If you’ve ever wanted to hear the sounds of folk fairies singing deep, ambient, fantastical songs in perfect harmony, you need look no further than the new self-titled release by ALTAMULLAN ROAD. Released by Ranka Kustannus on September 11th, 2020, and evoking a lot of different feelings and emotions, we had to take the opportunity to chat with dual vocalists Johanna Iivanainen and Johanna Kurkela about their sound and the magic within.
Hello, it’s great to get to talk to you. How has this year been treating you?
Johanna Iivanainen: [laughs] It has been quite interesting.
Johanna Kurkela: Quite a year indeed. A lot of waiting around and really anxious to get the album out finally. Hopefully we can hit the road this fall and see what happens. We’re really hoping that we can, that the situation is good enough for us to be able to do live shows.
Getting right into things, as I understand it, you guys met already about 10 years ago?
JI: Yes, we met in 2009. We had the same flight to a gig that we shared together and that flight was unforgettable [laughs]. I found a true, dear friend and a kindred spirit there.
It was on a flight – where were you guys performing?
JI: We were performing in northern Finland, Rovaniemi.
Were you performing together or at the same event?
JK: Do you remember what the occasion was? It was a sort of big band that we were guests for, singing a few songs with them and [we were] introduced and literally took off [laughter]. It was such a fun thing to meet finally and find so many mutual loves. It was like classic finishing each other’s sentences, just laughing all the way through. Just a wonderful time.
Incredible! How did it take so long then to release an album together?
JK: That’s a good question [laughter]. What do you reckon? I feel like now was the right time for it, for some odd reason. We’ve been singing together for many years now for our own amusement, but it wasn’t until just recently we felt like this is finally the time to put an album out together.
Sometimes the timing is just right.
JI: That’s the way it goes. We’ve both done different kinds of stuff and soloing, so this was the perfect time to do something together.
I’ve really been enjoying the album and I’ve noticed a lot of the same sweetness and almost… the same kind of celestial quality that was quite present in AURI. How would you stylize this music as a genre?
JK: Oh, I think that’s impossible. We enjoy so many different types of music and you can hear a hybrid of them all in this. Just like with AURI, it’s a combination of loves [laughs]. All the things that we love and [it’s] also very similar. I feel like these two are like sister projects, AURI and ALTAMULLAN ROAD, for me, because of the absolute freedom to create from your most innermost feelings and inspirations and everything you love. You don’t have to think about anything else than just the music and what serves the music best.
JI: Also other things, like Little House on the Prairie, the series that came out years ago.
JK: We’re big on films and fantasy and everything.
As a Canadian, I have to ask, as fans of Little House on the Prairie, if you’re familiar with the made-for-television series based on Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables?
JK: I grew up watching some sort of Anne of Green Gables that I really loved but I remember it was a series. I don’t know when it was made but it really made an impression on me. Do you remember that? Viihervaaran Anna, I think it is in Finnish.
JI: Oh, I didn’t recognize the name because I read it in the Finnish language, but yes! It’s a beautiful story.
JK: Is that one of your favorites?
Definitely! It’s probably one of the very first things that sparked my own interest in fantasy as a kid since it’s so dreamy.
JK: Yeah! We love that era, the costumes. It really strikes a cord somewhere deep.
The old-timey style.
JK: Yes, Victorian and love for old stuff.
Now if I understand correctly, ALTAMULLAN ROAD means, more literally, “Underearth Road,” but more poetically might be more like “the road underground.” How would you translate that?
JK: It’s like from underneath the ground. I think it’s a beautiful analogy, like when you plant a seed in the darkness, in the soil, there is this amazing life force that’s growing out of it and it blossoms into this beautiful flower. I think that’s how I kind of see us. We started from scratch and at first there was nothing, just our desire to become the flower and make this beautiful music. I feel like that somehow connects both worlds also, because there are such deep topics on this album, like we’ve really covered a lot of… well, darkness and painful subjects. I feel like that’s kind of what life is all about and trying to find a balance between the two worlds, between the darkness and the light. ALTAMULLAN ROAD is the idea of a phoenix bird, at least for me. You have to sometimes die in some things to be able to be reborn and discover new things. It’s really this amazing journey, how I see it, from darkness towards the light.
