Hello there! I’ve emerged from my Eurovision stupor to share with you some excitingly earthy Estonian music. Genre-wise, I’m not sure. Your guess is as good as mine. There’s beats, there’s chanting, there’s a fiddle and you can definitely dance to it, but other than that all I can say is – THIS IS GREAT.
Ah, Eesti Laul. A gem of a Eurovision national final, with fabulous genre diversity and a genuine sense that we’re seeing the best of a small and largely interconnected music scene. Last year we covered Eesti Laul (Semi 1, Semi 2) and ended up in the press room at Saku Suurhall doing interviews with the artists and having a great deal of fun being the pretend jurors in the dress rehearsal. I’ll be going again this year, and as I said in the Curtain Up post I’m particularly hoping that I’ll be talking to Iiris and Frankie Animal.
So, let’s have a go at the first songs. There’s a lot of tropical house derived stuff to get through… (Official Mission Statement of National Final Season 2018)
Aden Ray “Everybody’s Dressed”
This one reminds me of a very stripped back Constellation Prize, but Aden has a vocal quality that I can’t quite warm to. With there being so many genre songs in this semi, I think it’s got a reasonable chance of getting to the final, but I worry about the stability of his high and breathy head voice live. If it won, it would need a big old revamp. You could put a distorted harmonica on it. Maybe.
Desiree “On My Mind”
Extremely young sounding Carly-Rae Jepsen type stuff. It’s got something tonally in common with Liis Lemsalu’s 2017 Eesti Laul song Keep Running. It’s got a bit of that post-dancehall vibe to it, but the beach that it’s making you think of is firmly on the Baltic coast.
Elina Nechayeva “La forza”
Sitting prettily between Randajad and La Voix, this is a lovely fusion of your shiny Scandi-Baltic electronic atmospheric pop synths with a soprano giving it some welly. I wouldn’t put it past the Estonians to send this in a fit of operatic pique. A reasonable outside bet. Also the the 7th Heaven Remix would be BANGING and you know you want that.
If you liked Vihm last year, or you generally enjoy a bit of Baltic trad (and you’re gutted that Baltic won’t be competing in Latvia’s Supernova) then this is the one for you. An achingly slow burn with a haunting call and response melody. Next year at Eesti Laul songwriting camps can they get a folk artist to do a writing session with one of the electro/post-dubstep artists? I would love to hear those beautiful ornate vocals juxtaposed with some very grindy beats and a big drop. See oleks põnev.
Iiris & Agoh “Drop That Boogie”
A totally cute and sparkly song about the perennial millennial state of mind – the world is messed up, I am failing the generational expectations set for me by my parents, but I realise that success is a construct and so I’m going to drop that boogie and give the means of production a good old shake on the dancefloor. Iiris is a UK-based Estonian singer who I’ve had my eye on for a couple of years – her happy/sad banger ‘Stranger’ from the summer was one of songs of 2017 – and I really expect to see this in the final.
Here we go with the slightly mathematical indie funk of Miljardid. It’s really, really sparse in the verses, has a lovely set of hooky backing vocals (which is useful for non-Estonian speakers to be able to get some sort of a grasp on the song) and a quite startling breakdown which stops the repeated final chorus from dragging.
Sibyl Vane “Thousand Words”
On this single the raw and bluesy edge that has characterised their previous work has been polished up into something a bit more friendly to the wider public ear. Thousand Words is a bit like a slightly more cheery Interpol, or an emotionally vulnerable Franz Ferdinand, with the shifting and chugging guitar lines propelling us along. I can imagine the live version of this will have a great deal of intensity and power, but Helena will have to walk the line between being true to her authentic performance style and adapting to work with the cameras.
Stig Rästa “Home”
Oh my word. It’s just before Christmas so I am maximally susceptible to a sentimental song in 12/8. This is probably . This festively cosy swayalong vibe is what Ed Sheeran was also going for he was doing Perfect. This is a very nice listen indeed. Wait. Does he sing about watching Game of Thrones? YES! Sleep on the balcony, watch a little GoT. Stig, you marvel. See you in the final. Although, I do have my concerns that this might sound too Christmassy to do well in March, let alone in May.
Tiiu x Okym x Semy “Näita oma energiat”
Starting off with some moderately epic sax tooting and then introducing Okym & Tiiu spitting filthy sounding moon language rhymes over a spacey, juddering interpretation of a post-dancehall beat. It’s a few bpm and decibels away from being Igranka, but you get the idea. They’ve also got Semy of Estonian Eurovision winners 2XL involved, so they’re pretty serious. I am also looking forwards to talking to Tiiu, who looks like she means business. In the intro interview, she’s towering over her bandmates, wearing studded baby pink latex, a decorative merkin/sporran arrangement made of pom poms and a demure expression. Yass, challenging fashion queen.
