Photograph by Hertta Kiiski
by Michael Freerix
Islaja is Merja Kokkonen, a visual artist and musician living and working in Berlin. Since her debut in 2004, she has released four album-length works on Finland's Fonal Records and one CD on Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label, as well as a series of singles on labels such as Not Not Fun and Root Strata. She earned quick praise in the international music press for her unique vocal style and daring DIY approach to music composition, with kudos from the Wire magazine, Dusted, Pitchfork, Coke Machine Glow and Tiny Mix Tapes. Her most recent work, Keraaminen Pää (Fonal 2010) also won praise in her native Finland, and was called "soulful, heartfelt" by Prefix Magazine, while Pitchfork noted its "icy synth tones, crunchy samples and abstract gurgles." In addition to her solo work, she also performs with Finnish free folk supertrio Hertta Lussu Ässä, which released a full length in 2011 on Minneapolis label De Stijl records. Islaja performs regularly at venues and festivals across Europe, Asia and the UK, and has shared the stage with bands as diverse as Animal Collective, Low, Handsome Furs, Skaters and Junip.
Merja Kokonnen grew up in the suburbs of Helsinki, Finland. Well, the suburbs in Helsinki means there are some houses by the side of the road, with a huge forest surrounding it. Although she has lived in big cities since she left Helsinki, the forest is always present in her lyrics and videos. "There was always music in the house," she remembers of her childhood. Her dad liked Jazz so maybe her dad's jazz-record collection may have some kind of musical impact on her, "but unconsciously", she says now. Later, she had piano-lessons, "to satisfy my mom." But Merja didn't like it that much. She could not understand why somebody should put an incredible amount of time into learning to play a song somebody else had written hundreds of years before. So she never managed to play Schubert or Bach 'right.' But she liked pressing the black and white keys and she fooled around on the piano a lot. She just liked the pure sounds dissolving into the air.
Beeing a teenager in the '90's, music was "all MTV for me, barely any Finnish music." After school, she made music with friends and wrote her first songs. "I never learned to play guitar, I never took lessons or anything. I played guitar because I happened to find it somewhere. The choice of an instrument was random! Any instrument was good enough back then. I used a cupboard as drum on Palaa aurinkoon (her 2005 album)."
At the same time, she painted a lot. After finishing school, she studied art without ever stopping to make music. At university, she realized she wanted to make music professionally: "Well, I can always go back to painting," she says now.
As far as she remembers she always had an experimental approach to writing. Although she plays keyboards now, her early records mainly contain guitars, acoustic and electric, and other analogue instruments. With Herrta Lussu Ässä, she delved more into the spheres of pure sound, creating collages of improvisations and sound samplings. "My aim has always been to write songs, but it took (a) long time to get better." Her unconventional guitar playing intrigued Thurston Moore so much that he approached Islaja after a concert in New York. "There was this tall guy," she recounts, "who told me he had a record label and would love to release one of her live-recordings." They talked for a while and finally she agreed. Though she was a Sonic Youth fan, she did not recognize him at first. It took "me maybe 15 minutes to figure out who he is." To much acclaim Blaze Mountain Recordings was released on Ecstatic Peace in 2008.
Even if she has been on covers of several Finnish music magazines and she has made quite a name for herself there, she does not focus on hanging out with music celebrities, although there is Timo Kaukolämpi, whom she calls the 'godfather of Keraaminen Pää,' who is a very well known Finnish musician all over Europe. "We became friends before I had heard any of his music."
In the late eighties, Timo Kaukolampi started his band Larry and the Left-Handed, who fused 60's Beat with the unpredictablilty of punk rock. Later, he formed Op:el Bastards with Mikko Viljakainen and Tuomo Puranen. They worked with early, primitive computers and produced a sound that had similarities to early '80's disco music and New Wave. Kokkonnen remembers "one night after my gig, Timo came to the backstage and started helping me with cables, bundling them in neat reels. He called himself a cable doctor. I sensed that here is someone I am going to like!!" They talked all night long and became close friends. "The reason why I called him "the godfather" is simply because he was such a big fan of Islaja and always encouraging and supporting me. And also probably the only person who played my music on the radio."
Merja Kokkonnen has moved a lot in the past fifteen years, living in China for periods of time. Some of the music she released on Kerraminen Pää was recorded in West Africa. She lived near the ocean and there was always the sound of waves, crashing on the shore, staying in her ears. Now she feels that the music she created there has picked up that vibe- somehow it sounds like waves, crashing on the shore. And she feels that some of the music she recorded there has a Chinese feeling to it.
But wherever she goes, she records on her own. Now, she has established herself in a small, one-room apartment in East Berlin. It is her living and work space. Surrounded by many instruments, she records there so that her music has this sort of very special, DIY intimate feel. Sound wise, she admits that there is sort of an influence og Laurie Anderson in her music, "but only a very vague one." It all starts with improvisations, sounds appear that she likes, melodies sometimes, and she combines them. To her, songs are more like sound sculptures.
Timo Kaukolampi might be an influence on Islaja, but there is also somebody like Ghédalia Tazartès, a French composer from Turkish parentage, who is one of the leading figures of contemporary Musique Concrete. Kokkonnen met him twice and thinks he is "an amazing music genius!" Some of the tracks she recorded on Keraaminen Pää were build on recordings by Tazartès.
Since the release of her first record Meritie, which means 'Sea Road,' her songwriting has shifted away from guitars to analogue synthesizers. There is a special place in Berlin to buy vintage instruments, "its called Schneiders Laden. Its at Kottbusser Tor," near the river Spree. She bought one synthesizer there "that was originally designed in East Germany. (It) gets out of tune quite fast," she says, "but I like that. Music should not be too nice, too easy. Now I play synths because they are reflecting best my inner thoughts. I especially like Moog Voyager!"
She "fools around with an instruments until something comes of it, that sounds interesting." She then focuses on that interesting sound and works with it. Finally this process develops into some kind of a song as she adds lyrics to it.
On her early albums, Islaja sang in Finnish, now she sings in English. Her lyrics might not tell a story or be reasonable, even if you understand Finish. She uses words to add to the interesting sounds her songs are made out of. She has a tendency to add something that works against the structure of a song, to work against the easiness, the flow. And if there is a part she likes too much, she cuts it out, because it takes too much attention. For her, beauty should include a certain kind of wrongness.
She wants to extent her improvise approach to her live act: "Music should only exist for the moment it occurs," she says. "Music should have something magical, that can hardly be described or understood. It's good, if it's not understood, it has to be felt." And she wants her live act to evolve more into the direction of performance, where music meets images and dance or movements. She sees herself as a performing artist, who combines different muses. She has not had many chances to write for theatre or film, which she would love to see how that works.
Islaja has recently finished 11 new songs and is expecting the new album to come out by the end of March. Tracks are being recorded with analog synths and drum machines and they will bring a new fresh sound for the spectrum of Islaja's experimental pop music.
Also see Islaja's website
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