Chinese book – just two weeks ago they published a Chinese-language book, for really fast learning. It’s always nice to say at least something.”
Vabarna, easily the shyest of the trio, stresses the difficulty of meeting new artists and getting to know new people at festivals. “If you’re touring, socialising is complicated. I guess we’re more of an introverted band; we don’t usually meet with other bands until about six in the morning! But if we’re going to a festival, we try to get the maximum out of it. At Viljandi, we meet everyone, every day, upstairs in the Folk Music Centre.” He nods in agreement when it is suggested that Viljandi is important for the maintenance of traditional music. “If not for Viljandi, we wouldn’t have a folk scene on the level we do.” Sillamaa adds, “It’s an inspiration for bands. If a young band goes to Viljandi, they get inspired to go on tour, and to play live – that’s certainly how I felt.”
The band continues talking, and there is speculation about future ambitions. Sillamaa expresses her wish for the trio to win a Grammy award, and play in every country in the world. Trad.Attack! paints a new picture of a very old culture, and it seems it’s the band’s authenticity and enthusiasm that has the attention of so many new fans around the world. Whatever happens for them in the future, it will be exciting to witness.
Cover photo by Mait Jüriado (courtesy of Trad.Attack!)
My Own Sheep is one of the projects entered into the Ajujaht pitching competition, to find the best new Estonian business and help it become a greater success. Project Manager Eve Arm explains what was going through the minds of her team.
This interview was first published by Stuart Garlick’s website Charm Offensive.
Describe your idea and how it works?
The idea is to create an online environment where people can own their own sheep – a real, live and happy sheep – over the internet. Owning a sheep will give them many possibilities to interact with the animal, to see what the sheep is doing at any time, have videos of it, see the route of the sheep on the map, provide extra food etc. Some of the distinctive options are also having a Skype call with your sheep or “pimp” your sheep up. The users can also compete with each other to see who has the cutest, happiest or fastest growing sheep.
The main target group for the virtual sheep farm is families with children and individuals who live in highly urbanised cities, who love animals, maybe dream about living in the countryside but who can’t do so or own any animals or even visit them. “My Own Sheep” is a project to build a bridge between city and farm life, offering an opportunity to own an animal in a farm and through that get a positive view of sheep farming through different modern technical solutions.
How did you come up with your idea – what inspired it?
For over five years I have been part of the CouchSurfing community which is a great thing for people who love to travel share their experience and also host travellers. I have met and talked to hundreds of people during this five years. Travelling and exploring new countries and getting to know new people is extremely enjoyable. There are a few downsides in being on the road all the time though – it appears many people regret having no pets at home but it is just not possible due to their lifestyle.
Some time ago I joined my family business – sheep farming. I moved back home to Murese farm – a sheep farm with 800 sheep. My role in the farm is being the PR Manager with duty of promoting farm life through social media.
During my stay in the farm, we have also had many volunteers and visitors who showed a high interest in the farm life generally. But this all wasn’t enough for me, I had to do something more. And one morning, the moment I woke up, I knew this was it! I knew that the solution was to connect those people with the possibilities that surrounded me.
This day was actually just couple of months ago, in the beginning of September. Right from there I signed up for a business course, started to talk to people about my idea, and looked for people who would share my idea. I travelled around Europe and talked about my idea, which gave me a lot of feedback about similar websites that are popular but not exactly what I had in mind, so I knew that I have to start realising the idea as soon as possible. I just couldn’t leave it, it felt so right!
Why do you believe there will be a demand for your idea?
In Western countries, and also in southeast Asia, virtual animal adoption pages are very popular. Who knows the exact reasons, but I personally think that the reason is somewhere between the fact that people are increasingly moving away from nature, but we are part of it, so we need to be close to it and from the other side, the fact that city people just think animals are cute.
There are loads of pages where you can adopt any animal – after payment, you get a certificate that says you are now an owner or a co-owner of an animal. Yet, there is no website to offer a direct connection with the animals, as our plan is to provide. So our plan is to make this specific market niche a bit more colourful by adding extra value. We have tested the idea on different people from different countries already and the feedback is very positive.
Therefore we have the confidence, the courage and the enthusiasm to enter the market.
How did you get together as a team, and what are your everyday jobs?
Everything started from CouchSurfing and so did the team building. We all met through the community and by chance. It happened when I started to talk about my idea, to spread the word about a new concept, when there were people who stood up, said they loved the idea and “let’s do it!”
We are all very different people, with our own specialities, but there is something we share – first it was the passion for CouchSurfing and now it is the idea of creating something unique and fun.
Photos: My Own Sheep.
Heiki Trolla, better known by his artist name Navitrolla, is among the most well known Estonian artists whose work has been described as naivist or surrealist. Most of his works depict fantastic landscapes and animals. He spent his childhood in the villages of Trolla and Navi near the Estonian town of Võru, which is the source of his pseudonym. EstonianWorld had a candid evening discussion with Navitrolla at his gallery, in the Tallinn Old Town.
“My mum told me that when I was half-a-year old, I opened my pants, took my own shit, and made a fresco on the wall. I really don’t remember. It seems to me that inner wishes and feelings always pointed towards doing art.” It was an odd start to any interview, but the Estonian painter Navitrolla, who became famous in the early 1990s for his surrealist landscapes, was making a joke, which may have been true, in response to a question about the first time he had noticed an artistic inkling.
As a young man, Navitrolla, now in his forties, was brought up as part of a farming family in Navi, southern Estonia. “In Soviet times, people were telling us to take normal jobs, and farming was the only option for me – work, work work! Make money, go to the army, have kids, take the pension, die. But I was absolutely against this model of life. I believe there can be options for freedom; you can live as you wish. I cheated my mum every day; I took textbooks and I told her, ‘I’ll go to study, sorry I can’t feed your pigs or cows’, and I went to the field. There was the smell of dry hay, really beautiful flowers, and I put my textbooks next to me and just tried my best to be away from serving animals.”
Although others might have recognised a latent talent, Navitrolla first viewed art as an escape, never taking it seriously. “When I started in art, it seemed really funny, a big joke. But I’m getting older and older, and I see [art is] a serious thing. People are living and not willing to dream. I don’t want to be a teacher, or a guru, or whatever, but through my simple paintings, maybe I can… I don’t want to tell you a serious story – I am not a philosopher – but through my art, maybe I can tell people something.”
