Mihkel Raud is an Estonian writer, playwright, radio and TV-host, singer and musician, and he has done a stint in politics – a man of many talents. On a sunny and hot Friday afternoon in Chicago, Estonian World sat down with him and talked about his colourful life – and life on the planet Earth in general.
It’s not every day I get to interview someone famous. In fact, the last time I did a face-to-face interview must have been some 13 years ago when I still lived in Estonia and worked at the Estonian daily newspaper, Eesti Päevaleht. It was also around that time when I first met Mihkel. He came to work as the head of the culture department at the daily, and while I knew him at that time from the TV screen and had probably seen him perform live with his band, Mr Lawrence, I didn’t know-know him.
One day in the 2000s, he suddenly appeared at my desk with a book in his hand. For the life of me I don’t remember what the title of that book was, but it was something about the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, possibly about his capture. Mihkel wanted me to read the book and review it for his culture section.
I was kind of surprised. I was this young asshole of a journalist, the know-it-all type (you’ve all met those) who had been promoted far too quickly and genuinely believed there was nothing else to learn in life, despite being in my twenties. I had a fixed set of political beliefs and I knew that Mihkel’s views were pretty much the complete opposite from mine.
But I did review the book. And I possibly even liked it. But at the time, I didn’t really understand why he was so adamant about me reviewing it – nor did I really think about it much. Only later, when I had done a good share of growing up and getting over my arrogance, I realised he was trying to teach me something. Maybe humility, maybe the ability to see matters other than black and white, or maybe just to make me think about matters in ways I didn’t want. Whatever it was, it worked.
Enjoying Chicago and America
Yeah, I know, it might sound as if I’m eulogising Mihkel Raud, but I’m not. He’s alive and kicking and for the past year or so, has been doing that kicking in Chicago. In a weird coincidence, we’re practically neighbours in the Lincoln Square-Andersonville neighbourhoods. I moved back here only recently, having lived here four years ago and really loved the area. Mihkel moved here, with his wife Liina, daughter Mirjam and son Joosep, in the autumn of 2017, and he did so by accident.
As he described in one of his blog posts, he was just visiting Chicago and had heard that the Wicker Park neighbourhood was a cool place, so he asked a Lyft driver to take them there. The driver, however, talked them out of it, telling them that Andersonville was way cooler. And after having been dropped off in the neighbourhood that was first settled by Swedish immigrants in the North Side of Chicago, his and his family’s hearts were set – they had to move there. And they did.
Mihkel says he loves America, and especially the Midwest and Chicago. Chicago even so much that he has the city’s skyline tattooed on his left arm. “First of all, it’s a very cool design. There’re many aspects here, first, it’s like the ECG machine’s output; second, it’s like what you see when you’re mixing music in a studio; and third, it’s the skyline of the city that has accepted me so well. I had it done after we had our first anniversary of living here. I’ve always wanted to have a tattoo.”
Of course, what brought Mihkel to America in the first place wasn’t Chicago, but his love towards America and Americans. “I have always liked America, for tens of different reasons,” he explains. “In my early childhood when I lived in the Soviet Union, if there was anything I knew one thousand per cent, was that I would never get to visit America. From this time until today I love this country and I like Americans – a claim that many people I know raise eyebrows to, asking, what do you mean you like Americans. But I do, very much. Especially here, in the Midwest.”
“Mainly I wanted to live in America. It didn’t matter whether for one year or however long I’m going to live here. I have taken the position that I’m going to see how it goes and what happens, and today I know I am here. My oldest kid is starting school, we’ll see how that goes. But the main reason, why I live here now and maybe another 10 or 20 years – or maybe until the end of my days – is, honestly, I like it here.”
Of course, settling in here isn’t always easy. Every European – and every Estonian – who has ever moved to the United States has had their challenges and things to get used to. “Before moving, I had been here many times, but settling in at the beginning, yes, there were challenges,” Mihkel says. “Starting from standing in line at the Social Security office to understanding how things work, what is a credit score and why you need it. When I was renting my first apartment, the landlord asked what my credit score was and told him, it’s excellent, 800 – without understanding that I didn’t even have a credit score. But since I’m here on a visa, I think circumstances have been a lot easier for me than for people who live here illegally. Although even the illegals are here semi-officially, they go to school and pay their taxes.”
