One of the most exciting moments on Holy (Music With Wings), the outstanding debut album from Paula Jaakkola (POW-luh YOCK-koe-luh), is the very first one; the opening song, “In The Light”; a paean to the clarity that surrounds you when love, hard-won, is new and real.
When you press “play,” “In The Light” almost knocks the speakers back with joy, leaping to your ears like an impatient, newborn colt. It’s as though Jaakkola could barely wait to get the music out of her and into the universe. Deftly balancing a winsome, cooing guitar peal against a chugging, surf rock beat, Jaakkola sings to certainty, and to finally seeing:
I’m in the light
Life will never be the same again
In the light
My heart is strong, I trust in
you you you you and
me me me
For Jaakkola, thus, “In The Light,” and each song on Holy, represents not only a musical triumph, but a personal one. From beginning to end, the album “is a story of transformation,” she states. “I’m trying to figure out who I am, expressing regret and self-growth, and being more in touch with myself and others.”
Recorded under the watchful hand of producer Ape Anttlla (AH-pay ahn-TEEL-uh), Holy is thirteen superbly crafted and recorded compositions—”Light”; the anthemic title track; the delicate and angelic “Little Girl”; the wistful “Road”; the sing-songy “Flutter-By”; the smoky, blue “November”; and more. Every song “reflects my moods, my emotions, my feelings, and a love for music and melodies.”
And they present the perfect setting for Jaakkola’s expressive and melodious singing: Sometimes fierce and defiant; another moment pleading; yet another, descending into a breathy whisper, and, more often than not, all in the same song. Like a colorful autumn leaf one picks up, only to find a completely different hue on the other side, Jaakkola’s vocals never fail to surprise. Her crystalline soprano is a big reason why legendary producer and engineer Bob Power was eager to master this independent, unknown artist’s first work. He describes her as “a pure singer” with “a beautifully transcendent voice, never limited by genre nor convention.” That unwillingness—to be bound by expectations—is reflected in her influences, from Joni Mitchell to Sara Bareilles, Carole King to Regina Spektor, Suzanne Vega to Neil Young. It has served the Helsinki-born Jaakkola well, and it’s what makes Holy such a rich and sumptuous aural delight.
From space, Finland looks kind of the way New Jersey might if you squeezed the top half of the state together between your palms, mostly applying pressure with your right hand and forearm.
Those who can readily find this nation of 5.4 million on a map—nuzzled between Sweden, Norway, and Russia—may also know that it gave the world Angry Birds, Nokia, Linux, and the sauna. Finland bestowed America, through ancestry, with actor Jessica Lange and director David Lynch, and, through immigration, with Eero Saarinen, creator of St. Louis Gateway Arch, the tallest man-made monument in the United States. Many here have probably at least glimpsed Finland’s cool and geometrically austere flag—a sideways, royal blue cross against a field of white.
It is, in a word, a uniform and orderly place, and in 2010, Newsweek deemed Finland, overall, the “best country in the world.” Yet it also ranks in the world’s Top 20 for suicide. Because it’s positioned at such a high latitude—fully a quarter of this sparsely-populated nation lies above the Arctic Circle—winters can be very long, brutally cold, and absurdly dark.
The ambient climate has a daunting effect on “the mental space of Finnish people,” admits Jaakkola, alluding to the aptly named SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, that tends to plague High Northerners. “They have this…heavy approach to life, sometimes. Music is mostly [in a] minor [key].” (She admits that melancholic quality resides in her typically ebullient work, to some degree, also.)
Despite this, “I really have no complaints about growing up in Helsinki.” Born to a customs agent mom, and a dad who ran the national AAA, music, perhaps, skipped a generation. (Jaakkola recalls that her maternal grandfather was a priest, “and when you’re a priest in Finland, you have to be able to sing in tune.”)
Having started, then quit, piano at 8, she was inspired to take singing lessons at 14, after attending a friend’s school concert. Then, “I learned to play piano from chords. I pretty much taught myself, so I could sing.”
Eventually, Jaakkola attended the city’s Pop & Jazz Conservatory, then got a master’s degree in Ethnomusicology from the University of Helsinki. In 1999, she left Finland to study in the Jazz Vocals program at The New School in New York City, under instructors like bassist Reggie Workman, saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, and the late drummer Chico Hamilton.
She formed bands—SkanDivas, Kaamos, Kaiku—and gigged around NYC, while occasionally performing back home. “I had been writing new songs after I finished with the Kaiku project. I wanted to start writing in English, and I wanted to go back to my roots, which is my love for pop music.”
It was then that she began to imagine the feeling of that eventual solo work, and it perfectly describes Holy: “I wanted the sound to be bright and light, a little bit bouncy, and cheerful, at times. Even if I’m singing about somewhat sad things, it still has that hopeful overtone. Sonically, I really wanted an acoustic sound more than anything, I guess, but I wasn’t sure, because I felt that with a producer’s help, we would find a sound that made sense.”
That help was on the way. While doing a few private Finnish performances in early 2012, Jaakkola ran into Ape Anttila, a jazz professor, composer, and one of the country’s best bassists. After seeing her perform, Ape, speaking somewhat indirectly, said, “‘Wow: You know, if someone produced your music, you’d sound so great!’” Then, “‘I’m sure there are a lot of producers in the States who want to work with you.’” It was like he was fishing for an in. So, Jaakkola gave him one. “Are you interested?” she asked.
To get past their 7-hour time difference—and the 4,123-mile distance between their homes—they devised a system of uploading and downloading demos and other files electronically; Jaakkola sometimes traveling to Finland for a few weeks and living with Ape and his family; then Ape, conversely, going to New York. Though the process had some bumps, “I really felt like he got me,” she says. “Like, he really understood what I was working for.”
Thanks to his deep Rolodex, other musicians, all Finns, were brought on to fill out the album’s rich sound. A Kickstarter raised $10,000, but, really, everyone was working out of love for the music. In summer 2013, Mason Jar, the progressive, roots music studio in Brooklyn, NY, agreed to mix the project in parts, as money came in. Then, Bob Power, a mentor, was tapped, heard the songs, and agreed to give the finished work the masterer’s touch.
The final result, Holy, is a truly moving first statement from a gifted singer and instrumentalist. Combining carefully layered musical textures, skillful arrangements, spirited performances, and the transparency of Paula Jaakkola’s exquisite voice, it not only bears repeat listening, but demands it.
“I’ve started this journey as someone who has a lot to learn,” she says. “And during this journey, I’m learning more and more about who I am.”
After hearing Holy, you’ll want to know more about who Paula Jaakkola is, too.