The idea of the artwork sending a message was an interesting one, given that Navitrolla’s cartoonish landscapes could be said to inhabit a singular mind, entertaining itself. “There are many things I would like to teach… When I’m describing my experience through life, like in that black and white reproduction in the corner,” he explained, showing a print on his studio’s wall, “when a boy is willing to go to the city and describe his experience using mushrooms, the idea is bigger than the painting. The painting is small, and it took two or three days, but the idea is that we dream of a white, bright, good life, but actually,” he expresses a strong opinion, “we are living in shit.” This may or may not be true, but it was a relief to find an artist willing to express such a strong view openly.
Some have remarked that his works seem like they had been imagined during dreams. It proved to be, at least in some cases, true. “This painting, [he gestured] ‘Christmas Night Dream’, came from a dream. There are also other works that came about when I was sleeping. When I’m dreaming when I’m awake, it’s a different thing – composing, constructing, creating things, like Lego. I’m trying to create this perfect idea of a world. But is it worth living in my world?” The artist then answers his own question. “No. People say to me, it would be nice to live in my world… but I’m not so sure!”
The stereo system, playing music from the 1950s to the 1970s, on all of which Navitrolla demonstrated a deep knowledge, moves onto the Righteous Brothers’ classic ballad, “Unchained Melody”. It seems to fit the profundity of our discussion at that stage. He talks about a painting on an easel, possibly showing three huge mountains in the desert, spewing clouds like natural power stations. “Every person creates his own idea of that picture. But this is an unfinished painting! I’m trying to create an impression of being Atlas… the man who carried the world on his shoulders. But how that will come across, it’s not decided. It’s unfinished.”
He goes on to explain about his parents. “I always had a nice relationship with my mum; she always said, ‘show whatever you want, the most important thing is that you’re satisfied’. My father? We just didn’t talk too much. He was a good father, I was happy with him. I went to school, I got these papers, and I told my mother and father, ‘right, so I’ve got these papers, so, erm, ciao!’ My father was a little angry, but my mother asked if I needed any money. I said ‘food is enough’.”
“We met five years later. My father asked my mother, ‘what is he doing? Is he stealing?’ My mother replied, ‘I’ve heard he’s doing art or something, but I don’t really understand it – but he’s doing good’. Once I came home with a car, at the end of the Soviet era – that was a sign of a good position in society. And it was only then that my father was very proud of me. Please try to understand there are so many hidden layers to the life of Estonian people.” Navitrolla also gives out the impression of a man who also wanted to make sure he did not cause trouble through careless talk. “I was the master of the mind game, to try to understand what was going on.”
He mentions repetition as the key to his success. “I am not a talented artist. I just try to do things again and again.” But many people would disagree and say he had a natural talent? “I NEVER say that myself. Other people say it. I don’t.”
While talking about the end of the Soviet period, which brought an influx of new artistic and musical influences to the attention of all young Estonians, that the interview hits something of a difficult patch. “We had a whole generation; a generation without roots. Waiting – floating creatures, waiting for a message… I understood very big changes would come.” However he refuses to be drawn on his feelings about the compromises of Estonians after the restoration of independence, feeling it was not the place of an artist to make political pronouncements.
He does, though, tell a tale about his school days, to show how things had changed since Soviet times. “I was a ten year-old boy, and one day we drew Estonian national flags before we went to school, but we didn’t know how, so we drew them the wrong way round. After that, all the schools were checked, because Võru was a closed, army town. Nothing came out.” But there was contradiction in the teaching. “Our history teacher said, upon hearing about our activity, that the Republic of Estonian hadn’t existed before, and the flag didn’t exist.” Navitrolla’s former teachers evidently felt freer to express any nationalist sentiment after the fall of the USSR in 1991. It gave the artist a feeling of political and personal beliefs being transient. “Ten years later, I noticed that these same people, those who said that the republic hadn’t existed before, were on the streets, cheering! And through that, I realised life was so… damn… relative.”
We finish after what was an intriguing discussion, spanning a variety of topics, with Navitrolla explaining what legacy he felt his art would have. “The side of creativity that always amazes me is that nothing remains, only ideas: we can’t put attention on these frames, canvasses, gallery and everything – when you go out, what remains? Not the gallery. Ideas [are what remain]. Those, for me, are the most important things.”
More information on Navitrolla: navitrolla.ee
Cover photo: “If All the Mushrooms in the World Would Be United”, Oil on canvas, 2005 (Navitrolla)
Frankie Animal are an exciting new band based in Tallinn, demonstrating their love of folk alongside some funked-up rock. They are causing quite a stir in Estonia thanks to the uniqueness of their sound, great musicianship and a distinctive powerful vocalist in Marie Vaigla.
The Uus Maailm festival in the middle of Tallinn is a weird experience for an English first-time visitor. With cake stalls, clothing sales and everything else you can possibly imagine, up and down the main Koidu Street; and then a music stage on a crossroad, it is like the village fête that, in England, we instinctively think we miss, but that we probably never had in the first place. A whole community pulls together; the whole of Tallinn migrates for the day to that quaint spot near the city centre.
