(Photo by Jani Mahkonan)
You don't need the sun shining, outside, in order to feel happy when you are in the company of Erja Lyytinen. Her sole presence, her smile, beauty and charisma is enough to light up an entire country. Add to those qualities an insane ability in playing guitar and then you get the whole picture about Erja Lyytinen. From her hometown Kuopio, in Finland, this extraordinary artist has gone very far in the last 10 years. With both parents coming from a musical background, it was kind of natural that Lyytinen would follow the family trade since a very young age. "When I was a child, being my parents musicians, I used to fantasize that a couple, before getting married, should play at least a concert together. Typical fantasies of a 5-years old girl!".
The Finnish Guitarist/Singer/Songwriter is in a great moment of her career. Lyytinen has released, early this year, an excellent live album recorded at the prestigious 100 Club in London, UK, rated by the music press as one of the best live blues albums of the year. "I do remember that when I went there, I expected the place to be exactly like it was back in the days. Looking at all those photo frames on the wall, showing that the cream of the music industry had been performing there was really impressive. I also remember the whole recording evening going really fast. I had to do some photo shoots with my favourite photographer Tina Korhonen that night, prior to the gig and I was rushing to get ready, put some make up on and go to Soho for some photos, then back at the venue for some extra photos. It was crazy! Then there was the soundcheck, the camera crew trying to get the best position for the DVD recording, so much going on. But it was all worth it. It was a lot of fun to record that night of music, good time and great crowd. And I do remember also that our opening act, that night, was an all-male band all dressed up like women. That has been an experience to witness too! (chuckles)"
Lyytinen is an authenthic joy to talk to. Energetic, with a witty sense of humour and with a contagious positivity. BBR asks to the Finnish artist whether growing up in a musical household and her parents being both musician, has pressured Lyytinen in any stage of her life. "You are the first person ever to ask me this question. I have been privileged never to be pressured by my parents, when I announced I wanted to become a musician. Quite the opposite, they encouraged me and provided all the support possible that I needed every time. They never pushed me to do anything. As a teenager I liked a lot music and I liked a lot sports too. In the end, music took over because I always dreamt, since a very young age, that I wanted to travel Europe and play my music. I am really truly thankful to my parents for never putting any pressure on me at all. I have got such fabulous memories of me, at 14-15 years of age, in my living room, playing my guitar with my mother, which was hugely supportive but perhaps a little more critical in judging the quality of my music in comparison to my father, looking at me and saying: "Erja, you know what? That stuff you just played sounds really good!". That was real validation for me. I thought "Wow, if my mother gives me the seal of approval, I must be really doing good music".
One of Lyytinen's trademarks, as a performer and a blues guitarist, has always been improvisation, which comes even more evident during live performances. "If you are familiar with my works, you will certainly know that I like to change the shape of songs from their original format, therefore, yes, improvisation is really important for me. Just to give you an example, on one of my songs, Soul Of A Man, I put a lot of different chords while singing on one key. If I had my guitar with me, I'd love to play it to you right now! By adding extra chords to basic ones, the melody of the tune somehow elevates and I like to do that kind of thing in my songs. I grew up playing my guitar in the way we were tought at school, that means using a lot of improvisation. I remember I'd always be practicing a lot over changing rhytms as well. Different type of music scales like jazz, blues, you name it. I just wanted to challenge myself in different styles and become as good as I could possibly be in playing guitar on any genre. Blues is a real passion for me and to be able to improvise, in my opinion, is a must for every blues musician".
(Photo by Adam Kennedy)
The Finnish artist spends, as many fellow blues artists, the best part of each year performing live with her extra added "On-The-Road" music family. Playing with trusted musicians must be absolutely vital for every artist and to have the right chemistry with them, night after night is a key factor. Lyytinen seems to fully agree to BBR's thoughts on the subject. "Chemistry between musicians is fundamental, especially performing live. When there are tensions between musicians, it is very palpable on stage, both for us musicians and for the crowd too. That is the reason why I think that it is vital to support one another on stage, to have the right atmosphere and respect each other. In that way, the core of what we play on stage will be fully respected and the performance will gain a lot from the positive vibes within the band too. As musicians, as long as you respect what you are doing when you are on stage and you respect the audience, all will be just fine. Another key word for me is enthusiasm. You need to be excited in what you are doing, when you are up there. In my career, I have come across many different musicians and, to me, it doesn't matter what gender you are, how old you are or how professional you can be. As long as you express joy and vitality when you perform, that will do for me and we will get along just fine".
Strangely, given Lyytinen's great ability and skills as a guitarist, the first instrument she learned to play was the violin. "Initially, I was asked by my parents if I wanted to try and play the piano, then came the idea to introduce me to violin, because my cousin was playing violin and they thought it might have been a nice instrument for me to learn to play. To play violin inspired me in many ways. I started, initially and strangely, to play classical music on violin despite the fact I was listening, back then, many different types of music but classical. The moment I picked up the violin the very first time, I clearly remember how excited I was. I found it inspiring and I played it until I was 14-years old. I have got fond memories of my last year playing violin because I got to play Russian Violin with two teachers, one of which was really young and handsome and I think I might have had a little crush on him! (chuckles). Studying classical music via the violin was great fun indeed. I remember also that once, when I was 10, I played on stage with an entire orchestra and I shall never forget the beautiful harmonies and the fabulous shivers down the spine that experience gave me. But then, as you can imagine, being young and willing to play rock music, rather than playing classic instruments, I decided to move on because I wanted to rock the world! (chuckles). So from a magical world of classical music, I have moved to the world of mystical blues vibes, which I totally love".
