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STALKERs Fresh Act October 2011
Is "singer/songwriter" music still trendy or trendy again - or is it meanwhile completely out of fashion? When it comes to Irma, it really doesn`t matter, even though she is put into this category: She sticks out anyway, thanks to her voice, talent, soul and personality. A fact that seems to be recognized also by Johnny Lee Michaels who made his mark by producing amongst others The 69 Eyes. And their frontman Jyrki69 himself selected the Finnish-Georgian artist as the live-act for the September issue of his monthly events series "Zombie Love Club". And right there, STALKER visited Irma after her gig in the backstage dressing room, with a lot of questions...
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Hello Irma and thank you very much for taking some time for this interview. For the beginning, would you like to introduce yourself?
Well, my name is Irma and... Well, if you wanna know something about me: I actually come from the former Soviet Union. I was born there and my father is from Georgia. I spent half of my childhood in Georgia and half of it in Russia before I moved to Finland at the age of 8. That was in the year 1993. And, well, my first introduction to music was when my mother put me to the piano lessons. I hated that! [Laughter] And when we moved to Finland, I started listening to Western music for the first time because back then in the Soviet Union, everything was quite restricted.
What do you mean by Western music? Pop music?
Yes, basically every kind of music that was made outside the Soviet Union.
So to what kind of music were you listening back then in the Soviet Union?
Argh! Nothing special, really! I remember the first time when I heard the song "Lambada" by Kaoma. I was like: "Wow!" [Laughter] It was back then in Georgia when we were sitting there with a small red cassette player. I don`t know who got the tape and from where. I mean it was in Georgia. It was strictly forbidden to listen to this kind of music or to even own it. And someone just had this tape and we were listening to it. All the kids... We were just sitting there like: "Wow, this is sooo cool!" [Laughter]
You said that you spent half of your childhood in Georgia and half of it in Russia before you moved to Finland. So at what age did you move from Georgia to Russia?
Oh, there is no particular age because I really lived half in Georgia and half in Russia so I was travelling all the time. And although both belonged to the Soviet Union, they were two totally different cultures. And after we moved to Finland - I was a teenager - I started to write some lyrics about... Well, first love and stuff... [Laughter] Puberty, you know... And later on my lyrics were just about life and actually they were quite happy songs at that time. In the beginning, my lyrics were even in Finnish but then I decided to write them in English because it sounds more natural to me to write them in English. I don`t know why... But in the beginning, my lyrics were also just poetry. It never crossed my mind to start putting the lyrics into songs. I mean composing. That part came when my little brother started to play the guitar. I was never interested in that instrument. I remember when I was in school and the other kids were playing on guitar something like Bryan Adams and stuff… I considered it as boring. I always played the drums. That was my thing.
At what age did you start to play the drums? And what came first: The drums or the piano lessons?
I was nine years old when I saw a drum set for the first time in my life. And the piano lessons accompanied my whole childhood and I really hated that instrument. But nowadays I would really like to have an own piano.
Do you remember anything from those lessons? Can you still play the piano?
Oh, yes! Sure! I had really great teachers… Russian teachers… You know, they have an absolute different touch than Finnish teachers. They are more like: "Put your fingers like THAT and play like THIS!" But to get back to my brother and his guitar: One day, I grabbed the guitar and went to my room where no-one is listening. I learned to play a few chords and started to compose music to the lyrics I wrote. And then, it was in the year of 2008... I guess I was 24 back then... I got the chance to go to the studio and record some songs. At that time, myspace arrived Finland and I was graduating from a business school, doing my thesis. And as I am interested in the music industry, I decided to do my thesis on music promotion in social networks. Myspace was just an example. I made a demo tape whose quality was really poor and uploaded some of the recordings on myspace to figure out how it will work, how people become aware of it and so on. And then, after one month only or something like this, Jonny... Not Johnny Lee Michaels, another Jonny... He arranged the events series "House Of Love" in the club "Liberte" here in Helsinki and invited me via myspace to come and play there. I was really nervous because I really didn`t expect that something like is going to happen but... Well, then I played my first live gig over there on 25th August 2008. I was nervous as hell and by accident there was someone else who liked my songs and my performance - and she invited me to play another gig. And so it went all the time: I was playing at a place where someone else was present, like organisers from other events series in Helsinki, they invited me to play there as well and so on and so on.
