Iiris: "Internal darkness? I like that..."

Iiris: "Internal darkness? I like that..."

Iiris at the President's Ball, Estonian Independence Day, 24 February 2013. Photo: Jelena Rudi

I was worried I’d missed out on the chance to meet Iiris Vesik; all around our interview there seemed to be shifting sands. Marin Sild, my friend and the great photographer who had helped me so much, was due to embark on a ferry journey that night, ariving in Tallinn the following day, meaning that, unfortunately, she missed by a matter of an hour or so the chance to take Iiris’s photo. Meanwhile, I was a little late for the 7pm rendez-vous at Tallinn Kalasadama’s Kultuuri Katla Aed, in which lay the vegan bar and restaurant Kanala. Had I missed her? My belief in fate made me wonder if I had lost my chance. The bar and garden was a hard place for anyone to find.

Fortunately, I saw a small girl, wearing a black leather jacket, desert boots and a shy demeanour, enter after a couple of minutes, assuaging my panic. There was an experimental performance to my left, a pizza workshop to my right, and in the middle was Estonian pop’s most original talent, the winner of the Estonian Music Award for Best Female Artist in 2012. Iiris was fresh from a support slot for Lana del Rey in Riga, although observing her hugging a cup of green tea, the differences between the two singers were palpable. I’d expected someone guarded and closed, exposure to the music business perhaps having taken its toll on any sense of openness. What I got, by contrast, was a young woman who, peering through a long fringe and speaking in an excited tone, seemed eager to explain how she made sense of the world.

Tigerhead, Iiris’s most recent release, is the kind of record that an artist can only make when she is given her own space, maybe after watching Japanese anime DVDs, or listening to vintage Britney Spears, the Cocteau Twins, and a little 'Hounds of Love'-era Kate Bush. It’s a primary-coloured, perkily-produced juggernaut of a pop tune, and unlike, for example, many of Cristina Aguilera’s recent tracks, it’s not ’too much’, but rather ’just enough’. The lyrics, sung breathily in English to begin with, but with increasing power, bring another dimension to a song that reveals something new on each repeat listen. Indeed, because it is not immediately obvious what the song refers to (a rallying call, the need to pull out of a depression?), it adds an air of mystique.

“It started on my computer,“ Iiris explained, about the multi-layered single, which sounds anything but lo-fi, and was pepped up by expert production. There is a difference in the atmosphere of Tigerhead, compared to the tracks of her debut album, 2012’s ’The Magic Gift Box’. “I realised I had to evolve. And that made me feel very alone. So, I felt alone, and I wrote Tigerhead! Most of it’s on my computer; I’m a co-producer on that song.“

About the feeling of being alone: did Iiris take the positives in this? “It is motivating. I love being alone, but I’m most ’alone’ with other people actually! It’s an itch, you have to scratch it. You have to get away from your demons, this feeling that you’re nuts and people hate you. Not ’hate’ in that extreme way; I’ve always felt a bit alone, just in the case of not connecting, but it gets better as you get to know people better. I hope some people can relate to it,“ I agreed that a surprisng number of people would relate to this feeling – in fact, anyone who has ever had a passion or interest not shared by the majority will have felt this feeling. It was, the singer said, “about ’you can do it,’ Motivational Penguin!“ I was pleasantly taken aback when Iiris then gestured and did an impression of a motivational penguin. That is quite some imagination that she has – one which shows through in her songs.

