Tarja – Dreaming of a Dark Christmas

Sunday, 3rd December 2017

Leave it to Tarja Turunen to bring metal fans a Christmas themed release that combines the darkness they require with the familiarity of holiday classics. Though not quite metal in a literal sense, it still carries the same spirit and vibe that a metal fan would expect and appreciate in a reinterpretation of traditional holiday fare. The darker feeling permeates through orchestrations that have a cinematic quality, surrounded by a gothic atmosphere. All in all, it’s a very fresh take on a number of well-worn songs. An authentically metal Christmas album that even outsiders should be able to enjoy.

An interesting artist in her own light, Tarja has been able to bring her solo music in several directions in the years since parting ways with Nightwish. She’s taken part in metal, rock, and classical directions (as well as merging them together in different ways). All of which made for some interesting conversation one morning through Skype, not just about her recent Christmas album, from Spirits and Ghosts (Score for a Dark Christmas), but in some of the moves she’s made since beginning her solo career, and her interpretation of how classical music and heavy metal collide.

Dead Rhetoric: From Spirits and Ghosts has a unique sound for a holiday album. What can you say about its direction?

Tarja Turunen: Thank you. That was my aim. The direction was very clear to me when I decided to work on my second Christmas album, because the first one was released 10 years ago but only in Finland. It was a very traditional release. So I didn’t want to repeat myself after all these years. I’ve been doing Christmas concerts – symphonic concerts and concerts with different line-ups since 2005, almost every year in Finland and through Europe in general. After all that Christmas experience, I decided to work on another album, but a different one. I didn’t want to do it in a traditional way. I’m a huge fan of soundtracks and movies in general, so I kind of felt like if I work on the songs I want to work on in a score kind of way, so that they could be a part of any horror or any other kind of Christmas related movies.

Dead Rhetoric: It feels Tim Burton-esque almost, with that gothic soundtrack feel to the songs.

Turunen: Yes, exactly. I’m very happy to hear that. That was my goal. I was working with a guy who had been working with me since my first record. I went to L.A. to meet with him. He has been working with Hans Zimmer. I was mixing my first rock album in Han Zimmer’s studio in L.A., so I have met many people who have been working with him – orchestra arrangers and such. Jim Dooley is the man behind all of these beautiful orchestrations. He’s super-talented and knows my personal taste already after all of these years of working together. So it was very easy album, in a way, because it was only me, him, and Tim Palmer, who ended up mixing the album. We worked very closely together on the arrangements with Tim, and it was a very nice way to do it.

Dead Rhetoric: Along the same lines, sometimes people forget that more of the older and traditional Christmas songs due have some darkness in them if you really listen to them.

Turunen: Yeah, definitely. I’m coming from Finland for Christ’s sake [laughs]! I’m a Finn – I’m a dark person. I haven’t been living there for many years, but I have to say that some sort of darkness lives inside of me. It’s just a very natural thing for me. Darkness is a very beautiful thing though, where I can be free and creative. It’s like an escape. When I start writing songs, I always go into that direction – it’s very natural. When I worked on these cover songs, I only wrote one song for the album [“Together”], and it’s nothing like a traditional Christmas carol. I just wanted to see if I could write a Christmas song, and what type of song that might be. I just sat down at my piano and this is what came out. It’s nothing like “Jingle Bells”-y or a happy tone. But it’s my Christmas song and that’s how I feel.

The whole concept for the album – I was thinking about all the lonely people on Christmas. Christmas is coming to every one of us, whether we like it or not every year. There are many people that do not find any joy in Christmas, because of being lonely, or they’ve lost someone dear…there’s several reasons. For me, it’s been like that – it was like that since my mother passed away in 2003. I just didn’t really feel like celebrating Christmas like we used to do with my family. That Christmas feeling got lost. Traditions, yes – we Finns have very important Christmas traditions because of Santa…the real Santa lives in Finland in the North of Finland. We have our magic; children do believe in Santa, and they think of Christmas as an incredibly beautiful thing, and it’s a quiet but still kind of melancholic celebration of families there. Even our songs are melancholic. They aren’t like “Jingle Bells” or “Santa Claus is coming to Town” kind of songs. They are very melancholic songs – that’s why all this melancholy is on the album. I was thinking of those lonely people – they are the ones I wanted to approach with this Christmas album.

Dead Rhetoric: There’s not really many people that have catered in that direction either. Like you said, Christmas comes to everybody, whether you want it to or not. There’s still that thought that if you are someone who is lonely, you get more upset by this since everyone else is in jovial mood.

