Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Interview with solo musician Juha Jyrkäs by Dave Wolff

Interview with Juha Jyrkäs by Dave Wolff

Before starting as a solo musician you wrote lyrics for the Finnish folk metal band Korpiklaani and published several fictional novels and short stories. How long have metal and writing been part of your life and what first made you gravitate toward it?
I've been writing my whole life. Ever since I learned to read and write, as I was five years old, I've been writing poems and creating my own mythology. I started to write my own short stories already when I was ten years old. At first I wanted to be a writer. Music came afterwards.
Of course I've been a huge KISS fan already as I was seven years old, mostly because of my big sister. But seriously I started listening to music and especially heavy metal as I was a teenager. Since I wrote fantasy, sword & sorcery and horror stories, they went pretty well together with metal music. I founded my first band, VMMA, at year 1998, as I was seventeen years old. Basically writing and music have been a big part of me almost my whole life. They are my lifestream.

How much of an impact did Kiss have on you when you discovered them?
It did a lot. As a child I remembered seeing KISS show on VHS tape. Gene Simmons spitted fire and blood! Of course I thought that those guys are one of the greatest superstars ever. In a way, KISS was a gateway towards heavy metal, fantasy and horror.

When you started getting into music did you make a connection between poetry and lyrics?
I did that already before I started even listening music daily. Specially Finnish band Miljoonasade made me impression. Their lyrics are pure poetry and mini stories.

What inspired your earliest poems and short stories?
My biggest inspiration to start writing stories comes from Robert E. Howard and his Conan stories. They were translated to Finnish in that time as I was ten years old. At the same level I was fascinated with our own history and Finnish folklore and Finno-Ugric languages. They came somehow weirdly together – even in my early stories. For poetry, my main inspiration has always been Kalevala, the Finnish national epic and kalevala-metre.

Who were the bands you were listening to when you started writing horror, fantasy and sword-and-sorcery? In what ways did your writing reflect on their lyrics?
I wasn't onto music yet in that time I started to write stories. Of course there were KISS and all other music I was affected from my childhood home. But seriously music didn't yet come into my stories. Actually it was the other way around. As I was something about 13 years old, I started to wonder what kind of music I would like. I disliked all love songs and other juicy shit. I wanted to hear the songs about wars, heroes, wizards, swordsmen and battles. So I founded heavy metal! Since then both music and literature have inspired each other in my own work.

Were you the lyricist for VMMA when you worked with them? How much material was released by this band while they were active?
I was actually asked to sing in VMMA, since my lyrics were so sick, heh! We played punkish thrash metal. We did some gigs and recorded three demo songs but that was it. We actually made the cover version out of VMMA's song Maksani teutova with my previous band Tevana3.

How did you come to discover Howard’s Conan saga? Which of the novels you read provided the most fascination for you? If you saw the movies, how did they compare?
It was first in 1990 or 1991 as I saw the magnificent John Milius movie Conan the Barbarian, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It made very profound infect on me. Later I saw the second Conan movie, Conan the Destroyer. Conan the Barbarian is the best movie ever made and Conan the Destroyer, as seen in adults eyes, is not so great, but since it meant lot to me as a child, it brings nostalgic vibes still in me.
At same time they started to translate Robert E. Howard's Conan stories in Finnish. I already started to collect Conan comics and find out of those Howard anthologies. I read them all. Howard's only Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon is a classic. Howard's short stories my favourites are Beyond the Black River, The Black Stranger, A Witch Shall Be Born, Jewels of Gwahlur and The People of the Black Circle.

How extensively were you studying Finnish language, folklore and history? Was there anything you found that particularly stayed with you?
I've studied Finno-Ugric languages and cultures, Finnish literature and folkloristics in university. I started first in the university of Tartu, Estonia, but then I moved back to Finland and started my studies in the university of Helsinki. I have a deep profound knowledge about the history of Finnish language and other Finno-Ugric languages as well. I'm fluent in Estonian, which is closely related ti Finnish. Of other Finno-Ugric languages I can speak a little bit Livvi-Karelian, North Sámi and Hungarian. I was also an exchange student in ELTE university in Budapest, Hungary during the winter 2008-2009.
I'm also very deeply studied Finnish folk poetry and Finnish mythology. That's how I got my chance to write lyrics to folk metal band Korpiklaani. It has had a deep affect in me, as myself, I am a pagan. I belong to religious society called Karhun kansa (Bear folk), which relies on old Finnish mythology. It's actually the only Finnish mythology related religious society that has an official status here in Finland.

