Tallinn Music Week 2018: The Review

From free freaky feminists to Icelandic pop stars, Swedish "fuck-pop" to a Canadian Gwen Stefani and a performance from the 2018 Estonian Eurovision Song Contest entry, Tallinn Music Week is the kind of rollercoaster we want to ride

Live Review by Tallah Brash | 27 Apr 2018

As Tallinn Music Week celebrates its tenth year so does the country of Estonia celebrate its 100th, and for the three days we’re in the country’s capital there’s rarely a moment that goes by where we don’t feel truly inspired, or find ourselves asking “why can’t it be like this back home?”

The love the city has for its week-long celebration of music, art, design and innovation is exemplary; a festival volunteer (whose day job is at the Estonian Ministry of Defence) has taken the whole week off work just to have a holiday in the city he calls home, and he looks forward to it every year. Even the Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid is there on the first morning of the festival’s conference programme where she delivers a heartwarming speech, passionately speaking about the power of music, the power of love and referencing Martin Luther King Jr throughout, most notably his last words: “play it real pretty!”

Our first night in the city, which precedes this speech, is where our inspiring journey really begins though; Kaljulaid simply cements what we’re already feeling. The festival’s opening concert held at the Russian Cultural Centre is nothing short of a spectacle, featuring a seamless Royal Variety Show-style event with performers subtly interchanging and the entire Absolute Ensemble appearing as if from nowhere, perfectly poised on stage and ready to play at the drop of a hand. That’s right, there’s even a conductor, and as well as the musicians he also conducts the audience into a frenzy on more than one occasion, regularly encouraging boisterous clap-alongs.

It’s hard to put into words what we experience at the hand of Estonian-American producer and conductor, Kristjan Järvi, but ‘musical rollercoaster’ feels just about right. Covering a multitude of genres, we experience folk, a capella, jazz, techno, house and the impressive high notes of trained soprano Elina Nechayeva, who hits notes Mariah Carey could only dream of. If you’re wondering why you know the name, it’s because she’s Estonia’s official entrant for Eurovision this year. Right!?

And so begins our foray into discovering an abundance of talented women during our time at Tallinn Music Week. As a founding festival partner of the PRS Foundation’s vital Keychange initiative, which is empowering women to transform the music industry and encouraging festivals to work towards 50:50 Gender Balance by 2022, it comes as no surprise that we find ourselves drawn to the female talent in Tallinn. TMW founder Helen Sildna even says during the opening morning of the conference programme, following on from the President’s speech: “We’ve been challenging ourselves to have gender balance for years and we’ve done it,” going on to tell us that even the split on their conference panels is 70 men vs 76 women. “If we’re able to do this, everybody is able to do this.”

The night before, after the opening concert we hit the Made in Canada night at Kohvik Sinilind and after witnessing some outrageous audience participation from Canadian hip-hop outfit Arlo Maverick who ask us to ‘Turn it up / Maybe another notch,’ and have us singing ‘Rain / Drop / Rain / Drop / Pitter patter yo / Pitter patter yo’ well into the next week, we meet our first true girl crush of the weekend: enter Little Destroyer. Dressed in red Honda-emblazoned motorcycle trousers, a glittery bra with eyes on the cups and a cropped hoodie, Allie Sheldan is seriously channelling Gwen Stefani. “No woman is free until all women are free,” she emotionally states on stage.

Backed by two brothers, Michael and Chris Weiss, the trio seem unstoppable tonight playing a set of tight electro punk pop bangers, owing a debt to the likes of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O as well as the aforementioned Stefani, and all eyes are on Sheldan as she goes through subtle outfit changes, at one point wearing a faux boxing jacket. Sheldan is the centre of attention throughout, up front and prowling the crowd, straddling the speaker stacks at the side of the stage, swinging her mic by the cable and literally ripping her stomach apart during some of her more passionate deliveries. Little Destroyer are entertaining and the tunes are there too. Poignant speeches are given about mental health issues and feeling like a “fucking failure.” Sheldan adds, “there’s no shame admitting that.”

