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WHEN MUSIC POPS, WE TURN IT UP

Exclusive: PopBytes chats with Kerli

Exclusive: PopBytes chats with Kerli
April 10, 2012 ALEX NAGORSKI

Kerli

Estonian popstar Kerli has undergone a major makeover.

When she first entered the scene in 2008 with the release of her debut album, Love Is Dead, Kerli’s dark and haunting sound immediately drew comparisons to musicians like Courtney Love and Evanescence. It’s a no-brainer, then, that the maestro of all things grim-and-twisted, film director Tim Burton, asked the singer to contribute two tracks for the soundtrack to his movie, Alice In Wonderland.

But when it came time to start building buzz for her follow-up record, Kerli abandoned the eerie pop/rock sound of her debut. With the release of “Army of Love” in December 2010, she reemerged as a pop/dance act. After spending eleven weeks on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Songs chart (peaking at #1), it’s not surprising that the singer has decided to continue to make music more suited for dancefloors than tattoo parlors.

This summer, Kerli will finally be releasing her long awaited sophomore album. And it seems as though her fans are too. The music video for her latest track, “Zero Gravity,” premiered only three weeks ago and has already garnered over a million hits on YouTube.

I chatted with Kerli about her upcoming record, fashion, blogging, and bonded with her over our mutual Eastern European heritage. Duh.

ALEX NAGORSKI: Your upcoming record sounds like it’s going to be an entirely synthpop/dance album. What triggered this musical evolution and how has your fanbase reacted to this directional shift?

KERLI: Well to me, production is just production. It’s really all about the melody and the lyrics. The artists I’ve always listened to and have been a fan of are people like Bjork and Massive Attack – who are all electronic music. So it was only natural that I was also going to go more electronic myself. I didn’t even know that I was going to go so much down the dance and rave route in the beginning. I just knew after I released my last album that I wanted to make an electronic album. It kind of naturally came about and I think my music is going to stay that way for a little while. But who knows?

While describing the sound of your second album, you coined the term, “BubbleGoth.” Can you please elaborate a little bit about what you mean by that?

Actually “BubbleGoth” is more about fashion than it is about music. But to me, it stands for the coming together of things that don’t usually go together. There’s always a dark element but then there’s also always a light, beautiful element that I try to mix with it. Even if you listen to “Zero Gravity” and the next single to come, there are always two polarities. I really, really enjoy playing with polarities in everything I do.

You’ve frequently cited film director Tim Burton as having had a huge influence on you. What about Burton’s work do you find to be so inspiring? And what are the greatest challenges you face when incorporating influences from a visual medium into an aural one?

Well, where I’ve been going visually and musically has evolved from this dark, introverted, creepy Tim Burton-like space but now it’s going towards the sky. It’s kind of euphoric and fantastical. So the direction I’m going with my new album really has nothing to do with that quirky Tim Burton aesthetic. But that being said, he’s my hero and he always will be.

The toughest thing about being influenced by people like him though, is that I get these visions – and these visions are not things that I can just pull off Google and show people like my video directors. In order to be able to create this stuff, I started sketching everything down because the things I see in my head don’t exist in the real world.

With the “Zero Gravity” video, I wrote the treatment and knew exactly what I wanted everything in it to look like. But I couldn’t just go out and buy those things, so I handmade most of the stuff you see in it. Like all the shoes, the blue geisha outfit – I made that from scratch with $200.00. For me, the execution of these elaborate visions is the hardest part because I’m my own designer. I have to make most of this stuff on my own.

Wow. So can you tell me a little bit about your creative process? When making things like the ethereal music video for “Zero Gravity,” do you already have the visual concept in mind when you’re in the preliminary songwriting stages, or does that component not come in until later?

Really often when I write a song, I get the whole visual concept right then and there. I’m so picky about every detail. I also do a lot of research about what different things symbolize and what different colors mean. For example, when you look at “Zero Gravity,” you’ll see only purple, blue, white and pastel colors. That’s because those were the colors that I felt were the color of the music. I would have never done a video for the song that had red in it.

That’s very interesting. Another thing about you that’s really unique is your sense of style. If it were up to you, what current fashion trends would you like to see come to an end?

A lot of the times I don’t really have opinions about what’s going on in that world. I prefer to just sit back and observe. I have noticed, though, that all of these recent over-the-top costumes are getting a bit tired and so fashion is reverting to a more effortless style. In terms of my own style, I can’t not be me. I’ll always love playing these fantastical characters but it’s not about what they’re wearing. It’s about what they stand for.

I see. You grew up in the newly independent Estonia but now reside in Los Angeles. At this point in your life, do you identify more as Estonian or Californian? What are some of the biggest cultural differences you’ve had to adjust to?

I think the biggest thing is the way that people interact with one another. Where I come from, people are kind of closed off and aren’t very expressive with their feelings. Americans are very celebratory. Do you know what I mean? Where are you from?

I’m Polish.

Oh, you’re Polish? So you know exactly what I mean. Americans are always saying things like “thank you” and “please” and “excuse me.” They’re always talking about how nice things are and compliment one another far more often. And I always felt really out of place where I was from so I like American culture more than Eastern European culture. Everyone is just nicer. In Europe, we tease Americans for that but I don’t care because I’d rather have a friendly waitress. I like that and I like their expressiveness.