Work is in Estonia
Mihkel’s family – wife and two children – have also adapted to life in America and done so very well. “When we came here, my daughter, Mirjam, didn’t speak English at all. Now she speaks so well that our friends say she doesn’t sound foreign at all. Well, at this age – she’s five – they catch up really fast. And my three-year-old son, too – they’re both bilingual. We speak to them in Estonian at home, but sometimes we use English, just to practice it ourselves and to teach it to the children.”
His professional life, however, is mainly based in Estonia. He has a content marketing business where he provides different content services to his clients, like blogging. “The great thing about the internet is, I don’t have to be in the same country or even in the same continent to do this,” he rejoices. But he also visits Estonia quite often as he works as a TV host for two seasonal programmes – “Kolmeraudne” (Three-Barrelled), which is a talk show he leads, and “Eesti otsib superstaari” (the Estonian equivalent of the American Idol) where he’s one of the three judges. “That’s why I don’t even miss Estonia, as I go there all the time. This is what I like about my current life – I get to spend time in both America and Estonia. And when in one place I sense some sort of a routine creeping up, I go to the other.”
Living in America and often spending time in Estonia gives Mihkel a unique insight into the lives of both countries. What does he think Estonia could learn from the United States – and vice versa?
“Both have a lot to learn, absolutely. It’s a very common thing to say, but the thing that the US could learn from Estonia is that it’s possible to cut red tape radically. America is an insanely bureaucratic country. You need to make phone calls, nobody replies to emails. You have a mailbox full of letters, you need to read them and reply to them. That’s definitely something the US could learn from Estonia – how things work online. It’s an annoying statement, but it’s true. The e-state in Estonia is a very cool thing.”
“Vice versa, well, these countries are totally incomparable. Estonia has three times less people that the city of Chicago! I sometimes sit in the car, in a traffic jam, hundreds of cars around me, and I think, this is just a tiny fragment of America. Zoom the map out and you see traffic jams and moving around from one edge of the country to another,” he describes. “But even though the sizes are different, Estonia has a lot to learn from America. I think, most importantly, humane things. Yes, these are small and annoying, maybe even banal examples, but when you bump into someone at a line to the register in the store, then you don’t necessarily have to bump into them again – you can just apologise, like they do here. Nothing to be done, the people here are, I think, friendlier.”
“Depends on who I am talking to. If that person is a musician, I talk about music. If they’re interested in nature, I’ll try to speak about the nature, as little as I know about it. I think I mostly tell them how many people live in Estonia, and often people also ask me, what’s our main industry. There I’m always stuck, because I don’t know what’s our main industry. I’ve usually said it’s tourism. We have a beautiful country and people want to visit it.”
“The thing I’m doing at a given moment, that’s closest to my heart”
Mihkel’s life so far – well, he’s only 49 – has been very eventful. He is, indeed, a man of many talents – he’s a musician and a songwriter, a radio and TV-host, a writer and a playwright, and he also did a stint in politics – he was elected to the Estonian parliament in 2015 as a member of the Social Democratic Party. He’s played the guitar in numerous bands. His first book, “Musta pori näkku” (“Dirty Mud in the Face”), an autobiography about his time growing up in the Soviet Union, was, in Estonian terms, extremely successful, having sold over 30,000 copies. He also wrote a fiction novel, “Sinine on sinu taevas” (“Blue is Your Sky”), and two theatrical plays. Hence I have to ask, which of these jobs is the closest to the heart for Mihkel.
“I have defined it for myself in a way that, the very thing that I am doing at a given moment is what I hold closest to my heart,” he notes. “When I’m writing something, it’s writing that’s closest to the heart. If I’m leading a TV show, it’s that. If I’m on the stage with a band or singing, then that is closest to my heart. It’s not like I would want to exchange one of my occupations for another, I like doing them all, it keeps me fresh and I won’t drown in one activity.”
