Two years was enough for Lenna Kuurmaa to become one of the most recognizable artists in her country, as a member of the band Vanilla Ninja. The group became almost a living legend and Estonia’s mark on the international arena. Gold and platinum discs, thousands of dedicated fans, songs at the tops of foreign charts – four girls from Tallinn achieved what every musician dreams of.
But the sense of many years of sacrifices, difficulties and big life changes was up in the air when in 2008 the group announced a suspension of activity, after a hard and exhausting war with their ex-producer and manager, David Brandes, who was laying claim to the band’s name and all of its successes. But Lenna didn’t intend to step aside and squander everything she had already achieved. She didn’t give up and she decided to continue her adventure with music. But this time solo, or to be more specific, in the band working under the author’s name – Lenna.
Late 2009 and early 2010 was the beginning of the new path and also the start of the band forming. Lenna was meant to stand at the head of the group as a charismatic vocalist. Since she is a professional and a perfectionist, she wanted to work with the best in order to make the group strong musically. And so, thanks to her acquaintances in Estonian show-business, she found such people. They were: Reigo Ahven (drums), Martin Laksberg (bass-guitar and keyboard) and Mihkel Masso (guitar). The lead vocalist was aided by female backing-vocals, in which Keit Triisa (participant of Eesti otsib superstaari – Estonian version of the popular program Idol) and Marvi Vallaste appeared most often.
The band set themselves a target of excellence right from the start, taking part in the Estonian heats for the Eurovision song contest 2010, which was to be organized in Norway. It was sure that, experienced in such battles, Lenna had to have an ace up her sleeve. With her song Rapunzel, she had not only convinced the Eesti Laul jury to choose her composition as one of 10 that would fight for a chance to go to Oslo, but also won the hearts of thousands of listeners. Having the first song from her solo repertoire (released at the end of 2009 Musta pori näkku) to judge from, it could be expected that her first album would contain interesting, original and diverse tracks. From the beginning Rapunzel had been picked as a favourite of the whole contest and everyone was almost sure that it was Lenna who would go to Norway to represent Estonia at Eurovision 2010, especially seeing as in the meantime this song became a hit on most radio stations. And this is the reason why the surprise was so big when in the last, final round of Eesti Laul 2010, Malcolm Lincoln won the whole contest with his monotonous song Siren. Everybody was thinking „Lenna has lost“. Nothing could have been more wrong. The band quickly turned this minor defeat into a great victory – instead of going to Oslo, they went to Shanghai for EXPO 2010, to present their country’s culture to the visitors of the fair. In one interview, Kuurmaa mentioned what a nice experience it was for her performing at the shows when she was singing songs in Estonian and all the guests were having great time, were having great time, even though they didn’t understand the word from what she was singing. Besides the fair, they didn’t have much free time too – they played a few concerts in the best jazz clubs in China, which was a great honour. All that’s left is to feel sorry for Malcolm Lincoln, because not only did he not make it to the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest but he also had to endure the fact that it was his rival, not him, who truly represented Estonia internationally.
With such a large number of different shows, it was rather difficult to find some time for studio work and for recording a first solo album. Finally, it worked out and an album calledLenna was released on 18.05.2010. However, most of the fans were surprised because they had expected the album to sound much harder, something similar to Vanilla Ninja. At first it was not easy to believe it was Lenna’s material. She had grown up and this had had an impact on her music as well. There was no point in continuing the pop-rock fun, since her taste had changed and obviously she did not feel the same connection to this particular genre any longer. The reflection of these changes is the album, whose sound is described as indie-pop. What is more, the writer of most of the album’s lyrics and melodies is surprisingly only one person. Vaiko Eplik was not only a composer, but also a producer of the band’s debut album. His style is very unique, which makes Lenna’s recordings quite extraordinary. However, it does not mean that all of these songs are connected to the ones that Eplik had recorded with his band. Lenna took an active part in the recording process of all the tracks and she also invited other song writers to help her – Jarek Kasar (Chalice), who wrote the lyrics for Kogu tõde Jüriööst („The Truth About Saint George’s Night”) and who, also, together with Vaiko Eplik co-wrote Kotkasilm („Eagle’s Eye”); Martin Kuut (Recycle Bin), who wrote Mida sa teed? („What Are You Doing?”); and Mihkel Raud, the co-author of the aforementioned song Musta pori näkku („Black Mud in the Face“). All of the people involved shared a part of themselves in the songs and that is why listening to Lennais such a diverse experience.
