Gretagrund: A Band's Notes from a Large Island

"We've described our music as a fight between light and darkness, because those themes come up a lot." Britta Virves is sitting next to her band-mate in Gretagrund, the vocalist Maarja Aarma, and the pianist is trying to find an overarching theme for their group's new album. They're the creative force behind Gretagrund's emotionally-wrought songs, but the group of eight were about to get together to perform songs from their new album in Philly Joe's, a straight-up, frill-free club that has become known as Tallinn's jazz music hub in recent years.

Since its release in October 2015, Gretagrund's first long-player has attracted a lot of interest from the niche media, partly because it sounds quite distinct to any other music out there at the moment. It's not entirely a jazz album, as Aarma explains. It has also been influenced, at least in a small way, by a soup of other genres. Virves is a big Kendrick Lamar fan, though during the course of the interview we were unable to find a direct link between Lamar's braggadocio and Gretagrund's perhaps more pastoral music.

Photos: Kaisa Keizars
Make-up and hair: Reet Gailan

The name Gretagrund implies a kind of mystery. "I'm from Saaremaa," Virves says, "so we had the idea of searching through all the names of Estonian islands. We found this mysterious tiny one, called Gretagrund." "It's actually underwater," Aarma continues. "I called my dad, it was 10 in the morning, and I asked him, 'what do you think of the name?' and he just said 'yes.'" The name doesn't entirely give away the group's musical style, as Virves noted. "I've been told it sounds like a name for a metal band..."

"We wrote the songs in a short period of time," Aarma, the main lyricist, explains. Then Virves cuts in, "the songs came freely We had the same influences at the time, it wasn't a problem for us to decide what should go on the album, it was straightforward for us. Vikerkaar was the first tune we started to work with. We then wrote some other stuff and came back to it. When I started, I was a typical player, interested in the music, not so much the lyrics, but as time's gone on, I've begun to see how important they are. I'd say our album isn't a car album, or background music - I'd say it's the kind of record where you need to focus on it, otherwise it starts to bother you! I think this music, it just comes out of us. It's not something where we sit down and decide to write a song to a specific tempo. It's something that follows the rhythm inside of us. If it sounds challenging, or like a puzzle, at times, that's because we were challenging ourselves while making it."

Finding a natural rhythm doesn't just mean having a daily routine for the pair. The past few years of working on original material has meant frequent changes of environment, to try and get creative in different ways. Aarma points out how much she enjoys being at home for a "cosy" feeling, but she and Virves both appreciate the opposite too, as her colleague says. "For me, some of the better ideas came in un-cosy situations, like, at the Music Academy sitting in this quiet room at a piano, four songs came from there. Some other songs came from my small apartment, home alone and not cosy at all." The musicians have also shown that it's not only tech startups who can hold hackathons to find new solutions. "We've also had 'Creative Camps,' for example in Saaremaa."

On home turf, Virves and Aarma, whose mother is also from the island, felt a need to chill out. "For the first day or so, we were just hanging around, but then we decided we had to really go for it and do something on the second or third day. It's not about being lazy, but relaxing, like a hippopotamus. And then we could decide 'enough of this chilling,' but we had to have that time. The best one was two years ago - it was the World Cup, and we were just eating, watching football, biking around Saaremaa, swimming and eating strawberries, like a vacation, and then we escaped from Britta's family to the upper floor and focused on the music. "

We decided to go through each track of the new album, to explain what was going on in the studio, and in the heads of the two musicians while they crafted the eight songs.

Track 1 - Püsimatu Hing

Virves: It means restless soul. 

Aarma: It was put together from pieces of songs, and the title reflects people trying different things, to see what works. It's a collection of moments. When we wrote it, we were feeling restless ourselves, moving between reading and listening to different things. I came back from this exchange in Norway, I'd been away from Estonian music, and I'd noticed that I'd changed, and it was about getting used to the new person inside me. 

Virves: Tõnu, our drummer, makes this circus-type jump on the recording, and I love those effects where the listener doesn't quite know what's going on, that's so important for the music.

Aarma: In a way it's a love song for a boy who doesn't know what to do, and in another way it reflects me running around and not being sure what to focus on in life at the time.

