The opening track on Finnish folk singer/songwriter Mirel Wagner‘s 2011 eponymous debut was titled “To the Bone,” and that’s exactly how bare her music is. Her narratives are sparse, her arrangements even sparser — but the minimalism belies how carefully Wagner draws her songs in order to achieve maximum impact. From the tenderly-sung tale of necrophilia “No Death” to the buried corpse narrating “Oak Tree,” death and loss recurs through her work to the point of monomania. If anything, the subject matter is only intensified on her second album, When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day.
Scenarios of lurking terror are sketched on “1 2 3 4″ and “In My Father’s House”; images of breathing in dirt and waves of flesh, blood and bone abound. It closes with “Goodnight,” in which an unknown narrator sings a tender lullaby to an unknown subject while smothering them with a pillow. Wagner herself is, on record, a still and disquietingly calm presence with a curiously ageless, unemotional voice.
In person, clutching a mug of tea in a south London pub, she’s just as precise, choosing her words carefully and euphemizing almost primly about the “not-so-nice things” she chooses to sing about.
To record When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day, you went to the island of Hailuoto and worked — perhaps unexpectedly — with electronic producer Vladislav Delay. Did you have any specific goals for the album vis-à-vis your debut?
I didn’t really think about any goals while I was making the album. I just tried to get the songs out in a way I was happy with them. It’s very natural — the process can’t be forced. Recording on the island was convenient, because Vladislav’s studio is there, my Finnish record company is based there and my manager lives there. In some ways, the songs were already finished before I recorded them. So it wasn’t that different to the first album.
When I read that you were working with Delay, I half-expected you to be making a techno album.
Well, you don’t know that we didn’t! But I’m scared of all the buttons. No, it was a suggestion by my management — we tried a couple of studios and producers, this felt the most natural. It was fun to work with Vladislav. I wasn’t familiar with his music and he wasn’t familiar with my music, or the acoustic genre in general, so it was this mutual out-of-water thing. But with a lot of respect as well, where we both agreed to work for the song.
There aren’t any obvious signs of his influence, but compared to the first album you can definitely tell how much more defined the production is — every element has its own space, and your voice is so closely mic’ed that it feels like you’re singing right in the listener’s ear. That really magnifies the creepiness of the lyrics — plus the way you enunciate every line so clearly, so you can’t hide from what you’re singing about.
That’s the way I like to sing. When I started playing and writing my own songs it was just me alone, so I would sing very quietly, and that’s where it comes from. And I like to keep it articulated — sometimes I focus so much on that. There are so few words that I want every word to matter and count and be heard. That’s tricky sometimes.
Where did the inspiration for the album’s title come from?
It’s just something that came to mind when I was finishing the recording, when I had time to look back and think about it. I’m still figuring out what it means for me. It’s sort of like a wakening, but it’s also about secrets and hidden things that come to life — that need to come to life. I’ve always been interested in how things appear, the not-so-nice things that happen in life and that people keep hidden, even at the expense of their own well-being. These contradictions in behavior and emotions are things I find interesting. It’s easier not to talk about things that upset people, but it’s necessary. If you don’t talk about these not-so-nice things, that doesn’t make them go away. It doesn’t make you a sad person or a depressing person if you think about them.
When I Googled the title, I thought it might be a reference to an old Finnish myth or folk tale, but mostly the Josef Fritzl case popped up.
Oh, yeah. It was something I was aware of, these things are reported everywhere. It was never a conscious decision to try to exploit or use the story to make a song, I would find that very boring. But there are these horrible things happening, and why are they happening? I like to question this. In some scale, it happens to everyone. Maybe not that extreme, but these emotions are wired in us. If the chips fall the right way, anyone can be a monster. But anyone can be a saint too. As for old folk tales — I am a story person, I love stories and myths from around the world. I borrowed a big book from the library of ancient stories from all over, from ancient Greek tragedies to creation stories. My favorite storytellers? Hans Christian Andersen, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, D. H. Lawrence, H. G. Wells. The last book that made a real impact on me was [Kurt Vonnegut's] Slaughterhouse 5, a wonderful experience.
One thing that struck me about your songs is that you perform them as if they’re ancient folk stories, but a lot of them can be interpreted in a very modern, relevant context. Like, for instance, “What Love Looks Like,” which you released in 2013 to support a campaign by Naisten Linja, the Finnish women’s line for victims of domestic violence.