We talked about the artist behind the sticker on my Surface tablet, the Tartu cartoonist Okeiko. At TEDxTallinn in May, Okeiko had explained how she viewed her comic creations as being an extension of her world, rather than being merely imaginary. Was this the case with Iiris’s songs’ parade of weirdoes, ogres and outsiders? “I guess so, that’s quite a good way to put it. Some songs I don’t feel are so much my extension – but I hope I can give those away to someone else. I’m a fan of fantasy. In fantasy, characters have human emotions. There is real, emotional human drama in things like Lord of the Rings.“

I wondered what motivated Iiris to use music as her field of expression, rather than any other art. With her stories and characters, was she seeking to create a distance between herself and the song? “I’ve written, sometimes, based on stories. But on some unconscious level I guess I take inspiration from what goes on around me. I was always more of a performer, I wanted to sing solo, I didn’t want to be a choir kid like everybody else! I think I’m at my most honest when I’m [writing songs] alone; that’s what’s worked best for me so far.“

JAFF, the Japanese Animated Film Festival, had come to Tallinn in April. It being a small city, it turned out we had gone to the same film, ’Night on the Galactic Railroad’, which we both tried to pick apart, its themes including love, death, Christianity, and cats on a steam train. “I love anime. There’s a special kind of ’helgus’ – a glow. Sometimes anime can be light, but sometimes the characters can be very emotional, very extreme. I think in Western culture, there is always something in characters that balances their personalities out. But in anime characters can be badass to the bone!“

Moving the conversation back to Iiris’s music, I asked if she felt there was a kind of internal darkness to the world in which it inhabited. “Internal darkness? Yeah, I like that. Maybe I wanted it more when I was younger. I’m in the process now of understanding why people sing so much about sex. I’ve denied myself the chance to write about that for so long. When I was younger I was like, ’those shallow artists singing about sex, I’m gonna kick their asses!’ But I didn’t understand it.“

“It’s not so much about sex, more about sexuality – those inner feelings you get when you’re dancing; I think it’s a good feeling, and something people want to experience. It’s natural and I’m not against it any more.“

Jessie Ware once told the music site popjustice.com that she thought, if anyone had sex to her record, it would be “depressing sex“, but that she liked the idea. So what kind of sex could one have to Iiris’s album? “I think the first record isn’t really a having-sex kind of record. It’s about ogres and zombies and astronauts and magical things, and it’s childlike, so it doesn’t really have any sensual songs. But I’m planning to do some sensual songs, because it’s really new ground for me, and it’s fun, like, woah! Breaking rules for myself! I like that.“ 

Continuing on aesthetic matters, Iiris added, “It’s kinda sad, but I didn’t feel very competent in my looks when I was younger. It’s ok to feel like that when you’re a teenager, and it protects you to an extend to not be so sensual, but I’m 21 now and I feel sensuality, I feel I’m a sexual being, and I’m okay with that for the first time; I feel comfortable with myself.“

Certainly Tigerhead demonstrates a growing confidence. If it is any indication of the change of style on the forthcoming EP, 'Chinaberry Girl', there could be more of a focus on true-life situations in the songwriting. And the new compilation is due to be released just before Iiris takes on her latest challenge – a university course in London. “I'm going to Goldsmith's, to study Popular Music! James Blake studied there. It's a good school. I expect there to be a lot of competition, so I need to be an independent person, and get out of my safe zone. I want to [write and release] simultaneously. I think I can. Maybe in London I’ll be able to collaborate with other British and international artists.“

“I feel like I’m evolving so much in the songwriting area – from the last album I can see so many things in songwriting that I could have done differently. To go into a studio [for ’The Magic Gift Box’] and do all the artwork and so on – it was a great experience. But the recording process was very hard. After the first album I kind of went into a mini-depression, and all my channels were turned off to music, so it took me a little while to start writing again. I really like the album and I’m really proud of it, though – I think I couldn’t have done anything better. But the following Wednesday I went to the piano and – nothing. I got sleepy, slept, the next day I got sleepy, slept the whole day – I realised I just needed a break. I went to a secret place in Estonia, with a stone beach. And I just read on the beach.“

Everyone needs a chance to rest – but Iiris is at full steam, her head brimming with amazing ideas, her eyes bright, and a fine future ahead. But first, we made a beeline to the pizza. Whatever the future, some things are too good to pass up.