S & N
With their new album ‚Once’ Nightwish do not only dominate the Metal Hammer-Soundcheck but they also dare a stylistic breakout that backs especially on the force of classical music next to oriental, Native American and electronic elements. Band boss Tuomas Holopainen and his muse Tarja Turunen about a work that teaches fear to the metalheads.
In fact only the conductor, dropping whispers and a curtain out of red velvet which releases the view to one of the most pompous productions of the metal history with the beginning of the overture are missing: Welcome to the performance of Nightwish’s ‘Once’! The ‘composer’ of the one hour long meeting of harp, trombone, bass and drums: Tuomas Holopainen, keyboarder, songwriter, lyricist and producer in one person. The 27 years old Finn added a new dimension to the term ‘Symphonic Metal’. “Show all that you’ve got instead of setting only a few marks’, that was and is the motto of Holopainen, who describes himself as ‘extremely ambitious’. “I always want to go for the maximum!”
He shares this point of view with his singer Tarja Turunen. With her classical education the 26 year old woman ranks with the fixed stars in the front women’s sky. Since she appeared in public first with the debut album of Nightwish ‘Angels fall first’ in 1997 she did not only develop into one of the biggest identification figures of the Metal community but also presses ahead with her education as an opera singer. After this double-load (followed by a removal to Karlsruhe) almost meant the end of one of the most successful Metal-bands of the recent times before the recordings for the last album ‘Century Child’ (2002) the band returns on ‘Once’ with strengthened self-confidence. With ‘Once’ Tuomas Holopainen, Tarja Turunen, bassist and second singer Marco Hietala, guitar player Emppu Vuorinen and drummer Jukka Nevalainen make the critics grow silent again that reproached Century Child with a lack of innovation (in parts this was justified). Never before this band sounded more progressive, never before since the foundation in 1996 the approach to unite classic and metal was converted more firmly.
Additionally with the noted Briton Pip Williams (responsible for the classical arrangements), the London Session orchestra (which took part in the third Lord of the rings’-soundtrack) and the Native American John Two-Hawks they won some interesting guests who make ‘Once’ a really entertaining and at the same time ambitious affair. “I’ve never had such a big trust in one of our albums before”, Tuomas Holopainen stresses emphatically. “For me it’s always about stretching the limits of this band.”
The master of puppets
Tuomas describes himself as a ‘positive dictator’. – „In every band there has to be somebody who has hall the threads in his hand”, he says self-confidently. During the last years his appearance changed from the shy thinker to the spokesman of the band although you always have to be careful to use this term for Scandinavian artists. Even today Holopainen is not a talkative person but he absorbed the ovations of the fans to his compositions and so he acts a bit more offensive in public. “That is a long, difficult learning process”, the Finn who is reserved by nature sighs. “I feel much more comfortable in the spotlight than I did at our beginning – I had to force myself to deal with the media. It is not my thing but it is part of the business. I’ve never been a person who likes to stand out from a group of people. But the Tuomas Holopainen from 1997 and the one from 2004 still do have a lot in common”, he nods. “Today the fire, the passion for the music is still as big as it was back then. The expectations and pressure are quite different though.”
What started as a spontaneous idea at the camp fire in a cosy summer night in 1996 and what was characterized by Tuomas as “nothing but a hobby” collects golden and platinum awards all over Europe today. “Nevertheless I try to push the thoughts about what people expect from us far away from me in the creational time of the songs. I do not want to do the same song twice – that is why you can find so many new elements on ‘Once’ with whom I want to create a new dynamic. That may sound unpredictable but I just need this challenge!” Romantic pictures play a decisive role in the world of Nightwish. Tuomas is sure to know the small but fine line between kitsch and true emotion. “All of my songs are based on pure emotion. The main idea for a song can happen everywhere: on the street, at the tourbus, while going for a walk. It’s about my dreams and my fears; I do not have to fake anything in there. Of course I have to create a proper artistic framework for Nightwish but the feeling in the beginning is absolutely honest”, he assures. While working it out the nature-given character of Tuomas comes out again. He searches for loneliness. “I need absolute calm that is why I cannot finish a song on tour. First there is the idea, then I develop a matching story to it and then afterwards the fitting kind of music – or better said: the soundtrack. On ‘Once’ there are eleven pieces of it.”