Vajé “Laura (Walk With Me)”
Weirdly downbeat song from the Estonian/Armenian duo. There’s something a bit Chris Rea about the guitar solo, and then something a bit Heroes about the bridge into the chorus. I am not a fan of the genre, but this is definitely a nicely executed version of the thing that this is, which is country influenced pop.
I know that it’s not quite December yet, but I feel like you might be in the mood for some very pleasant, low key Christmas songs in Estonian. I certainly am.
Daniel Levi was one of the highlights of Eesti Laul 2017, and because everyone in the Estonian music scene knows one another, his Christmas EP features a lovely seasonal duet with fellow Eesti Laul finalist Liis Lemsalu. You might also want to know that Daniel Levi kept the Eurovision vibe going all year by doing a very creditable Slavko in the Estonian version of ‘Your Face Sounds Familiar’.
I bet you thought that I was totally 100% on top of all the latest Mick Pedaja news. Well, here’s some that I missed. He has this new project, SUMRA, which takes the electronic side of his work to the next level. Laniakea is a seven track ambient album which incorporates samples of vocal techniques from around the world into gorgeously floaty dreamscapes. Enjoy!
So last week in the Semi Final 1 preview I said that Estonia had the first song in 2017 that I thought had a chance at winning the big glass microphone. Well, between then and now the San Remo festival happened and everyone fell in love with this guy who dances with a gorilla and we all had some interesting initial chats about cultural appropriation. Now, I’m less sure that any of the Estonian songs can outscore a charming Italian philosophy lesson with an easily mimicked dance routine, but there’s still potential for great placings here.
Let’s examine the contenders:
Liis Lemsalu – Keep Running
There’s something incredibly warm hearted and joyful about this dancey uptempo number about the wonder of spontaneous adventure. Liis tells us that her backpack is packed and she’s ready to go. The contrast between the chiming verse synths and wild, rushing chorus is quite delightful. I’d like this one to qualify, but not at the cost of Angeelia.
Koit Toome & Laura – Verona
This is just gorgeously atmospheric. Last year Laura came 2nd in Eesti Laul with a pretty decent song called Supersonic, but this year she’s teamed up with Koit Toome (who already represented Estonia in 1998) and I feel like this really could be her year. This Shakespearean epic starts with a pretty stark verse against a background of birdsong and night-time sounds, which made me think of Laura as Juliet on her balcony. Then Koit comes in and the whole thing kicks off, with our young lovers running up and down Italian backstreets hand in hand.
The ‘we are lost!’ call and response of the pre-chorus is structurally very striking, and lends itself to some potentially visually interesting stage direction. And then the chorus comes in with a nice wordless ‘ah’ bit to sing along with and the descending chimes in the backing track that really strike the ear. There have been goosebumps when I’ve been listening to this. This is the one that I thought could potentially give Estonia another Goodbye To Yesterday type result. Maybe it can?
Rasmus Randvee – This Love
A raw as you like slice of bluesy pop with swaggering brass and strutting pianos. The way that descending motif in the chorus is echoed by the backing vocals is superb. Love it. Not much more to say.
Kerli – Spirit Animal
So you know how we had a chat about cultural appropriation this week? I am braced for us to have another one once we see Kerli’s stage show at the weekend. Let’s do this. Spirit Animal has numerous lyrical references to Native American spiritual traditions as a metaphor for a romantic relationship. An American popstar wouldn’t go near this song – there’d be outcries and boycotts. What on earth is Kerli doing?
Now, I can see why this has happened. Twitstagram is full of teens saying that so-and-so pop star or TV actor is their spirit animal, and Coachella was full of people wearing Native American sacred headgear a few years ago. But the thing is, the Native American people have asked the twitstagram teens and the Coachella headdress wearers to leave their religious symbols alone. So lyrically, for me, Kerli is already on a deeply sticky wicket and if she turns up in some form of Native American costume on Saturday night, then I cannot get behind this.
The annoying thing about this is that Kerli could probably have done something really cool that draws upon her own Estonian folk traditions. She is a bona fide amazing popstar with an immense sense of theatre and a deeply involved fanbase. There’s no way she’s not getting to the final and it’ll take something special to beat her to Kyiv. With some lyrical tweaking this could be a cool song. I still strongly prefer Diamond Hard though.