One of Saturday’s live bands, Frankie Animal, has that same retro vibe to its music. So convincing is the sound, in fact, that I bet I could play “Loveless Man“, one of the group’s recent online releases, to a stranger and convince them that the song came from 1965. When we met in Tallinn Old Town’s Must Puudel café, I put this to Frankie Animal’s guitarist, the lanky, outgoing Jonas Kaarnamets. “We listened to old sixties’ bands: Cream, The Stones, The Beatles. We’re trying to keep it contemporary while having a vintage vibe to it.“
Marie Vaigla, the group’s singer and musical focal point, interrupts at this point in her customary measured, quiet tone. “Actually, we were trying to create something new. Of course there are some influences, but we’re trying to create our own sound. We don’t yet know what we are; we’re searching for it.“
Frankie Animal’s members who all write songs together (usually with Jonas sketching out the basis of the song, Marie the melody, and all four members collaborating on lyrics, although this of course varies) are unafraid to pick up inspiration from anything and everything. “We watched ‘Walk The Line’,“ Marie explains, „and Jonas paused the movie, went to the other room, and said ‘I’ve got something’.“ “You just don’t know when it comes,“ adds Jonas, “I got that rusty, train-tracky feel Johnny (Cash) had — a bit of a lonely sound.“
The Soundcloud posts are a bit of a misnomer. Good as they are, the songs are atmospheric folk songs in the mould of Fairport Convention — but Jonas, Marie, bass player Jan-Christopher Soovik and drummer Karl Eerik Valkna can really rock. This is something evident in their live sound. Even with the below-average sound system of the Uus Maailm festival, Frankie Animal created an inescapable wall of sound, each instrument playing a part, with each musician showing quite prodigious skill. “When you’re playing for larger audiences, it’s important to have power in there,“ Jonas says. “At outside venues when the sun’s out, it can be quite hard to get people’s attention.“
“I got that rusty, train-tracky feel Johnny (Cash) had — a bit of a lonely sound.“
In spite of the vigour with which they played their set at the outdoor festival, Marie’s voice still acted as the eye of the storm and the focus of the crowd. She sang with heart-rending feeling, turning a leering, blokey garage-rock classic like The Black Keys’ “Lonely Boy” (the gender changed in this cover version) into a longing torch song that made the audience focus only on the stage, whatever they might have been doing beforehand. For such a young person, she sings with experience implied as if the troubles of the world are upon her. There’s versatility in the musicianship too — Marie’s 2013 Eesti Laul (Estonia’s Eurovision Song Contest local final) song, “Maybe“, courtesy of a dirty bassline from Jan, transforms from a light, fluffy piece of radio pop into a mid-tempo disco-funk anthem. I’m not exaggerating when I say Frankie Animal’s festival gig was one of the most impressive live performances I have seen, and it is miraculous, coming from a band which has two members (Jonas and Jan) who recently graduated from high school, and two others (Marie and Karl) who still have a year to go.
Every musician has dreams of writing, recording and touring for a living, but unlike some of their peers, Frankie Animal seem realistic about the prospects of this happening, as Jonas says. “It takes a lot of commitment; you know Ewert and the Two Dragons? I don’t suppose they’re rich, but they’re touring all the time and they seem happy with what they do, and we’d like to be like them. But first we’d just like to get the album out, hopefully in January.“ He shows a good grasp of how the music business operates, saying, “a song might be the best song in the world — it might be the new Stairway to Heaven — but without marketing it just won’t survive.“
Jonas will have the opportunity to increase his knowledge of the music industry while honing his songcraft at the Georg Ots Music School where he studies. Marie is unsure of where she wants to continue her education, but she has another year to decide.
In response to questions about what he learns at the Georg Ots school, Jonas says, “I see it as a place to practice and get connections, it’s a good place to spend a year or two. It’s maybe…“ he pauses, “…not even so important to finish it — just to focus on it for a while, and if you feel you’re not getting anything from it, just leave.“ Had he met any alumni? “The guys who have graduated still hang out there; I think it’s a place that sticks with you.“
Frankie Animal had a manager before they had a band name or before they knew they were a band. Jonas picks the tale up. “He’s the father of our bass player. He’s really into it, he just does it because he loves it. He found us a rehearsal room in Tondi [near central Tallinn], next to a police station.“ Not being signed to a label, the band has had the luxury of honing a unique, inventive sound that takes inspiration from the past, without ever sounding tired, more of a homage to earlier music than anything else.
Inspiration can strike in the strangest of places. “Today we went to the beach,“ says Marie, “we took a guitar along. From the beach, you can get inspiration, and from the forest.“ Jonas continues the thought, “To get away and be in a relaxed state of mind, it’s quite important not to have in your head that you have to make a song — just to let it come. I’ve experienced some periods — sometimes you get good material for three or four days, and then sometimes a month will pass and you won’t get anywhere.“ Marie nods enthusiastically. “After Tallinn Music Week, it was ‘oh my God, we don’t have anything’.“
“I think some Estonian artists don’t take lyrics seriously — some of them sound cheesy. I think that’s one of the biggest problems with a lot of music.“
The three of us chat some more about other artists and it seems Jonas and Marie share a liking for the Estonian progressive folk band Odd Hugo’s debut album, having played a gig with them earlier in 2013. Jonas wishes them success internationally, along with Ewert and Two Dragons, saying, “it just takes one group to break through and show it’s possible to be successful from a certain country. But one problem is that in Great Britain, for example, a lot of people don’t know about Estonia.“
Marie says that “the biggest problem we have is the lyrics — it’s quite hard to decide what we should write about. We were watching a documentary about The Doors — this one guy said with poetry you have to create a whole world with one sentence, and I think it’s really hard to make a picture with your thoughts.“ “And not make it sound cheesy,“ Jonas adds. “I think some Estonian artists don’t take lyrics seriously — some of them sound cheesy. I think that’s one of the biggest problems with a lot of music.“
Frankie Animal are right to aim high — with the talent they possess, in such a young group, they potentially have a long career in which to hone their sound and decide in which direction they wish to take their music. As we finish our beers and watch the sun set, I ask the two friends whether they have an ideal live gig in mind. “You always hope for more — you play a festival with 1,000 people watching, and you think, ‘hmm, maybe next time 2,000, or next time 5,000’,“ Jonas says. Great dreams — for a great band.
Photos: Patrik Tamm & Stuart Garlick
Video: Obsession by Frankie Animal (added in April 2014).
You’re a young Estonian singer who wants to break out of your comfort zone. What challenge is greater than breaking into the London music scene? But that’s exactly what Liis Hirvoja, the Estonian singer in the British band POCA, decided to do.
“I was in a choir for years and years — the Estonian Children’s Choir,” Liis explains, “but I think I really blossomed after I graduated from upper high school and came here [to London]. Before, I was passionate but I didn’t know what to do with it; I did school concerts, and I tried to get on Eesti Otsib Superstaar (Estonian Idol). But that wasn’t my way, and to come and study here was the best decision I have made. I found my bandmates here, I found my sound, I kind of found my voice — everything. I’m very happy with the decision I made.”
The name POCA comes from Liis’s love of myths and legends. “It’s like Pocahontas. I was reading this book about Pocahontas and I was in the middle of finding the sound, and the book kind of inspired me. It was an idea that I had, but it’s the overall band name now, not my stage name!”
