Though the vast majority of artists and bands I’ve featured on this blog have been from the US, UK, or Canada, I always enjoy writing about ones from other nations. In the past week or so, I’ve featured a band from Malta and a music producer from Luxembourg, and am now thrilled to introduce my very first artist from the Baltic nation of Estonia: the astonishingly talented songwriter, composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Erki Pärnoja. Based in the capital of Tallinn, Pärnoja plays guitar, bass, keyboards and synthesizers, and creates some of the most exquisite instrumental music I’ve heard in a very long while. Using an impressive array of instruments and textures, he weaves lush, dreamy soundscapes that envelop us in layers of shimmery atmospheric gossamer. Seriously, his music is fucking gorgeous!
He’s been recording and releasing music for the past five years, beginning with his late 2015 debut EP Himmelbjerget. He followed that EP with two stunning albums, the guitar-dominant Efterglow in 2017 and more synth-oriented Saja Lugu in 2018, both of which I’ve immersed myself with over the past several days. The track “Ranna I” from Saja Lugu has been streamed more than 2.3 million times on Spotify. All three works are exceptional, and I highly recommend that my readers check them out on one of the music streaming platforms listed at the end of this review.
Now Pärnoja is back with a glorious new album Leva, which dropped on February 12. His previous works have all been instrumental-only, however with Leva, Pärnoja for the first time introduces lyrics and vocals on some of the tracks. Also, while still delivering his signature enchanting melodies and dreamy soundscapes, he now injects a more orchestral perspective, along with more exotic elements that give the album a fresher, more eclectic feel.
The album was recorded in Gothenburg, Sweden in early 2019, and features a number of guest musicians. In addition to Swedish producer/keyboardist Filip Leyman and Danish drummer Ulrik Ording (Pärnoja’s loyal collaborators since his debut album) are Estonian singer-songwriter Anna Kaneelina, Swedish marimba player Love Meyersson, and the string quartet Prezioso. The striking artwork for the album cover was painted by Estonian artist/photographer Riina Varol, and incorporated into a beautiful cover design by Estonian artist Helmi Arrak. Pärnoja has written wonderful little explanations for each of the seven tracks on Leva that provide insight into his creative process, and enable us to more fully understand and enjoy each song. I will quote or paraphrase from them in my own discussions of each track.
The title of the opening track “Maa” is the Estonian word for “land” or “country”, and serves as an introduction to the album, both musically and conceptually. Pärnoja explains: “The whole album is about living and the different lives people lead, and that we can’t really get a look into other people’s worlds. The song gradually reveals a view into one world. It starts off as a harmless dreamy waltz, and moves with baby steps into this vast open field with all the space and possibilities in the world.” His words perfectly describe how the instrumentals and dreamy synths gradually expand into a lush soundscape like a field bursting into color with the first warmth of Spring. Although primarily an instrumental track, he uses his voice almost like an instrument with his lovely ambient background vocals.
The gorgeous Middle-Eastern infused “Fatigue” was inspired by the music of Algerian band Tineariwen, which Pärnoja first heard around ten years ago. It happened to be playing on the sound system in a second hand store in Toronto he walked into, and he immediately loved it. The use of what sounds like a zither or oud, along with Moroccan castanets. give the song it’s enchanting Middle-Eastern flavor. Parnoja states that the song is a kind of tribute to Tineariwen that came to him in one big rush. “The dreamy state symbolizes a need for something more or something better, and the continuous loops are the circles that always try to catch us and take us back to their cycles.”
The title track “Leva” is positively stunning, with layers of strummed guitars, backed by enthralling strings that give the song a haunting, otherworldly feel. The lyrics are in Estonian, a language closely related to Finnish, and beautifully sung by Pärnoja and his wife Anna Kaneelina. Nearly seven minutes in length, “Leva” almost sounds like two different songs, and in fact, the first time I listened to it on my smart phone though earbuds, I thought it was two separate tracks. The first part, which is more gentle and melodic, seems to end at 4:07, then two seconds later the music starts back up with a heavier, electric guitar-driven sound, deeper bass, stronger percussion and more passionate vocals.