Tell the readers more about the Kalevala and how it inspired you to put pen to paper. How does the kalevala metre differ from other forms of poetry?
I was something about 11 years old. I was fascinated with Finnish history and Finnish folklore. I picked up Kalevala. I founded the world very similar to Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. At that time I made my first attempt to write in kalevala-metre.
Kalevala-metre is a form of trochaic tetrameter original in Balto-Finnic peoples. As in Finnish and in the most of the Finno-Ugric languages the stress is in the first syllable. Same goes with kalevala-metre. The second syllable is weak, third again strong and fourth weak. Kalevala-metre has eight syllables. The metric has of course many tricks and exceptions, which are really hard to explain in English. It's the form of poetry that fits the best in Finnish language. One interesting thing is that Henry Wadsforth Longfellow drew inspiration to his The Song of Hiawatha from Kalevala and wrote it using similar metric system!

Who were the other bands you discovered that made a lasting impression on you?
The first bands that really made the profound impression on me were Iron Maiden, old Metallica, Manowar, Black Sabbath, Sepultura and Slayer. Later I was fascinated with folk and ethnic music, with a bands such Hedningarna, Värttinä, Shamaani Duo, Myllärit and Angelit. As I'm a Finn, Finnish rock music has also influenced me, bands and artists, like Ismo Alanko, Sielun Veljet, CMX, Miljoonasade, Tuomari Nurmio and Kauko Röyhkä. I was already turned 20 before I was introduced to folk metal. I was thrilled with Finnish bands like Shaman (pre-Korpiklaani) and old Moonsorrow and old Finntroll. I was influenced also with Estonian pagan metal bands such Metsatöll, Tharaphita and Loits. I eventually moved into Estonia and watched their shows over there. Black metal of course has been a big influence in me too. Bands like Celtic Frost, Venom, Darkthrone, Mayhem, Burzum, Bathory, Barathrum etc. Nowadays I listen very much dungeon synth music as I write my stories. A Swedish dungeon synth band Örnatorpet is higly recommended!

Besides the Conan series were you reading any of Howard’s other characters or epic tales?
I've always liked the dreamy and mystical side of Howard's King Kull stories, liken in the stories The Shadow Kingdom, The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune, Kings of the Night and The Skull of Silence. But I very much enjoy with the adventures of Solomon Kane! In some ways he is even more interesting character than Conan! Almost every Kane story is a classic. I see them in that way.
I also like Howard's horror stories, but I still think he is best in fantasy and sword and sorcery genre. I have to admit that I haven't read Howard's western and boxing tales, but I have a feeling I like them. I do like boxing. I've taken many boxing lessons as a part of my martial arts training during the last four years.

Did VMMA disband after your demo's release? How many copies did you make and distribute? Were your shows getting good responses? What were the reasons you disbanded?
We didn't promote our demo. Actually we took only copies to ourselves. We thought that the demo was so awful that we didn't want to publish it. We were young and I think we didn't know what we wanted to do in the studio in the first place. We did few gigs and got a good response out of them, but after the demo we did only one show. The band's collaboration was tested already before the demo as we did our military service in Finnish army, but after the demo we went to study all over the Finland and that was that. We already wanted to do different things at that point and myself I was already interested about my own folk-related project at that point.

How many bands did you work with before hooking up with Korpiklaani as lyricist?
I founded Poropetra at the year 2002 as I moved to study in Estonia. With Poropetra, the main reason was also kantele, since I first grabbed that instrument in my hand at the same year 2002. I learned quickly to play with it. I made my first own compositions. I made friends with Hittavainen, the talented violin player and the multi-instrumentalist, who happened to join in Shaman – the band I liked very much. Shaman did two albums and they sang in North-Sámi language, the indigenous language of Fennoscandia, Finno-Ugric language related to Finnish. That's how I was introduced to Jonne Järvelä, who had learned to yoik (the traditional singing style of the Sámi people) and to speak North-Sámi as he lived in Lapland. Poropetra did their debut demo at 2004 and Shaman changed their name into Korpiklaani and started to make different kind of music and sing in English.
I've always thinked that if you do any folk-related stuff, it should become as a self evident thing to sing in your native language. Ie. if Finnish folk metal band sings in English, in my point of view, they don't respect their roots, since their music comes an addition into the music made in English, and thus it's off from the music made in Finnish, and because of this, the music is not culturally Finnish anymore. I'm strongly against the overpower of the English language over smaller languages – and the whole irony is that I write this interview in English, heh! – and specially with your art you can fight against it.
At that time I suggested to Jonne that perhaps they should do songs in Finnish. Jonne said that the lyrics were always the hard part to him, so I said: ”I can do it!” And so I started to write Finnish lyrics to them. I wrote many lyrics to them during the years 2006-2012. And that was the time when folk metal evolved further with bands like Korpiklaani, Finntroll and Moonsorrow. And because of this, I see myself as a developer and elaborator of folk metal, since I know that my lyrics have inspired young fans and new bands.

