Erja Lyytinen Interview

“I was breast feeding at the gas stations and behind the scenes and a nanny in the tour bus.  It was a bit crazy.  I wouldn’t do it again!  Take two babies on tour?  Don’t do it!!! “

Wise words for all the up-coming female guitar players, of whom there seem to be many at present .  The New Year saw Finnish slide guitar Goddess Erja Lyytinen playing in Helsinki to a crowd of over 85,000 people.  “It is”  she smiled during her show recently at The Harmonie “Just as much fun to play for you here in Bonn tonight!”.  And who could doubt the sincerity of that warm smile on her face?  Erja Lyytinen has a relaxed air of warmth and happiness about her offstage too, as I discovered during a pre-concert interview.  Motherhood has made her a more relaxed person as she explained…

The last time I saw you playing you had Meena Cryle supporting I remember…

Eight years ago!

I admit, I lost touch a little.  Back in 2010 you were very much the slide Queen of Finland.  You released ‘Forbidden Fruit’ some time after that which was less guitar and more lyric driven I thought.   Then, if we fast forward further and I see lots of videos online from a Finnish talent competition called ‘Tähdet Tähdet’ (Stars! Stars!)   which took me by surprise.  Tell me how your involvement in the programme came about.

It is like reality tv on the national Televisio channel. A competition between ten different established singers from the Finnish music scene.  Everyone is a different kind of artist and we had to do different styles every week – competing against each other.  But I was thinking that really I was competing against myself when I was doing the Rock, Hip Hop, Country Music and everything I don’t usually do.  I actually did ask them ”Why don’t you have Blues  in the competition”.  They didn’t have that, but they had everything else.

That would have been cheating on your part wouldn’t it?  Getting to do Blues?

Ha! Ha! No – everybody else had their own part there.

Who chose the songs to play in the competition?

Partly me and partly the television company.  You got to try out the songs you always wanted to try.  Like, I did a song from Heart ‘Alone’

I saw that, and it worked well.  Probably because you got to play guitar.  But then I saw ‘Stand By Your Man’ and I was scratching my head in bemusement…  Was that your choice. 

Well, no.  That was the television company.  But I liked the original version by Tammy Wynnette.  The television company though wanted a more up-tempo version of it so we followed more the Dixie Chicks version.  It also involved choreography, so dancing and singing at the same time.  So a completely different thing to just standing onstage and playing the guitar.

There’s a version too by Wendy O. Williams and Lemmy I saw.  That might have suited you even more.  But getting back to serious – I though the whole ‘Tähdet Tähdet’   venture might be your looking to explore new styles and get away from the blues guitar player image.

Well, it was really just two months out of my life, and the way it has changed my being onstage and giving a wider audience the chance to find my music has helped a lot.  I also think it’s great to do something out of your comfort zone.  There was a lot of insert shooting and dancing rehearsals, so it was really a busy two and a half months for me.  When it ended I was heartily relieved but also disappointed because it would have been nice to have continued the contest. 

And were you disappointed not to win? 

Of Course.  You know, if you want to compete you have to give it 110%.  I got a lot of feedback and a lot of people were disappointed when I went out of the competition.  Obviously I know how these programmes work but I had a lot of fun in the eight to nine weeks of doing this programme so…

It was a learning curve?

Yes.  It was great.  You see I love doing the make-up and the hair and having the costumes to wear.  I love it!

Will we see any of that aspect of Erja Lyytinen this evening?

No. (laughs)  I think I will be back to my true self, wearing the Rock outfit.

You didn’t start out in Rock though Erja.  Your early influence I hear was Aretha Franklin.

I wouldn’t say I was a Soul singer, but you’re right – we had this band in high school that played a bit of Soul music so maybe – yeah.  What was your question – sorry I interrupted you (laughs)

I’ve forgotten.  Yes, so you weren’t really a Soul band then? 

Well we had this band in High School that was playing Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and that style influenced me at an early age.  But when I put my own Blues Band together it just Clicked and I knew ‘This is the music I want to do’.  But Soul and Gospel were really close to my heart – and still are.

I was interested to discover that your Mother played bass and your Father electric guitar.  Did you ever play as a group together onstage?

Yes.  I was fifteen when I started touring with them.  We did a lot of shows in Finland.  Mainly in the Summertime where you have these venues that people go dancing.  A Finnish Dance Band…

Kazoo Queen Erja in action

Just the three of you?

No, we also had a drummer and a keyboard player.

But not family?

Not from the family unfortunately!  But we were doing a lots of different styles when we played as a family.  Santana for instance.

Who was playing guitar?  Your father or yourself?

We both played guitar.

Which brings to mind Ana Popovic whose father Milutin is also has a guitar player and she has even recorded an album with him.  Which leads me to ask if you might do the same and invite your father to play alongside you.

I’d love that.  I have asked him come up onstage a few times but, I don’t know, we haven’t found the proper time for it.  It would be great – He actually had a 76th Birthday yesterday.

Talking of parents – you’re a mother yourself now with twins.