With one exception, though – he doesn’t think he’s a politician. “I was a politician the same amount as I was a fisherman,” he laughs about his year-long MP career that he quit because he was disappointed in party politics in Estonia. “It was a very brief stint and lasted in my life about the same amount of time I was an eager fisherman. So I don’t think a politician is one of my titles.”
Even though Mihkel doesn’t consider himself a politician, we do need to go there. Hence I ask, what is the state of Estonian politics in his eyes. Is there any way to make the political system better?
“I don’t think it’s possible to change anything. Estonian politics has naturally evolved to a place it today is, and that place is that, when in the 1990ies, people started all over again, and in the parliament there always was debate – well, that debate is gone by now. One might get an impression that the MPs are discussing issues, but in reality, not so much. The laws in Estonia are created in a way that the government – or the ministries, or some officials at those ministries – come up with the bills, send them to the parliament, there they’re just approved and become laws, and there is no real discussion.”
In 2005, Mihkel studied journalism in London and got his master’s degree. What does he think of the state of the media in Estonia?
“One thing that some of the Estonian journalists have too much is certitude,” he says. “When I read how some Estonian journalists write about how bad and low-quality and subjective the American media is, then that, to me, is a good example how this certitude is prevalent. I think there’s too much certitude. In fact, they should doubt themselves more. There should be more self-doubt in the Estonian media.”
Speaking of studying in London, that’s another fascinating story. Mihkel was 36 years old when he decided he wanted to gain a degree – he had only finished high school – and was completely ready to go to the university with 19-year-olds. “But in the UK, they have this option that if you have worked in the field you want to study for a certain amount of time, maybe six or seven years – and I had been in journalism for fifteen – you can go straight to the master’s programme, your work experience counts as your bachelor’s degree. So I went to the journalism master’s programme, completed it and got my degree.”
“It was a really great experience. I had the feeling I needed to distance myself from Estonia for a while, and I wanted to experience the cultural diversity London has to offer,” he explains. “That’s also why I am here, in the US – the cultural diversity. Many Estonians think that’s a minus, but I like it. Living in London taught me a lot – about myself, the world and Estonia.”
Writing with genes
Mihkel Raud comes from a famous literary family. His father, Eno Raud, was a children’s author, having penned a number of books thousands of children in Estonia grew up with. His mother, Aino Pervik, has also written a ton of children’s books, but also novels and poetry. And that’s not it – Mihkel’s older brother, Rein Raud, is also a writer, having published a number of novels; and his sister, Piret Raud, is one of the most successful contemporary Estonian children’s authors and illustrators.
“I remember when my first book, “Dirty Mud in the Face” was published, some people told me, well, it’s easy for you, you’re writing with genes,” Mihkel recalls. “I was under the impression that I was writing with my own brain and fingers, but turned out it was the genes. But I don’t want to believe in that genetic aspect. I know I have to, because it’s science and scientists say these things are connected. Yes, I think a part of my literary ability and also some of my musical abilities I have inherited from my parents. My father used to play the violin when he was a young man, and he thought he was going to become a musician. But he didn’t – and maybe it’s good, too. Instead, I became one.”
Speaking of writing, next year Mihkel is planning to write something longer than content marketing posts. “It’s in a very early stage yet, so according to my current plans, it should be published at the end of next year. But I can say this much that it’s non-fiction, something that I feel I can write the best. I’ve written one fiction book in my life, but looking back to it, I don’t think it was very good.”
He is contemplating, however, writing a few more plays, saying he has a couple of ideas. “A play as a format or a genre is very close to my heart because I like how they’re economical and have all those rules that a play should have – or, well, what a play in my vision should have. I like that very much. So yeah, I might write another play. I’ve written two so possibly some of my ideas may crystallise.”
Being a successful musician in Estonia is not a recipe for a global triumph
When it comes to music, Mihkel thinks that his father may have influenced his love for it, but the main interest towards music came from his brother, Rein. “I remember clearly, I may have been five years old, I was listening to my brother’s records and I really loved everything I heard. The Rolling Stones, later also Pink Floyd and Emerson Lake & Palmer – I was a fan of progressive rock – but also the Grateful Dead. My brother used to listen all sorts of stuff. So yeah, I think that listening to my brother’s records helped and at the end I was a very convinced fan of music, and by now I think I’m the biggest music fan in my family.”
