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Busy, but in a good way

by Amanda Kauranne

Suvi Oskala has a lot going on. She plays the violin and sings but also writes music, teaches, produces and runs her own record label. Involved in both avant-garde art folk music and traditional folk music, she keeps her bands going through active performance sales and with grants.

“I do a lot of different things, because I feel the need to do both pragmatic stuff and arty-farty stuff. The balance is pretty good at the moment,” says Suvi Oskala with a grin. “I like teaching, because it’s a learning opportunity for me too, and it tends to keep one’s feet on the ground. Producing is brainwork: harmonising people’s schedules in my head and wrestling with budgets is something I enjoy. My bands are musically so different from one another that I can market them to the same festival with no conflict of interest in marketing or musical overlap in my head. I am well pleased with my job profile just now!”

You need to apply for grants in order to get some

Oskala is practically married to her computer. Up to 40% of her time is spent responding to emails or writing grant applications or reports.

“I am constantly struggling with myself to put some sense into this.  I actually have to book time in my calendar to play music so that I don’t forget to.”

Grants enabling her to focus on playing music have been coming thick and fast lately, both for basic work by her bands and for touring. In January, she will embark on a one-year artist grant that will enable her to concentrate on her solo project. “A large part of this work is invisible, and no one pays me for it. But at the moment, all of my projects are worth investing in. The grant will allow me to plan further ahead.”

One third of Oskala’s working time is spent writing and rehearsing music, and another third in teaching. She calls the teaching fee paid by bodies such as the Pakila Music Institute her “basic income”. “When I know that there is some money coming in every month, I can free up space in my head to think about other things.”

She is currently working on a DIY animation project on a grant from the Finnish Music Foundation MES with her band SO III, which plays music that she describes as “interesting and strange”. It is a trio that includes Oskari Lehtonen (percussion) and Teemu Korpipää (live electronics). They will be improvising at art galleries this autumn on the basis of the animations they have created, with pre-written songs to lyrics by Saija Nojonen interspersed. All of the music is written by violinist and vocalist Oskala.

It pays to leave your comfort zone

Oskala will soon perform in India in a duo with violinist Emilia Lajunen, playing traditional Finnish tunes. “This duo is a meeting of two very different musicians. We work well together, but we are both individualists with a distinctive sound.”

On working time enabled by a grant from the Arts Promotion Centre Finland, they are rehearsing works commissioned from top names in the field of folk music. They have already received a work commissioned from Piia Kleemola, who has a DMus in fiddler music, with support from the Finnish Composers’ Copyright Society Teosto, and they are expecting a work from -Mikael Marin, a member of the Swedish band Väsen. Next year, they will be receiving commissioned works from US bluegrass violinist Casey Driessen and Italian music technologist and contemporary composer -Libero Mureddu.

“The basic repertoire of the duo has improved a lot by our having to leave our comfort zone to perform something that was born inside someone else’s head. Our purpose was to expand our scope in this way. We have commissioned works from very different musicians. That will help the duo set itself apart, with unique repertoire added to the traditional tunes.”

Need a record label? Start your own

The duo’s next album will possibly be a double, featuring the different aspects of their repertoire. It will probably be released on Oskala’s own record label, Suvi Sounds, which has released four albums to date featuring Oskala’s various projects. The label began with the Soolo album, which emerged after Oskala’s previous groups had disbanded.

“Suddenly I was looking out into the abyss, and I had to build up my band activities from the ground again. It was heavy going, but useful. When I was a student, I just did things and it somehow worked out. Now I had to consciously think about where I had been and how I had got there. I now know what a huge amount of spadework you have to put into this sort of thing and how to do it.

“The Soolo album was basically just me emptying my head of everything that had gone before so that I could move on as an artist. Albums are difficult things, because you do not exist as a performer if you do not record, but no one wants to publish them, because they do not sell. I set up a firm for myself so I could sell my own records and all my related costs would be tax–deductible. To be sure, it has been making a loss so far. I’m sure the tax people going through my tax returns are wondering when I’ll break even,” she says.

Have folk music, must travel

Rundi3, a collaboration tour including SO III together with the Stringpurée Band, fronted by electric kantele player Senni Eskelinen and performing progressive kantele rock music, and with kantele player, vocalist and percussionist Maija Kauhanen as soloist, will ride again in the spring. Last year, Oskala, Eskelinen and Kauhanen produced two tours, one of them on a shoestring budget with a tiny touring grant and the other on a massive grant from the Arts Promotion Centre Finland and the Finnish Cultural Foundation.

“Making music in bands is very much project-oriented, because everyone is so busy. This is due to the revenue logic of folk music: in order to survive, you have to do many different things. Very few people in this field can make a living doing just one thing.”

Finland’s small market is partly to blame. Folk music is a marginal art form, and fees for gigs are rarely more than the minimum fee stipulated by the Finnish Musicians’ Union. If a series of gigs is defined as a tour, it is possible to apply for grants. “Musicians do gigs for too little money. There is a larger market in this genre in other countries such as Germany and Norway. That’s why we are going there too. But for me, success is not about how much money we make, how many gigs we play or how long our foreign tours are. The main indicator for me right now is making music that is meaningful for me and for the others in the band, and that the band has a good feeling about what it’s doing.”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: Suvi Oskala by Sami Perttilä

Suvi Oskala

::  A fiddle player and a singer, an event producer
and a teacher

::  Has released four albums through her own
record label, Suvi Sounds

::  Currently busy with cross-arts projects such as
“Animation Project” with her group SO III and
touring as a duo with fiddler Emilia Lajunen
See also Emilia Lajunen’s video blog from the carbon-neutral -bicycle tour.