Eesti Laul 2017 has brought a final-20 roster that, contrary to previous years, feels packed with experienced and well-known Estonian artists, including Lenna Kuurmaa. Lenna will perhaps always be best-known for her early work with the early-2000s girl-group Vanilla Ninja, but like all the best breakout stars from boy- and girl-bands, her solo music has been a departure from the pure-pop of those days.
Main image: Stina Kase. Thanks to Zuzanna Brunka for helping arrange this interview.
Two albums have followed from the 31 year-old, Lenna, which seems now like a bridge between her roots and where she wanted to go, and Teine, a collaboration with songwriter, playwright, and later a short-lived Social Democrat Member of Parliament Mihkel Raud, which seemed more indie-influenced and guitar-driven than anything released beforehand by the singer. Lead single Supernoova was chosen as an entry for Eesti Laul 2014, and while it lost out in the final, the album from which it came was a success in Estonia. Since then only a couple of singles have followed, prior to Slingshot, the Eesti Laul 2017 entry, though an album is slated for later in 2017.
Slingshot, the Eesti Laul single, is a step away from Lenna's previous guitar-based sound to a more synth-guided sound. However she was unsure if this is a sign of which way the album is likely to go. "Well, I could say it was on purpose to create a more poppy song for Eurovision," she said, "but I wouldn't compare my other stuff with Slingshot, as they are two different projects. Nevertheless, as my last song Õnnega Koos also sounded more electronic than previous tracks, then I think the new album will go more in that direction."
The new song deals with very broad, universal themes, something that has historically done very well at Eurovision. "We decided with Michelle Leonard, when we started writing, that we wanted to deliver a message, something that is really universal and can speak to all the nations. And treasuring nature, for me, has always been an important topic. So all the pieces of the puzzle kinda fell into place."
Teine felt, to many listeners, like a very personal album. Though Raud was the principal songwriter, there are examples from elsewhere of the singer and a writing partner producing something that is close to both of their hearts - Adele's albums with Paul Epworth, for example, showing someone making music that she clearly feels, and lyrics she means, while collaborating with someone to sharpen the message. On tracks like the epic and stirring Seal Kus Jäljed Kaovad Maast, there is definite passion on show.
"My favourite and most personal track was and still is Mina Jään. But i did enjoy all of them... Tuul and Seal Kus Jäljed Kaovad Maast also stand out for me. But about the whole album, and about the music especially, as my second album it has my face, but also Mihkel's face on it. It was really the mixture of both of us. Rock has always had a place in my heart, but i think the influence regarding music came mostly from Mihkel (as he is the author of most of the songs and music). I think the next one will sound more poppy and electronic."
Tallinn Music Week is approaching, and gives Estonian artists another chance to get international recognition alongside a selection of a selection of overseas musicians. Estonian music is getting increasing levels of media coverage internationally, with Maarja Nuut breaking into the UK mainstream music press last year following the release of her album Une Meeles, and Odd Hugo continuing to pick up niche support all over Europe having toured the showcases hard in 2016.
Lenna will not be at Tallinn Music Week, but felt that there is no specific short-cut that can propel Estonian musicians to global success. "I don't know about Tallinn Music Week, as I don't have a personal experience when it comes to breaking outside of Estonia. Hopefully they will manage to break artists abroad. But I think, when it comes to Estonia and Estonian musicians, we have a mentality of 'doing it on our own.'"
"Everyone is doing their thing and quietly pushing forward, at least that's the opinion I have. I don't know that there is any one company that can get the deals all on its own and pave the way to 'the big world.' I would say we are still in the beginning stage, but I can see the changes. I mean, Laur Joamets won a Grammy! C'mon! And he made it on his own!"
Lenna is currently between labels, and seemed content at the moment with moving at her own pace. However, she feels being signed is not the be-all-and-end-all. "I think the more practice you get, the better, so of course it is sad to be signed and then left out to dry. Just to be signed means nothing if there's no great albums, but all of our experiences make us smarter and stronger, if we can learn from them!"
Some artists have commented in the past that by releasing songs in English, they feel they it is more difficult to gain and keep a foothold in the Estonian market, and vice versa. Lenna had no specific guidelines on which was best, although she has recorded most of her music in the Estonian language. "I think you just have to feel what is right for you. To do something just for doing it and just because someone said it brings you success - it makes no sense, at least not to me. I have always followed my inner voice when it comes to deciding and doing what makes me feel good and right inside."
Since going solo, and especially recently, Lenna has appeared in close control of her image. This isn't the case for some young female artists, a thought which comes to mind, for some, while watching and listening to Zara Larsson, for example. Lenna did not want to judge others' decisions. "As I am not signed to anyone at this point, I have all the control. I can understand how these things happen, when young artists, starting out, are signed, they don't have that many rights. That's just how it is; I know this because I was there when I started out. I think sometimes it is just part of the show, the little costumes and they might like it."
"For me, it has always been more important what I hear, not what I see, but in today's showbusiness, more then ever, what you see is more important than what you hear. Its hard to get on board, I have to pay more attention to that side. However, I like new challenges and I like to develop." Lenna is doing her best to stay abreast of latest trends on pop music, but admitted finding it hard. "Now more then ever, there is SO MUCH music available, that it is really hard to find and choose your favourite."
She expressed a wish to be judged on her music's merits, not for any gimmicks. "The scene changes fast. I guess it's the same as always; the more original you are, the more you stand out. I think, for me, that time is over, its not so important for me to stand out or shock. It's more important for me to do what makes me happy. I'm glad, if I can make people around me happy with my music, simple as that."
Her verdict was simple, when asked how she has been able to have such a long and varied career. "I don't think for a long time; I act, but I trust my instincts."
Lenna Kuurmaa, with Slingshot, competes in the Eesti Laul live final on Saturday at Saku Suurhall, Tallinn (viewable on ETV).