That’s how it happened…

I was born in 1986. The childhood I spent in Võrumaa, in the very South-East of Estonia not far from the Latvian border. Our house there is on top of a hill, the woods are all around and cars rarely pass. My great granparents bought the place in 1896 for apron-full of silver coins. My great grandfather then planted on the yard a small tree which now has grown into a huge and more than 100-year-old maple, looking down on me with dignity.  There I have spent the first years of my life and later on summers and winter vacations. I remember those endless summers when the best thing you could do was just to sit on the road with sunshine, read books and wonder around the hills of surroundings. There’s beautiful nature and hilly landscape covered with forests and fields. I think the same open space I have later on started to search for in music.

I went to music school in Elva before I went to school. I was 5 then. When the other kids did their day-nap, I marched to music school to take piano lessons and I was very happy I didn’t have to waste my time on sleeping. Soon I started to record some improvised ‘piano symphonies’ with a cassette dictaphone. The first actual song I wrote was for my mother’s birthday. From music school I got some classical music base, only other music I heard at that time was the common radiopop coming from Estonian radio as during the 90s as it was the main channel for music (it was not the time of CDs yet and music was copied on tapes and given from hand to hand). In the end of the elementary school I had a literature teacher who played in her class the records of some Estonian troubadours. I was deeply affected by this listening experience because I had never heard such direct and simple music before, music without the backround drums and rhythms (in Estonian called ‘vaibakloppimine’). I started to compose my own songs with piano, writing the lyrics and singing together with friends at school.

At the same time around year 2000, traditional and folk music movement had risen strongly in Estonia and I went to the festivals, where bands and young people played folk music. Inspired by this we started up a band called Marr and arranged traditional melodies and songs in a jazz-rock mood. A year or two later we were already performing at the main Estonian folk festival in Viljandi to 1000 people. Not because people knew us but our show happened to be on a thundery Friday evening. After finishing highschool in Tartu I decided to go to study in the university in Viljandi – the folk music capital – and there I also dived into the traditional instruments world and started to play (by taking some lessons and teaching myself) small kannel and accordion. I continued making new songs on these new instruments and meeting some really talented musicians with whom we later formed a band.

Soon after this some of my tracks were chosen for an Estonian troubadour music collection, released by a small record label Õunaviks (Õunaviks means ‘apple polish’ in translation. Õ is a unique letter only used in Estonian language.) During the presentation concerts I got to know Õunaviks people: the producer Villem and Õunaviks artist Kago, also other very original musicians like Pastacas (with whom I later toured in Japan and which led to releasing Vihmakõnõ & Üü tulõk by Japanese record label Nature Bliss). The music on the troubadour album called ‘Toatuur’ (meaning something like ‘home tour’) containing some quite queer but very soulful music, again changed and widened my ideas about what music is and I felt that the technical side is in a way much less important than music’s directness and spontaneity. The concerts went well and a year later my first solo album “Üü tulõk” (‘Arrival of the Night’, 2007) came out under Õunaviks and gained remarkable recognition among Estonian music audience and critics. Since then I started to perform abroad. In 2009 we had a lovely tour in Japan with co-musician Pastacas, organised by Japanese label Afterhours with Pastacas in Japan. From the time before that there was an adventurous Hungary tour where I was invited by Southern Estonian singers Anu Taul, Triinu Taul and accordionist Tarmo Noormaa. Then time to time solo concerts in France, and some nice poetic + runosong concerts with Kristiina Ehin and Anna Hints in England and Scotland and occasionally other solos in Finland, Russia, Armenia.

‘Vihmakõnõ’ album I recorded and created in 2009-2010 while living in a part of Tartu called Supilinn – The Soup Town (all the streets have soup ingredients names there, like vegetable or berry names). This was my second album ‘Vihmakõnõ’ and it was recorded in various home environments (mainly by myself and Andres Vago). By the way, every piano track on this record is recorded on a different home pianino at mothers’ and friends’ places. I found it mesmerizing how all those home pianinos have a unique sound. Tartu is the university city, creative and a little bit bohemian and full of students and artistic ideas. There are many old village-like wooden houses regions. At the recording process time I was enjoying that time goes much slower in Tartu than in the capital.

(partly from the interview to Nature Bliss in April 2011)

In 2011 I felt the need to find out more and deepen my knowledge about traditional singing in Estonia. I decided to go to study in  traditonal singing master programme in Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, where with the help of my main teacher Janika Oras I got to really dive into  Estonian and nearby areas folksongs, runosongs, callings and archive tapes. Besides that Imet other really inspiring lecturers there – guitarist Robert Jürjendal, vocalist Anne-Liis Poll and pianist Anto Pett who have dedicated their life to improvisatory sounds.

The second half of my master studies I spent in the Sibelius Academy folk music department in Helsinki, one of the oldest and most progressive ones in whole Europe. There finally, with the help of exchange student stipend, I could take time out, do less concerts and focus on creating new material inspired and based on traditional songs and training my voice. This 1,5 year in Sibelius was a big inspiration to me – I was feeling comfortable with the free approach towards contemporary folk music and emphasis on improvisation. Professor Heikki Laitinen’s thoughts about impro and being an artist were familiar to me already before, but getting lessons from Anna-Kaisa Liedes, Meri Tiitola, Kimmo Pohjonen, Timo Alakotila and many others put these thoughts into practice accelerated by creative atmosphere in the department.