“If we decided we just want to be famous and earn lots of money, we could write more poppy club music and maybe we would make it faster, but we don’t want to — we want to make the kind of music that comes from inside, when we jam together and try to find new sounds.”
POCA, a four-piece of Liis plus fellow London Centre of Contemporary Music students George Karpasitis (guitar), Jack Painting (drums, percussion) and David Horler (bass) seems to be a band with a wide range of influences. The songs I heard, the urgent, driving “There You Are” and the more tormented, stop-start sound of “Leave Me Be”, reminded me of Steely Dan, a band that successfully brought a jazzy sound to the rock mainstream. “It’s funny you should say it,” Liis replies, “we had a gig recently, where two people came up to us and said you can definitely hear jazz, and you can definitely hear rock — but we’ve never thought of it that way.” But jazz is a part of Liis’s studies. “You kind of learn it, then subconsciously apply it to the music. We sometimes gig as jazz musicians, as well as POCA, and we really enjoy it.”
Her band is looking to win over fans to a sophisticated but earnest sound, and they’re doing it in one of the toughest markets to crack in the world. For Liis, the thought of staying in Estonia did not appeal next to the much greater challenge of being one of hundreds of unsigned bands in London. There is intense competition for berths at record labels, and for the attention of the listening public. “I think that also creates opportunities, and that’s why I like it here [in London]. I wouldn’t want to try it in Estonia. There, either you go and get big overnight on a show or something, and then people might know about you after a year, or you just keep playing the same kind of venues, with the same kind of calibre.”
POCA write all their own music, and they write only the kind of music they honestly feel they want to perform. “If we decided we just want to be famous and earn lots of money, we could write more poppy club music and maybe we would make it faster, but we don’t want to — we want to make the kind of music that comes from inside, when we jam together and try to find new sounds and stuff.”
“When I get the lyrical mood, I can sit by my piano and start playing chords,” she continues, in response to a question about how she comes up with a new song. She spends a long time writing lyrics that fit into POCA’s soundscape and she wants the audience to take them in. “People don’t appreciate lyrics as much [as the music], they’re like, ‘this sound is so cool, but I don’t know the lyrics!’, so at the last gig I tried to make sure the instruments were down and I really pronounced everything, because the message is the words — that’s 50% of the song, and it’s so important.”
Growing up, Prince was Liis’ hero. She named him as her “number-one” musician without hesitation. “For his versatile, absolute, ‘genius-ness’; for playing all the instruments, and for being such an interesting, mental, mad person! I read his book, and I was so annoyed as well, because he’s such a difficult person, but I guess that’s what makes him so good. He always says ‘I want something to sound like that…’, and he’s so specific, but that doesn’t excuse that he’s such a bugger to everyone around him. But I can’t help it — if I met him, I think I would faint. I read he’s so into weird things, and so uptight, but he’s so amazing.”
“I tried to get influences from him, but also Lauryn Hill, Kelis; we all like Cinematic Orchestra, Bon Iver, Portishead and Massive Attack” Having heard all these influences quoted, I listened to POCA’s songs again. The sound is original, but there is a little bit of all the band’s favourites in the sound, from the ebbs and flows of Massive Attack’s best work to the vocal clarity Portishead’s singer Beth Gibbons brought to their songs.
All these influences feed into the songwriting process. It seems they made Liis more outlandish in her lyric-writing, pushing beyond love-song cliché. “I liked to write about relationships, but now I like to explore a bit more; I find nature really useful, in terms of metaphors and symbolism. And even the cosmos and the universe!”
“My new song is called Mount Atlas‘, about the Greek myth. I like to put deep stories behind words. Sometimes it’s really encrypted, but I really enjoy it; it’s like a puzzle to me, and I work on a song for a long time. I could write a song in half an hour or an hour, but I wouldn’t be happy with it. I like to work on the lyrics for months and months and improve them and the storylines.”
“I’d rather be poor if I need to be. I’m singing every day, I’m rehearsing, and I’m glad I didn’t listen to these people who said I should do something ‘normal’.”
Being frontwoman and, usually, spokeswoman for the rest of the band comes with its own set of challenges. “People say ‘oh, it’s Liis’ band,’ but I’m really tired of emphasising that this band wouldn’t be here, without this exact combination of people. If one of them was missing it would be a totally different band. I think because they’re such good musicians, they do enjoy it, but I think everybody is really happy with their role at the moment. As long as I’m not a diva, they’re fine!”
There are daily pressures, inevitably, especially when starting out. “I love it, don’t get me wrong, but people say, ‘oh, you just open your mouth and sing,’ when I actually have to go to work, and then if I lose my voice, what do I do? I have to get treatments and stuff to keep it going. I have to practice, and I’m the manager of the band, so I organise and do the paperwork, and it’s everything, you know? And I want it to be like that.”
POCA were due to tour Estonia in April of this year, but had to delay on these plans — however Liis and the band are in touch with Frankie Animal and Liqui Fuzz, some of the most talked-about names on the Estonian music scene; Liis is a fan of both bands and would love to work with them in the future.
People everywhere, not just Estonia, are under pressure to choose a job with security and training, to settle down, and to find a stable life. Liis feels this is especially a pressure in her home country, though — their unique history having made Estonians cautious about their future. Although some doubters have advised Liis to view music as a hobby, not a career, she has a supportive family in Estonia who are happy she is in the music business. It’s clear Liis Hirvoja is in the right place, and that POCA is a band going places quickly. “I’d rather be poor if I need to be. I’m singing every day, I’m rehearsing, and I’m glad I didn’t listen to these people who said I should do something ‘normal’.”
POCA’s debut video was released a month ago (featured video) and an EP is scheduled for the end of 2013
Photos: Liis Hirvoja with her band POCA in London
F-Hoone is a renowned restaurant in the former Telliskivi factory complex in Tallinn. Even though it has been the nucleus of Tallinn’s hipster movement for several years, Rando Kruus and Oliver Vare from the up-and-coming Estonian band Odd Hugo, still seem slightly set apart from the crowd.
