Giving a positive energy on stage

  • 2013-01-09
  • Interview by Charo Navarro Mateo and Dorian Ziedonis

The life of a pop star has a certain glamour to it. Parties, world travel, concerts in front of packed stadiums, screaming fans. But stars are made, not born, and all have to start somewhere. Belarusian singer/songwriter Volha came to Riga to study to be a translator. She also brought along her guitar, which has opened up a whole new world of opportunity. This young musician can be seen and heard on the local music scene strumming her guitar, singing a mix of cover and original songs entertaining a growing following. She has now set her sights on bigger things in pursuing a musical career. Volha (her real name is Olga Rybkina) met with TBT to talk about her music, her dreams and about all the fun she’s now having. Charles Goodger, her manager, joined the discussion.

What was your first musical inspiration? Do you come from a musical family?
Volha: I have never been trained in singing; music was always around me. When I was four I was taken to a children’s choir, at the church, and was told to sing, so every weekend I went there and sang. So it was really pure inspiration because it was a children’s choir and the atmosphere... everything was so... it was perfect. And I was singing there till I was 17. I even don’t remember how I learned how to sing. It was just something that came out from my heart. Then when I was an older teenager I had  a dream to learn how to play the guitar. So a friend of mine showed me a couple of chords and in a week I started writing some songs. It wasn’t perfect... but I started to do something. I was dreaming to produce music myself, and to play and to sing. Now I have been playing for 6 years and I really want to develop myself in playing guitar; it’s very important. I want to be perfect. I know my gaps, and I know that I can develop myself, improve myself.

So you’re self-taught in guitar, and in singing.
Volha: Yeah, I can’t say that some teachers or tutors were working hard with me, because it was always my work. I am critical, always. When the concert finishes, I always start thinking about what was right and what was wrong, and I always find some things to ‘argue’ with myself about. I can’t do everything in a perfect way. I always try to make myself better.

You say that you started to compose when you were a teenager. What is this process? What comes first, the lyrics, or the music?
Volha: The process of composing is very interesting because you can’t just come home and decide that you want to  write a song. It will never succeed [like that]. You have to feel some kind of a stream, it doesn’t matter whether it is negative, sad feelings, or happiness. Some people say that it is usually from these sad emotions, but it really doesn’t matter because you have to feel some special atmosphere. I can’t say that there is some street and properly thought out process of creating the lyrics and then creating the music and then making it complete. No, every song is special and every song is composed in its special way.

So you can’t say: the words come first, or the music comes first.
Volha: It depends! Every time I start just playing some notes, I find... hmm, sounds great, well yeah, I have some words inside me to connect them with this music. And then the process starts. Sometimes the song can be born in just a couple of minutes, and sometimes you have to work on it. You have something inside you but you can’t express it, it’s a very hard problem because you are trying and are looking for the right way and you are not satisfied. But usually,when I sing a song it means that it’s complete.

The inspiration for writing a song comes from inside, or outside?
Volha: Of course there are some artifacts that can influence me, it could be some good movie or some personal talk with someone.

Love is a great inspiration?
Volha: Love, sure, love from its brightest and saddest parts. It can be very inspirational. But I think artifacts are less important because what is happening inside you is just the thing that builds the basis for your inspiration.

What is the music scene like in Belarus? What is different from the rest of Europe? Also, can you sing what you want to sing?
Volha: A very nice question. Belarus is quite a different country from the point of mentality and the whole system, because it is very hard to find people who are interested in you. Of course there are a lot of talented people, but still even in them it is a common thing not to find the [opportunity] to work together to make some good music. I can’t come to some place and say ‘I am a singer, I want to sing here... you’ll earn some money...’ I even can’t imagine that I could do this in my city.
There are still not many events that are created for musicians, I mean some festivals, some concerts that you can come to and freely participate in. That’s why there are a lot of people who are sitting somewhere in their apartments, who are making good music but nobody knows them except their friends. Their friends and their fans. Nothing goes further than these ‘flat’ concerts.

Is this due to politics, or economics?
Volha: I think it is kind an economics problem because people are just not ready for music. Actually, I’ve never thought about it, but I try to play on the street, and it is also a different thing than here; I have been playing here for two years, in Old Riga, and it was really a great experience because... I always go [to Old Town] for inspiration and atmosphere and for a good mood. The question is not money, because every time I wanted, when I thought, ‘I need some money for girly stuff,’ it doesn’t work at all,because when you’re thinking about money, you’ll not gain.