That sounds great and, by the way, you already answered some of my questions! [Laughter] You already have played not only plenty of gigs here in Helsinki but also one show in Pori, one in Espoo and one in Kerava. Did you got the gigs over there the same way like here in Helsinki? That someone came to you and offered you to play there?
Yes, it went exactly the same way for those gigs that someone just heard me somewhere. And the gig in Pori took place within the framework of the RMJ, "Raumanmeren Juhannus", which is a huge music festival organised around Juhannus.
Are you planning to play more gigs outside Helsinki or even outside Finland?
No, even though I`m willing for...
So why don`t you just do it?
Uhm, well... To be honest, I have never asked myself for any gigs... [Laughter] It`s not that I am arrogant or something, absolutely not, but at some point I had three jobs at the same time. I never missed any gig because I was always able to arrange something at my workplaces but... It may sound really stupid but I never called someone, I never sent my demos to somewhere or anything like that. I remember that at some point everyone was asking me why I`m not recording an album, why I`m not sending my demo tapes to some record labels and so on. And I just didn`t wanted it. I don`t know why but... I just enjoyed it to go to some small venues and to play there. If someone invites me: Cool! I just enjoyed it to play for people who enjoy live music. That was pretty much it. And just recently, I think it was last year, I started to think about what I really want to do. Lifetime dream, you know? Someone wants to learn how to fly, someone wants to write a book, someone else just wants to travel around the world... And it turned out that my own lifetime dream is to record an own album. And I really don`t care how much it will sell...
And Johnny Lee Michaels is the one you are going to fulfil this lifetime dream with?
Yes. I met Johnny two, three years ago. We had some common friends and went out all together several times but Johnny and I didn`t talk about music at all. And one night, we had an after-party in his studio. We ended up there - and, you know, I saw some guitars! And then I was like: "Hey guys, I`m wanna play you some songs!" Just like how it goes among friends. I didn`t even know who the fuck is Johnny... [Laughter] And then I grabbed the guitar and played and he was like "Go there!", pointing to the recording room. I went there, started to play - and he recorded it! He recorded some songs, amongst others "No Fear", and after a while he called me that I have to come to the studio and listen to what he made out of that song. He added some arrangements and when I heard it, I was like: "Wow, that`s cool!" I never thought about doing something like this with my music. Until then I just played my music while "sitting around the campfire"... [Laughter] So that`s how we started to work together. He started to be interested in my music and I was impressed how well he understands what I`m doing. And at that time I realised that we are really speaking the same language...
So it was Johnny who changed your mind about your music and how to consider it?
Not straight away because I really tried to avoid everything that is so serious such as recordings, having a record deal and stuff. I don`t know why. And it wasn`t Johnny who changed my mind. The idea with the own album came into my mind when I was thinking about my lifetime dream. Johnny never forced me to anything. Actually it was me who came to him, just a few months ago, telling him that I was thinking for a long, long time about doing this album. And that the only person I could imagine to do this album with is him. And he just replied: "Well, I thought you`ll never ask!" [Laughter] I`m glad that the whole thing went like this way because back then I wasn`t ready to do recordings and stuff. It was good for me to first have this small gigs, to play here and there and, you know, to get some confidence... To grow...
It sounds like the classic way - or at least the way it should be...
Well, I hope that`s the classic way because nowadays it seems that young artists are going straight to the record companies or to casting shows such as "Idols" and expect that everything is ready for them just like that... Also it`s sometimes a shame when you see a really talented person and then you hear the first single of that singer and the talent is just ruined... Completely ruined! Well, I think that`s what the music industry is like. Everything must be done so quickly nowadays and it`s also the spirit of these days that nothing lasts but only for a moment...