The one who plays with the Indian
Fundamentally for Holopainen it’s all about “shocking people a bit with the new album”; that is what he tells us casually. “Just listen to the opener ‘Dark Chest Of Wonders’ – the main structure of the song does not make any sense at all: In the beginning there is a heavy metal-riff, then bombast with flutes, power metal in the chorus, then a Pantera-part – that is crazy; but it is a lot of fun to play it!” Accordingly ‘Once’ is quite experimental; you can even marvel at electronic beats for the second single ‘Wish I Had An Angel’. “I was really surprised about this element”, Tarja raises her eyebrows. “But it shows a new side of this band and it differs a lot from the other material. Musically ‘Once’ is a more exciting album than ‘Century Child’ – with all the guests and the classical arrangements there is almost no time to breath for the listener: There is so much to discover that you will probably be completely overtaxed at the first time”, Tarja speculates. “It is a really great album – in the end also thanks to the work of Pip.”
Pip’s surname is Williams and this guy already worked on arrangements for Status Quo and Uriah Heep and he produced countless soundtracks. “What he did for ‘Once’ was unbelievable”, Tarja praises. “We expected a lot but the result was better than all that.” Following the targets of Tuomas Pip Williams brought the orchestra on the same level with the typical rock instruments. Whether harp, horns, oboe or choir, guitars or a stamping beat, powerful or sentimental – ‘Once’ becomes a battlel field of the instruments. Despite all joy for the progressive chaos: ‘Creek Mary’s Blood’ is Tuomas’ favourite song from the new work: an eight and a half minutes long number with lots of melancholy and Native American flair in which you can literally see the desert’s bush roll through your living-room. The inner connection with the Native American people started with a bag of popcorn in the keyboarder’s paw: “First I came in contact with this topic because of the movie ‘Dancing With Wolves’ and Kevin Costner”, Tuomas remembers. “Since then I’m fascinated by the culture and the history of this people. I can understand their spirituality, their connection with nature and the respect for everything that lives. What happened to the Indians is one of the biggest sins of mankind. Because of that I had the wish to write a song with Native American elements for a long time already.”
To achieve an authentic state it was clear for the Nightwish boss to include an Indian by birth. The problem: Most of the time you have more changes to meet these people in the local pedestrian precinct than in the metal scene. The solution: A search engine in the internet. This one spit out the name ‘John Two-Hawks’ at the first position after the entry ‘Native American musician’. The man from the tribe of the Lakota is one of the most well-known Indian flute players and he was awarded with the Nammy (Grammy for the Native Americans) for his album ‘Heal’. “He also travels the United States and teaches Indian culture at the schools”, Tuomas adds with deep respect. “John is a great person and a really spiritual musician. In a dream he was told to travel to Finland and record a song with us.” This disturbed sleep did its job. The result for which John Two-Hawks let his flute sound and recites a poem in his mother-tongue Tarja Turunen feels to be a highlight as well. “It really has an atmosphere of its own – I feel immediately as if I am directly in the American prairie.
The lady from the sea
A grandma plays songs to animals. What sounds like the newest campaign from PETA is the ‘epitome of art’ for Tuomas Holopainen and the basis for the song ‘The Siren’. “I watched a TV-documentary which dealt with a woman who lived on a lonely island in Scotland and on every evening she went out to the cliff to play to the seals. It was storming, it was raining – and she stood their and played the violin. It was a lovely picture. This devotion fascinated me.” In his opinion the ‚The Siren’ gets a simply mystical atmosphere with the oriental elements but the playing time confines itself to less than five minutes. Especially the focus on the essential things means a challenge to him. “Those epic things like ‘Creek Mary’s Blood’ or the ten minutes long ‘Ghost Love Score’ are easier to compose because you do not have to confine yourself. I was really surprised that I was able to write such a simple song like our first single ‘Nemo’. Usually this is not my cup of tea.”
A track that is more bombastic and variedly arranged like ‘Higher Than Hope’ seems to be more close to him – not only musically. “The song means a lot to me. It deals with a good friend who died of cancer. The title fits perfectly to the cover of the album.” The cover was designed by Tuomas himself and shows a picturesque angel. Because of the recent death of her mother Tarja also has a special relation to this song: “It is a sad song that I connect a lot with.”
The exciting Finnish language
After their debut which included the song ‘Lappi’ Nightwish have a try in a song in Finnish once more with the campfire ballad (and keyboard-breaker) ‘Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan’. For Tuomas this song represents “probably the most difficult lyrics” in his whole career. “It has only ten lines but writing them took me incredibly long. The Finnish language has an amusing effect on the listener that is not used to the sound of it – that was the danger.” For his singer ‘Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan’ held difficulties, too. The supposition that Tarja was happy to finally have the possibility to sing in her mother tongue again proves to be wrong. “You cannot call it a pleasure”, she giggles slightly. “Especially of this song I was a little bit scared. Honestly said it is the song on ‘Once’ that I always skip because it makes me feel embarrassed and insecure.” The non-Finnish people have to look for a translation of the title in the internet. In English it means ‘Death makes an artist’ and for Tuomas it belongs to the most beautiful Nightwish ballads ever but the ‘Once’ booklet will only include the original version of it.