Why do you think the process doesn’t work in Belarus?
Volha: I think the reason is that we are always taught that music is art  and you can’t expect any money for that. And if you know since your childhood that music is only your hobby, it can’t be a career, except maybe for quite rich people it is possible. I think that that’s why people are just sitting and not trying... they have learned that their music isn’t a great value, there aren’t enough people who are interested in you who can support you financially,and it’s also a question because nobody understands that if there’s a band, it always requires time, it requires money for rehearsals, for equipment, for instruments. People see just the performance, it can be good or it can be bad, but still nobody realizes that the process that is behind the performance. And that is why many people will say that ‘We just don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough time to do all this because we can’t expect anything from it.’

Why did you decide to move to Latvia? Did you sacrifice something, left something behind in Belarus?
Volha: I can't say I moved here because of music. My reason was my dream to become a translator. For me it was hard to get this education in Belarus, it would cost me a fortune. And it was hard to get this place in the university. That is why I came here; my relatives live here and they are my second family. They do a lot of things for me and support me so much. Actually they invited me to try and come here and make my dream true. They even found the program that was in Russian and it was perfect and ideal for me.
So I came and it was really hard. For me, Latvia was kind of a European fairy tale, a really different place. I came expecting that everything would be perfect here, and then when I started to live here, I understood there were a lot of problems and people are moving from here. It was funny for me to come here and people could not understand why did I decide to study here, because everybody is leaving this country. I don’t want to say anything bad about this country, but problems are everywhere.

So, what did you leave behind in Belarus?
Volha: My parents are still there, and when I came here it was quite hard for me to be alone because all of my friends were there. I came here and of course there were my uncle, my aunt, my cousins, other people around me, but I still felt fear that nobody would understand me here, that nobody would like me, and I felt myself a bit exotic for the local people because I was too emotional, I was just hyperactive, energetic, always smiling, and people were looking at me in a very strange way, like ‘what’s wrong with you.’ They had different thoughts, not even good ones about me because as far as appeared in my university, there appeared different stories about me because I was just different from them, but a little later I understood that I’m very friendly, I can communicate freely with almost everybody.
I can’t say that I sacrificed something [leaving behind in Belarus], because when one door closes another one opens. This period of time when I was trying to build something here it was hard, but I understood that it’s my way, it’s hard, it’s not my country and I have to start everything from the beginning. But now I feel that it was worth it; I’ve met so many good people here and I’ve found so many things that I’ve always believed that don’t exist. Even from the point of view of music I never thought that I can build a career with it. I was too critical with myself, but here I found people who see the potential and who tell me, who believe me in, even more than I do. So now I am trying to be more confident. People tell me that they like what I am doing.

With your musical particular style, what do you find here in Latvia for your career development, and not another country in Europe? You said you have family here.
Volha: The reason was my family; they support me. I think Iwas not brave enough to go alone to some foreign country and be on my own. I knew that here I’ll find the shelter and people who care about me, and my parents, I think they also wouldn’t allow me to go on my own somewhere far away. Latvia is quite close to Belarus, we are neighbors. Latvia is really a special country because here I understood that there are a lot of opportunities. Latvia can be an starting point for something really big and very significant because the people are really different from Belarusians, but they are, I think, deeper. Belarusians are hospitable, open-hearted, and Latvians are more reserved; at first I thought they are colder, but then I understood that it is just the tip of the iceberg. I like that people have a lot inside, even if they don’t show it. It’s a very beautiful country.

In the context of the music business, what do you think makes you different from others? How do you try to be original?
Volha: I have never tried to be different, and maybe that is the point. I’ve never tried to care about being different; I did it just from my heart and I never expected the public to be negative or positive about it. I think that the most important thing that I am doing is doing everything very sincerely because I can’t play music without being deeply inside it. And I think it is felt in my concerts as people, even if they don’t want to smile they start smiling. Those who came, for example, to have a beer in the pub, even those people start singing with me. It’s this atmosphere and energy that I try to give to people. It’s felt inmediately. I can’t just do music, sitting and playing and thinking about, I don’t know, the potatoes that I have to carry home.
You have to be very deep in it and maybe that is the point because there are a lot of people who think that it is just work and I have a lot of money I’ll get, and I have my playlist, and I’ll play it, be just background music, and who cares about me. But I really want people to be involved in what I am doing. That’s why this, for example, you were at the concert at Donegans, and it was supposed to be background music, but people were clapping, they were laughing, smiling. It was a nice atmosphere, it was great. It’s pleasant where, even in the places where people are supposed to eat and to drink and to chat, they listen to me.

You make a connection with the audience.
Volha: Yeah, It’s impossible for me to just sing in front of some invisible wall. I have to catch the eyes.

Who is your favorite audience?
Volha: Well, I can’t say,because I have a certain circle of followers, who are always ready and glad to come and see me.