What about Estonian music today? As Mihkel is one of the judges in the Estonian equivalent of American Idol, he must have exclusive insight into the music scene today.
“Well, these bands that I see and hear and who appear on my programmes, they’re all very good and I like them a lot. But can I generalise based on these? I don’t know. I think the Estonian music scene is great. There are a lot of bands and they also perform abroad, so I think the passion for playing music among the Estonian youth is not smaller than when I was their age.”
But what to me is kind of interesting is that Estonia has one world-famous classical composer, Arvo Pärt; however, no Estonian rock or pop group has enjoyed global fame even comparable to Pärt’s. Why is that, and is there a recipe to change that?
“Of course there is. But that would immediately eliminate the term, ‘Estonian pop music’. I sincerely believe that if you want to be successful in the British or German or even the American market, then you need to live in that country, be culturally relevant in that country. Kerli Kõiv (an Estonian singer and songwriter who enjoyed short-lasting success in Los Angeles – editor) is a good example. So that’s how it is. Pärt is successful, of course, because he’s a genius, but another thing is, he lives abroad. Even though he’s not considered to be a German composer, nor an Estonian one. I don’t think Pärt is considered to be a composer of any country, but just a great composer.”
Estonians shouldn’t drink themselves to death
Speaking of Estonia, again, I also have to ask, what should be done differently there. “Many things can be done differently, and whether it’s a good idea or bad only becomes clear after you made the change,” he notes. “I know, it’s very unpopular to say that, and I understand how wrong Estonia has gone with its alcohol policies (the government raised the alcohol taxes and now many import alcohol from Latvia where it’s considerably cheaper – editor), but I think drinking is a bigger problem in Estonia than people realise.”
“I don’t want to sound patronising, but I must honestly say, within this year in Chicago, I have seen two drunk people. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an alcohol abuse problem in America, but Chicago and the US will survive it. But I’m afraid Estonia is such a small country that every life is accounted for. Hence I think this alcohol abuse problem is worrisome. But I also realise this issue is deeply rooted into people and I understand when the government is trying to limit drinking. Although when it’s being done so awkwardly as it has been, people want to defy it and drink even more.”
So, what should be done? “Well, there you go. It’s difficult. When a person has decided to kill themselves, how do you talk them out of it? What I have sometimes done, when people ask me to talk about it, like to children in school (Mihkel is a recovering alcoholic, one of the subjects of his first book, “Dirty Mud in the Face” – editor), then I tell them what booze did to me and why I had to quit, and why I think it’s dangerous. But, of course, people make their own decisions. So yes, one thing that should be done differently – maybe they shouldn’t in corpore drink themselves to death.”
Every moment must be cool
One activity that Estonians should undertake, however, in Mihkel’s opinion, is travel. “Definitely travel,” he asserts. “See how other people live. And farther than to Latvia or Finland. Southern Europe is interesting, and if one can afford to, then Asia, see how people live there. It puts things into perspective. Go to Cambodia, a country that is a thousand times poorer than Estonia, but people have a strong will to live, they’re joyful, even despite the country’s ugly history. I definitely encourage people to travel more.”
For all he has achieved so far, I also want to know, what does Mihkel himself think his greatest achievement is. “That’s a difficult question. Probably my children. I have three, one’s an adult, two are small. I would’ve never thought I would have three kids. I have the most kids in my extended family – my brother has two and my sister has two. But this is a work in progress. One thing is to have kids, another to raise human beings out of them.”
Looking at Mihkel’s career so far, his incredible desire for experiences and the ability to undertake so many tasks and do them all well, I have to ask, what motivates him in life? “I think the fact that I want every moment to be cool. It may sound lame, but I want everything to be fun, exhilarating, anticipating, something needs to happen. People ask me, how can you fly back and forth all the time – back in the spring, I flew cross-Atlantic 12 times – and how can you travel so much. But it’s always fun. There’s always action. And as long as there’s action, I’m motivated. Action motivates. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean I run amok through the city, it’s rather that you’re internally restless, in a good way. That’s what motivates me.”
Cover: Mihkel Raud. All photos courtesy Mihkel Raud.