Do you have examples of Miljoonasade’s lyrics that spoke to yuo to the point of inspiration?
Miljoonasade has many songs that have touched my soul. Specially one of them is called Olkinainen, ”The Straw Woman” in English. There's one particular line which is pure poetry:
”Kuin pitkät harmaat hiukset, sade heilahtaa pimeydestä ruutuikkunaan.”
It's difficult to translate but it refers to rain that smashes from the dark into the squared window like an old gray hair. It's a small horror tale in a song.

Are you familiar with Howard’s other characters, such as Thulsa Doom and Bran Mak Morn?
Of course. Thulsa Doom was the antagonist only in one Howard's story, in king Kull story: Delcardes' Cat. Later the comic books and specially the movie Conan the Barbarian have made him famous, but very different kind of character Howard himself meant him to be.
There aren't many Bran Mak Morn stories in Howard's writings, but my favourite of them is Worms of the Earth. In that story, there's hints towards H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos also.

How much influence do you see Kalevala-metre has had on modern writing, besides the apparent influence on Longfellow’s writing?
Not much. Even here in Finland most of the people can't write in kalevala-metre. There are only few of us. Of course there are all kinds of new age hippies and people from the medieval markets who write spells, which are kinda kalevala-metre, but they actually aren't. What I mean to say is that people try to write and mimic it, but they don't finish the job. They don't write the pure kalevala-metre.

Cite some of the folk legends and traditional stories you wrote as Korpiklaani’s lyricist.
Here are few notable examples what I wrote to Korpiklaani.
Veriset äpärät is about illegitimate children killed in the forest. Their souls hunt everybody until they are named and buried like the rest. Very known Finnish legend.
Vesilahden veräjillä is about ancient chief Kirmukarmu, who fought against Christian missionary Hunnun Herra. This is based on a true story that happened in Vesilahti, Finland.
Isku pitkästä ilosta is about Finnish escatological myths and beliefs that would happen if the end of the world will come. Stone comes as light as a feather and stars start to dance etc.
Kultanainen is about smith god Ilmarinen who forges the golden woman to be his wife. This is the story from Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. My version of the lyrics pay more tribute to poet Paavo Haavikko's version of Kalevala events described in his masterpiece Rauta-aika.
Ukon wacka is about the ancient summer festivals held in Finland in favour of Ukko, the supreme god of the Finnish pantheon.

How have you taken folk metal to the next level and inspired other bands and their fans?
I've taught to Finnish people to respect their own native language. Finnish people have very low self-esteem. They feel bad about their ancestry and their language. This is seen in many cases. In Finland's capital, Helsinki, some products, companies etc. have only English names. If you go to café or in restaurant, in some cases menu is only in English. I can go examples even more but this is the picture: Finns themselves are pushing aside their own language in favour of English, which I find very bad and disturbing issue, which makes me both angry and worry.
This is seen in music too. Before me, only Moonsorrow sang in Finnish what comes to Finnish folk metal bands. Specially in metal scene is very usual choice in Finland to sing in English. This is odd, since if you compare to Scandinavian countries and Baltic states, it's self-evident thing to them to use their native langiage if they make folk or black metal.
Singing in Finnish has been seen in Finland in many occasions as a humorous or not so serious thing, which I find very weird way of thinking. I introduced the Finnish kalevala-metre in metal, making Finnish strong language in our own folk metal music. In 2020 Markus Laakso published a book called Folk Metal Big 5 (Yes, this is the original name; Finnish book has an English name!), in which all five major Finnish folk metal bands are introduced: Korpiklaani, Finntroll, Moonsorrow, Ensiferum and Turisas. In that book my work is given the recognition of my Finnish lyrics. Tuomas Keskimäki, who writes now the Finnish lyrics in Korpiklaani, continued my work and he has done it well! And nowadays I see more and more young bands rising in Finland using namely Finnish as their language in songs. Many of them have taken inspiration from Korpiklaani, and thus from my lyrics also.
I also teach the kalevala-metre to all who want to learn it. I've been keeping kalevala-metre workshops of few years. Almost in every workshop there's one metalhead who wants to learn the kalevala-metre and use it in a band! I find this very good thing. That Finns finally start to respect their own roots and their own language. The way I see it, if you respect your own roots, you can respect other cultures as well. If you are lost with your culture, you either start to mimic dominant cultures (like many Finns do with American culture and English language) or then you start to hate everybody else and become a nazi. Unfortunately, in Finland too there are those who are leaning on the far-right side too, which makes me worry.
Knowing your own roots and respecting your own language gives you the mental state that you can see similarities within other cultures and respect their uniqueness too. And of course, share your art, like I'm doing with my Finnish songs as we speak.

Do you have information of where Folk Metal Big 5 can be ordered by postal mail or online? How much information is given on the bands it covers?
You can order the book from the publisher's page: https://like.fi/kirjat/folk-metal-big-5/ However, at this point the book is only available in Finnish.