JI: Nicely put. I’m speechless [laughter].
How did you decide to sing in English, as opposed to Finnish?
JI: It’s a beautiful language and the stories behind the songs just came out in English, at least from my head. It came naturally.
JK: It was just letting the music come and how it came out. For some odd reason, it just happened to be in English. That’s just what happened [laughs]. It wasn’t a calculated album, we didn’t do anything other than what felt right and natural, and that’s how this all ended up being what it is, without too much over-thinking… or thinking at all, actually [laughter]. Just letting it all come out and be what it is.
That sounds like you guys just instantly clicked and everything came out really naturally, which is a rare and wonderful thing.
JK: Yeah, it’s been like that ever since we met, I think. It’s been magical even singing together and also making this album was truly very intuitive and instinctive. It was an easy walk in the park. Just like with AURI, everything just kind of clicked and suddenly we have an album full of songs. How would you describe it?
JI: Well, it’s totally magical. I must also say that we had a tour in 2018 and I just loved being there on stage with Johanna, because I just adore her singing. You can’t describe the feeling when we are singing together. It’s like we are on the same road. After that tour, we wanted to move on that road and we started doing these songs and it felt the same way. We are totally our own personalities and it’s fascinating that we are so alike but also we of course have different sides, and how they connect together, it’s very fascinating.
Do you think you guys will do this again? Will this be an ongoing project or just a once-in-a-while kind of band?
JI: I definitely hope we continue, but I believe that it happens. This came out so easily that we just let it happen at the right time, so I believe that it will happen in the future also.
JK: Definitely, yeah.
Excellent, I’m very glad to hear that. Let’s talk about some of the songs then. The first song I wanted to ask about is the single, “When it’s Time.” I thought this was a really cool song because the more I got into it, the more it revealed things to me. What inspired this track?
JK: I wrote this song for my grandparents. It’s loosely the story of my grandparents and an homage to their lives and their love for each other. Not to spoil too much, but when you listen to a song, you’re hoping that it’s always your song, you can kind of imprint your own story to it, but for me it’s very deeply integrated and attached to my grandparents. Then the music was heavily inspired by the movie, The Village, one of my favorites with the violins and the soundscape of it. It was something that I drew inspiration from. It’s kind of multi-faceted and I love that about music. You can just listen to it and be on the surface of it and then if you want, dive deeper into it and look for the meaning in it and the feelings that it evokes in you. Nothing is wrong, every interpretation is right, whatever you feel in there. I think the lyrics already came in 2018 when we were on tour [together], so we were actively already beginning the songwriting process back then.
The next song I wanted to ask about was “Hearts of Old,” which felt very wintry, almost even like it could be a Christmas song. I was wondering if that was intentional, if it was meant to reflect some sort of holiday spirit?
JK: You wrote the melody. Do you remember when the song came to you? You had the demo.
JI: It is actually quite an old melody that I had on tape and I played it for Johanna and I was so happy that she liked it. I remember that you had some sort of an idea for the lyrics, perhaps you wanted to try to do the lyrics. They came out and I thought they were perfect. Just a beautiful story about… well, friendship. You brought those soundscapes and landscapes to it. We did this together, the arrangements, so you had a lot to do with that.
JK: It’s funny that you use the word “winter,” because for me, ever since I first heard the demo, it was like, “This is a winter song.” There is something very winter in the melody and how it goes, with just you [Johanna Iivanainen] playing the piano. Something icy cold and wonderful, and yet something very heartwarming. We both love Christmas, we’re both huge Christmas fans and love the winter, obviously, as Finns. It instantly made me think of winter and the lyrics are heavily themed in the wintry scene. Well spotted! That was definitely what we were going for.