Lenna Kuurmaa is a woman gifted with an unusual voice – quite hoarse, but still extremely strong. This inimitable mixture lets her sing well in every musical genre. She has a great vocal range, which allows her to reach both high and low notes. Not only does she prove it on her latest album, but even though she meant to remain in the indie-pop genre with Vaiko Eplik’s sound, she also introduces arrangements which are not quite typical for this musical style. And speaking of that, the record’s first track is a nice surprise. Musta pori näkku is, as mentioned before, the fruit of the band’s work with Mihkel Raud. Nonetheless, this song is not completely new. The original – Sõidulaul – was created at the turn of the 80s and 90s by Mihkel’s father – Eno Raud. Just for Lenna’s album, this composition was refreshed – Eplik had composed a brand new arrangement, and while recording the new studio version, Mihkel Raud took the role of the guitar player and a second vocalist. Because of this mixture (old song and the completely new, very suitable arrangement) we feel as if we were listening to a rock ballad from an 80s chart show. Fans of calm music would love Kotkasilm, which is a quiet track, nearly in a jazz style. The delicate melody and the soothing vocal let the listener relax and fall in the world of dreams. It is worth mentioning the song Kogu tõde Jüriööst, which was the only one from the album to get an official music video. It reached number 8 in the end of year chart called EESTI TOP 50. However, it is believed that the most popular single was the second one – Rapunzel. Without a doubt, this was a result of the promotion, which simply was Lenna’s attendance in the Eurovision heats. Also, this song is happy and energetic so the listeners can easily identify it. A similar story happened with a quite rocky and cheerful song called Maailm ei keerle, which got an unofficial music video showing the band during their trip to China. All 10 tracks are worth a recommendation, because every song is different and has a special meaning. Obviously, some of the compositions need to be heard a few times to find the unique spark, but it just makes you want to listen to the songs all over again to find more hidden qualities.
As far as the number of concerts in 2010 goes they probably beat all the Estonian artists. Summer was especially busy for the band, because it’s the time when there are big music festivals that are visited by thousands of people. To those most important events where Lenna played one of the main roles, we have to add her first solo tour that took place in May and June 2009, and before which a new guitarist, Kiur Aarma, joined the band. Also Lenna’s performances on Õllesummer and Õlletoober festivals are worth mentioning. Lenna had been shown a lot of trust when, as completely fresh band, they were chosen to support Mika at his concert in Tallinn. That was a very important test for them, but they passed it perfectly and it helped them to consolidate their position and further their way to the top.
Each of their gigs is a show of professionalism and emotions. Lenna’s one of the few vocalists whose voice has that thing, capable of hypnotizing the whole audience. Sometimes the hypnosis reaches a state where a moshing fan has to hurt himself to get back to reality. The best evidence of this magic are the masses of people coming to their shows, not only from Estonia, but the whole of Europe: Poland, Germany, Russia and many more. Tons of fans from the entire planet come to Lenna’s gigs not caring for circumstances. During a great gig it’s so much easier to find somebody who has the same interests and tastes. This is how her fans make international friendships. Lenna gives her fans a lot more than just music- incredible feelings and the chance to meet the right people. Her art unites people, even those who live thousands kilometers from each other.
There’s never too much of such a good thing. Every artist should remember that without fans there’s no full success. It cannot be denied that Lenna remembers this fact. She gives joy to her fans and they give it back to her. It’s visible while observing the relations between the audience and the singer at the concerts. Smiles, jokes, gestures – all of this is very important to every fan, because all the admirers strive for a moment of her attention. And what’s interesting is that everyone gets it. After the performance Lenna always finds some time for her waiting fans, in order to give an autograph or pose for a photo that later on may become a real treasure for someone. Such meetings with her are always held in fans’ memory for a long time and this is because of that devotion, straightforwardness and warmth in contact. There is nothing to be surprised at that Kuurmaa with her band has conquered the Estonian music business, and what’s most important – the hearts of the fans.
What’s going on with the band at the moment? Well, every part of life needs changes from time to time. And so it was with the band – the members needed to face change. Martin and Mihkel had to quit the band because of having too many other activities to do. It, of course, does not mean that the band is missing the bassist and the guitarist. The place of Laksberg and Masso has been taken by Tõnis Kivilsid and Robert Vaigla (both known for their band traFFic). Because of this change, nowadays we can hear Lenna’s songs in new arrangements. Every member of the band has their own unique style of playing so this is a fresh thing for the group when members change. This whole “disorder” is run bravely by Alo Puustak, the manager, who is always there to advise the musicians and who has already had long term experience with a band called B.D.Ö. But there is no way to control the ambitions and dreams of this 5-person team filled with music in their heads. Work on the new album will start at the beginning of the new year. With this new material, the band would like to try their luck out of Estonia and to conquer the international music market. The attitude they have will clearly help them to repeat Vanilla Ninja’s success from a few years ago. We can only hope that during this expansion, they will find a moment to visit Poland and get lots of devoted fans here.
Big thanks for great photos to the photographer Maiken Staak (who worked with the makeup artist Mammu and designer Liina Stein) and the graphic artist Janno Saft.