At this year’s Positivus Festival, one of the largest music festivals in the Baltic region, only two bands sang in Estonian. One of them was that of Marten Kuningas, a young Estonian singer who has remained committed to singing in Estonian, rather than English.
Known for lush sounds and romantic song writing skills, Kuningas just released his second solo album, “Praktiline mees” (“A Practical Man”), before taking a break from Estonia and moving to live and study in Berlin. Estonian World had a talk with Marten and his band mate Peedu Kass (electric bass/contrabass) before they made their move.
“A Practical Man”
Marten recalls that when his first album, “Janu” (“Thirst”), was a record about yearning and searching, the new one, which was released at the end of August, will also be just as introspective – looking in the mirror, going deep into one’s soul.
“The music on the new album carries the same meaning; it is quite dark but still emotional. The title itself is about pursuits, about the wish to become more practical, more down to earth and more grown-up. I have been asking myself the question of what do I have to give – in life in general, as well as to my audience?” he says.
“The recording and material concerns have been a quick progress, but the songs themselves came to life over the years. One could say, through a flow of unconsciousness. The title song, “Praktiline mees”, itself is actually from four years ago, but it is still very valid. It is about getting older and becoming more mature. The lyrics of this song might seem raw and unpolished, but they can also be understood through humour. The song is created for a someone special,” Marten adds slyly.
Other songs from the album include “Elu suudlus” (“The Kiss of Life”) and “Tagurpidi vaal” (“Twisted Love”), which won the first prize at the Estonian Uno Naissoo Competition of Music Composition and Interpretation.
The name Marten Kuningas stands at the same time for a person and a band of four: Raul Ojamaa (electric guitar), Kristjan Kallas (drums) and Peedu Kass (contrabass and electric bass). As with any good rock or pop band in the world, the good creative chemistry between the band members is the one that will ultimately spin the records.
“I am very happy to be able to play with them. We sound really good together,” says Marten.
Peedu feels the same way: “We met during the Tallinn Music Week last year and clicked right away through smaller mutual projects. I guess everybody in the band has a quite similar taste in music. We have been listening to the same stuff and when somebody has an idea, everyone else usually agrees on it. Marten is definitely the mastermind behind this – we believe in his introspective and eclectic style, his lyrics and his decisions.”
Experimenting with music and singing in Estonian
“Estonian is of course the language that I speak best – I love the language and it is therefore natural for me creating songs in it,” Kuningas says.
“I am not ruling out writing songs and singing in English, it is definitely not out of the question. I enjoy different languages as well. In general, I adjust myself according to the music and to the concerts and events at which I am invited to perform. I guess I am not trying to be anything that I’m not.”
“Marten is kind of a language wizard; by using words, he makes magic. Singing in Estonian is not always easy, especially for the younger audiences in Estonia who expect the Estonian bands to sing in English as well, to sound more upbeat. Marten is honest and passionate about the Estonian language; it’s as if he breathes through it. He creates puns and comparisons in his lyrics that might otherwise get lost or just sound linguistically weaker in English,” Peedu Kass adds.
Marten states, however, that he would like to experiment more with different styles of pop music, and wouldn’t rule out rap and electronic music.
“I have this idea to make an album with only vocals and acoustic guitar. I am interested in many things, but at the same time, I am kind of slow, I would like to be slicker and do things faster. In practical terms I would also like to become more methodical.”
The uniqueness and power of Estonia
Both musicians agree on the power of performing in Estonian and go on discussing the opportunities of Estonian music in general.
“The best compliment I got lately was from French exchange students in Estonia. Although they didn’t understand the lyrics, they said my music had the purest sound, the sound of the Estonian language, and it will be the best thing they will bring with them from Estonia. They brought vinyl records back home. I do think the Estonian language is very beautiful. I don’t see why it couldn’t be more known in the world as well. If you look at Icelandic music for example – yet it is strange-sounding stuff, but it is already world-famous and appreciated. The sound of music in Estonian is in the same way about creating and conveying magical, ancient power,” Marten explains.
“I guess singing in Estonian can also distinguish you from millions of other singers. Right now, this has been our choice. We are not ruling out songs in English in the future, of course,” Peedu adds.
“Estonia is just a very unique place. We do have bands like Ewert and the Two Dragons who have ‘made it’ and have become fairly well known outside Estonia, but in general I think musicians shouldn’t try so hard to make music only in English. I believe success or breakthrough should happen more naturally. On the other hand, I do understand the pros and cons of being an Estonian and making music in Estonian. We are so small as a nation, but yet we have this incredible need for privacy and being alone. We are all very connected through invisible threads, and everybody seems to know everybody – maybe these are also the reasons behind the desire for being alone,” Marten contemplates.
“I do understand the Estonians’ need for their own space, but we should also not forget to be open to the world and be more tolerant. Estonians can be shy and reserved on one hand, but on the other hand, enormously interested in what the world thinks of us and what our image is. We should make use of what we have and stop comparing ourselves to everyone else.”
Photos: Rene Altrov.