Daniel Levi – All I Need
Ahhh, this is a big dreamy Eurovision love song with just enough modern production touches to sweep Daniel Levi into the final. I don’t think it’s actually distinctive enough to cut through a semi final – it has a certain smooth anonymity to it that would have you going ‘So who was it I was voting for?’ at the end of a crowded semi-final. It’s a nice pop song though.
Alvistar Funk Association – Make Love Not War
Hurrah! A novelty funk song about world peace and that. However, there are two problems:
1) The UK is not the same as England. In a song that makes a point of giving Kosovo a shout out, what happened to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
2) There’s something about the singer’s voice which puts me on edge. It’s like tearing cotton wool.
It’s an entertaining miss, but in a strong semi final (I’d be happy if eight of the ten songs qualified) this is the first and last you’re going to hear of it. Unless the Estonian televote is much weirder than I could ever have imagined.
Close To Infinity feat Ian Karell – Sounds Like Home
So, this song is brought to you by the change in the Eesti Laul rules that means that you can have people who aren’t Estonian in your performance and songwriting team. Ian Karell is an American with Estonian parents and Sounds Like Home tells the story of his coming of age and how he found his true self by moving to Tallinn. It’s a beautifully funny immigrant story with a sort of anthemic chant-a-long quality. I really like this one too.
Almost Natural – Electric
This slow jam about remembering some particularly good rumpo somehow manages not to be sleazy. I don’t understand how. Anyway, it’s yet another really good modern pop song with a cool synth line in the chorus and a satisfyingly plump bassline. Why can’t we put 8 songs through to the final from this week?
Antsud – Vihm
This one goes out to all the fans of lutes and hurdy gurdies (hurdies gurdy?) all over Europe. An aggravatingly hummable, deeply insistent and really really fun song about rain. It’s always lovely to hear some folk music in a national selection process, even if there’s next to no chance at all of it making the final. Also I hope they do the UV body paint thing on the TV.
Angeelia – We Ride With Our Flow
Ah, this is really very pretty. It starts out with tinkly piano arpeggios and a delicate vocal then builds with a four to the floor beat and squelchy bass to something really exciting that pulsates with life. It’s as airy and ethereal as you like, chock full of structural surprises and interesting techniques. It sounds like a walk on a warm night with your sweetheart that ends up with you finding a rave in a starlit grove. I would love this to get to the final.
So, you have to pick just five qualifiers out of that. It’s going to be a tough one!
(I will flip the table and sulk forever if Angeelia doesn’t get to the final)
Now, I am aware that I’m turning into a full-on eestiphile but I seriously think that Estonia has a chance to win Eurovision this year, if they play their cards right.
No, Juri, not like that.
Anyway, Estonia was the first nation in the 2017 Eurovision season to present me with a song that made me go “Blimey, that sounds like a song that could win the whole thing” – I’m sure you can guess which one it is, but let’s keep a modicum of suspense in this exercise. The thing is, at the time of writing it’s still a distinct possibility that they might not go for it. There’s so many strong songs and so many big local names that almost anything could happen. I mean, this is Estonia. Basically expect the unexpected.
Let’s take a look at the Semi Final 1 contenders…
Lenna Kuurma – Slingshot
When I am walking about this time of year, you can often find me listening to a giant playlist of all the ESC national final songs mashed together on shuffle. During one of these perambulations this song came on, and I went “Oh, is this from the UK national selection or is this one of the lower tier A Dal songs?”. This is not a complementary response to an Eesti Laul song. It has the “love love peace peace” anthemic feel, but as we’ve all now decided that is a bit basic, this is not what I expect from Estonia. It might even feel like a weak start to the condition unless Lenna can really sell it on stage.
Elina Born – In or Out
I’m afraid that I have to tell you that Elina Born’s triumphant return to Eesti Laul is a trap. Stig Rasta has written a song that came third in Eurovision and he’s also written a song that came dead last. He also came 4th in Estonian Dancing With The Stars, but this is beside the point. I know he’s a national cultural hero, and the idea of him working with Elina Born again has everyone excited, but I have to say that In Or Out isn’t anywhere near as good as Goodbye To Yesterday. Elina sells this country-ish pop number to the max, and it should comfortably qualify for the final, but I don’t think that this is the potentially Eurovision winning song we are looking for.
Carl-Philip – Everything But You
From the piano chord intro to the chorus harmony backing vocals, what I am mainly getting from this song is something that the mature 3 piece Take That would do. Now, Take That aren’t my thing, but they certainly are a lot of other people’s things. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this song, which would probably be in the top 3 of many other national selections. But it isn’t even close to my top 3 of Eesti Laul 2017.