You have a fan club already.
Volha: I am very greatful that they bring their friends, and the friends bring their acquaintances, and  relatives and children. There are some families that come all together to see me. And I can’t say that there is some special audience that I like and that I don’t like, because I think that I can establish this connection with almost any [group] that is in front of me.

What is your plan to promote yourself and to start being known here in Latvia, and maybe in Europe?
Volha: I can say that I am a happy person and a happy musician who has met a very good [person]... a very deep man, and a very enthusiastic person who is able to help me with my problems. When you are doing some artistic work it is very hard to combine it with different kinds of business issues, with promotion, with PR and whatever. It is hard to [concentrate] on so many things. I met Charles Goodger, a person who likes my singing, who saw the potential in me and decided to help me and to push me through my uncertainty about myself.

Charles: Highly critical sometimes.

Volha: Now I am glad that this person... he just helped me to take this burden from my shoulders. He’s my manager. He’s a person who never gives up on me, who believes in me, and tries to make me move further and further, to be self-confident, to practice, to work...

Charles: And also to have a specific promotional plan.

What is this specific plan? Are you thinking of promotion just in Latvia, in Europe?
Charles: I have quite a lot of contacts in London in the music business. But I don’t want to start to develop these contacts until I feel that Volha is ready, until she has if you like, paid her dues as an artist and a songwriter and a performer. I see this as a journey that will take some time; it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to require a lot of work, a lot of tenacity. She’s got the talent, she’s got the personality, she’s got everything she needs, but that’s not enough. You need to be very determined and have a clear idea of where you’re going. And the value that you can give to your fans.

In this sense, what is your wish. He’s talking about London. Are you prepared mentally, or was it your expectation to go abroad more to Eastern Europe?
Volha: I feel that I need more time to get used to performances, concerts, because they really require time, strength, both physical and moral. Now I need just to practice because I can’t say that I’m ready for going abroad. I am just starting myself here and I still have time. Now I want to make some recordings and to have some schedule for the concerts for me to be sure that people will come to see me. I want to build some stable circle of followers and I don’t have to hurry. I am still not old and I have time to do everything consequently and not hurry.

Maybe your plan is to work step-by-step, to do what you really love, doing concerts.
Charles: Yes, this is the digital side of it. After all, we’re living in the 21st century so the use of social media, digital communication, is a very important part of the promotion and the marketing. And, in a way it enables Volha and singers like her, in a fairly short time to get quite a large fan base without having to spend lots of money through lots of promotional events which were necessary in the past, because of the internet and various social media this is much easier, provided you have a clear idea of how to leverage these social media. Obviously one example of that is Facebook. We’re building up her Facebook page so people in the local area will know when Volha will be performing.
What do you think is your style?
Volha: It is a very common question that people ask me: ‘What music do I play?’ And it is a very hard question for me because I am a person who is a fan of rock music, and you can’t say, looking at me, but you always have to remember that your playlist for your audience has to be thought out very carefully. You have different people from different spheres. I think that [my style] is kind of pop music.

For example, not just covers. Maybe you are planning to be an artist based on your own songs. These new songs that you are composing, what kind of style are these?
Volha: I have different songs, some of them are a very unusual form,because they don’t have... usually it’s a verse, a chorus, a verse, a chorus, a chorus, a verse. And I have a lot of songs that are based on deep lyrics and the music and the lyrics, they flow in a very unexpected manner. They don’t form songs in a commonly used idea. The main thing is this combination of music and lyrics that doesn’t have to be standardized. And of course I have some songs that belong to some pop style, some light rock style. It depends on the musicians who can arrange something for me, additionally, some drums, bass guitar, some lead guitar. Every song can become a rock variant; every song can become blues.

For the future, if you’re releasing a CD, this would be based just on your own songs?
Volha: I think I already have enough material because when I had a concert, my second concert in the French cafe, I was playing only my songs and just two covers. It was a concert that lasted over one hour and a half and I had enough songs to fill this time, and people were really surprised that I had so much material. There is a funny thing: I like playing my songs between some covers even without anouncing that they are mine because then people come to me and say ‘yes, you sang that very good song, and maybe I hadn’t heard the song... and whose song is it?’ And I say it’s mine. People are really surprised. I don’t want to say that my songs remind [one] of something, but people don’t recognize them as mine, and I think it’s a good thing, because if you could see very clearly that this song is a cover, and this song is written by me, I think it’s a bad thing, if people hear it.

Do you have any special anecdote, an inflexion point, even something that made a change in your music, something special that happened to you that is funny to remember?
Volha: There are a lot of anecdotes that are connected with my life as a street musician. I can’t say that there hasn’t been at least one day that didn’t bring me some fun. There have been a lot of people that brought me coffee and cookies, and flowers and who were just coming to kiss me on the forehead and say ‘oh girl, you’re so great, thanks a lot!’ And here, playing in some bar, in some pub, in some cafe it’s a little different thing, but I always like moving around, talking with people who came to see me, and who didn’t even expect to find me there, but who just enjoyed the evening. I am always open to meet new people. I am not a star that sits on the stage and doesn’t want to talk to anybody. I am a person who adores communication and who is really willing to find new, interesting people.

