Perfect Sound Forever

Branded Women

Photo by Aki Roukala

Some velvet morning
by Will Shade
(May 2007)

Forget inanities like Eurovision goofs Lordi and action rawkers like The Flaming Sideburns. Finland’s best kept secret is a chick band that couldn't even play their instruments back in 2000. Branded Women's story and evolution is a testament to the divine powers of rock 'n' roll. By 2004, they'd signed to a major label and issued a mysterious debut album, Velvet Hours--Stolen Moments, that required an emotional investment rare in contemporary music, be it garage revisionism or Top 40 pop. The moody melancholia conjured by the album painted endless night under the Finnish forest sky in February. It reeked of both semen and suicide princesses.

Lead singer Katja Nakari possessed perhaps the most unique voice in modern rock 'n' roll, evoking the claustrophobic offspring of Edith Piaf's masseuse and Nico's chanteuse. Thoughtful tremolo guitar and swelling organ textures augmented Nakari's haunting vocals. While the songs weren't revolutionary, this band dealt in something many musicians now think beneath them, i.e. a nice melody and a hook. Or, forgetting that altogether, Branded Women hammered out a relentless drone, as evidenced by their hypnotic one-chord wonder, "Runner." Said number would slot in comfortably on the White Light/White Heat album.

Mainstream critics cited the album's strengths and even old-school heroes like James Lowe of The Electric Prunes gave Velvet Hours--Stolen Moments a nod.

Their sophomore album, Cities & Seas, came out in the autumn of 2006. On first listen, it was evident that the band and their producer had lost the thread. While some of the pieces had positive attributes ("While Love Remains" inadvertently alluded to the horn-drenched Love circa '67), mostly it was a misstep. The arrangements and performances sounded half-baked and the production was either overwrought or paint-by-the-numbers. Live though, the new songs came off better, and Branded Women still delivered the goods. In the winter of 2007, Perfect Sound Forever caught up with organ player Salla Kiehelä backstage after a mesmerizing gig.

Perfect Sound Forever: When did you start playing music?

Salla Kiehelä: 2000. I was watching a band called The Sweetheart in a Tex-Mex cantina in Helsinki. After the show, I was quite drunk when Katja Nakari and Julle Jalava came up to me and asked if I played an instrument. I said, “No.” Then they asked me if I was ever to play what would I want to play. I said, “Bass.” But Julle said she had already chosen that. So, I replied, “Organ.” I had never played an instrument in my life. Neither had Julle. Katja did sing but she had never sung in front of a band. She’d only sung karaoke once or twice. I woke up hungover and promptly forgot all about it. Half a year later, I was sitting in a café when Julle walked up to me, carrying a bass. She said, “Salla, I booked us a rehearsal space. We have a practice tomorrow.” I’d forgotten all about it. It was over half a year earlier that I’d agreed to it--drunkenly, mind you. When I went to the rehearsal, I met Joanna Ovaska for the first time. She was our guitar player. She was the only one who’d ever played an instrument before.

PSF: Who were some of your influences ­ personally and as a band?

SK: Personally, 22-Pistepirkko, a famous Finnish band. Their organ player, Asko Keränen, was an inspiration as well as giving me my first organ, a Yamaha. Later, he gave me a vintage Farfisa! As a band, we listened to too many different things. I don’t think any of us liked anything in common. And the fact that we were all brand new musicians helped forge a unique sound. From the get-go, our identity was very unique because we had no idea what we were doing.

PSF: How old were you at this time?

SK: I was 24. I got started very late. I was the youngest. Julle was 11 years older than me, so she got started even later than I did!

PSF: Who came up with the name?

SK: Joanna had bought this poster of an old black and white movie called Five Branded Women. She and Julle thought that would suit us. After several months of rehearsal, we finally got a drummer named Vera Nevanlinna. Even though there were five of us, we only called ourselves “Branded Women,” not “Five Branded Women.”

PSF: So what was the first line-up?

SK: Vera on drums, Joanna on guitar, Julle on bass, Katja on vocals, and I played organ.

PSF: Tell me about the evolution of the band.

SK: At first, we sounded like shit, but we played our first gig very quickly after starting to rehearse. We’d only rehearsed for about six months before we played a gig, which was our friend’s birthday party. It was quite a sticky situation, because the whole Helsinki music scene was there! We got great feedback though. It was very encouraging. We started getting lots of gigs after that. Our third gig was at Tavastia, which is the best venue in Finland. It’s considered the best venue in Scandinavia. We were lucky to play there especially so soon after forming. We were still looking for our sound. We went out and played songs we hadn’t even finished! We just improvised right there onstage. It was very silly since we might have only played a song once before that. But what’s more rock ‘n’ roll than that?