That’s right.

Has that changed your approach to playing music?

I’m pretty sure it has changed a lot of things in my life.  Especially how I actually see Life now.  I don’t take things so much for granted.  I think it’s also made me more relaxed as a person, and of course that transfers to the music too.  It’s like, so funny, because you experience such deep feelings and so you can use those feelings in your music.  And of course there are so many things about Motherhood.  You grow up to be a mother and at the same time, when you are with your children it grows you as a person.  You learn a lot of things about yourself.

You still go on tour…

All the time!

Did you stop for a while when you had the children?

No, actually, when they were two and a half months old I went on tour with them and I was breast feeding at the gas stations and behind the scenes and a nanny in the tour bus.  It was a bit crazy.  I wouldn’t do it again!  Take two babies on tour?  Don’t do it!!!  But it meant I got to be with my children as much as I could.

I want to go way back in your career now and ask about the Blues Caravan.  You did one of the first RUF Caravan Tours with Ian Parker and Aynsley Lister in 2006.  Did you imagine it would still be rolling twelve years later? 

I didn’t give it a thought really.  It’s Thomas Ruf’s Idea and I think the concept is fantastic.  It was a major turning point in my life though because I got to jump to the German label that was internationally active and supporting females in Blues.  It immediately got me more than sixty gigs all over the world.

We played in Europe and England and America.  We got to record in Mississippi and Memphis so, for me as a girl from the woods of the eastern part of Finnland that was a huge thing.

And Ina (Forsman)  your support act this evening has also benefited from the Caravan last year.  There always seems a place for new and talented female Blues musicians at RUF.  Very often a female guitarist.  This year it’s Vanja Sky.  Are there more girls with guitars these days than ever?

There must be more coming through.  I think it’s great.  Female ‘guitarism’ has come.  How would I say it?… It’s here to stay!

How do you explain that influx?

You need pioneers.  You know, I was listening to Bonnie Raitt and Rory Block.  Then I got to hear Susan Tedeschi and Sue Foley.  I got to know these people when I got to the RUF Record label of course.  Nowadays we have internet and there are a lot of young girls and women putting clips on YouTube, so it’s everywhere, which is great.  It’s much easier in a way to be taken seriously now I would say.

On the subject of girl power, will we be seeing you and Ina playing onstage together tonight?

Ah!  We’ll see about that.  We hadn’t actually thought about it.

You were recently voted best female guitarist in the European Blues Awards.

Actually best guitarist…

Ah yes.  The other nominees were Dudley Taft, Innus Sibun and Laurence Jones.  So you beat the men…

Yes,  I beat the men too!  (Laughs)  When I heard about the nomination I was still competing on the ‘Tähdet Tähdet’  show and I said to my my colleagues there “Wow!”  This is a huge competition.  It’s been going for 37 years now and it’s great to have that kind of a prize.  It tells me there are people who really believe in me and my music and it does matter to them as much as it matters to me.

I noticed that those awards were in Manchester.  Your latest  CD was recorded in London, by an Englishman.  Your live DVD was recorded at the 100 Club in London.  Is there a special attraction for the UK and Erja Lyytinen?

Yes.  I really like touring in the UK .  I like England, and I’m a big tea drinker ha! Ha!  I write songs in London at my own retreats and I’ve been collaborating with an English writer (Alan Darby).  He introduced me to Chris Kimsey when I was writing ‘Stolen Hearts’ and I wanted to finish the album in the UK and, you know have the proper accent there.   All that matters a lot and it was just pure joy to work with Chris.  He’s such an amazing professional.

He’s worked with some rock heavyweights including the Stones.  Which is odd in that your own style isn’t so heavy.

I’m not heavy rock no.  He brought a lot to the sound.  Let me do my own thing, but added his own professional vibe in there.  We worked together in the studio very well because he’s such a calming person.  He was invigorating to work with, and oh my God, I’m a bit younger than he is, but he was working such long hours – I was blown away.

He was used to people like Mick and Keith coming in at all hours?


What’s the situation now regarding new music from Erja Lyytinen?

I’ve been writing songs and we’ve just cut a single that we’re planning to put out this Spring with a music video too.  That will be the next thing.  Then we’re planning to go in the studio early Summer and do a whole album.

A Blues album?  Any hints you can give me?

I would describe it as blues Rock.  A lot of Rock influences.  Funk influences too.  Yes…  but a similar style to ‘Stolen Hearts’.

David (Floreno) isn’t on tour with you now.

No.  I have a keyboard player with me on tour now.  I do the rhythm myself.

And you are still committed to the Blues and Slide guitar.  What did Elmore James have that was so special? 

Tone and honesty.  Straightfoward.  Courageous.  I wouldn’t want to say ‘simple’ because Blues isn’t simple – it’s actually very varied music.  For me, the way he played the slide he was really fearless.  Not afraid of hitting the notes.  And that’s what I try to do onstage too.  The feeling is really important.

Thank you for your time Erja.

My pleasure.

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