Track 2 - Süda

Aarma: I was at my parents' place, by the sea. I went for a walk, I closed my eyes, and then when I opened them, it was much brighter. I'm a bit scared sometimes, but when you open your eyes to how things really are, it can seem so much nicer. I thought about how sometimes you can go to a really dark place, but then when you open your eyes and take another look, there's a lot more light and positivity.

Track 3 - Rattasõit

Virves: It means Cycling. The song is so light, I had this picture right away. One of the things I love to do is biking in summer, with the wind in my hair, and that was the vibe of this song.

Aarma: I struggled with the ending - I changed the last verse. It's about finding your way.

Virves: Maarja always finds a deeper meaning! I have these childish ideas about riding a bicycle, she thinks about it so much more.

Aarma: I think Vaiko Eplik said it was good to write songs about red rubber boots or something, and then when you get into the song, the other meanings come out. [The two of them try to clarify the actual quote, before the interviewer mentions that Sia said a very similar thing about picking objects to write about, but he also doesn't know the quote!]

Track 4 - Vikerkaar

Virves: It means Rainbow. That was the hard song. First we wrote the melody, then the lyrics followed.

Aarma: The verses... I had something, and then, I remember, we were at the Estonian Music Academy, just in a room singing together, and we just threw ideas at each other, brainstormed, even if the idea was silly. The lyrics here come from that.

Track 5 - Pariisi Viiking

Virves: Me and Maarja were sitting in Philly Joe's and we met a French guy, who was there, drinking whisky alone. We started to talk to him. He said that he is from Paris, but his grand-grandmother was a viking. That story was somehow so interesting for us that we made a song out of it basically the next day, I think.

Track 6 - Kati Ballaad

Aarma: My sister's name is Katrin - we call her Kati. I saw a poem on Facebook, and when I asked her who wrote it, she said her, and I was surprised! I didn't know if I could write music to those lyrics, but I tried, and I wrote the second verse myself.

Virves: This is another cute song. My dad said it sounded like a lullaby. It ends with a really big crescendo, though. I think if we did the album order again, we might not pick the same order... it would be nice to end the album with something where the whole band is involved at once, like this.

Track 7 - Roheliste Viilkatuste Anne

Aarma: It's inspired by the book Anne of Green Gables. I loved the books, we both loved the story. I think I have this kind of personality inside me, constant excitement and wanting to know new stuff. I always try to see the positive side of things.

Virves: I think everyone has two sides of themselves. Sometimes when I show that Anne of Green Gables side of myself, I'm the opposite inside. I think Maarja is the same. I think I was describing the rooftops of Kuressaare, and then the story just came to mind for both of us at pretty much the same time.

Track 8 - Kaugus. Ruum

Aarma: We named it in English just Distance. 

Virves: I had this figure, at the beginning, it's like a constant ticking, and then the lyrics at the start are 'the clock is ticking, I've been sitting here for hours,' and as soon as I saw the lyrics, I thought, 'yes! That's exactly what I was thinking about.'

Aarma: They're pretty sad lyrics, about someone left behind. Someone asking, 'can't you just make room for me in your life?' You don't want to let go, but sometimes you have to.

Epilogue

Following this interview, Gretagrund played live at Philly Joe's. While the production is spot-on on the record, heard live it gains an extra dimension, bringing the emotion of a sad, melodic track like Kaugus. Ruum to the fore, while reminding the listener that the rapid vocal waves of Pariisi Viiking are meant to be shocking. With a full band of eight, in a small but intimate venue like Philly Joe's, Gretagrund sound not just like people who have rehearsed together a lot, but like people with a kind of symbiotic understanding. I've seen it in football - that certainty Luis Suarez feels that he knows where Lionel Messi will be when he puts the ball in front of goal. This was the first time I'd felt it with a band, though it's doubtless happened for many other collectives of excellent musicians.

The band also debuted two new songs, including Kalamaja Valss (Waltz), which, the two lead musicians explain, was written as a pop song of sorts, with a 4/4 beat and a catchy, memorable chorus. The lyrics take inspiration from, and give a small throwback to, an old song called Mustamäe Valss, and it's really great. Visit Estonia or an airline ought to use it in their next video about the trendy hipster district of Tallinn. But if they don't, the song still stands up as an example of how Gretagrund are evolving their style. This is an underwater island worth travelling to, partly to see what shape it takes when it surfaces.

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