Do you think it makes sense the have a record deal nowadays?
For some acts definitely and it`s not like the people in the record companies are just evil creatures who are sipping champagne and smoking cigars all day. For some acts it might be very helpful to have the kind of support record companies provide. Concerning myself, I just don`t wanna make it huge. At least it don`t wanna see my ass in the gossip columns and so on, that`s why I chose the Indie way...
Someone who was a "regular guest" in the gossip columns and also considered as a Singer / Songwriter artist was Amy Winehouse...
Yeah, it`s a really sad story but I think that... Well, it`s sad to say that but: The bigger the misery in your life is, the better are your songs. The better is the music you are doing. It`s really sad to say that but I guess it`s true...
You played in so many different clubs like "Liberte", "dtm", "Semifinal"... What kind of clubs do you prefer to play in?
The smaller the better! Really, I like it to get in touch with people and when you can feel the atmosphere. I don`t mean that we have to yell to each other but it`s nicer when there is more intimacy...
Like tonight here in "Alakerta"?
Yeah, kind of...
Although tonight`s area is even bigger than usual `cause the organisers even opened the lobby of the "Nosturi"... How come that you played tonight at the "Zombie Love Club" if you yourself never ask for any gigs?
It was Jyrki [Jyrki69, frontman of The 69 Eyes and host and DJ of the monthly events series "Zombie Love Club" at "Alakerta"] who asked me. He heard some pre-mixes of my songs, probably through Johnny, and then he told Johnny that he would like me to come and play here so: Here I am! [Laughter]
It must be a huge compliment for you, isn`t it? You are even the first live-act ever within this events series and I personally like the break in style `cause as the name already reveals, the "Zombie Love Club" is mainly about Gothic, Glam and other dark and hard music styles - and then you are put on stage, just with your voice and your acoustic guitar...
Yeah, the request was quite surprising and I was also thinking about the audience of the "Zombie Love Club" beforehand and I was a little bit worried that they could eat me alive...
Oh, no, definitely not! Everyone was quiet and spellbound by your performance, really! Ok, except that one German table but the rest of the club tried their best to silence them by warning them several times and then throwing paper balls on them...
Haha, really? [laughs] I didn`t noticed that... I was too focussed on my vocals and the guitar... But, well, I guess that goths do understand the melancholy quite well and that`s the thing with my music: I never write songs when I am happy. It`s just not happening. And if I try it, the result is bullshit. It`s really rubbish! I think you don`t have that much feelings when you`re happy than when you`re sad or touched by something that makes you feel not so happy. When you are happy, you just smile and look stupid. I think the beauty is in creating something lyrically that touches people. Something that is not so glorious and "love, peace and harmony". But the melody could sound quite merry. I like the contrast.
How would you describe the style of your music in general?
Oh, well, you could always say "Singer / Songwriter" but it`s so used nowadays. Hmmm, interesting question... I hate it to pigeonhole myself and that`s what we are trying to avoid now with the album. I don`t want to force all of the songs under the same genre. All the songs come first with the lyrics and just then comes the melody. And if some kind of arrangement is better for one song than the other, then it is so. And if it means that one song is totally different from the other songs on the album... It doesn`t matter! Even if some record companies might say that there is no thread on the album and that there are ten songs, all of them telling their own stories...
So the album won`t consist of your voice and the acoustic guitar only? Will you add a piano or drums as you can play both instruments?
There will be some other musicians as well. And, yes, there will be some strings, a piano, percussions... In one song we`re gonna use a harmonica, some other songs will be kept more in an electronic style... But I don`t mean electronic disco stuff. It`s really hard to say what it`s going to be like or to describe the music style in general. There is Folk as well. For example in the song "No Fear". You could also call it "World Music" as we added some drums from Asia. We wanted to create something you haven`t heard before but at the same time it will sound familiar as it`s ageless music.