Their look is part young folkie, part poet. It’s always a joy when an interviewee enters the room with a smile, and the band members make sure I know that it will be a fun hour with them. There is a slight awkwardness as all of us try to out-polite each other, working out where would be best to sit to conduct the interview, and then we get started without further fuss.
I threw one of my standard interview icebreakers the way of the band, asking them who they classed as their chief influence. “Definitely Jack White,” replied Rando, “The soul he has, the sincerity, and the power and the anger he has.” It was, he explained, because of the way White, both solo and with The White Stripes previously, could convey complex musical ideas in a simple way. “Some of our tunes are actually quite simple, but some of the things we put in there, sound complicated or difficult to listen to. But it’s more the philosophy he has, than the music he creates.”
I named Andrew Bird’s ‘Danse Caribe’, from his album ‘
Break it Yourself’, as my favourite track of 2012 on my own website. It emerged that Rando and Oliver were equally inspired by the singer-songwriter-fiddle virtuoso. Rando explained, “I listened to that album thinking — this is what I want us to do. If you talk about our influences, then there is Jack White for the edginess and Andrew Bird for the wit and lyricism.”
“And ‘folkanism’,” Oliver added, making up a word that made us all laugh. The two young men share vocal duties in Odd Hugo, and this is no accident – they even finish each other’s sentences. Oliver drew a parallel between their sound and Bird’s, “the vocals we have, are sometimes quite Andrew Bird-ish. The melodies keep on flowing.”
I’d been a long-time fan of two other groups which I could hear in Odd Hugo’s sound — Talking Heads and Simon and Garfunkel. I was surprised when neither was cited as an influence. Rando explained: “Simon and Garfunkel — with them, one guy is always singing up high, they fit really well together. We sometimes intertwine. Sometimes we’re not maybe in tune, but it works somehow.” “
We started singing three years ago,” Oliver told me, seeing the subsequent surprise on my face at this. I’d spoken to a few classically-trained musicians recently, and wondered if they had taken any formal training at all.
“The only teachers I’ve had are Oliver, and Rein [the band’s manager and a keen home-brewer of beer, who was also sitting in on the interview],” explains Rando, “I was doing some voice things, and Rein said, “just yell, get more power from your stupid face! We started off in our home city of Tartu in February 2010, wrote ten songs in two months, and gave the concert.” “T
hat very much got us started”, Oliver chimed in. Rando continued on his point, “we discovered our voices, singing and playing the chorus part to Reamonn’s “Supergirl”. There was just a split second when the voices were just right — that was our first recording; we recorded on a shitty little recorder.”
But how did it feel to play gigs now, when there was audience anticipation and expectation? How was it, to be giving a little bit of themselves, through patently heartfelt songs that transition between time-signatures, genres and styles within the space of one track? “I know this is the kind of thing pop stars say,” Rando began with a facial expression that indicated
he did not take himself as seriously as the statement might make it seem, “but when you’ve been on stage, you can’t talk – maybe you’re a little bit tired, or a little bit sad – but you need a half-hour break before singing anything. It really feels like that. When we’re on stage it’s just us, we use our fingers and our voices, we give everything, it’s like an autopsy taking place on stage. Then we leave. I love those quiet, really intimate gigs, when we don’t have to turn our equipment up really loud and the crowd really listen. With Tallinn Music Week in the Sõpruse Cinema, there was a lot going on with the audience, on the stage.” “ I was in a trance,” Oliver agreed.
Thoughts turned to the songwriting process. As Oliver told me, “the words, sometimes they come poetically and lyrically. Sometimes it’s like an essay, an idea occurs to you and you just try to write into the idea. Usually the song ends up sounding a bit different from the original when we get together.” “This is an enjoyable experience for the band,” said Rando. “The part I like most
is when we start to sing together; it changes completely.” “There are many days,” Oliver agreed, “when you want to sing only this one song, because we discovered something weird, for example.” Rando remembered something else. “I like the frustrating feeling when we’ve been banging our heads against the wall, nothing’s coming out, then the next time we meet it’s perfect.”
I asked the pair which songs they were most proud of, from their recently-released debut album, standing out on the shelves due to its memorable black-and-white artwork by artists Getter Vahar and Laine Pukk. “One song that, when I hear it a smile comes to my face,” said Rando, “is ‘I have a story’. I like the style. Also ‘A Song for Ashes’. But I’m happy with almost every song. The last song ’Identiphobia’ is to show what we’re capable of doing, it’s a ska-Spanish kind of thing – it’s a different song to the rest.”
We were in a nice restaurant, in a part of Tallinn famed for its highly-motivated and well-mobilised artistic community. What made Odd Hugo keep wanting to make music full of feeling? “It’s about having friction, frustration, arguments. Something has to inspire you. You can’t just think in the morning: OK, I’m having eggs.”
I was about to use this as a phrase to end an enjoyable conversation, when, true to form, Rando came back, “ But what if having eggs in the morning means you write really happy songs!?”
Odd Hugo is currently embarking for their first European tour, their tour dates are:
22/6 Fontaine Palace, Liepaja
25/6 Müszi, Budapest
30/6 Fusion Festival, Lärz, Germany
2/7 De Ma Thilda Bar, Berlin
3/7 Brodvejus Pubas, Vilnius
4/7 Bubamara, Riga
10/7 Supporting Efterklang, Kadrioru Loss, Tallinn
11/7 Puhvet Aptek, Pärnu
12/7 Merepäevad, Tallinn
21/7 Positivus Festival, Latvia
25/7 Viljandi Tugengiklubi Folki Afterparty
More information and updates on the band: https://www.facebook.com/oddhugoband
Photos: Stuart Garlick and Odd Hugo
Hedvig Hanson (38) is an Estonian jazz singer. All her songs prominently feature expressions of emotion and closeness to nature. Hedvig got her first musical impressions from her mother, who listened soul and R&B music at home (Earth, Wind And Fire, Randy Crawford, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder etc.). According to her mother, Hedvig began to sing at the age of two…
She went on to study piano at the Tallinn School of Music and has released seven solo albums so far, her latest being Esmahetked. Her inspirations in vocal jazz are Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling, Sarah Vaughan, but she is also a great admirer of instrumental jazz musicians – Pat Metheny, Milton Nascimento, Brad Mehldau, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Ralph Towner, Paolo Fresu.