About the song, Pärnoja explains: “This is most certainly the song that started it all. It holds the essence of the whole album. It became clear to me that even if you are content with your life, and if everything seems to be in order, you can still be going in circles and not be moving on in life. It might just be that you’re in the same place as you were years ago, and it’s only minor details of your life that have changed. I realised that I want to live more and better and make good use of my time.”
Here’s a lovely acoustic performance of “Leva”. For this version, Pärnoja and Jonas Kaarnamets played guitar, Pärnoja and Anna Kaneelina sang vocals, Peedu Kass played acoustic bass, Kristjan Kallas played drums, and Prezioso played strings.
“Island” is a fairly simple, breezy track constructed with recurring cycles of loops, augmented with charming twangy guitars and lots of abstract sounds that convey a sunny, windswept sense of freedom. It’s a wonderful song that just makes me feel hopeful and happy. Next up is “Eha“, a beautiful, sweeping track that reminds me of some of the more atmospheric-sounding songs by Coldplay. The song title translates to “dusk” in English, and Pärnoja states it’s “a dreamy cinematic journey dedicated to a present-day soul. It is a story about the search for inner peace and belonging. It is also a wake-up call to one’s self to take a breath and look around.” He adds that “the occasionally atonal strings symbolise the dissonances we have within just before making a decision for a new direction.” His soft vocal croons are sublime, in perfect harmony with the gently soaring synths and strings as if they’re another component in his colorful instrumental palette.
Another standout track for me is the captivating “Soledad“, which is Spanish for “solitude”. The languid song has a slight Latin sensibility, though in no way does it sound like a Latin or Spanish song. The layered strummed guitars and sparkling keyboards are really marvelous, and this time, the lyrics are mostly in English, and sung by Pärnoja and Kaneelina’s enthralling vocal harmonies. Pärnoja explains the meaning behind the song: “The meaning of solitude has changed a lot for me. Once it used to have a negative meaning, but back then I must have mistaken it for loneliness or abandonment. Now in a time when society is seemingly social to the extreme, I came to re-evaluate the meaning of the word. There is a big contradiction to this, since hidden behind this big socially-connected world, there are a lot of people that are lonely, and not at peace with themselves. Loneliness makes them reach out to another world. ‘Soledad’ is a hymn to solitude – the only place where I personally can grow and make peace with myself.”
The artful and compelling video for “Soledad” was produced and directed by Kärt Hammer, and stars Edgar Vunš as the dancer who interprets the song through his passionate yet graceful movements.
The final track “Saudade” actually has a more pronounced Spanish guitar, which Pärnoja beautifully strums throughout the song. At first, all we hear is his guitar, then he begins to sing in a mournful yet beautiful chant, backed by what sound like his own vocal harmonies. The music gradually grows more animated and the vocals more impassioned as swirling synths are added to create a sparkling, cinematic soundscape. Parnoja states that this track sums up the album, and that the title is basically untranslatable, but represents “the presence of absence. It is a longing for someone or something that you remember fondly, but know you can never experience again.” I’ve experienced such human encounters and moments myself throughout my life, and their memories can elicit intense feelings of joy or sadness.
I feel I’ve used up all the superlatives I can think of to describe Leva, but folks, this is a magnificent work of musical art. With only seven tracks totaling 36 minutes of run time, it’s a bit on the short side for an album, however, each track is so exquisite and powerful that it feels almost monumental in scope. With an EP and three albums to his credit, Erki Pärnoja is without question one of the finest composers and producers of ambient instrumental music around today. I love his music and I love this album.
Catch Pärnoja at one of these upcoming shows:
Friday, April 3 – LEVA release show, Korjaamo, Helsinki, Finland
Saturday, April 11 – Südaöine, EELK Tallinna Jaani kogudus ja kirik, Tallinn, Estonia
Saturday, May 2 – Jazz.ee ja Saare KEK LIVE, SAARE KEK, Kuressaare, Estonia
Thursday, May 7 – Jazz.ee ja Rüki Galerii LIVE, Rüki galerii, Viljandi, Estonia
Friday, May 15 – Jazz.ee ja Haapsalu Jazziklubi LIVE, Haapsalu kultuurikeskus, Haapsalu, Estonia
July 3-4 – VÕNGE 2020. Rändav kultuurifestival, Mulgi elamuskeskus, Sooglemäe, Tõrva vald, Valgamaa, Latvia