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Finnish Line

Laura Naukkarinen, a Fixture in Finland’s Burgeoning Avant-Rock Underground, Shortens Her Name and Expands Her Palette on Her Hypnotic Solo Debut

M. Kuorinki
GROWING SEASON: Lau Nau’s new solo album is just one offshoot of the fertile Finnish music scene.

By Marc Masters | Posted 6/8/2005

“The goal for this record was to taste the power of tyranny,” musician Laura Naukkarinen writes via e-mail. A member of multiple Finnish groups, Naukkarinen has just released her first solo album, Kuutarha (on Chicago label Locust), under the moniker Lau Nau. “Even though I love playing in my other bands, the music is always some kind of compromise between the people, though at the best we break all our personal limits and do something greater that one person could do. [But] it’s hard to really have control over yourself or the players on a record, so I must admit that tyranny was an unrealistic and even unwanted dream.”

Kuutarha itself feels like a dream, a floating mist of delicate, amorphous melodies that seem to dissolve into the air. While Lau Nau’s sound is often sparse, with miniature rhythms, simple drones, and hesitant plucks strung together like stars in a constellation, the sum is hypnotically massive. Naukkarinen plays 23 different instruments, including beer cans, a baby’s rattle, and “colorful juice glasses.”

“I like to use everything I have around me,” she says. “Kitchen utensils and toys have such beautiful sounds. I guess I prefer sounds nowadays over melody and rhythm. It’s hard to describe in English what I wanted the record to sound like. These are things that you can reach only with the help of your mother tongue.”

The Finnish language is transformed on Kuutarha through the inventive powers of Naukkarinen’s voice. She hums, moans, purrs, and whispers, stretching and melting her words into the surrounding music. Even during the album’s sole instrumental, “Sammiolinnut,” her voice seems to echo in the wash of bells and crashes. “I recorded part of it in the countryside and you could hear the birds singing on the recordings,” she explains. “That’s why I added some bird noises and tried to adopt some kind of a bird’s view in doing it. I wanted to do my own version of gamelan music, where it would be hard to notice any rhythmic pattern at all, except in the end of the song where the peace is restored and the rhythm has settled.”

Kuutarha includes contributions from three collaborators, primarily multi-instrumentalist Antti Tolvi, with whom Naukkarinen lives and operates the record label POK. “He’s a very many-sided player and knows what fits my songs,” Naukkarinen says. “He had to listen all the time when I was recording at home. I do things slowly, so it can be devastating to listen to it. Making music with him is lovely and inspiring, even though we have different approaches. He has quite a minimalist taste, when I’m more baroque.”

Tomas Regan contributes acoustic bass and banjo, while Pekko Käppi adds jouhikko, a Finnish string instrument also known as the knee-fiddle. “I invited Pekko and Tomas over to play with me one sunny day, and we played some nice jams on which I started to build new songs,” Naukkarinen says. “The problem is that I have so many great friend musicians that I’d want them all to play on my songs. And still be the sole tyrant of them all, ha ha!”

Naukkarinen’s musical comrades are indeed numerous: She is currently a member of acoustic ensemble Päivänsäde, experimental pop group Kiila, improv collective Avarus, and all-female trio Hertta Lussu Ässä, with whom she is touring England. She also contributes to recordings by Es and Kemialliset Ystävät, while Tolvi is a member of Päivänsäde, Lauhkeat Lampaat, and the free-jazz ensemble Rauhan Orkesteri. Regan is in Avarus and Kemialliset Ystävät, and Pekko plays with Kiila, Office Building, and Äijä.

Clearly, the Finnish underground is bulging with activity, as well as garnering notice outside of Finland. “The bands that have got some attention have been playing for a long time without recognition, so it’s fair that their work is noted,” Naukkarinen says. “But it seems so strange to me that people talk of us always using the words ‘Finland’ and ‘Finnish.’ I’m not that patriotic a person, and sometimes it annoys me when people mention our country when they talk about our music. I would include, for example, the Family Underground from Denmark as a part of our ‘circles.’ When people talk about ‘the Finnish Underground,’ they label our bands together, although there are different approaches to the music, and they forget about the other Finnish undergrounds that don’t have the attention on their side.”

A sampling of recent Finnish releases confirms Naukkarinen’s point. Es’ Kaikkeuden Kauneus Ja Käsittämättömyys (released by Finnish label Fonal) is a collection of chilling drones that use pedal loops, turntable noises, and pulses created with NASA radio signal software. Kemialliset Ystävät’s Alkuhärkä (Fonal) offers shorter tracks that range from miniature folk melodies to Stockhausen and Sun Ra samples. Most exciting is the massive double-CD Ruskeatimantti (on American label Tumult) by the sprawling Avarus. Evoking the collective energy of Can and No-Neck Blues Band, the seven-plus-member group drifts from tribal percussion to haphazard noise to hissy silence. “Mostly I’m happy about the attention, as long as it isn’t just a boom that makes people think that everything from Finland is pure gold,” Naukkarinen says. “We are able to produce shit, too, though it smells flowery.”

Botany is an apt metaphor for Naukkarinen’s music: Her songs grow organically, sounding as if they were recorded in a breezy, overgrowing backyard. Gardening is actually one of Naukkarinen’s hobbies with Tolvi, and a factor in her future plans, which include a possible U.S. tour in the fall. “Antti and I have decided to live a nomad life this summer,” she says. “After returning from the U.S. tour, we’ll find a nice house, by the sea or near a vast forest, where we could cultivate some vegetables and herbs. I’ll definitely start to record a new album, little by little by myself, inviting friends to play, experimenting with a huge amount of stuff, and then picking some of it for the record. I try everything, which generates a lot of surprises.”

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