We wrote about Mikko Joensuu a few weeks back, explaining how he retreated into the isolation and solitude of the Finnish forest in order to work on his Amen trilogy, three albums which stem “from the same state of mind, expressing various sides to the same story”. The first part, Amen 1, is what Joensuu considers the “most fragile” of the series. An album of folk songs falling somewhere between earthy and dreamy, the record is a lesson in atmospheric, nostalgic music, drawing upon masters of the genre both past and present. Here we find the understated warmth of Frederick Squire, the grand poetry of Cash and Cohen, and, of course, the ghosts of Townes Van Zandt and co., the spirit of the doomed, poetic wanderer both cursed and blessed by an inability to stop moving.
The story of artistic retreat and self-imposed exile seems to be a popular one in press releases, so we thought it might be interesting to ask Joensuu a few questions to see, amongst other things, just what it is about the wilderness that seems to attract people intent on creating music.
Hello Mikko, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. How is Finland at this time of year?
My pleasure! Surprisingly there’s a lot of sun and heat up here, after a long and cold winter. Very nice indeed.
How does it feel to have the first piece of your Amen trilogy out in the world? Can you relax and enjoy the release, or is there a lingering sense of anticipation for the other two?
It feels very good that the process of releasing has finally began, but I guess the proper relax-moment for me is somewhere in the summer of 2017. Lots of stuff lingering, definitely.
How challenging was it to separate the songs into a three-record series? Was it clear which song belonged on which album? Did some exist in a grey area between two?
I guess there was a bit of grey area for one or two songs, since in the end there are so many ways you can record or arrange a song. I guess one thing to point out is that I never intended to make three albums or a “trilogy”. I had written different kinds of songs for many years and found it very hard to fit them in one album, so I just kept writing and decided not to release anything until the idea of an album is clear. I later realised that the album I was making was actually three albums long. So it was the long process that eventually showed me what songs every album should have.
The press release informs us that you confined yourself to “the darkness in a remote part of Finland’s woods” in order to create the records. Did you get away with the intention of recording these albums? Or did you go with no idea of what might emerge?
It was after the realisation that there’s three albums when I decided that I needed more space and time to sit around with it. I built a studio in a cabin to record everything I could and to really sink into the world of these songs. Every album is very different but they are part of the same idea or story. I did write more songs there and went through a lot of old ones to get every album the form it needed to have. My time there really made me see what the albums should be in detail.
More generally, what is it about isolation that is so conducive to your creative process? Is it just a case of fleeing distraction? Or achieving a Zen-like concentration? Or to avoid falling into familiar lines of thought (as Nietzsche said, “When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think as I really think”). Can/have you ever written without some degree of isolation?
I think I’m fleeing distraction so that I can give all of my energy just to think about the form of the music. I really enjoy sinking into writing with everything I got. On top of this I feel the isolation and nature breathes into the creative process. I sometimes went fishing in the middle of the lake six in the morning after recording 12 hours straight, just to be quiet. It’s nice to be in complete silence when you are having a break from writing or recording. I would say that nature and isolation highlights my normal state of mind. I don’t pay too much attention on what’s going on in the world of music, but the isolation gives me more space to see what the ideas really are. I hear songs in my head all the time so I really don’t need isolation to make them, but it does help a great deal.
Who/what do you consider to be the biggest influences on your songwriting and sound? Have non-musical art forms (literature, visual art etc.) played a role too?
In music there are of course so many. Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Scott Walker, LeeHazelwood, Roy Orbison to name a few. I think through Scott Walker I really began to be interested in making music, and not what style should be. I also get a lot of inspiration from short moments that speak to me in a strong way. They can be from something I see in everyday life or a few seconds in a movie. Film makers like Andrei Tarkowsky or David Lynch are artists who can create these very inspiring moments in so many levels.
Finally, could you name the 4-5 artists you are currently listening to most often? They can be new favourites or old classics, global hits or local gems, whatever you’re enjoying at the moment.
Bob Dylan – Ten of Swords
Harmonia and Brian Eno