I read one interview with you where you said that your target at the moment would be to have a band... Are you currently looking for musicians who will form a band with you? And how is it now in the studio: Are you playing the instruments all by yourself?
No, not all of them. And concerning the band thing: I played once with a band. We didn`t play that often my own songs. We tried it but... I think my songs are definitely not for a basic rock band. They are so much "back to the roots" that a band with all the bells and whistles would just turn them into ordinary pop rock songs. And I also wish that people are listening to the lyrics, to the stories I`m telling in those songs. And that wouldn`t work if there is too much involved in the music...
Talking about "back to the roots": Do you like and listen to electronic music that includes, for example, synthesizers?
Yes, I do! And even that is nowadays old-school if we consider for example the 80s, isn`t it? I mean everything is so hi-fi nowadays. You can create music with a Mac computer only, just by using samples. But I myself want to keep it real. I mean if I go somewhere to play live, it will work. You can add there some dudes, one is playing a bass and the other one plays the piano, but if necessary, I can play my songs also alone with the guitar. And that`s really important for me.
So to what kind of music are you listening to?
I`m listening to various styles of music. Everything goes, from Johnny Cash to The Smashing Pumpkins.
And are there any musicians who are inspiring you or who are role models for you?
I think my first inspiration was Bob Marley. Back then when I was a teenager. Then I was really inspired by the Soviet rock band "Kino" whose singer Viktor Tsoi tragically died after a gig in a car crash. They still don`t know if it was an arranged murder because his lyrics were quite political and quite against the regime... [Silence] Ok, what else? Well, I was really inspired by The Sounds when I heard them for the first time. I think it was in the year of 2006. The first two albums hit me. But it`s not the way that I`m listening to some music and wanna do it the same way. It`s just the mood you get inspired by. It could be anything. Ok, who else? The Cure, Blondie, Placebo... Oh, there are so many acts, really! I don`t want to forget someone but there are a lot of musicians. Even Chris Rea. Even him! [laughs]
How about Katie Melua? She is like you a Singer / Songwriter artist and also from Georgia...
Oh, yes, I love her! And she is also the same age like me and her parents are doctors, too. [laughs] I heard about her around three years ago if I`m not wrong. She had released two albums at that time and I went to her show when she played here in Helsinki. She was amazing. She even made me cry because she sang a Georgian song - "Suliko" - which I used to sing when I was a little child and, you know, hearing Georgian here in Finland is rather unusual...
What is your mother tongue, by the way?
Well, the first language I learned was Russian I guess. Then I learned Georgian straight away and there was a time when I didn`t know any language but Georgian because I forgot Russian. And now when I moved to Finland, I learned Finnish. I didn`t know the Finnish language at all when I was a child but meanwhile I could say that Finnish is my mother tongue because for me it`s the easiest language to express myself. But basically I would say Georgian is my mother tongue even though I don`t remember it quite well anymore which is a shame...
Have you seen Katie Melua more than this one time in concert? Would you consider her as a role model for you?
No, I have seen her only once but I wouldn`t mind to see her again even though... Well, I don`t think that I have any role models. Except my parents. I know this is a quite common answer but it was a huge effort when they moved to Finland with us. They started all over again. I really mean like from nothing. And I really admire all the work and effort they have done.
At what place do you feel like being at home? I ask that because you are half Finnish and half Georgian, lived partly in Russia as well, travelled a lot anyway...
That`s a good question because I never felt at any place like being at home. Except when I was a little child, of course. When we came to Finland, we moved billions of times. From town to town. There is no place to call "home" for me. I think people are your home. When I`m with my friends or with my family, I feel like being home, but it`s not about the place. It`s about the people. When I went to Georgia it was a quite nostalgic trip but still I wouldn`t call any place as "home". Home is where your heart is...
