Quick question: What do you know about Finland? Of all the Nordic countries, it's arguably one of the least known. Denmark gave the world Lego, brought cured bacon to the UK and passed "hygge" into the hands of welcoming book publishers. Norway is famous for its backdrop of fjords and Vikings. Iceland blazed the trail in gender equality and is blessed with both the aurora borealis and Björk. Chances are you know Finland's capital city is called Helsinki and have stumbled upon the country's Moomins. Beyond that? Not so much in the way of pop stars.
Though Finland has flirted its way through the international concert hall of music – who could forget The Rasmus, HIM and the interminably unavoidable Darude track "Sandstorm"? – it has consistently played second fiddle to its neighbours in Sweden when it comes to major pop. The likes of ABBA, Robyn and the almighty Cheiron Studios (the production house where Max Martin and Denniz PoP helped craft Britney Spears, N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys' most consummate hits) helped to stamp Sweden's cultural mark across the world. Some of music's biggest tracks are written by Swedes, said-so because they have an unparalleled knack for writing music that clutches at past heartbreak while reaching toward the hope of the future – a quality that, in essence, is what makes pop so timelessly great. So, to their chagrin, Finland has been perpetually overshadowed, with their most well-known bands and singers still unanimously metal.
"We just need that one miracle to happen and then everything is going to be so much easier," says ALMA from the backseat of a car far warmer than the fresh tundra air outside. The 21-year-old is, it's said, Finland's big pop hope. She was nominated for five Emma Awards (Finland's version of the Grammys), has played Radio 1's Future Festival (alongside other new-coming luminaries such as Dave, Jorja Smith and Nadia Rose) and has released a spell-binding EP Dye My Hair – the title track of which has clocked up a steady 30 million plays on Spotify. Her sound is sleek, refreshingly defiant, yet resolute in the way it embodies emotion – not so dissimilar to those Swedes, but with a slightly different, bold shade. It's exciting stuff.
On the day we arrive Finland is in the throes of Kalevala – a national (but not time-off-from-work) holiday of sorts, meaning several houses and official buildings are flying the white and blue Finnish flag, lending the place a patriotic, almost American feel. "It's almost like a Lord of the Rings story," our driver Andre says, of The Kalevala, a 19th-century work of poetry based on Finnish folklore that informed the nation's identity and, ultimately, lead to Finland's independence from Russia in 1917. Alma jumps in: "It's like a bible but it's total bullshit." She sits back in her seat, cackles – and then makes a hacking sound, as though she's coughing through a collapsed lung.
It's a week or so since the Brit Awards took place in London and ALMA and her twin sister Anna-Livia (who provides backing vocals in ALMA's live show) are both poorly. "I feel like I've been smoking for five fucking years," says ALMA, clearing her throat once more. She doesn't smoke, but the past few weeks – and the next few – will see her racking up air miles as she travels to recording sessions and live shows in Los Angeles and Oslo. To protect her voice she's been given an inhaler and – she says with a sly grin – prescribed some codeine. "When I take that I sleep like a fucking baby." She stops to mull that over for a second. "I need to take it on the airplane."
The Brit Awards gave ALMA a taste of the upper legions of the music industry she's soon aiming to find herself in. She went to record label after parties, bumped into Nicole Scherzinger, formed plans for future shenanigans with Charli XCX – "I was fucking drunk and I was like, 'Fuck it: I'm going to tweet to her 'Where the fuck are you?' She gave me her number and said 'Call me anytime you want to party'." She even bumped into Jedward ("they are fucking funny – but why are they celebrated?"). Unlike some up-and-coming popstars of her age, these flutterings with celebrity haven't gone to ALMA's head. "The party was kind of lame – and full of industry people." When Katy Perry and Ellie Goulding DJ'd, ALMA and her sister were in the basement eating food.
Growing up in a small suburban area 15 minutes or so from Helsinki, ALMA embodies the Nordic sensibility of keeping herself to herself. Inasmuch as it's part of American culture to be confident, to have the lights on at all times, to always have The Best Time Ever, Finnish people keep it quieter. At times this can come across as being reserved and introverted, but it's less to do with those personality traits than it is to do with honesty and not engaging with hyperbole. ""Finnish people are very real. If we don't like something, in a polite way we'll say 'No, that's not great'. And if we like it, we'll say 'That's great'", ALMA explains. "But in America everyone is like "Yes! That's fucking amazing! Fuck yeah!"
"Finnish people are very low-key," she continues. "Finland is just Finland. We're very isolated." As she talks we walk our way across a frozen sea, which stretches its way out beyond the horizon – like a desert but with barren sheaths of ice in place of sand dunes. ALMA comes here when she wants to relax and reflect. "Imagine growing up in this kind of place," she says. And I realise that I can't. London – and even the outer towns surrounding it where I grew up – are teeming with music, film, clubs, venues, galleries. Of course, Helsinki has its own thriving culture, but it's easy to see how there isn't much of an infrastructure to bring their art to the world stage. ALMA's big break, then, came when she appeared on a regional talent show, called Idols Finland.
"The music business is so small here so you need to know a producer friend or a fucking friend," she says when I ask how she started to make music. When she was 16, ALMA and her twin sister ended up getting into different schools. Both of them quit after one month. "I felt depressed, horrible – I thought I wouldn't be anything in life." Her only solution was to enter the talent competition and it's from here that she managed to become connected with the right people – the few artists, producers, creatives in Helsinki who knew how to work on the pop music ALMA wanted to create. A few years later and she's being hailed as one of the country's newest bonafide stars.
Toward the end of the day we leave the warmth of the car and the various stop off points – ALMA's childhood home, her current house where she lives with her parents, a restaurant that doubles up as one of Helsinki's clubs – and jump on a ferry to the small island that houses ALMA's recording studio. As we grab a coffee and a Finnish pastry, she's approached by various demographics of fan who ask for photos. There's a 40/50-year-old woman, who may have seen ALMA on national television and recognises her stark, bright green hair. There are teenagers looking to use ALMA as leverage for their Instagram clout. Lastly there are the small children, not too young but not old enough yet to be around without a chaperone. ALMA poses politely while also sticking her finger in the camera lens.
The studio looks out from the island across another stretch of water. Inside ALMA plays us through some new material she's been working on. She turns up a song about being drunk in a club and meeting someone. She plays another that features MNEK, who recently lent his vocals to Stormzy's album and wrote "Hold Up" with Beyoncé. I look over and ALMA is the most visibly excited she's been throughout the whole trip, making it clear that although Finnish people may be reserved they're also proud and excited about their work – or at least she is. Her latest single, "Chasing Highs", was released this past weekend and has all the foundations of a real radio smash. I later find out she's been in the studio with Rudimental and SOPHIE, two producers who will hopefully later build on this release with new music.
As we close up, there's a sense that ALMA's journey is only just beginning. The songs are there; so is the personality. It's likely she'll be the first in a wave of popstars to come from Finland, who will slowly muscle their way and take some territory away from the Swedes. It's a hard task though and Alma knows it. "People don't trust us. They haven't seen the talent yet. But they will," she says, defiantly. "Hiljaa hyvää tulee", as they say in Finland. Or as it's roughly translated here: "Easy does it."
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