Talking Old Songs And Other Mysteries With Finland's Death Tripper
Mirel Wagner’s haunting self-titled debut album is casting a strange spell over all those who listen, drawing a response rarely associated with solo acoustic acts. Perhaps, it’s because her music presents so many attractive enigmas, starting with the artist herself.
The twenty three year-old Ethiopian-born Finnish singer-songwriter became possessed by the dark side of old Americana at an early age. Her spare songs draw deeply from early blues and folk, with special attention paid to murder ballads and dirges. And the instinct she has for imbuing those creepy American antiques with life and modernity is pretty uncanny.
Her minimalist lyrics come across like a tersely written Southern Gothic novella, full of desperate love, angels, devils and watery graves. Or so it seems. Wagner will never tell exactly what her songs are about. She’ll stop herself just before she gives away too much. Having crafted them with a precise measure of ambiguity, she understandably wishes to preserve it for her audience.
The unknown is clearly her second love. During our interview, her favorite answer was “I don’t know.” She never seemed bothered by not having an answer. In fact, she seemed to find greater happiness in uncertainty.
On the recording, her wavering alto sounds childlike and aged at the same time. On the phone she sounds much older than she is, with a small birdlike voice, sometimes warbling and sometimes croaking. Speaking from a café in Helsinki, she chose her words as carefully as she does in song.
A lot of people find the themes in your songs to be very heavy? Do you get to have any fun writing them?
No. It’s not fun to write them. It’s very difficult. I enjoy myself in some aspect, but it’s more like something that I have to do.
What is it like to perform a song like that?
That’s fun. The song is already out there and you can play with it. It is a mixture of trying to find those inner emotions and just playing the song. It’s quite fun and exhausting also.
How personal are the songs? Are they mainly just stories that you’ve invented?
There is an element of storytelling, but there are also a lot of human emotions that I have felt present in the songs.
If you invest the songs with a certain emotion when performing them live can you feel the response from the audience?
Sometimes, when the audience is willing and everything is okay. Then there is an interaction between me and the audience and they are giving me some energy. And after the shows people come up to me and say that they really felt something.
Where do you look for inspiration?
You have to let the songs come to you. I don’t really understand the songwriting process. You have to be open to new ideas and not try to do the same old tricks.
When did you first get into old folk and blues?
I was about 13. From the local library, I found some albums and I was completely hooked. It was Mississippi John Hurt.
Are there particular songs by him that stayed with you?
“Frankie” is one song that I really like. It’s about a woman who kills her man because he’s done her wrong and she just gets away with it because everybody thinks that it’s okay. I like the storytelling of John Hurt and the sort of gentle voice that he has. He reminds me of someone’s grandpa just sort of sitting on the porch and telling stories to the kids.
What were you listening to before you got into the blues?
I was listening to classical and popular music that was on the radio, but that really didn’t move me. I was looking for something that really made me feel something, and it was blues.
Did you start playing guitar and writing songs around the same time?
Yeah. Pretty much the same time when I picked up the guitar I started listening to blues. That was when the violin was left in the background. I was like, yeah, I want to write songs.
Why do you think these old American songs grabbed you?
It’s just something very otherworldly. It’s just something that interests me. I find it very beautiful. I don’t know what it is.
Reviewers like to comment that you are young, so you can’t possibly have lived through anything you sing about. Does that idea bother you?
I don’t understand it. If you are an actor acting in a movie about the Holocaust you don’t need to be a survivor of the Holocaust to play a part. So it’s quite ridiculous to go on and on about authenticity. Like in blues music, a lot of people who sing the songs didn’t even write the songs. They are traditional songs that they just sing.
The whole concept of singer-songwriter is quite new. I don’t really understand the whole fixation on being true or authentic or real. The important thing is to be able to interpret a song so that you feel something.
What singers make you feel something?
I really like Billie Holiday when she sings “Strange Fruit.” It just grabs you by the stomach and you start imagining the whole context that the song had.
I read that you like to draw. What do you draw?
I draw little skeletons that do very mundane things.
Like Mexican calaveras?
Yes. I really like the Day of the Dead. That’s been inspiring me lately. Remembering the ones that have gone before you. It’s nice that the whole day is dedicated to it, though it’s important to keep them with you every day.
Do you like ghost stories?
Yeah, I used to write my own horror stories when I was smaller.
Does Finland have good ghost stories?
Yeah. But usually nowadays they are pretty much the same ghost stories all around the world because of the Internet. Like the one with the hook guy. I don’t really know a lot of old folk stories. Do you know in the swamp when they have the lights? They’re supposed to be souls of dead babies that were not buried properly.
What do you think attracts people to weird and scary songs? You and your fans aren’t alone in that.
It may be something in the human mind. We get drawn to those emotions that are there but we don’t really talk about them as much as we talk about happy feelings. I have no idea, really. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Do you like the mystery?
I like the mystery. I like mysteries.
The Internet tends to ruin those things now.
It does! You can Google anything. Now I heard they found a sonar image of the Loch Ness Monster. I was really devastated. There was this super high tech scan of Loch Ness Lake and there was this sort of serpent looking creature. So there was this big headline “Is this the Loch Ness Monster?” and I was like “No! Pluto is not a planet and the Loch Ness Monster has been found!”