It’s so much easier, too, when you’re working with American producers because they’ll always have some sort of party going on in the studio. I really like that loose vibe and just being crazy and living it up. Whereas European producers are a little more serious.

More serious as in they’re all work, no play?

Yeah. But I did find this Swedish producing team that I did “Zero Gravity” and half of my next album with and we definitely had a big party going on in the studio.

Oh really, who was that?

They’re called SeventyEight. They’re two Swedish kids who I found that haven’t had their break yet but I really think they’re going to be epic.

How did you find them?

I was in Sweden and I was doing a bunch of sessions. Major labels have these sessions where they fly you around and make you write with everybody. I was just doing that for a couple years and wasn’t able to find anyone who got me musically. So I told my label that I didn’t want to write with anybody and I started to just write and produce on my laptop on my own. I was already giving up and so that’s when I picked up producing because I thought “nobody is going to get the sound I’m trying to create so I’ll just have to make it on my own.”

But then I met SeventyEight. It was the last of my sessions and I was tired and on the road but when I met up with them, magic just started suddenly happening. After that, we’d get together all the time. We love each other so much. Their energy is just really something else. I’m so excited for you to hear this new music. I think you’ll hear that energy and all the passion that we had in the studio. We have stuff even better than “Zero Gravity.”

Have you thought about what your second single will be yet?

Actually, supposedly “Zero Gravity” is technically not the first single. It’s kind of just a little taste-tester to get some buzz going. I think we’re going to release the first real single in a couple of months. So it’s really on the fast track now.

What’s that song called?

I can’t tell you yet. But the album is going to be a summer release.

You’ve played a lot of festival shows, including Lollapalooza and South By Southwest. Do you have any North American touring plans set for this year to coincide with the release of the record?

I really, really, really want to tour. But it’s almost easier and more effective for me to just be online and be in touch with my fans that way, which I am on a daily basis. Because I’m a solo act, it’s a lot of work to get a band together, pay everybody and take everybody on the road. With the new album, though, we’re definitely going to make it a priority to tour.

Do you find that having launched your own blog with Buzznet this year has made you feel a closer personal connection to your “Moonchildren” (what your fans call themselves)?

Well I’ve always been really close with my fans. We have a very honest relationship but a different kind of honest relationship. Like I always tell them not to buy my music if they don’t like it, you know? You should support the artists you believe in. Everybody is struggling and everybody needs support so you should support the musicians you’re really feeling. Don’t buy my stuff just because you saw my ad or whatever. Buy it because you like it.

The blog is great because it lets me put up a lot of little, extra things – like how I make a music video. It allows me to communicate my world more. It’s also great because, people can ask me all sorts of questions and even for advice, which is really nice. I also give out handmade stuff like the shoes from my single cover. I gave those away as a thank you for fans who shared my video. It’s just a lot of cool stuff that makes the fans feel like they’re part of the whole process.

In addition to being a performer, you’ve also dabbled in writing tracks for other musicians (i.e. Demi Lovato’s hit “Skyscraper,” which you co-wrote with Toby Gad and Lindy Robbins). Is this a career path you plan to continue pursuing on the side, or is your focus now entirely on your own music?

It’s definitely something I want to do. Absolutely. I have crazy respect for songwriters. I’ve met people like Diane Warren, who is an amazing, classic songwriter with tens and tens and tens of songs that have touched people and saved the world. I definitely see myself doing that on the side right now but maybe one day when I really don’t feel like being an artist, it’ll be my main job. Who knows if that’s ever going to happen because I love to make music but I also love to write for other people.

Three of your songs have been used as source material on the popular reality TV program, So You Think You Can Dance. What do you find to be both the most rewarding and bizarre aspects of seeing your music interpreted into a different form of art?

I think that the fact that humans are the only species that are able to create things not just for survival makes any form of art extremely touching to me. I don’t mind other narratives being used to interpret my music because I try to abandon my “kids” right after they come out. I’ve already abandoned “Zero Gravity” and am getting ready for another child.

What do you mean?

Well when a song is out in the universe it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the people and they can do whatever they want with it, you know what I mean? You can go remix it if you want, for example, because the song belongs to the world now, not to me.

What about the release of your second album are you most looking forward to?

I’m just really excited to see how the audience is going to respond because it’s a total 180 from my last album. That record was called Love Is Dead and I’m so not that person anymore. I’ve gone to a totally different place. I’m just happy now. I’ve come to terms with how little time we have here on earth and I want to make the most of it. So my new music is going to be about that. It’s not in pain, it’s not introverted – it’s just about being everything I can be. It’s almost ecstatic.

A lot of fans have had mixed feelings and miss the old sound and say things like, “I wish you would write songs the same way you used to.” But I just can’t! I’m not the same person anymore. Maybe I will be my third album. Maybe I’ll be totally depressed and write another really dark album. I have no idea where I’m going to go. All I know is that I’m just always going to try to grow and do my best. And whatever comes out of me is just going to be a reflection of who I am at that moment.

Kerli

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he primarily focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. After growing up in Poland, Germany, and Russia, Alex spent several years living in New York before moving full-time to the Berkshires in Massachusetts. To read more from Alex, check out his blog, Headphone Infatuation, and follow him on Twitter @AlexNagorski.