I had already written the song before they approached me to ask if I wanted to be part of this campaign. But I like these sorts of songs that are not bound to a certain time. I like to keep it very open, so there’s no precise telling who the narrator is, or what gender — those kind of things. When I get to a certain stage in the writing I start to eliminate things. I prefer simple things. When language is very simple, it leaves space for interpretation.
A lot of the time your delivery of those words does, as well. I never know whether I’m being comforted or creeped out at any given moment listening to your songs — you make the promise of death on “The Dirt” sound almost like a lullaby, for example. Whereas the line, “I’ve got a big, big heart and lots of love” on “1 2 3 4″ is full of menace.
It is partly an intention, to feel something so beautiful but still so disturbing, or something that should be beautiful that is disturbing. I like the mixing of expectations and ideas. But it’s very natural in some ways because that’s just the way things come out when I write songs. If I try to say something sweet, it comes out like that.
It’s like a scene in a horror film when you see something move in the shadows but you don’t know what it is…
When you haven’t seen the monster. Or maybe you have. I love this sort of feeling.
You’re a horror fan, aren’t you? What can you recommend me?
The Night of the Hunter is one of my favorite films. The visuals are amazing, the dialogue is very creepy. It has this very surreal lighting and setting, and the character of the preacher man serial killer is brilliant. He’s a predator, he preys on vulnerable people and hides behind this mask of kindness and goodness, and no one can see past it except one old lady. I love science fiction also. When you mention these genres, people sometimes think you are childish. But that’s changing nowadays. Everyone watches Game of Thrones! But it’s a way to have a dialogue about nature, being human, being bad. These questions that these genres raise I find very interesting. I feel like people are horrified all the time and don’t know how to deal with it.
You’ve always talked about how normal you find the topics you write about. It doesn’t seem to scare you — but what do you fear?
Other people. Humans in general. The dark stuff I deal with in my songs, it does horrify me, but what scares me is people’s limitless capability of doing horrible stuff to others.
So your approach to your music is that if humans scare you already, nothing could be worse?
But it’s not just that I’m afraid of them, there’s a lot of comfort and beauty in the music.
So you’re taking the thing you’re most scared of and finding beauty in it?
That is a good summation…[Laughs] but I spend enormous amounts of time trying not to analyze my work!
You began writing horror stories as a child. Can you remember any of them?
I can’t recall. Probably a lot of blood. I’ve always loved making up stories, but they don’t necessarily have to be told to anyone. I remember this one story about this man who was… [screws up face] he would come visit, or something like that. I can’t recall the details, but they’re always in my mind, these stories, and I pour water on them to make songs. When I meet people and see things, too, everything is downloaded into some subconscious hard drive where they get all mushed up. It can be just a trigger, a situation where the questions will start appearing in my head about the emotions behind it…that’s where I get the idea. Then it starts building in my head. If it’s good enough, after three years I will write a song about it.
You’ve also been reluctant to talk about the fact that you were adopted. As someone who was adopted myself, I understand your annoyance at people assuming it’s a big story.
I don’t know what to think about it. It’s like your name, you don’t really think about it. There is a story, of course there is a story, but is it relevant to my work? Maybe in 30 years I will write an autobiography. The questions make you feel like you’re in a constant record loop confirming your identity.
They elicit some very tenuous connections too. I read a review that argued that you were reconnecting to your African roots on “The Dirt,” just because they interpreted it to be about famine — when you don’t necessarily need African roots to write about that subject…
Yeah, it’s a very open song. There is this little part of me, but then there is all the stuff you can bring yourself when you listen to the song, which is surely more interesting. If I was adopted from Russia, say, not Ethiopia, I think people would ask less.
Your show [at St. Pancras Old Church, London] last night was incredible — I was struck by how focused you were. No conversations with the audience, and you didn’t seem to even hear the clock chiming or the mobile phone.
I did hear the clock chiming! But it was in the wrong key, unfortunately. For me, performing is like concentrating, focusing in on the song and making the song come alive, so I don’t pay much attention to other things. I loved the venue, this old institution that fit in with the idea of things coming to life. It’s an old church, one of the oldest in Europe — so there are a lot of things underneath it…
What kind of things do you want to do as an artist in the future?
I just want to try new ways of making songs. And I would love to make more music videos. I was co-director of the “Oak Tree” and “The Dirt” videos — they were based on my very incoherent explanations of my visual feelings. It’s something I’m very fond of doing, though. Maybe I’ll do a feature film! It’d be in space. With monsters and relationships — actually, no monsters. Just human relationships, the horror of it all.