Finnish songstress Mirel Wagner took us through dark passages with her 2011 self-titled debut, an unsettling collection of lo-fi folk songs about death and despair.
That album became critics’ favourite and gigs in America followed, finally leading the singer to land a record deal with cult US label Sub Pop. Come 12 August, the singer will release her sophomore album, When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day, another collection of folk tales rooted in old time blues that combine the dark worlds of an artist such as Nick Cave, and the intense performance of PJ Harvey.
Right after the release of her latest single, ‘The Dirt’, we caught up with the musician in Helsinki, where she recounted tales of searching for the blues in libraries, co-directing her latest video and recording her songs in less than three takes.
First, for all the people who might now know, could you tell us a bit about your background and music?
It is always a bit difficult to describe my own music. I would say it’s acoustic singer-songwriter music… or just singer-songwriter.
When did you realise that music and songwriting would be your form of artistic expression?
I didn’t make any choice. It just happened. As far as I can remember, I have always been interested in music and in songwriting. I have also been interested in visual arts, but currently music is my preferred form of expression.
Do you remember the first song your wrote?
A little bit, but that was when I was four or five years old. Those songs were just the melodies children usually make. The first proper songs I wrote when I was in my teens, and the subjects of those songs were pretty much the same as they are now, but I have become better at telling stories.
What can you tell about the themes of your songs?
Death and life have always been themes that have interested me. But I can’t say I have done any conscious search of themes or songs. They just happened.
What is your songwriting method like?
Usually I play a melody on the guitar and then I think about the mood of the music and images come to my mind, and I just try to describe them with the lyrics.
Your music relates to old time blues singers, like Charlie Patton. Do you recognise this influence?
Yes, I always come back to this kind of music. I really like that old blues and jazz music from 1920s and 30s, when you can hear all the crackles and pops of the recording.
How did you discover this type of music?
I can’t remember exactly how I got the idea of researching this music. Maybe it was a documentary where there was this music in the background. At same point, when I was thirteen or so, I got very interested in this music. Then I found much of it in the library. I wasn’t very obsessed with it, but just curious. Those sort of things you do when you are a teenager and are trying to find your music, something your parents might not listen to.
You career started with just nine songs, included in your debut, how did this album come to be?
Those songs had been written in a very long period of time. Some of them had been written long before recording and some of them were finished just before entering the studio. It was a very easy and natural music process. It was recorded in two days with no more than three takes per song.
That first album received very good reviews and it gave you the opportunity to tour abroad, how did you face this success?
I try not to think about that and just try to make good music. I never had any strategic plans or career ambitions. I was happy that I got the chance to play my music to people who were interested in listening to it.
Your new album, When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day, is out very soon. What can you tell about it?
It is a little bit similar to first one. It uses the same building blocks – my voice, my guitar and the simplistic approach. There’s been a long time since the first album and since I started to write songs, so there has been a lot of development. I have grown as a songwriter and I hope this evolution continues.
This new album touches the same themes, but the spectrum is a little bit broader. It is hard to tell for me, anyway, so I would leave it up to the listener.
What can you tell us about the songs on the new album?
I try not to think about what other people want or expect. This is one of the reasons this album took a long time. I did not want to force the songs or make bad decisions because of rushing. In its core the process of doing this album was very similar except that this time there were more people paying attention.
Is there any particular song that you prefer in this album or that you always like to show first?
That changes, because I like them all! I can’t say any favourites.
You co-directed the forthcoming video for the song ‘The Dirt’ too, which we can’t wait to see – how was that experience?
I want to direct more. I did it with Aki Roukala, who has taken many of my pictures and directed my previous videos. It has been a natural evolution that I would become involved in this aspect of the music as well. The visual side is very important for me. If I write the songs, if I play the songs, if I record them, it feels that I abandon them if I let someone else put them into images. Songs are a product of my mind and my imagination and I want to see that in my own images too. I hope I can direct all of my videos in the future.
Sometimes the song breaks when there are too many people involved, bringing their own visions into the music. There’s a producer, record company, directors, stylists, album cover designers… There are a lot of visions there and it seems difficult to find the place for the song. I find important to listen to the song and do what the songs want to be done.
Do you see yourself playing in a band instead of being just a solo performer?
Maybe, I don’t find it impossible. It’s just about finding the right people to work with and also it is about having the right songs. Currently I haven’t written that many songs that need a band or extra instrumentation.
What is it like to be on a label with the history of Sub Pop?
I am very excited about it, mainly because they have that long history and experience. They have the right kind of attitude and resources. I am very happy, especially now when it is clear that nobody is trying to influence me. I had this silly stereotype of a big American company coming and telling me how to became a star. But I’m glad I was wrong. It is a good match for me. They love what I do.
What other influences do you have besides music?
I like visual arts. I like paintings, movies, photography and that stuff, but I am terrible at remembering names to mention. I also like reading a lot. especially poems and short stories.
When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day will be released on the 12th August through Sub Pop Records. Pre-order the album here.