Please don’t call him the ‘Jimi Hendrix of the accordion’ and don’t try to associate his name with the one of Bjork or even Vin Diesel… because, after thirty years of illustrious music career, Kimmo Pohjonen can be deservedly and simply defined as a unique accordionist. His musicianship has brought him where no other accordion players ever arrived, becoming a pioneer and a role model for everyone interested in the instrument. He has been able to link together folklore and traditional music with electronic and contemporary sounds. In addition, he has always been keen to innovate the image of the accordion. Arguably, that’s one of the reasons why he will play during the leftfield music Festival Field Day (which we recently previewed) in London on Sunday afternoon.
When we reached him by phone last week, he was almost bringing to a close his next album, which is meant to be released next year. So we found it inevitable to begin our interview by asking him what’s happened and is still happening to his music since 1980, when he went solo with his own compositions…
“1980 was a big year for me. I started to produce my own music and began to use a lot of electronic with my accordion. Somehow, I totally changed my direction. Since I chose to follow that creative path, I started to constantly develop my sound and my compositions. I initiate an everyday job on new pieces, seeking new sounds. It’s a consistent and continual work and every day is different from the previous one”.
That can happen because improvisation is at the foundation of Kimmo Pohjonen’s creative process:
“I still improvise a lot nowadays. I compose a lot through improvisation. Actually, I don’t write notes anymore. The only album which was different was the one that I recorded with Kronos Quartet. I had to write the score for them, but that was an exception, because I still mainly try to keep my freedom. I don’t write anything down: I just pick some of the pictures that are my mind. This also means that during my concert I can always improvise and that’s the rule that I’ve kept going on with my career”.
Kimmo music is a perfect tension between poles apart musical expressions. On one side, there’s his tradition, which reflects his folk background and omnipresent references to his roots…
“Folk is my framework. It was the music I was playing before starting composing and I played it for around 20 years. So I always try to keep folk in my mind when I compose and I always look at folk music for inspiration. Of course you can always change your clothes. For example, I’m recently looking towards electronic music. However, folk is always there”.
while, on the other side, there’s electronic music and cutting-edge sounds:
“I think that to use electronic sounds is a way to find new things. There are many, many accordionists in the world, but I don’t know anybody else who’s working so heavily with electronic sounds. For me the key thing is to find something new and that’s why I’m working in this way”.
However, old and new, folk and electronic music are subordinated to the accordion character, which is bold, independent and creative.
“The great thing about accordion is that is a very single-minded instrument, not only for the audience but also for the players. An example is that is not usually played with electronic sounds. For this reason, I can’t share my ideas and opinions with other accordionists and I end up mainly talking with guitarists or keyboard players. At the same time, I think that the instrument is heavily oriented towards the future. For instance, there are more and more new accordionists and musicians who compose for accordion. I think that when people compose their new music for an instrument, it suddenly becomes more attractive, because every composer adds his personality to the instrument…well, at least it’s what I always try to do. I constantly add my own personality to the accordion. That’s because I want to attract new people and push them to come to see and listen to something new”.
As we wrote, Kimmo Pohjonen music is also a glaring reflection of his country, its culture, people, nature and even weather, and he clearly confirmed us our impression:
“I wouldn’t make music like the one I make if I was born and living in Southern Spain. I belong to the Finnish weather with its very variable and changeable mood. I love its winter, when outside it’s minus 20. When you can go to swim in the cold sea and then you have a steamy sauna. That’s the so-called Finnish natural heroin. Then, even if I love days like today, when you have 25 degrees and beautiful summer weather, I compose most of my music during winter time. So Finland and its weather are undeniably big influences for me and the way I make music”.
Even if the Finnish music scene is lively and inspired, the Helsinki-born artist is one of the few Finnish musicians who has become internationally recognized. So we wondered if Kimmo has ever figured out the reason of this situation:
“I think that the Finnish music scene is pretty good. We have really good music education in school and a lot of good and talented players. But music is not only talent: you also need to be original. So, even if we have original musicians too, somehow I think that Finland is not so pop. For sure it’s not as pop as Sweden. Sweden has a lot of pop and mainstream artists, who are very good in copying what is working in the rest of Europe and the U.S. They have understood and know how to attract a wider audience. However, that’s also something that I really respect of my country. Musicians in Finland are original and talented because they’re not pop and this makes hard for them to go out of the country and become famous somewhere else”.
…and what happens when some Finnish musician finally brings his/her music abroad, like Kimmo has been doing since the 1980s?
“I often receive standing ovations! The last time happened in Romania just few days ago when I played in front of 800 people. Many times I’m very surprised, because I make and play the music I like. What I perform is my perspective over music. I don’t like to kiss people’s asses just to be recognized or have success. I don’t do something they want and I’m always honest with myself. So I’m extremely happy when I find that there’re other people who can enjoy it too!”
Kimmo has been building his audience for three decades, when he began playing his own compositions. Since then, his fans have changed, grown and rejuvenated too. Today, when you look at the crowd attending his gigs, you can see people who have been following him since his debut, but also a plethora of newcomer enthusiasts and curious music listeners.
“I think that the younger audience want to see something that they have never seen before. In a way, what I’m doing is something original. That’s why I’ve this label stuck in my ass that I really don’t want you to write [but we wrote] which is ‘Jimi Hendrix of accordion’. But it’s not only that one, because there are a lot of others which I don’t, like the accordion-terrorist or the accordion-whatever. I can’t understand when they use these names to explain that I’m different, when they could just write: ‘Hey there’s an accordion player, come to see him. He’s cool, he’s not wimpy!’ That’s it. That’s what I want to show of my instrument, that it is dynamic and can do many things a lot of people never seen before”.
So what do people at Field Day have to expect from his performance?
“I’ve played at many rock-festivals and on many occasions people had no clue about who I was. Quite often their expression was like ‘what the heck is happening?’ So I expect the same thing at Field Day, because we are going to create quite a lot of energy on stage and that will surprise a lot of audiences. They will be surprised to see that an accordion player can create such a stormy energy. That’s my expectation and that’s what I want to give to the audience too”.
However, Sensitive Skin, his latest album, is less stormy and more relaxed than usual…
“I wanted to sound a bit softer and more harmonic. Also the contribution of my daughter was really important in the way the album was shaped and arranged. But when I play it live is totally different! It sounds more aggressive”.
Since we interrupted Kimmo in his studio, we wanted to close our interview asking him how the next album will sound …
“At the moment I’m creating a new instrument which I called accordion-organ. I sampled a church organ and I use those samples with my accordion. So the sound is going wider and wider all the time and that’s a big difference from my old sound. I’m really really excited about this, because what is coming out already sounds really cool. At the moment I’m entirely focused on this project which will be released next year: I’m composing full time and listening only to some organ music. I’ll start to listen to something else when I’ll be on holiday”.