Ivo Linna – Suur loterii
This is a really, really sweet Estonian-language song about how life is a big lottery and you never really know how things are going to go. Ivo Linna is another returning ESC artist – he was part of the duet that sang Kaelakee hääl back in 1996. This song has a really nice classic pop feel, and even though it’s a song that is probably in the finals as part of Eesti Laul’s commitment to representing all ages and genres, it’s actually really nice. Maybe it gets to the final on Ivo’s reputation? I don’t know.
Ariadne – Feel Me Now
This is a perfectly pleasant loop based pop song. It’s angular with synths but somehow also circular with a sort of marimba sound – and the melody is insistent to the point of being nagging. It also doesn’t necessarily have a strong chorus that is differentiated strongly from the verse, which you sort of need if you’re going down the basic pop song route for Eurovision. Now, I’ll take the opportunity to say that my favourite Eesti rock band Frankie Animal had a song in the running this year, which narrowly missed out on the shortlist. Feel Me Now is the song that I would have cut in order to make room for the romantic, sweeping Nightlights. If I was in charge.
Uku Suviste – Supernatural
An uptempo song with a serious dancefloor feel, very contemporary, possible ‘sound of the summer’ vibes. It’s got a lovely transition into the chorus and a nicely hooky post-chorus section. I like this one a lot, and I could definitely imagine hearing it in the UK top ten if given the correct promo. If there’s a problem with this, it’s that it doesn’t have a big enough middle eight or a strong ending.
Laura Prits – Hey Kiddo
Is it possible that an act can be too eccentric even for Estonians. Laura Prits (Literally Laura Squirt in Estonian) brings us a poppy and insistent ode to fabulous female friendship. It’s a bit like a Baltic version of Charlie XCX & Rita Ora’s song Doin’ It. There’s a high risk of ukelele and toy piano, there’s a likelihood of crazy costuming (she turned up on breakfast TV to do this song in onesie pyjamas and slippers, adorably) and there’s a reasonable likelihood of getting to the granda final. This song wouldn’t win the whole contest in May though, so don’t get carried away.
Karl-Kristjan & Whogaux feat Maian – Have You Now
So, this song is probably the Estonian response to the tropical house pop trend. It’s got the sweetly sleepy sensuality of a record by The xx, it’s got a gentle dance feel and acres of acoustic space between the lovely guitar riff and Maian and Karl-Kristjan’s romantic vocals. It’s lovely, and I’d put it through to the grand final but I wouldn’t necessarily want it to win.
Janno Reim & Kosmos – Valan pisarid
Who likes shoegaze? Who likes Estonian language shoegaze? Who likes Estonian language shoegaze verses bolted onto an early Britpop chorus? Well, the Eesti Laul selection panel as it turns out. This is one of the genre acts who is with us tonight in order to showcase the mind-boggling corners of the Estonian music scene. It’s a very nice example of the type of thing that it is, and taking a queue from 2016’s Young Georgian Lolitas, they take the opportunity to go for a bit of a psych freak out in middle 8. Admirable, but not our winner.
Leemet Onno – Hurricane
Now that country rock is an apparently viable Eurovision genre, we have Leemet Onno with a vaguely redneckish country song about courting a woman who is serious Trouble. I would believe in this song a bit more if Leemet looked a bit more like a lumberjack. About 50% of the landmass of Estonia is forested and 70% of that is commercially managed for logging, so it’s not like they couldn’t have found a hipster lumberjack somewhere. Anyway, this will be closing the show so I expect big things from it. It’s quite a tune, forestry statistics aside.
So that’s Semi Final 1. My qualification picks are: Elina Born, Uku Suviste, Leemet Onno, the one that sounds like the xx and Laura Prits.
See you next week for Semi Final 2, which is a doozy.
I’m continuing to make good on my threat to always keep you up to date with the latest Mick Pedaja news. There’s a new single! Here it is!
Valgeks is slow and thoughtful, like the rest of his work, but as his vocals ebb and flow through mysterious lyrics about transcendence and the music moves through an expanded range of sonic textures (there’s a gently squalling electric guitar, and a beat almost threatens to kick in at one point) I feel like we’re seeing something new take shape.
Valgeks is the first single from Mick Pedaja’s upcoming album Hingake/Breathe
(A linguistic aside: If you’ve been following along, his first album was ‘Ärgake/Awaken’ – as far as I can work out, the -ake suffix on some verbs makes the plural imperative case so we might be looking at future records called things like Hakake/Start!, or Kuulake/Listen! if the pattern continues)
I am becoming slowly more and more obsessed with Estonia. I think it’s a reasonably common thing amongst the Eurovisionistas, but to be honest I was expecting to become obsessed with Iceland and somehow ‘ma armastan eesti’ took me by surprise. There are only 1.3 million of them and yet when I listen to Estonian pop radio (oh how I long for a shout-out) I hear more variety from their domestic music industry than even 6 Music can demonstrate for the UK.
