Interview with Värttinä’s Matti Kallio

Matti Kallio is a prominent Finnish folk musician.  He first became involved with the musical group Värttinä in 2002, filling in for their accordionist Markku Lepistö.  Not only would he eventually become a permanent member of the band, but on their new album Utu he also serves as the producer and primary composer of the music.  In this interview, Kallio talks about the evolution of his musical interests and career, along with his many roles in Värttinä.  He also talks about his adopted home of Iceland, and how Icelandic folklore helped shape Utu.

SG: What music did you listen to growing up?

MK: Well, a lot of different influences there. I actually listened to a lot of classical music – Mozart, Tsaikovski, Rachmaninoff – while my two big brothers were blasting everything from Iron Maiden to Pink Floyd to Black Sabbath through The Doors… Besides the classical stuff, I really liked (and still do) Van Halen, Jean-Michel Jarre, Sting etc.

SG: When and how were you introduced to Finnish folk music?

MK: My first connection to our own folk music heritage was at school, I must have been not older than 7. Luckily in Finland the music classes at school require everybody to play at little bit of kantele, and to sing folk songs as well as other music.

SG: At what point did you decide to pursue music professionally?

MK: I think that happened at the age of 18, in my last year of high school. I was also interested in journalism, but decided to try once to get in to the Sibelius Academy. As I succeeded in that, the path was pretty much chosen.

SG: Have you always been a folk musician, or have you performed other styles as well?

MK: I started off with a classical training in both the piano and the button accordion, but after a few years of those studies I wanted to explore jazz and other more “contemporary” territories. Folk music came along when I was 20, as a bunch of friends started an Irish music band, Perilliset. We did a lot of gigs around Finland for a few years, and that whole experience drew me in to the world of folk music.

SG: What had you done in your musical career prior to joining Värttinä?  With whom did you play?

MK: I’ve worked with numerous artists in my career, including popular Finnish artists & bands such as Hector, Vesa-Matti Loiri, Anna Eriksson, Rajaton, Club for Five, Laura Voutilainen, Johanna Kurkela etc.

SG: What was your impression of Värttinä when you first heard them?  Did you ever think you would wind up playing for them?

MK: The first time I heard Värttinä’s music was back in 1991, with the Oi Dai success. I saw them live in Helsinki in ’91 or ’92, at a small intimate venue, and ended up doing a little dancing with them onstage :) At that point I did not anticipate I’d be in the band 20 years later.

SG: How did you wind up joining the band?

MK: I first played live with Värttinä in 2002, when accordionist Markku Lepistö asked me to substitute him for a few gigs and tours in Europe. So I got to know the guys back then, and vice versa. In 2009 the band approached me, asking me to join. I felt it was an honor, and accepted the invitation of course.

SG: At the time you joined the band, did you expect to contribute as much to the creative process (writing, arranging, producing) as you have on Utu?

MK: When joining the band, I just knew that we should make new music. I didn’t – and don’t care so much, who writes the songs.  The main thing for Värttinä is to stay creative and produce new material, which I think we’ve achieved with Utu. I feel Värttinä is a great creative outlet for me, and I get great satisfaction in working with the band, rehearsing and arranging songs.

SG: Was there ever a concern in the last couple of years that Värttinä would never get back into the recording studio?

MK: No. Mostly it was a question of writing new material, finding a suitable record company, and then just going for it.

SG: Was it hard finding a new record company?  What made Rockadillo Records appealing to you?

MK: Rockadillo appealed to us, because of their devotion to world music. We of course looked at all sorts of options, but ended up with them – they’ve also been doing a great job with e.g. Wimme and Sakari Kukko recently.

SG: Was it difficult to start writing songs with Mari?  Could you describe what the songwriting process was like?

MK: It’s been really easy to work on the songs with Mari. Normally I would write the music first, make some sort of a demo, and then send it to her for lyrics work. Sometimes some lyrics pop out in the band rehearsals, as sort of sketch lyrics, something for the girls to sing the melody with. And part of those sketch lyrics may make it to the final version of the song.

SG: How did you find the other musicians who contributed to Utu?

MK: Our wonderful guest musicians on Utu are among the creme de la creme of the Finnish folk music scene. Take string instrument player Matti Laitinen, for instance. I’ve known him for more than 15 years, and we’ve worked together on maybe 30 albums or so. He has such great taste and a killer time. Matti also wrote the music for “Tuuterin tyttäret”, which we are really grateful for.  Kukka Lehto is one of the most amazing fiddlers – or should I say, violinists I know. Crazy multi-talent, and no limit to improvisation, technique, knowledge of different styles.  We were really lucky to get drummer Jaska Lukkarinen to play on Utu, as he’s a busy man! Jaska of course provides such a great foundation to the whole album – steadfast, yet sensitive and innovative playing.  Sakari Kukko (of Piirpauke fame) is a true world music legend, and we felt it was time for him and Värttinä to join forces. He has played and created world music even before the whole term existed!

SG: Was it easy or difficult to get Sakari to work with you?

MK: Sakari – or Sakke as we call him – was onboard immediately. I’ve known him for a number of years and we’ve played together in a few projects before, so I sort of knew, what to expect – and didn’t need to be disappointed! He’s a free soul, an extremely seasoned yet innovative musician and we were so lucky to get his contribution for Utu.

SG: What was the inspiration for the Elf Suite?

MK: Well, it might have something to do with me living (and having my studio) in Reykjavik, Iceland. This is a country where people actually still have a connection to the “otherworld” – fairies, elves, ghosts, folk tales – they are all very much alive in Iceland. And Värttinä’s background, the Karelian folklore are of the same root I think.

SG: When did you first go to Iceland?  What attracted you to it?

MK: My first visit to Iceland was around the turn of the millennium. I sang in a pan-european choir called “Voices of Europe”, and we performed a couple of times with Björk in Iceland, then we did a big tour in Europe. I really fell in love with the country – and found my wife here as well.

SG: How much time do you spend in Iceland as opposed to Finland?

MK: I mainly stay in Iceland, but travel to Finland whenever I need to – on an average maybe once a month.

SG: Can you give an example of how Iceland is more connected to the “otherworld”?

MK: Well, for instance here in Reykjavik there are numerous houses which have been left empty because there are ghosts living there – people have a lot of weird experiences and stories to tell about that. Second example is that, whenever they decide to build a new road in Iceland, if there are so called elf stones (big boulders, in which elves are said to be living) on the proposed route, the officials don’t want to move these rocks out of the way. Instead, they’ll make a curve in the road!

SG: Which songs on the new record are your favorites and why?

MK: I actually have many favorites on Utu! “Utuneito”, for instance, is a song we first recorded as a demo couple of years ago, and I personally consider that song a sort of a starting point and catalyst in the process of creating the album.  The song “Haltijan hallussa” features the true power of the Värttinä singers, I love that sound!  The opening track “Ruhverikko” is exciting and energetic, I’m very happy with the result.

SG: What has it been like performing with Värttinä?

MK: It’s a blast, every time!

SG: Will Värttinä come to the United States soon?

MK: We certainly hope so!

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