I had an idea to make my master programme and next concert material connected to being on the road. It was derived from runo songs, where one can find many connections between walking, sleeping and being awake, longing for home and an urge to explore unknown places. In the olden days “tii ilo” was created while sitting on carriages and singing. I entered a similar musical journey, together with musicians I’ve found “on the road”. When I met them in
Helsinki, I was excited to discover how the songs would sound as a collective group. The result of this meeting is the band Runorun, which is a dream band for me. The project has its roots in musical explorations and improvisations between myself and double bass player Nathan Riki Thomson. I then quickly discovered Maija Kauhanen, whilst on exchange at Sibelius Academy. I had heard that Maija is a one-woman-orchestra, who had not only developed a polyrhytmic kantele playing style, but was also a great vocalist. Percussionist Tatu Viitala completed the quartet, bringing the perfect balance of percussive influences, groove and subtle textures. We worked collectively as a band on the arrangements of my songs, and I also brought many traditional melodies to work with in rehearsal. Striving for a unique sound and artistic voice have been our goals from the start. The name of the group takes its inspiration from runosongs. The word “runo” means poem in Finnish, and the English word run hints at the journey, movement and words in motion. In 2013 I graduated Estonian Music Academy and perfomed my master concert in two cities – Tallinn and Helsinki. After that, Mari Kalkun & Runorun continued to work as a band and toward recording the material.

The making and recording of the album “Tii ilo” (“Beauty of the Road”) was a very exciting musical journey for me. Through this album, I wanted to combine influences from traditional and contemporary music, intertwined with my own personal touch. I was exploring and playing with the imaginary boundaries between singer-songwriter (which I’m most known for in my home country) and traditional musician. As a result of this process, I felt I to able to overcome this imaginary barrier. I’ve been fortunate to have been surrounded by such a vivid tradition of folk song in Estonia, consisting of friends and writers who practice folk singing not only on stage, but often as a part of their everyday lives. Folksinging has also become part of my everyday life – at birthday parties, in the sauna, at funerals, or where ever it is needed. Not in the sense of learning songs one by one from the archives alone, but by using the runo song as a tool for language, through exploring and creating lyrics that express something important for that moment and the time in which we live. In the same way that any other contemporary music style approaches lyrics, such as rap or hip-hop. In this context I am just using mostly traditional formulas. I’ve had such powerful experiences of improvising based on real life events. In the past I have been afraid to bring these experiences to the stage, worried that I wouldn’t be able to achieve the same kind of spontaneous energy and collective feeling. However, the live concerts have shown me that people are very willing to sing along and listen to the stories, whether in Estonia, Finland, France or Japan.

While living in Helsinki, I also met an interesting artist Tatjana Bergelt, whose collage-like works astonished me. She combined old landscape and family photos, maps and words into collages, which she then painted or drew on by hand. Many of the works made me think about the concept of roots and minority groups. They encouraged ones mind to ponder on issues of identity and the consciousness of roots. I liked her works, she liked my music, and as a result an idea was born to work together. We were lucky to receive Kone Foundation grant to develop the project. Tatjana used the lyrics of the songs to make her own new visuals, printing, painting and sewing them onto textiles. This also resulted in the visuals for the “Tii ilo” album. The actual works of art are also displayed at our live record presentation concerts as an integrated part of the performance.

In music, I search for stories that are personal. This makes the music meaningful for me, even if it’s traditional music, which is often thought of as being anonymous. But traditional music is created by individual people as well. During the process of composing for this record, a big source of inspiration was my interest in folk songs from Estonia and neighbouring regions. Through my traditional singing studies in Viljandi, Tallinn and Helsinki, a whole new world has opened up to me. I have discovered that my roots are traditionally from very powerful places in Estonia, namely Võrumaa and Pärnu/Kihnu. I’ve started to notice small hints of this fading culture and language in the surroundings I’ve known since childhood. In Võrumaa, my older relatives and neighbours still speak Võro language, which is tremendously different from Estonian. A few of them also carry on the tradition of carving crosses on trees when a family member dies. There are signs in the landscape, which tell stories of this very old and previously highly populated culture. Some examples are cross-tree forests and large sacrifice-stones by the forest or on a hill. And there are many signs of this culture diminishing, including abandoned villages and old farmhouse ruins built from field-stones in the midst of the forest. Nowadays, Võrumaa is one of the least inhabited and poorest regions of Estonia.

I have had a glimpse into close-by regions through Votic and Livonian songs, which are very close to Estonian and Finnish language. Surprisingly, I’ve discovered that with just a little bit of effort, I can quite easily understand
sentences from Votic songs. This is like discovering a treasure for me, in the sense that this is a language that is no longer spoken by anyone as mother-tongue, but can be kept alive through singing / the language of song. Through these songs we can trace the very close links between the Fennic cultures and languages.

I thought very carefully about the best environment for recording “Tii ilo” and didn’t want the recoding to sound too ‘clean’. I also feel that the studio location and atmosphere directly influences the outcome of the recording. For these reasons, I decided to book a studio located in the small village of Tuhalaane in Southern Estonia, run by jazz-guitarist Andre Maaker. The ruins of an old orthodox church stand in the backyard of the studio and there is a beautiful lake in the valley. The lake ended up playing a very important role in the recording of this album due to the unexpected Estonian heat wave of 32 degrees in August 2014!

Recording with a band was an enlightening experience for me, because previously I had been recording mostly at home alone. It was so much more fun with the band! Most of the songs were recorded as a live band in order to capture the interaction and energy of a live concert. There was a constant flow of creative ideas in the studio, which resulted in many of the songs taking on new interpretations during the recording. The atmosphere of the studio and surrounding environment played a very important role in this process. I remember a particular moment during the recording that gave me goose bumps. Just after recording song “Morning in Siberia”, about a Livonian woman, we stepped outside and sat together at a small wooden table. At that moment, a very rare butterfly called the Mourning Cloak landed on our table and stayed with us for the entire break time, as if bringing greetings from somebody we don’t know.

25.03.2015 & 18.11.2015 in Võrumaa, Haki küla

To be continued…

Let’s see what the future brings!