Today for you I’ve got a song and a story. The song is Jaan’kene by Trad.Attack, who are an award-winning Estonian folk group who mix samples of old Estonian folk recordings with modern rock and folk instrumentation. They do it the proper way – the original Estonian singers are credited (Anne Vabarna in this song) and the musicians are top notch. I thought that Jaan’kene was particularly groovy and I’d share it for you to enjoy.
While I was reading about Trad.Attack, I found the astonishing story that traditional Estonian bagpiping (the torupill) almost died out during the 20th century – apparently in 1968 they were down to a single practitioner, a man named Olev Roomet. The story is incredible, although there aren’t a lot of English language sources to check out. Roomet was a member of an academic choir in Soviet-occupied Estonia and as such, participated in the Laulupidu or Festival of Estonian Song, which is held every five years. When the Russians took over, it seems that they tried to remove the emphasis on Estonian identity and forced the inclusion of various Soviet songs instead. Over the course of several festivals, the people would have seen that their traditions were in danger of dying out and that shockingly, no-one was learning how to play the torupill.
Against the soaring backdrop of the Tallinn festival grounds, imagine a middle-aged, slightly subversive guy (he’s played by the Estonian equivalent of Toby Jones in my head) realising that there’s still time to save the torupill. He learns how to play from the previous master, Aleksander Maaker, and after the 1969 Laulupidu, where he is the only person capable of playing the torupill, he swears to train a whole new generation of proud Estonian bagpipers in time for the next Laulupidu.
He takes on a motley band of 25 trainee bagpipers between the ages of 14 and 70, who first have to get hold of the various bits of hardwood and animal skin in order to construct their instruments. In the film I’m making of this in my head, I imagine this is a section where my ensemble of character actors are half-inching the bagpipe materials from under the Soviets noses, and also that they have to at least try to practice in secrecy. But obviously, it’s impossible to practice any form of bagpipes in secrecy and hilarity ensues.
The rousing finale of the film is the 1970 Laulupidu where our bagpipers play the traditional songs and dances of Estonia for a crowd of tens of thousands. This moment of cultural resurgence foreshadows the 1991 Singing Revolution that would eventually result in the people of Estonia regaining their independence.
It’s Brassed Off with Soviet Russia. It’s Star Wars with traditional bagpipes. It’s the History Boys in the Baltics. It’s the inspiring Estonian folk music movie you didn’t realise you wanted to see. But now you do.
And obviously I would want Trad.Attack to do the soundtrack.
We promised you a high level of Mick Pedaja coverage, and here is some of that.
On Eeesti Raadio 2 (which I would say is arguably the world’s best music radio station) there is a very strange program called Hallo Kosmos where esoteric thinkers of all flavours are allowed to explain themselves in a judginess-free environment.
Now, this show had itself a birthday party at the start of June, and as part of that they had esoteric musical thinker Mick Pedaja doing a half hour set. If you want to listen to the set, go to 8:58 on the video in this link. There’s a lovely version of Aeg, a new song in English that I didn’t recognise, and a version of Seis that is SLOWER THAN the Eesti Laul version.
Also, if you press the button marked “Laadi alla” you can download the whole show. Aitäh Raadio 2!
Seriously. Let’s talk about Mick Pedaja.
It’s January. There was I, doing my musical research for what was shaping up to be a particularly gruelling Eurovision National Final season when suddenly I was transported to a parallel dimension by a song called Seis. It was unlike anything I’d heard. It was weird even for the Estonian song competition, Eesti Laul, which let mind-melting art-thrash weirdoes Winny Puuh compete alongside winsome ballad girls and credible indie.
Seis is a breathtaking moment of stillness – it forces you to slow down and concentrate on the sparse, beautiful arrangement and Mick’s otherworldly voice. After my initial exposure, I was so certain that the people of Estonia would rally behind Mick and send the slowest song of the modern era to Stockholm. Alas, it was not to be and so I resolved to find out more about this mysterious guy.
This is what I know: He’s got an EP/album Ärgake that’s available on UK Spotify which is also beautiful, but in a pastoral and leafy way as opposed to the big blast of cosmic knowledge you get from Seis. He’s also on Soundcloud where he posts the occasional track, makes older work available and has a very exciting stream of recommendations of his own. I haven’t found a way of giving him serious money other than iTunes. Come on Mr Pedaja, let us buy some sort of limited edition triple disc heavy vinyl boxset.