Lyytinen started to make records from 2002, in a music era in which there were not many female blues guitarists worldwide, certainly not of the same calibre of the Finnish artist. That certainly makes Erja Lyytinen a pioneer for female blues guitarists in her own right. "I am very proud you are saying that about me! (chuckles). I guess I am a little bit a pioneer within my generation of female blues guitarists. When I started playing guitar at the age of 15, as far as I remember and bearing in mind that, back then, there was no internet yet and I couldn't do any research on the subject, there were not many women in Europe playing blues guitars. Somehow, as the years went by and perhaps with the help of the internet, there has been an increasing interest from women in studying , appreciating and learning the blues, which I think it's fantastic. I never thought, when I was a child, that I would so passionately embrace the blues but hey, here I am! As a teenager, I started listening to artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block and Deborah Coleman which made a real impact on my blues formation. And then, when I signed for Ruf Records (Erja's label), about 10 years ago, I remember I got to play with brilliant guitar artists such as Ana Popovic or Sue Foley. What great fun that has been. From that point on, in the following 5 years, the world of female blues guitarists has grown so incredibly much and there are now so many talented ladies out there playing guitar really well. Very soon, in few years time, I feel there will be no need to define a specific gender when talking about the subject of "blues guitarists", because we ladies are simply as good as the boys!".
Bluebird Reviews has been following Lyytinen's live activity costantly over the last few years. Every crowd always look mesmerised not just by the class and quality of this incredible guitarist and by her performances but also by her intense singing style and her appearance. Given how stunningly beautiful Lyytinen is, there is no wonder why she gets the attention of the spectators also from a non-musical point of view. One cannot stop to wonder what Lyytinen checks first, before going on stage every night, whether it is the hairdo, the guitar pedals or the outfit. "Are we counting the soundcheck too? Because that would change the whole sequence you just mentioned! (chuckles). I have got to admit, I check the pedal board first. If I have an opening band performing before me on the night, then perhaps I would check my hairdo first, then the guitar pedals. Not that long ago, I had the privilege of playing with a 25-elements orchestra in Finland, called Rikiu Niemi. Full band, a string section, the horn section, you name it. I remember the second night I played with them, there was this young girl, part of the orchestra, who didn't make it the first night of the performance and, as a consequence, never met me before. After the show, that second night, she approached me and said "I saw you, an ordinary girl, coming on stage before the show and checking your pedals. That was not the same girl that came on stage when the show started later! You came on stage wearing a black leather mini-skirt, eye-lashes, your hair done beautifully, just like a sex bomb! What the hell happened to you before the show and when you came on stage?". And I couldn't stop myself laughing. I explained to her that it was just a part of me. I am a woman, therefore I like dressin' up and I would love to spend a fortune on clothes but it wouldn't be wise, especially now that I have kids. I would spend a lot of money on guitars too but that wouldn't make me a very good and wise mother! (chuckles).
(Photo by Tina Koronen)
Since Forbidden Fruit, her 2013 last studio album, Lyytinen has not released a new album with new original material. Bluebird Review heard that 2016 may see a new studio album being released by the Finnish Guitar Virtuosa. "What you heard is true. We are currently working on the album, which is already at a very good stage and will be released next year. My last studio record, as you said, was almost 3 years ago and I cannot wait to unleash this bunch of new songs I have written. Some of the new material has been tested on my recent UK Tour and I felt the feedback coming from the crowd was excellent. There are a lot of personal subjects involved in the songwriting of my new material. On the new album, I shall dig deeper into the blues but also trying, in the meantime, to explore a little bit new musical territories. I want also for the album to be recorded with that live and studio elements combined at the same time. In essence, I want to be able to capture the rawness and immediacy of a live recording and refining it with studio technology. I am very excited about this next album, I cannot wait to release it".
For somebody so highly respected and talented, to be a mother, a successful musician and have a Master's Degree in Music must be feeling already very gratifying. Bluebird Review is wondering whether there is any other dream that Erja Lyytinen would like to fulfil along her life journey. "Good question. I have always had an adventurous mind and I lived in many places, such as Denmark, Sweden and United States. I would love to try and live somewhere else away from Finland, just for a little while, as a life experience. But there is a lot to take into consideration, including the fact that I should move with my children, which are very young right now but, hey, one day it may happen, never say never".
Before we part company, given the fascinating musical journey Lyytinen has been on so far and her great passion for music, it is necessary to ask where this incredible and talented musician sees herself, musically speaking, in 10 years from now. "Difficult to say. At this stage of my life and career, I wouldn't be able to predict it. In my next album, together with playing blues, as I said before, there will be some new music elements in my songs. Little touches of rock at times, with tempos that may remind you occasionally of different artists, from Pink Floyd to Jeff Beck. And in-between all this, there will be me, storytelling about myself and my life in my lyrics. I guess that the different variety of music I put on my records defines who I am in that precise moment, both as an artist and a person. Certainly, when I did the Elmore James tribute album a little while ago, that helped me to dig even further into blues and I am pretty positive that blues will be always there, walking by my side. Ask me the question again in 10 years time, that is a Press Date between you and I!".
Giovanni "Gio" Pilato