Stuart Garlick chatted to Hedvig Hanson in Viljandi, a town in South of Estonia.
Viljandi, home of the world-renowned folk festival, is close to the Estonian singer-songwriter Hedvig Hanson‘s country home, and clearly the town is as comfortable with her, as she is living there. I asked if she felt she was regarded differently on- and off-stage. “I haven’t really noticed; what I’ve noticed is that when people see me, on photos, television or the stage, I’m bigger in every way, the costume, the lighting… When people see me in real life, they say, ‘oh, you’re much tinier!’ And they can see I’m a normal person like everybody else.”
Later on, as we sat in the impressive local cultural centre, Hedvig explained that one of her proudest moments was having performed with Kurt Elling, when the singer, composer and doyen of American jazz came to Tallinn on tour earlier this year. Meeting one’s hero can be awkward or nerve-inducing, but she said, “he was a great surprise to me, because we got a chance to talk in the hotel, and he was so cool! I think a great artist still has to be a great person as well. Stage life is a different thing, though, you have to give a show.”
“There’s something very “mojito” about her jazz – cool like Nordic ice, refreshing like mint, with sweet and sensual Brazilian influences in her vocals… “ – Alex Kruzin (Billboard)
Esmahetked, Hedvig’s current album, which takes some of its influence from the tranquility of life in Viljandi, could be viewed as a return to the breezy, unhurried, jazzy style that she made her own throughout her career, propelled by her butter-smooth vocal style. It seems to be a change of direction from her previous album, Tants Kestab Veel, which was an attempt to up the tempo and make an album for the dance-floor. “I wanted to show that I’m not just a mother living in the country and getting old – I wanted to play some funk! I know it’s not what most of my fans were waiting for; most people like the mellower material.”
“When it comes to music, I love to come back to the place or time when I was a big romantic, and keep that purity in me that I had when I was a child.”
“[With the new album] I wanted it to be especially romantic as, maybe, it’s the last album that can be so romantic, since I’m getting old! That’s a joke, but I love to be romantic in music; I’m not that romantic a person in real life; you’ve got to be a realist to live. When it comes to music, I love to come back to the place or time when I was a big romantic, and keep that purity in me that I had when I was a child. It was really important for me to not wear a mask in music. You have to still keep faith in life, in love, in people. You have to find the balance between reality and your dreams.”
It seemed an appropriate point to talk about Hedvig’s formative influences. I had read that she grew up in the 1980’s liking Whitney Houston – right from her first LP, which came out when the 10 year-old Hedvig was first deciding on her own musical tastes. We discussed the soulfulness of Whitney’s early songs, and how fame affected her, changing her outlook, many felt, for the worse, as she got older. “I think the main reason was she got tired, she gave so much. Maybe she also fell in love with the wrong man. We don’t know anything about the big music business; it can be tough and it must be tough. It can be that everybody’s using you. You get tired and you get bitchy. She was a really kind and loving and trusting person when she was younger. She became bitchy and bitter in the end, so what happened? She got tired, I’m sure.”
“My faith is music, and mostly I love black music, and black music comes from gospel [music]. That’s why I admire their faith. The music I love comes from faith, so I really respect it.”
I raised the point that Whitney’s background was in gospel music – a style I knew (from a short stint in Birmingham’s Town Hall Gospel Choir) to be an avowedly passionate one, fuelled by religious faith, but carrying an audience along, regardless of belief. I wondered if perhaps Hedvig had gained anything from gospel music, in spite of not growing up around religion. “My faith is music, and mostly I love black music, and black music comes from gospel [music]. That’s why I admire their faith. The music I love comes from faith, so I really respect it.”
So what next? There is an English version planned of the Estonian-language album Esmahetked. “Actually, I started singing in English, so it seemed quite natural for me. When I’m in Estonia, I’d rather sing in the Estonian language. But I understand that maybe if you want to go to an international market, you want to sing in English and Spanish – big languages.”
“Internationally, Estonian jazz is becoming respected and gaining a larger audience. But maybe people are thinking it’s not really an Estonian thing we should support, because it comes from America?”
Internationally, Estonian jazz is becoming respected and gaining a larger audience. “But maybe people are thinking it’s not really an Estonian thing we should support, because it comes from America,” Hedvig said, a little sadly, reflecting on a relative lack of Estonian government assistance for jazz compared to choral music.
Hedvig’s mother and father played together in Fix, a pop-rock group of the 1970s, but they divorced shortly after Hedvig’s birth. Hedvig did not learn from her mother how to sing or play music, “I must tell you, she didn’t teach me a single note; it’s sometimes that parents can’t teach their children – I see it myself – and I just wanted to listen to music and try to make my own sound.” Instead, she spent her early years living in Tõrva with her grandmother, who, aged 94, continues to support and remains very close to Hedvig now she is an established star.
I still wondered if she missed her parents when she was growing up. “They couldn’t live in a little village, and my granny didn’t want me to tour. Of course, they separated, like passionate people do, so I think it was the safest way for me to grow.” What kind of person is her grandmother? “My granny’s not a musician, she’s a working person. She came from Karelia and she’s a really colourful person. I have to write down, some day, the memories of my childhood.”
Sat, as we were, looking at the verdant valley, thoughts turned to nature, particularly gardening. Seeing Hedvig warm to the topic, I told her of my own increased enthusiasm for flowers. “It’s called growing up,” she said, laughing.
“Doing gardening – it’s called growing up. In a way it’s just like taking care of children – the responsibility you take. When you really take this responsibility, I think that some day you’ll be happy that you did.”
“The whole philosophy of it – it’s the taking care of it, it’s really philosophical, it’s like children – another responsibility you take. When you really take this responsibility, I think that some day you’ll be happy that you did.”
It was a pleasant day in Viljandi, and I had had the pleasure of hearing the life philosophy of a true Estonian cultural great – something that does not happen every day. We concluded a pleasurable chat talking about the young pianist, producer and songwriter Holger Marjamaa, “the future of jazz in Estonia,” as Hedvig put it. Some artists may be the future of Estonian jazz, but I felt sure I had been talking to someone who would remain influential for, and supportive of, her fellow musicians for many years to come.
Photos: Maris Ojasuu.
There are times when music seems nice, even pleasant. Then there is music that causes each of us to take a step back, to not just hear it but listen to it, because it is just too original, too beautiful to ignore.