Language barriers are unknown to Tarja Turunen. The singer can speak five languages including Spanish which is useful in Buenos Aires. The South American metropolis has become the second place of residence next to Finland for Tarja after her marriage with the Argentinean by birth Marcelo – but it hasn’t become a second home. “It is a big difference if you live in Helsinki or Buenos Aires”, the singer tells with a small sigh. She hints at the big economic crisis that shook the country at the Rio de la Plata in the last years. “People are so poor… But they stick to their hopes for better times; that is admirable.” Actually she doesn’t like big cities. Crowds, hectic – she hates all that. But there is so much one would do for love, isn’t it? “I have to get used to it at first. I am a bit fearful when I walk through the streets alone. In this town everything can happen.” Additionally she attracts attention especially of the quite obtrusive XY-chromosome because of her foreign looking outward appearance. “I’m still treated like a tourist. The guys whistle and call after me and the women whisper. That is not pleasant.” So it feels good for her to prove her authority in other places. After finishing her studies at the Music University of Karlsruhe she gave singing lessons both in Finland and Argentina. “It is fun to finally stand on the other side”, the former student tells. “Unfortunately I do not have that much time for my pupils. The constant travelling between South America and Europe takes time and strength. I am still afraid to fly and cannot relax because of that.”
That is why she wants to postpone children until a point of time “when there well be less stress in my life”. Still the term family is something that is a lot closer to her than some time ago. “I have grown as a woman and as a singer; you can also hear that on the new album.” You never heard her talk about an album as self-confidently before. Tuomas also thinks that Tarja did her best performance so far on ‘Once’. “She shows a lot of dynamic and variety: classic, rock, pop and opera – Tarja contributed all of that to ‘Once’.” His singer sets great store by the fact that no Nightwish part is easy to sing, “But for me these recordings were the most uncomplicated ones”, she remembers. “I am still not a Rocker Girl but I try to give my best. Only ‘Romanticide’ took a bit longer because it includes so many emotional breaks – and the right feeling is the most important aspect for singing. In the studio I always close my eyes to dip into the story of the song. That helps to build up the necessary concentration.”
Like on the last album she shares the vocals with bassist Marco Hietala in a few songs. What Tarja didn’t welcome with a conviction of one hundred percent during ‘Century Child’-times has grown to a friendly relationship by now. “It is nice to have somebody around you who can understand your worries as a singer”, she explains with full conviction. “He is a positive person who always kicks my ass when I start to have doubts.” But these moments get less and less recently. According to her especially the years full of studies in Karlsruhe conducted by Prof. Mitsukp Shirai (have a look at the small box as well) helped her a lot. But to the regret of Tuomas Holopainen music is not the only field in which his band is judged. “Sometimes I think we have the most critical fans on the planet”, he groans. “People who form an opinion about ‘Once’ without hearing a note of it and only because of a cover or a promo picture are the biggest pain in my neck.” For example a picture for which Tarja wore a cowboy hat was interpreted as a ingratiation with the American market. “Such people do not have a sense of humour at all – they have to relax: It is just a picture”, Tuomas complains. “’Once’ is an honest album and I hope that the fans will appreciate it in some way.”
Prof. Mitsuko Shirai about her pupil Tarja Turunen:
“For the first time I saw Tarja at the entrance examination for the Music University in Karlsruhe. She didn’t even apply for solo singing but I recognized immediately that she is somebody who puts a lot of personal feelings into her singing. I liked that and so I encouraged her not letting herself train to be a choir singer but a lead singer. I can imagine that she is a real highlight in the rock scene with her unusual voice. In my opinion she has only used 80 to 85 percent of her voice’s classical potential. Even today she still visits me to work with her voice. As a student and as a human Tarja Turunen is a pleasant and sensitive woman.”
Reinhard J. Brembeck, editor for cultural life at the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (a big national paper in Germany):
“Tarja Turunen has a clear and bright voice which first impression reminded me more of folk singers like Joan Beaz than a classical singer when I listened to it for the first time. Everything lives on the contrast between well-bred and pleasantly wild.”