From the powerful and enegetic to the more subdued: “We’ve had a loss of equipment,” London’s Suzi Wu explains at the start of her set on Friday at K u K u Klubi as part of CryptoMarket’s line-up. “Charlie usually drums… so just imagine him fucking bashing away on them.” While we’d like to imagine this, the sound actually works with just beats and keys as backing. The set on a whole, however, does feel a little disjointed, but Wu’s voice is exciting with low and gravelly tones contrasted with nice punchy high notes. There’s also an air of Jamie T in some of her delivery, especially apparent on Punk Rock Charlie Brown. A cover of Tom Waits’ Jockey Full of Bourbon comes mid-set, followed by a song about love. "Not really,” Wu confesses, “it’s about sex.” The reveal is met with laughter: “That’s the best response I’ve ever had to that," Wu tells us, "I reckon it’s ‘cause you’re mostly women." That's another great thing to note about Tallinn Music Week – as well as on stage, there are lots of women in the crowd too.

‘Sad girls, we don’t want no fun’ is a refrain from Sad Girls Club by Swedish duo The Magnettes, yet it's the opposite of what they deliver in one of the most fun and infectious sets of the festival. The duo perform their own brand of music self-described as “fuck-pop,” a genre we don’t understand until we’re face to face with it in the flesh. Kylie, Britney and Taylor are all present in The Magnettes' sound, but the attitude coupled with lyrics like ‘All eyes on the dancefloor as I work that shit / Been so long since Friday, I deserve that shit,’ and ‘I wanna party until I don’t know who my real friends are,’ is what sells us. Also, their between song banter is nothing short of brilliant: “Hey, we’re The Magnettes and we came here all the way from a shithole in the north of Sweden” is a line delivered with such sincerity that it’s hard to know if they mean to be funny or not, but everyone in the crowd at Von Krahl theatre assumes yes, and there’s loads of big smiles and laughter throughout, including from us. “This song is about feeling like a fucking loser growing up in a shithole town… so let’s have a fucking disco,” they say before launching into Sad Girls Club offering another helping of synchronised dance moves and high energy fuck-pop. If this is what the Sad Girls Club is, then how do we join!?

Following The Magnettes we rush back down to K u K u Klubi and catch a bit of Mart Avi’s set as there’s been a tonne of hype about this Estonian musician, and the whole thing just feels straight up weird to us. Weird often equals good, but this just feels like a step too far, not to mention it’s the antithesis of what we’ve just witnessed. Sadly it ends up falling flat and feeling like a bit of a comedown. Avi’s stage presence is uncomfortable, singing in his deep hazy voice over laptop beats with abstract visuals showing on a TV screen to his right. We can’t fully figure out what he’s trying to achieve from this odd set-up, and as soon as one of the visuals shows a photo of David Bowie, we can’t get Bowie out of our heads and it’s all we hear, but not in a good way.

Following this we go on a wee jaunt up to the city’s thriving Telliskivi area; it’s a hipster’s paradise with shipping containers turned into cafes, old industrial buildings turned into spaces for bubbling and exciting cultural and entrepreneurial happenings, cool burger joints that serve kimchi fries, nightclubs, cafes, bars, live music venues and more. It’s a truly exciting scene up here and we settle into F-Hoone for a set from US-based, award-winning Estonian producer Maria Minerva. Sadly technology is against her tonight, but even when it’s playing nice, not even the stunning visuals can help, and her songs disappointingly fall short.

Heading back towards the centre of town, we overhear some of the biggest bass coming from what looks like an old warehouse. It’s a venue called Sveta Bar. We venture inside and there’s a crew of DJs and emcees huddled round some kit in the far corner of the room. It’s a raucous scene: ‘You used to call me on my cell phone,” one of the emcees, who is topless, screeches into a mic, which is our cue to leave. We head to an all-night rave in an underground car park – One Night at the Parking Lot. It's cool as fuck, but we hit a wall and call it a day.