How soon after working with Korpiklaani did you start your solo career?
I started with my solo project same time with my band Tevana3. In 2010, the year I bought myself my first electric kantele. My last lyrics for Korpiklaani were the lyrics of the song Ruumiinmultaa, published in 2012 in their Manala album. They already had Tuomas Keskimäki writing the lyrics with them. I was fully concentrating to break through with my musical career as a solo artist already back then! So the co-operation with Korpiklaani kinda faded away. I don't actually remember all the details.
I actually had a producer who was interested producing my electric kantele sound big. But the terms were too much for me. This producer wanted me to record some songs in English, so I turned it down. I continued to do my solo career alone, it was a good decision. I had a momentum in 2011, but I have better momentum now.

Why did you decide to write and record with traditional instruments?
In 2010 I was actually very tired with everything folk-related. I wanted to play metal. The only problem was that the kantele was the only instrument I was able to play. If I would have known how to play the guitar or bass, I would have switched the instrument and left kantele out. I actually tried to play with the bass, but it took too much time to learn. Thus I got myself an idea: ”The kantele has to change into electric kantele!”
I ordered my first electric kantele. Then I plugged it in the amplifier and made the loudest distortion I got. The whole new world was ahead of me. I was experiencing the electrified kantele sound with my band Tevana3 and it became evident that this was it! This is how I'm going to do my stuff.
We released two albums with Tevana3. Mieron tiellä in 2011 and Peräpohjolan takana in 2016. Mieron tiellä was the first metal album in the world in which all guitars had been replaced with electric kantele.
Then it became time to do my solo album, the dream I had had so many years. I decided to use my all kantele skills in that album. I also ordered to myself my first bass kantele, thus replacing the bass also with bass kantele. I wanted to create something unique. Something no-one hasn't done before.

Fill the readers in on the making of your debut full length "Sydämeni kuusipuulle". You worked with a few guest musicians while recording this album. How did you arrange for this?
I did my own instruments first. Little by little. I had a rough demo tapes I had recorded during many years in my home and I started to work with them. I recorded my instruments simultaneosly with the percussionist Pekka Konkela. Pekka had all kinds of ethnic drums he constructed into kinda ethnic drumset. I don't know how he managed to do that and how he was able to do blast beats with them! He did this in his own home studio and provided just the tracks. He is the man with many secrets. But overall, the groundwork was done.
Other players I invited to come into my album. Some of them came into our studio in Riihimäki and some did their work on their home studio. They did their job in very short time and their job is magnificent! It spiced the album into the totally new sphere. I gave them very free hands to do their playing. I was very satisfied with the results.
Lastly we recorded the vocals. After that it was working on with mixing and testing the different soundsets. Little by little the album started to sound the just way I always wanted it to sound.

What led to "Sydämeni kuusipuulle" being released by Earth and Sky Productions and how well has the label handled its release?
They contacted me from the label. I was already doing music videos out of my songs during the first corona lockdown in spring 2020. The album had already been published in 2019 as a limited MC edition by small Finnish label Kuoriaiskirjat. In February 2021 Earth And Sky Productions published the album worldwide and we took the things into a new, international level. I'm very satisfied with the work of the label. They've done very good job and lifted me as an artist. The album has got good feedback. As we speak, Sydämeni kuusipuulle has been streamed over 90,000 times in Spotify and music videos have been watched over thousands of times. I want my music to break through all over the world.

How much effort are you putting into the promotion of "Sydämeni kuusipuulle" since it came out? Is your promotion of it mostly online or do you also promote via postal mail?
After I got Earth And Sky Productions behind me, I took a lot of effort in order to promote my material everywhere I possibly could. I promoted my music via internet but I also sended the material via good old traditional post. I'm still promoting my material, but I find it good, since now people have interested totally different way than ever before. What I've learned about this business is that you have to do the promotion more or less all the time. That's how you keep the momentum on.

How many videos have you made for songs on "Sydämeni kuusipuulle" and who worked on them with you? Did those videos turn out the way you wanted them to?
I made the music video out of all of my songs. I mostly did all the work by myself. In one video I used the material from my old gig and in two videos my wife helped me shooting them. It was a funny project! I learned a lot of doing the videos along the way. In some videos I'm still pleased with and others are not working so well I wished them to. I'm still doing the videos, since I'm working on a lyric videos with some songs. This is also a one way to keep the momentum on.

How soon do you expect to start working on another full length album? And how do you want your solo project to continue developing and growing in the years to come?
At the moment I'm writing some new material into my next album. I have a lot's of ideas in which directions I can move on. I can't see in the future but of course I wish I could get known a lot more better than I'm right now. I have so much to give to the world. But I'm patient. I've just started my epic journey. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

-Dave Wolff

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