Playing in the local club scene, you must meet other musicians here in Riga. How is the community with other musicians here? Are they supportive, is it competititve?
Volha: I think there is a certain sense of competititon among us. Of course we are playing some music and we are rivals. But I’ve never met anybody who would be unfriendly or aggressive towards me. We can always appreciate the talent of our colleagues. Even if it is your rival, but you hear that the voice is great, the music is perfect, the whole atmosphere is amazing, you can’t come and say that ‘you’re a loser.’ We are always objective; if it is good, say it’s good. I’ve never met a person who would come and say something rude or offend me.

When I see TV shows, these programs give the idea that a singer is just a voice, that you are lucky having this voice. I think it is more than that. For those people who think that successful musicians are just a good voice, how do you argue against this? How do you establish your identity, that Volha is something more than just a voice?
Volha: You know, being a girl with a guitar, is quite a nice thing because people are not used to seeing a girl who can play and can sing, as there are a lot of boys who can play the guitar perfectly and can sing well. But I’ve never thought there is a problem in gender. When you’re an artist it doesn’t matter what gender you belong to. It only depends on your efforts, you are right. People don’t realize that it’s really hard work. I can’t say it just depends on your biological specific features.

How do you work to be a great artist, a successful artist, not just a voice, not just a face.
Volha: I am now trying to develop my skills playing the guitar, trying to work on my vocals. Charles is very kind to me; almost every day we meet and do music. It takes a lot of time and I’m very grateful for that. For the moment I am very concentrated on making myself better, improving myself. I want to become better, I want to finish my concerts and be absolutely sure that I did it in the best way.

As an artist in the very beginning, what kind of advice would you give to others that are starting out?
Volha: First of all, you have to be talented. Of course some people think you can learn to play some musical instrument, sing, but there has to be a little piece of potential that you can develop. If you don’t have this biological ability, that can be developed, it will be a waste of time. You can find this potential in almost everybody, and it really depends on your efforts and your practice and your wishes to become a musician or singer. Of course you have to be confident, not over confident. If you are feeling very stressful, reserved, uncertain about yourself, you can’t make good music. You’re trembling, sweating, afraid that it all goes wrong, and everyone notices, that I’m nervous. You have to be aware. Being an artist is quite a hard job. You have to be strong. Being nice, being a smiling face always to everybody is not a thing that will help to go higher. Now I know it; it’s quite hard for me, because I’m a very emotional person, and I’m always suffering from the smallest things. It’s a deep question. Work hard, believe in yourself.

How do keep positive, concert after concert, day after day, performing. People have good moods, bad moods. How do you stay positive, let’s say, on a bad day going into a concert?
Volha: People are frequently surprised that I’m a person who seems to be positive and happy all the time. Of course it’s not like that. I’m a normal person; of course I have bad days. But even if I’m not feeling too well, if I’m a little upset, it doesn’t have to influence what I’m doing. My emotions are my emotions. When I get on stage, I get to the reserves of my positive attitude, of good energy, of all this positive stuff I can give to people.

Charles: It’s being professional.

Volha: My emotions don’t have to spoil my performance. It’s sometimes hard; too emotional and then after the concert I’ll sit, maybe cry a little bit. Still, emotions are different. You always have to be able to control them. When I have a concert, and for example there is another concert the next day, all I need is to spend a very calm morning, as I need to have a good sleep. For example yesterday it was a perfect morning, one friend of mine gave me a very delicious chocolate and gummi bears, so I spent my morning with gummi bears, with chocolate, with some tea, watching some good movies. It was perfect. I felt absolutely relaxed when I came to the second concert. It’s very important, because when you’re tired and exhausted, it’s much harder for you to play well. If you have regained all your energy, it’s good. You need some time. Good music, good movies and something tasty, and that’s the recipe for success.

Why Volha? Your name is Olga.

Charles: she has four names. And there are quite a few famous singers with just one name.

Volha: I have a lot of names, nicknames. The story is very simple. My name is Olga. It’s Belarusian variant is Volga; it’s a question of pronunciation and the Russian language system. And when you spell it in Latvian, it becomes Volha. It’s very simple. Nobody can see the link between Olga and Volha because these names seem to be very different. I’ve never thought about it until I came here, because in Belarus all Olgas are Volgas and nobody cares. But here it’s a question I’m used to. Yeah, it’s my stage name.