TALLINN - Think of Estonian innovation, and you probably think of startups in the tech world. Certainly, most people who are aware of the Baltic nation are also aware that Skype was created there, as was, more recently, TransferWise. However, the arts, and particularly music, is seen increasingly as a force for change; it may be that soon Estonia is known for its diverse and distinct musical output. That’s based on the evidence of the past year’s significant releases.
Eesti Laul, Estonia’s search for a Eurovision song, has not traditionally been considered a place to go for musical innovation. There are many examples of forward-thinking or innovative songs being overlooked for conservative pop songs or power ballads, as happened, for example, in 2013 when anarchic art-punks Winny Puuh were voted low by judges, allowing the more conventional Birgit Oigemeel to come out with the win. However, the open audition process in late 2015 seems, on this occasion, to have brought a more diverse entry, with pop singers going toe-to-toe with electronic experimentalist Mikk Pedaja. The regulations, which allow songs of any kind up to three minutes in length, have been interpreted more inventively this time around.
It used to be a maxim that the chorus was the most important part of a pop song, and so Eesti Laul entries often reflected this by reaching it early. Pedaja’s dream-like rumination aside, there is another act that bucks this trend. I Wear*Experiment, a collective fronted by Estonian Academy of Arts graduate Johanna Eenma, has been making intriguing post-rock electronic music for years, but “Patience” is their first entry into Eesti Laul. The song has the audacity to keep us waiting until halfway through for a recognisable chorus, building instead to a euphoric crescendo. The purpose of Eesti Laul can often get muddled — some believe it should stick slavishly to a template of preparing Estonia for Eurovision, offering songs up for voting that are likely to play well with song contest judges. However, viewed as a competition that brings great musical talent from niches to the attention of a wider public, Eesti Laul has really improved and evolved in 2016.
Of course, auditioning for Eurovision is not something for all artists. There are those who look to build their reputations through the more traditional methods of touring and releasing albums. Ingrid Lukas was signed to Universal Music in 2011 and, after the release of her sophomore album Silver Secrets, which meshed jazzy soul with Estonian regilaul and a cheeky sense of humour, it seemed the Swiss-domiciled Estonian singer might be destined for the big time.
However, it was with the 2015 release of the follow-up, Demimonde, that Lukas really seemed to find her voice. Frequently compared to Bjork in her earlier years, this was a strange album, seeming otherworldly and widescreen, and was most definitely Lukas’ personal project. “It’s so much easier for people to access music these days,” she told Nothing But Hope and Passion last year, “they can stream music, play it on their smartphones, and so on. But the bad part of this is that people don’t think about the world behind the music so much, because music itself, in general, has become much more commodified.” In a way, Demimonde was a reaction to this, an attempt to metaphorically construct a world using a record. Endlessly ambitious, the album showcases the kinds of talents present in Estonia, and needs to be heard.
What’s next from Estonia’s pop musicians? Kerli, the Estonian singer-songwriter who has enjoyed personal success while also writing a number one single, “Skyscraper,” for Demi Lovato, releases her third studio album at the end of February. Kerli is credited with inventing the “bubblegoth” fashion and music style, a mix between bubblegum pop and goth, and she promised, in an interview with The Baltic Times last year, that the new album will be “very quirky and very colourful, but then at times very extreme melancholy, like a bipolar world. I want to do a whole bubblegoth album.”
We’ll also have a chance to hear the unsigned, just-signed and up-and-coming talents at Tallinn Music Week, which ends March with the promise of not only an expanded musical bill covering all possible genres, but also conference discussions on technology, politics and other burning matters, as happened at the critically well-received Tartu Music Week in Nov. 2015. TMW CEO Helen Sildna showed with that event that the “Music Week” brand could be used to provide a forum for all kinds of ideas and thoughts. In a country well known for the way technology and computing is used in order to forge progress, it’s refreshing to see music doing the same.