Turunen: Exactly – it’s the time in Finland when the darkness comes. It hits you, because of the lack of light, people are already depressed. Then with the happiness of Christmas, a lot of people cheer up and get to see their families again. I’ve been living abroad for many years, and to see my family is always a happy thing. You miss them, and then when you lose someone dear, it drags you into somewhere you never wanted to go, or ever experienced before emotionally.

Dead Rhetoric: Going back to the song you wrote in “Together” – did you ever feel intimidated in writing an original and putting it with a bunch of Christmas classics?

Turunen: Oh wow, I never really thought of that! I just wanted to write a song – I never thought of that aspect. I just wanted to write a song – I love singing cover songs in general. I tend to do at least one cover on my rock albums as well. It’s always a challenge to sing a [well-known] song, especially now when thousands of other artists have done their versions of these [Christmas] songs. But I didn’t even think of that when I had these beautiful orchestrations done. I was even recording this in the Caribbean in the middle of the summer. Can you believe that? I was facing the sea, singing these songs. It was weird, but not weird at all, because of the music that was already there on the album at that time. I didn’t really feel intimidated by my own song at all, I just felt like it really needed to be there [laughs].

Dead Rhetoric: You’ve done a previous Christmas album and a lot of touring over the years in the same spirit – what do you enjoy about doing holiday themed music?

Turunen: You know what the weird thing is? After all the years and hard work and traveling around…like this year, I have been on tour almost all year for my rock album. When you face the end of the year, I usually have these classical concerts, I’m performing with these different types of line-ups. Vocally, I still need to be in shape at the end of the year, but mentally I’m tired already. But the music and the environments – whether I perform in churches or in theaters, the music is peaceful and quiet. There’s not a heavy band with a full blast of power. I don’t need to headbang and run around on the stage. I just peacefully perform these songs. It makes me fly, and it makes me relax, even though I’m working. It’s weird for me – even though I’m working I’m relaxed. I’m getting some peace within myself after a year of hard work.

It’s very important for me to be able to do these at the end of the year. I’ve seen that importance in my fans. I have done these tours for so many years that international fans are coming to see me. People from everywhere – they are taking their Christmas holidays and coming to see my concerts. They get to meet each other, people from the fan club, people from everywhere. They like the fact that they can see me in such a different environment – whether it’s purely classical music or something else that they can expect from me, as a rock performer. It’s been really nice.

Dead Rhetoric: You bring up a good point – you’ve been doing this for so long, do you think that listeners at this point expect that you will challenge them from a musical perspective?

Turunen: Definitely [laughs], that’s what I’ve been thinking and saying out loud, because I know I’m challenging my listeners every time I come up with an album. But they know me. Actually my fans are really super open-minded people, otherwise I wouldn’t be here doing what I love the most. These amazing people, they are there for me and supporting me, and understanding my way of being creative and crazy. But it’s not that complicated, I’m always saying that even though I am a trained soprano, and I was never meant to sing in a heavy metal band – it just happened; I took the challenge.

After all these years, and finding my way through rock and roll, and combining heavy metal, classical, and rock…it’s been perfect. I’ve found a perfect harmony, and my fans are finding the harmony with me. Obviously there are purists in metal and purists in classical music – they will probably hate everything that I do, but it is what it is. There’s no way I can make everybody happy, no one can. You take it or leave it. But there’s always a challenge. It’s also a challenge for me, because I do not like repeating myself. That’s the biggest challenge that I brought myself into. Every time I start writing [new] songs, that’s a challenge.

Dead Rhetoric: What was it like having your daughter sing with you on “Deck the Halls?” Did it give the song a more “Christmas-y vibe” by having your family involved?

Turunen: You can say that, but I think she is giving the song a spookier vibe too [laughs]. She is actually so creepy to listen to there, because it’s completely coming from a horror movie. A kid’s voice there, it gives you chills! But it was really nice to have her there recording with me. It was the first time she’s really done that. She was singing like a pro – she did two takes and it was perfect. She has a talent for music for sure. She’s now 5, and she shows an interest for music as well as other arts. She’s very good in painting and drawing, something that I actually don’t have any talent in. She’s very into it. Since she was born, I took her everywhere with me. The world is a big place for her, but she’s okay everywhere. She talks fluently in three languages…it’s a crazy life.

Dead Rhetoric: Eventually that will be a good thing – having that much international exposure at a young age. You can take in so many different cultures and so many different things.

Turunen: And she’s not afraid of people looking different. Someone speaking French to her, she’s fine with that. She’s probably saying, “Merci!” at the end of the conversation without understanding anything [laughs]. It’s nice to see. I would have loved to have that possibility in my childhood. To be surrounded by international people. I was born in a very tiny village of 500 people, and well, I got to see the world later on, which I am very grateful for. A little soul like that, I don’t know what’s going to come out from that little mind one day, let’s see [laughs]!

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