Do you think or do you expect that you will find a place one day that you can call your home? How about Helsinki?
Well, I think I`m going to stay here in Helsinki but... Well, you never know what`s gonna happen. Never say never...
Do you miss something specific from Russia or from Georgia since you live in Finland?
From Russia nothing else but memories from my childhood. It`s the same with Georgia but from there I also miss my grandparents who meanwhile passed away and, of course, I miss my relatives. I still have cousins there...
Are you travelling there every now and then?
Not so often but I try to go there once a year. Well, I haven`t been there for a couple of years now. When you travel that far, you really need to take some time - and I`m a workaholic...
So what are the plans for the next few months? We already talked about the album so I guess the studio work is the absolute priority at the moment? Are you going to play some gigs anyway?
Yes, I`m going to play at least this one gig at "Siltanen" here in Helsinki on 25th October 2011 but you`re right: The studio work is the priority number one at the moment. It`s really important for me to do this album. And I`m really excited about the work with the other musicians...
Is there a kind of deadline you are focussing on? When can we expect to hear the album?
We are planning to get the master done by the end of this year but actually there aren`t any schedules which is quite great because I hate schedules.
So there is no pressure...
There is no pressure, exactly! And I wanna do it properly. Maybe it`s the only album I`ll ever do, maybe I`ll make another one... At least, I have a lot of songs. But now I just want to focus on this one album because these songs are really important for me. It`s some kind of therapy for me and if people like it, it`s the biggest gratitude I can receive even though I`m not expecting the big sales or something like that for it...
Tonight you played "I`m On Fire", a coverversion by Bruce Springsteen. Will you record it also for your album? [Johnny Lee Michaels enters the backstage dressing room]
No, because... Well, in the beginning when I started to play gigs I heard quite often that I should add some coversongs to my setlist. But I never did that because first of all it feels like you are stepping into too big shoes. I remember this one gig I played in the bar "Cuba" here in Helsinki. There were several female musicians performing and in the end, the organiser of the club asked us to play some covers together. I wasn`t keen on it but at least I could choose the song when it was my turn at the microphone - and I chose the "Redemption Song" by Bob Marley. Later on I really fell in love with Bruce Springsteen`s "I`m On Fire" and I have played it a couple of times, like tonight, because... The question if you are stepping into too big shoes is not there anymore when you really can feel each word of the song you are covering. But, anyway, I`m not going to record it. [Laughter] And I play it only if people ask for an encore... [smiles]
If you could ask someone for a collaboration concerning a song or a common tour: Who would it be?
Johnny Lee Michaels: Bruce Springsteen! A three years´ tour! [Laughter]
Irma: I would do it with anyone. It`s about the music, not about who`s making it. But who wouldn`t like to share the stage with Maja Ivarsson from The Sounds?!?
Do you have a "plan B", just in case something goes wrong with the music career?
Irma: Well, I`m anyway working beside the music... At a record label... [Laughter] And if something would go wrong, I would still be working there. But I don`t know what should go wrong because I have no expectations. The only thing that could go wrong is that Johnny would tell me he doesn`t want to do this record with me anymore. But I don`t see that this is going to happen...
Is Johnny just the producer of the album or also some kind of mentor for you?
Irma: Oh my God, he`s everything! I mean we are really speaking the same language. He really understands my music, better than anyone else. Officially he is the arranger and the producer, the composer for some instruments and... He is really good at it! And to work with him is really relaxed because I`m not afraid to say anything if there is anything to say...
Johnny Lee Michaels: And I can tell her all my dirty jokes! [Laughter]
Ok, so now it`s your decision if you wanna close this interview either with a dirty joke or some nice "famous last words" to our readers...
Irma: "Keep it real! And take care of each other! Love!" [Laughter] No, really! People forget about it but they should really keep that in their minds - and not forget about it...
Author: Stefanie Singh, Photos by Stefanie Singh / Promotional picture by Heli Hirvelä
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