Finns in particular have a real knack for nailing a wintry sound, with bands like INSOMNIUM, WINTERSUN, and EVERFROST.
Both: It’s true.
Next, I really love the ambience in “Underwater.” It’s a good blend of dark and mysterious, but also beautiful and intriguing. Regarding that, do you two like to swim? And do you find it scary or comforting? Does that have any influence on the song?
JK: I’ve always sort of revered water. It’s an element that I’m a bit afraid of, I’m not too comfortable with it, so I kind of feel that the analogy is somewhat fun in there, because also with emotions, you sometimes don’t dare to go so deep and the depth of the emotion is really daunting. I think this song is kind of involuntarily – maybe, as the lyrics imply – you sometimes have to explore the depths of the water, your emotional waters. It can be a scary place, like with the video. It can be a daunting thing. Explore that darkness and the deep depths of one’s own oceans. How would you describe it?
JI: I’ve thought about it. Just as you said, the water is so symbolic. I love the water, I love swimming, and I love to dive. Also I fear big waters. But you have to face yourself and your feelings and water is a good symbol of that. There is darkness and light in all of us and it’s important to face them all and to embrace them, to accept them. That way you can be free and find the light, or the other way around. Sometimes it goes that way.
JK: We tend to go deep. I think it’s in our nature to see below the surface.
JI: Go below the surface, but dive deep into happiness also.
The next song I had to ask about was “The Merry Scallywag,” which is maybe my favorite track. Again, to reference AURI, it reminded me of “Them Thar Chantarelles,” feeling so folky and mischievous. Tell me a bit about what inspired it?
JI: The first part is a melody that I had. We tried it on that tour backstage, we just played around, and we wanted to start making these songs together. You [Johanna Kurkela] had this melody and it just happened that they clicked together. There’s an adventure behind it.
JK: Yeah, and that also made us think of water; the first half of it, and Pirates of the Caribbean, which is something that you can spot, even from the name already. It was a fun piece to do, just having fun. That was the main event. Have a big party in the end, find the treasure – island or whatever – and throw a big party.
It’s so funny… I think I now spotted that you have the map of Skyrim behind you. Do you?
I have a few maps, yes. You have a sharp eye!
JK: Awesome! [laughs] I’m a huge Skyrim fan also. Fantastic things, that’s what drives us forward, with this song also.
Incredible. The last song I have time to ask about is “You Should’ve Sent a Poet,” both because of the name and the sound. This feels a bit poppier than the rest of the album, almost like atmospheric ABBA. Tell me a bit about this different sound?
JK: For the longest time, I wasn’t sure if this was the right song for this album, but luckily you [Johanna Iivanainen] were so encouraging and I feel that now it does fit. It’s just a magical, whimsical combination and this song was inspired by the film, The Contact. There is one quote, where she says, “They should’ve sent a poet,” when she’s up there in space. That’s kind of the idea. She also says that the world should be what we make of it. That’s another quote from the film. Theme-wise and also [regarding] the sound, we wanted to make the listener feel like they’re taking off into space. The first few seconds of the song has kind of a launch, then you just kind of ride the milky way and try to find your thing in life and come back and do it here on earth. So loosely, that’s the idea. It’s very different from the other songs.
I’m almost out of time, so I’ll ask my last question, which is about your upcoming tour. Your dates are set for early next year. Providing everything is okay and shows are able to go on, what can we expect from the shows?
JI: I think it’s going to be full of emotion, full of joy, and we are going to be on a happy journey because we have these wonderful musicians with us and, of course, to get to have this connection with the audience. It’s hard to describe how it is to interact. We’re looking forward to that. Hopefully we can do this tour soon.
Well, I’m personally really looking forward to it. I’m all out of time now, so best of luck with the release!
Thank you, it’s been a wonderful time talking with you.
Interview by Bear Wiseman
Interview Phantom Elite – “It’s always good to share that feeling that none of us is alone in hard times”