In recent years, this has only happened to me three times — when I heard Liisi Koikson for the first time, singing “Varjud”, her voice audible through my hotel room open window; it also happened when I heard Jonsi Birgisson’s song “Animal Arithmetic” for the first time. And that brief euphoric feeling came to me whilst listening to the title track from Ingrid Lukas‘s 2009 debut album, “We Need to Repeat”. I only hope that everyone gets that feeling at some point — that music cannot be any more beautiful.
“We Need to Repeat” was followed by 2011’s “Silver Secrets”, for which Ingrid was signed to Universal Music. Along with the major-label backing came a fuller sound, still containing the delicate touch that was so admirable in the first record, but adding power to her voice, and to the music that surrounded it.
“The music is like me as a character; I’m changing and developing, and the third album is going to be different too.”
“It just felt right at that moment,“ she explained to me over Skype. “Records are only moments, and I started somewhere — if you start, you have no idea how to put a record together; two years of work was behind that.” Did she get a sense of vulnerability and openness coming across in that first album? “I worked with the Swiss pianist, composer and producer Nik Bärtsch on that album, and it just came out as it was at that time. As a person I was still working on my own language and sound, and maybe I was a little bit insecure. I realised that I sang everything very high, and on the second one the voice was much deeper. The music is like me as a character; I’m changing and developing, and the third album is going to be different too.”
I asked her to tell me a little more about the forthcoming album, due to be released in early 2014, and what her motivation was going into its recording. “I know a little more what I want. We will produce the whole album by ourselves; it will have a lot more beats in it, and electronics. We were in the studio last month, recording the basics, and now we are building a new sound-world into it.”
In an era where many established Estonian artists are stepping away from pop and electronics, finding more adventure in other genres, it seemed to me to confirm Ingrid was taking a different path to her peers, by recording what might be deemed a more “commercial” album third time around. Had there been any pressure from her label to put together a record that would sell in increased numbers? “Oh, no – I’m very happy that we can do whatever we want.” She has a good working relationship with Universal, who have been a very supportive label.
Ingrid was born and brought up in Estonia, but at the age of 10 she moved to Zürich, Switzerland, with her mother. “Her husband is Swiss, they fell in love and got married and she took me with her.” She still has much of her family in the country of her birth, though. “My father and grandparents live in Estonia, so I still have that strong link to Estonia.”
“When I went looking for my own style, I went to Estonia, to my roots, and the next step was Estonian traditional regilaul. I feel this strong connection; it is home, and if I’m not home, I carry home with me; if I sing these songs, I feel connected. I am Estonian and I am proud!”
I wondered if it ever felt to her that she was becoming distant from the place she regards as her homeland. Ingrid was quick to explain that this was not so. Estonia is where all her song-writing comes from. Her albums feature songs in both English and Estonian, and many songs take the Estonian choral tradition as their starting point. “When I went looking for my own style, I went to Estonia, to my roots, and the next step was Estonian traditional regilaul (Runic singing is a traditional way of singing folk songs — Editor). I feel this strong connection; it is home, and if I’m not home, I carry home with me; if I sing these songs, I feel connected. I am Estonian and I am proud!”
“There are so many Estonian people that live in other countries. We are such a small country with so few Estonians in the world that we should take care of each other and spread the Estonian spirit and speak the Estonian language even if we are not at home. And it’s also important that if we have children we speak Estonian in front of them and teach them the Estonian language and culture, because it survived over so many years and so many attacks by other nations.”
“There are so many Estonian people that live in other countries. We are such a small country with so few Estonians in the world that we should take care of each other and spread the Estonian spirit and speak the Estonian language even if we are not at home.”
I asked her why she felt so strongly about Estonia, even when at a distance from the country. “I think, because I am away, the feeling gets even stronger. I’m not sure if I would have lived in Estonia my whole life, the feeling would have been so strong. What is very inspiring for me is the tension within me between these two countries, because when I am in Switzerland, I see Estonia from outside, and I feel what I miss about Estonia; and when I am in Estonia, I miss Switzerland.”
Switzerland is a place with a different mentality to Estonia in many ways, and I wanted to know how this had shaped Ingrid. “I am definitely more open. I don’t know if this is because, as a musician, you go on a stage and open yourself completely — I don’t tell everything about my private life, although I think I am more open than Estonians on average.”
It always fascinates me to hear about an artist’s creative process. Ingrid told me about the need to find a personal inner peace, in order to write the kind of songs she wants to write. “In November and December I was in Estonia in the woods; the forest, the sea, the roots and me, and I found it there.”
Is her song-writing still governed by improvisation? “Yes, it is. I am a “free bird”, and I get these moments when I go over to my studio. Every morning I get this opportunity to see what’s going to happen. I have no rules. I try to invite inspiration, and then when it’s there I try to follow it. Sometimes I just put my hands on the piano, and sometimes it IS something, and sometimes… it’s crap. The most important thing is to keep going, not to condemn yourself, because it may need these steps.”
“My deepest question was how to find my own style. It was always an important question for me. I went looking for my own style outside, I made a circle, I looked around, what were the influences that made my character and made my music. At the end I came back to myself. My own style is already within me.”
“I have always composed my own music, since I was 13 years old, and I started to study in music school when I was 17. My deepest question was how to find my own style. It was always an important question for me. I went looking for my own style outside, I made a circle, I looked around, what were the influences that made my character and made my music. At the end I came back to myself. My own style is already within me.”
Back to her trip to Estonia, Ingrid explained how not everything had gone according to plan. “I went to Estonia, and thought, ‘I’m going to have these ten weeks off, and work really hard,’ but for a while nothing happened. I needed to arrive in the silence. My body needed to arrive. This world is so overwhelming, and you get lost really easy. When I went to this silence, and finally had the time and room to breathe, it took me weeks to find and feel the essence again.”
“So at this time it’s really hard, because I’m used to running around, and doing ten things at the same time, and sometimes you need to take time off and trust the right thing will come at the right time. I need a lot of things going on, but then at other times I need silence. That’s maybe my Estonian part; I need slowness and I need breaks.”