PSF: Describe your sound at that time.

SK: Very raw. I had this Yamaha that only had one good tone. I had an old ’60s Fender amp that I only had to set at 2. It was so loud. Vera, our drummer, stood up to play. She only had a floor tom, snare, and one cymbal that was split in half. She’d found the drum kit backstage somewhere. Somebody had abandoned it. After I got my Farfisa, I added a Leslie, which really fattened our sound. We were still very raw. I’ve heard us compared to the early Velvet Underground, although they weren’t an influence. We were dark psychedelia even though that’s not what we intended. Not that we avoided it either. We just did what we knew how to do, which wasn’t much.

PSF: Who is in the current line-up?

SK: We still have the same core line-up although we’ve gone through drummers quickly. Our first 7” was with Vera. She left and then on our first LP/CD we had a drummer named Timo Koutala. Our second album had Artemi Remes. Now we are playing with a drummer named Anssi Hallio.

PSF: Okay, for a band that started so precariously, it’s rather amazing that you ended up on a major label. Tell me about that.

SK: We called up Jürgen Hendlmeier, The Flaming Sideburns and Thee Ultra Bimbos producer. We wanted to release a new 7” or an EP. He had other plans. He didn’t want to release anything small with us so he took us to this beautiful studio. We had all the songs together already so it wasn’t difficult to record. He shopped it around and started with Spinefarm, who wanted it. Right after that, Universal bought Spinefarm.

PSF: How popular are you in Helsinki? And in Finland?

SK: We can easily fill up a club of 300 or so. That’s our favorite type of venue anyway. We’ve played Turku, Tampere, Jyväskylä, Oulu, Kuopio, Seinäjoki, Joensuu... all the big university towns and cities in Finland.

PSF: Where have you toured besides Finland?

SK: Germany, Norway and Estonia.

PSF: What was your first recording?

SK: A 7” called “Branded Women” with an instrumental called “Planet Tandoor” and “Something To Hold On.” I stole the organ riff for the intro from an Indian exploitation movie. I don’t remember its name, though.

PSF: Tell me about the songwriting process, specifically the songs on your first LP/CD, Velvet Hours--Stolen Moments.

SK: The first album was written as a complete collaboration. We worked out the songs and arrangements over the first three years of our existence. So, they were pretty much what we had learned did and did not work in rehearsals and onstage. It was a very accurate picture of the band.

PSF: Tell me about the recording of the debut album itself.

SK: We recorded it with Jürgen at this beautiful house on the outskirts of Helsinki by the sea. We recorded all the basic tracks and some guitars and keyboards. We only had ten days to do the instrumental beds and a few overdubs. We continued the overdubs at a number of different studios. We had to jump from studio to studio, maybe five in all, to get it all done.

PSF: How was the album received?

SK: We were nominated for an Emma, which is the Finnish Grammy. We didn’t win that one, but we won a Femma, which is more of a critical accolade as opposed to the Emma, which is more sales-oriented.

PSF: Any funny anecdotes?

SK: We just finished a tour and our soundman was missing in the morning. He had to walk from the police station for 45 minutes in freezing weather. He didn’t remember it, but the police told him that he’d broken into a cinema during the night and slept there while he was drunk. Which made no sense! The gig was downstairs at the hotel we were staying in. He only had to walk upstairs to his bedroom to go to sleep. Why would he go outside and break into a cinema? Oh, well. That’s rock ‘n’ roll.

PSF: The new album doesn’t feel as cohesive to me although the Finnish press has given it rave reviews. What do you think of that observation?

SK: The recording process was totally different. We only had a handful of songs, so we had to go to the studio and build it from the ground up. If the first album was a picture of the band altogether, this one was snapshots of individual band members. Our songwriting is better now and the songs have more depth. It’s faster and groovier at times. On the other hand, it’s lacking the unique Branded Women atmosphere.

PSF: What are your favorite Branded Women songs?

SK: My favorite is “Runner” from the first album.

PSF: What are you listening to personally these days?

SK: I love the acoustic solo stuff by Stephen Blodgett, who used to be in Mike & The Ravens. He recorded hundreds of songs in the ’70’s that never found a home. I’m reminded very much of Nick Drake’s work when I hear Blodgett’s stuff. As for electric stuff, I’m on a Monks kick right now.

PSF: What are your musical plans for the future?

SK: I want to go back to basics.

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