Hanna Tuulikki didn’t have the confidence to sing when she was growing up in Brighton. The local indie boys with guitars hated her voice, and it was only when Tuulikki moved to Glasgow to study environmental art that she sang in public. Even then it was only after she was persuaded to go to open mic nights at Nice n’ Sleazy’s, the Sauchiehall Street venue a stone’s throw from Glasgow School of Art where she was enrolled.
Several years on, and the half English, half Finnish artist and singer has just released Wilder Shores of Love, her third album with Nalle, the trio she formed in 2004 with viola player Aby Vulliamy and multi-instrumentalist Chris Hladowski. An accompanying exhibition of Tuulikki’s artwork inspired by the new album’s seven songs of love and death is currently running in the upstairs gallery of the wonderful Welcome Home emporium in Partick.
Tuulikki can also be heard in Stackwalker, a filmed study of west of Scotland crofting communities and east European migrant workers that forms part of Fields, Factories and Workshops, a new exhibition by Simon Yuill at the Centre of Contemporary Arts in Glasgow.
On top of all this activity, a stripped-down version of Nalle (it means little bear in Finnish) will end a small British tour on home turf tonight, again at the CCA. Support acts will be The One Ensemble and Two Wings, both of whom Tuulikki sings with. Two Wings will also play alongside Alasdair Roberts at a screening of a documentary film about the late American folk musician Sandy Bull. All of which suggests that the boys back home in Brighton might just have got things wrong.
Not that Tuulikki’s oeuvre would ever have much fitted in with the indie crowd. On the new Nalle album as with the previous two, By Chance Upon Waking and The Siren’s Call, Vulliamy, Hladowski and a host of Glasgow scene guests including saxophonist Raymond McDonald and drummer Alex Neilson wrap a mélange of east European, Nordic, Asian and free jazz influences around Tuulikki’s voice. The latter is a remarkably emotive high-pitched instrument that swoops and keens like some spectral missing link between Kate Bush and Joanna Newsom. Just to make things even more singular, the seven songs of love and death that make up Wilder Shores of Love are inspired by the ancient Greek myth of doomed lovers Hero and Leander.
“The songs were written during quite a difficult period,” Tuulikki admits the afternoon after Newcastle date. “I originally thought it was going to be a solo album, and the first recordings were just myself and a resonator. In terms of songwriting, I became interested in trying to transform a quite painful thing into some kind of resolution, using song to find resolution in my own life, but taking on different personas in the songs, and playing with recurring motifs in the way traditional English folk songs do. The idea of the sun and the moon meeting in the sky, for instance, in traditional folk songs means that it’s such a rare occurrence that it’s never going to happen.”
A major impetus for the album came in 2008 when Tuulikki was in London for her first ever solo show at left-field music venue Café Oto. While there she visited an exhibition at Tate Modern by American artist Cy Twombly. His 1985 painting, Wilder Shores of Love (Bassano in Teverina), not only gifted Tuulikki an album title, but set her off on researching the Hero and Leander story, which had first inspired Twombly.
“I already had one or two of the songs that ended up on the album,” Tuulikki says, “and there just seemed to be some parallels in the exhibition with what I was going through.”
Produced by BBC Radio Scotland sonic alchemist John Cavanagh, Wilder Shores of Love introduces more textures to Nalle’s sound. Tuulikki’s partner in Two Wings Ben Reynolds introduces an Appalachian feel via his harmonica, while Tuulikki plays slide guitar and Vulliamy pounds a grand piano to considerable dramatic effect. On the road things are sparer. With Hladowski currently indisposed, Reynolds adds lap steel guitar to a sound that now includes a recently acquired musical saw.
“It’s very ocean-like,” Tuulikki chuckles. “Last night the sound man said he felt like he was in the Pacific.”
As an artist, Tuulikki has frequently applied her unique voice to her practice in projects that have seen her replicate both the sound of the sea and a dawn chorus, had her sing and play clarinet to birds in a wildfowl sanctuary and lead song projects with communities in Glasgow and Liverpool. Doing something as prosaic as hanging her beautifully arcane illustrations on a wall alongside a cabinet of limited edition bespoke album covers may sound conventional by comparison, but in terms of Wilder Shores of Love, it fits.
“This album feels like it’s the most image led,” Tuulikki observes. “When I was writing it, I could see all these images and motifs and this theme of light that goes way back to the first album. I wanted to concentrate all that into one image per song that then work together as a narrative whole. Doing the booklet for the album is one thing, but putting it all on a wall creates a world.”
Tuulikki reflects a moment.
“I guess it’s my own world,” she says.
Nalle play CCA, Glasgow, tonight. The Wilder Shores of Love exhibition runs at Welcome Home, Keith Street, Glasgow until July 31st. Two Wings play with Alasdair Roberts at a screening of No Deposit, No Return Blues, CCA, Glasgow, August 13th. Hanna Tuulikki will perform with Aby Vulliamy and Lucy Duncombe as part of Fields, Factories and Workshops, CCA, Glasgow, September 16th. Wilder Shores of Love the album is available now.
The Herald, July 22nd