The live experience is very important to Ingrid’s life as an artist. “Two months ago we were in the opera [house] in Halle in Germany, it was sold out, 800 people were there, and the energy just started to flow. Because it’s not just us, it’s also the audience, and if it’s right, it can be amazing. I just love to share my passion on stage. That’s where magic can happen. After the concerts I always go to the merch table and talk with people. They give it back to me – if they’re happy and shining, and their eyes are sparkling, so that’s enough!”
How did Ingrid’s two forthcoming concerts in the US come about? I knew that she had performed for the Estonian President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves on his recent tour of the United States, which she agreed was a proud moment for her. “It started with a concert in New York last fall. The Estonian embassy invited me to play a concert for President Ilves. There I met the general consul Mr. Sten Schwede and Kristi Roosmaa, who are organising my concert in New York this time. Maria Belovas, the press and cultural affairs attaché in Washington invited me to play a concert in Washington. I am really excited about that.”
We finished our chat exchanging impressions of the song festival (Laulupidu — Editor) in Tallinn, the “energy and power” of Estonia and the Estonian people. Clearly energy and power guides this intelligent, engaging artist on in life.
Ingrid Lukas will be performing at Rockwood Music Hall in New York on 17 May, and then at the American University in Washington, DC, on 19 May. My hope is that you feel as refreshed listening to her wonderful music as I did.
Kristi Roosmaa Tootell, Cultural Affairs Coordinator at the Consulate General of Estonia in New York, on Ingrid Lukas:
“I couldn’t agree more with the Estonian radio show host, Koit Raudsepp, who said that Ingrid Lukas is the best-kept state secret. What an amazing talent! I love her unique style, fierce stage presence and authenticity. She’s different and that makes you remember her.”
“I’m very excited for Ingrid’s Rockwood Music Hall debut. Rockwood is considered one of the most popular live music venues for emerging artists. People from all over America try to get a performance at this hot spot. Getting through the talent pool as a non-American artist and getting a chance to perform in these venues is an achievement by itself, so I’m thrilled that she has an amazing spot, 8pm on Friday.”
Photos by Anja Fonseka & Arvo Wichmann
24th February is always a special day for Estonia. This year it celebrated the day 95 years ago when the Estonian republic was first formed. Some took the day seriously, going to one of the local parades or celebrations dotting the country, or watching festivities on ETV, the national TV channel. Some went about their normal day, making dinner or watching movies with friends. Others would have been working – it’s a national holiday, but this is a country of incorrigibly hard working people.
Although I have been in Estonia for two independence days, this is the first year I had most of the day to myself. I thought, rather than write about the history or the politics of this significant day, both of which have been covered in substantial detail on other people’s blogs, I would take a step back and reflect on my changing impressions of Estonia.
Maybe my feelings have changed like someone in a relationship. When I visited, twice, as a tourist, it was like dating someone. After a whirlwind romance, I decided to move in, in June 2011. To begin with, it was the serotonin rush of excitement at being in Tallinn, the city I fell in love with back in 2010 when I was still a little bit emotionally broken, that kept me going.
Later, as the daily grind set in and the sun stopped coming out every day, I realised I was here for the long haul. Having not come with a girlfriend or any family, I was on my own, save for a few kind people who seemed to enjoy my company. It was hard, and yes, I began to project my frustrations onto the place I had once loved unconditionally. I looked at the sour faces on every public transport, the people who cursed me for putting shopping in my bags too slowly, and I lost belief in my ability to integrate.
Somewhere in 2012, though, things turned around for me. Perhaps I proved to some people I was around for longer than they imagined. Maybe some people’s attitude changed towards me. More likely, though, I just became more attuned to the culture I had always been trying to learn about. A wise man told me to stop trying to please others. As soon as I managed this, social gatherings became more fun, I started opening up to people about how I actually felt, rather than just putting up the standard barrier of saying I was “fine” and offering faux-positivity.
The people who took me under my wing when I first arrived in this pretty, unassuming corner of Europe are, by and large, still my friends. But once I forgave myself for my early errors and misunderstandings, I noticed a much larger group of people who wanted to get to know me, and could see beyond the fake joviality I had used as a front beforehand.
So, what does this tell me about Estonia? This is not an easy place to live. If you want to be able to have beachside barbeques at 8pm in October, and lots of languid leisure time, go to Spain or Italy. But if you settle in Estonia, you might find something far more rewarding after a while.
You might find a place where, whatever the idea you come up with, no-one tells you “you’re crazy”, or “show us your qualifications” – and where life brings endless possibilities to develop your own potential. You’ll find many deep-thinking, intelligent people who are honest and, once they have ascertained they can expect the same from you, will walk over hot coals to help you if you have a problem.
Many of these great friends have left Estonia, a sad reflection on the bare fact that it is a small country with a developing market, and a highly-qualified young person with three or four languages is going to do well in another country and will have a curiosity about the world that can only be cured through discovery. I’ve cried a couple of times, I’ve occasionally envied my friends’ new surroundings on seeing pictures on Facebook, I’ve wished they would come back – but most of all I’ve been glad for the time we spent together. Friendship doesn’t have national boundaries, especially in this era of digital communication. Our paths will cross in the future, and the feeling will be all the sweeter when it happens.
Did I imagine that, nearly two years into my time in Estonia, I would be doing so many things, professionally and personally, that were so rewarding? That I would have had the chance to enjoy a fashion week in the front row, only a matter of weeks before interviewing my favourite singer? Or that I would be collaborating on a photoshoot for another of my interviewees? Or that I would be in training for a triathlon? No.
All this, in 2011, would have seemed an unimaginably distant prospect. My love for life is back, as is my love for Estonia. Maybe the latter never went away. Maybe it just changed from a giddy teenage love that ignored the truth, into a love that recognises flaws, accepts them, and does not forget the good things all around me, the reasons why I am incredibly fortunate.
“The universe is not so random,” a friend said to me. There is a reason why I came here, beyond a job offer or a quest for adventure. Maybe I’m beginning to find out what that is. Or maybe not. But I’m having fun trying to solve the puzzle.
Happy Birthday Estonia. Whatever you’re doing, make the most of a happy day, and, most importantly, do what you feel like doing.
This article was first published by Stuart Garlick on his website, Charm Offensive.
Front page photo: Toomas Volmer/Tallinn City Tourist Office.