Following on from catching the last few songs by quite wonderful Latvian experimental musician Elizabete Balčus – who wires up fruit and vegetables to help create her soundscapes – at the beautifully ornate Russian Theatre of Estonia on Saturday, we end our 2018 Tallinn Music Week with a trio of powerful female artists who are official Keychange participants: Hildur, Fever Dream and GNUČČI.

Icelandic rising pop star Hildur, who won Pop Song of the Year for her hit I’ll Walk With You at the 2017 Icelandic Music Awards, is up first. “I feel like I need to talk a little bit about Keychange… The industry/world needs more women,” she says matter-of-fact between songs, going on to tell us of an issue she experienced in Iceland where a male radio presenter said on air that she must have a man behind her, in reference to I’ll Walk With You. She tells us, “So I wrote a letter to him to tell him that no, I wrote it myself.”

Hildur is charming throughout her set, and we leave feeling empowered, which is what Keychange is all about. The night escalates further when we see fellow-Icelander Fever Dream, who we’d spotted a bit of earlier that day in a shopping centre wearing a Dream Wife T-shirt that said ‘Support Your Local Bad Bitch’ in massive letters on the back. Tonight in Sinilind is a whole other ball game. We realise very quickly that we got the PG version in the shopping centre; her thighs are on display through a mesh of fishnets and across them the ink reads 'SLAY BITCH.' "I'm from fucking Iceland!!!" she screams. The energy in the room is palpable and by the end of her set it’s quite literally taps aff for Fever Dream – real name Vigdís Ósk Howser Harðardótti – by set-closer (and total banger) Reyndu Bara which translates to Just Try. Most of the song is delivered in Icelandic, but some English words cut through like ‘Free the nipple,’ and we understand why she's jumping around the stage with her breasts out. Slay bitch, indeed.

How do you follow this? It surely isn’t possible? Or so you’d think: enter GNUČČI, the Yugoslavian-born, Sweden-based high-energy rapper, real name Ana Rab. Not even a whole song into her set and we make the following note: ‘This woman is a fucking star.’ ‘Free, freaky feminine, I don’t have sex with anyone,’ Rab commands on a loop over a poundingly hardcore bassline as she works the stage in her oversized yellow and brown zigzag camouflage two-piece. WOAH. What is happening? GNUČČI is an absolute tour de force, and we can't take our eyes off her.

“This next song is called Little Girl and it goes out to all the little girls who make big bangs… And it goes out to Keychange,” Rab says, which is met with a roomful of delighted roars. With AmberValent on DJ duties, the pair work beautifully together bouncing off each other throughout the set, often to hilarious effect: “One song went into emergency loop…” Rab offers as a reason the music has stopped mid-set as she squats on the front of the table that’s doubling up as tonight’s DJ booth; “DID MY ASS DO THAT!?” she exclaims, shocked.

[GNUČČI by Susanna Paabumets]

Some time passes and we think to ourselves, ‘Man, GNUČČI must have the strongest thighs.’ She’s been in a squat position bouncing up and down while performing for longer than we thought was physically possible. For tonight’s encore, she invites "potential future dancers" up on to the stage with her as she lies on her back across the DJ booth, and it’s not long until it’s like we’re witnessing a concert within a concert, as 20 or so women from the crowd (and one man!) are up on the stage dancing at Rab, hands in the air, as she stands on the booth reaching out to everyone, simultaneously belting out Young Paula Abdul from her debut album You Good I'm Good Let's Be Great. There's a lot of admiration in the room for Ana Rab and humble emotions are flying high. Her entire set is exhilarating and we couldn't have hoped for a more perfect end to a wholly inspiring experience at Tallinn Music Week.