When one thinks of devotional music there are specific images that come to mind. For me the full immersion Baptism scene from O Brother Where Art Thou comes to mind instantly – the music beckoning the listener to join the prayer. Finnish artist Joonatan Aaltonen has a different vision, as he looks inside himself and to the world of nature towards the future. There is a sacredness to his work superseding creed and tradition and engaging with cosmopolitan influences. A multifaceted artist, his evolving discography from Aura Shining Green to Kiiltomatolyhty at present captures the changes in outlook from youth to adult, a longing to communicate universal themes, and evolution from the personal introspection of singer-songwriter to a multidisciplinary performance engaging the audience.
When did you start playing music and how did you decide to become a musician?
I believe my first influence in the world of music was my elder brother, who educated me in the world of good music at the ripe age of 5 or so. I remember listening to some of the more ambient sections of early Pink Floyd albums on c-cassettes, rewinding back to the parts with interesting synthesizer parts and effects, completely transfixed by the hypnotic quality. My uncle is also a well-known and loved musician in Finland, and I remember that in my early days I was intrigued by this, too, that one can actually make a living by playing music, although my own story seems to be quite a different one. I also remember the old songs I heard in my youth. Due to family reasons, I spent a lot of time in Yorkshire when growing up, and I believe it was during those extended stays that I became completely infatuated with some of the songs my mother played to me – I believe there was a lot of war-time music, light and easy listening, jazz, Shirley Collins singing rural ballads etcetera. Leonard Cohen came soon after, and he was probably the biggest influence on the songs I would write decades later.
These would not immediately make me pick up an instrument, but later would have a lasting impact. The instrument, however, was picked up for me by my parents, I started learning piano at the age of 6, I believe – and stuck with it for many years. I think it was around age 9 or 10, so that would be around the fall of the Soviet Union, after listening to music obsessively for some years already, when I started to discover interesting music on my own – Commodore Amiga tracker music, and I remember loving the “80s sound” – 80s movie soundtracks, Tangerine Dream soundtracks, Pet Shop Boys etc, anything with big reverbs and pompous production. It was also around this time I realized that I enjoyed playing the guitar more…so out went the piano.
At around age 15, I was listening and collecting mostly “darker music” – at this time the second wave of black metal had hit Finland, and of course I loved that stuff back then. However, that was a brief dalliance, which soon was replaced by love of krautrock and 60s and 70s music, and a lot of goth and post-punk bands too, which were easily available by using the brilliant library system in Finland (remember, I was mainly brought up in a culturally limiting rural environment in the north of Finland). Around this time, I also played in some local bands which shall remain unnamed. I went through a really intense Goa Trance phase at the same time, and spent more time having fun than sulking around. I am a total hippy at heart, and always will be.
Personally, I consider that my path as a “musician” started when I was 17. Through my library explorations and early internet, I had discovered music such as The Incredible String Band, Clive Palmer, Hamza El Din, John Dowland, Bill Fay, Pekka Streng, Haikara, Wigwam, Cluster, Amon Düül II, Ash Ra Tempel, The Wicker Man OST, Exuma, William Lawes, Red House Painters, Donovan, Vashti Bunyan, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Pearls Before Swine, The Zombies, Love, Popol Vuh, Klaus Schulze, Harold Budd, The Moody Blues, Gene Clark, Townes Van Zandt, The Green Pajamas, Trees, Fairport Convention, Mahavishnu Orchestra, John Renbourn, Roy Harper, John Martyn, Bert Jansch, The Pentangle, and so many more… At around this time I started writing some songs, which I still have on tapes somewhere.
It was not until 2002, when I had the first tape & cd-r releases of Aura Shining Green ready – these have probably been lost to time, since there were only tens of copies handed out to the audience wherever I played a set. I was deep in the lo-fi rabbit hole by that time, and was mostly interested in creating these impromptu session recordings, some of which are documented on the “East of the Sun & West of the Moon” 2cd compilation released by Anima Arctica years later.
During 2003-2008 I was working on my master’s thesis in the university in Finland and Scotland, and I had no time to actually work on recorded music, other than live sessions and busking. During these years I was mostly interested in ethnic music of different regions – and playing live. It was around 2005 I think when the “free folk” scene in Finland happened – I wasn’t living in Finland at the time, I was in Glasgow, studying philosophy for my degree. Later on, I can really appreciate Paavoharju’s “Yhä Hämärää” – but did not listen to it back then. I also met some like-minded musicians during these years, some of which I still consider friends. I was never active in any “scene” or genre, it’s just not who I am.
I was traveling a lot between 2007-2010, and during an extended stay in India – and when eventually settling down in Portugal, I wrote most of the material which turned up on the first 3 proper albums of songs I made under my own name – although rather unpolished, the songs were carefully written. It was also during these years that we played the first “proper shows” with Mossycoat (who was also my life partner during most of the early years). I think it was around this time I realized that I might be able to call myself a “musician” – yet I feel a bit uneasy with the label even nowadays. I never had the ambition to become one, but some people think that I am one. Personally, I’m still on the fence.
And in terms of exposure as a musician, I think the audience for my own projects has always been smaller than for example, Oulu Space Jam Collective – the krautrock cosmic-improv band I’m a founding member of – I actually prefer to just have my own music as a sort of “hobby” which I am funding through participating in society in more concrete ways. Not sure if I ever wanted to be a musician, rather an artist in the wider sense of the word. I love painting, poetry, photography, film, theatre and dance, perhaps more than music.
You currently record as a member Kiiltomatolyhty, but I first became aware of your music through the Aura Shining Green project which concluded in 2018. How did these projects come to be?
Aura Shining Green probably started as a loose collective of sorts in 2002, recording half-improvised songs with a circle of friends who had similar interests. Most of the early recordings of ASG were never intended as “albums”, but just something which can be handed out to the audience. I consider “Mushroom Heart” to be the first proper album I made, and that came out in 2008 (it was ready by 2006, but we had some label issues) and even that is heavily improvised on spot, as is the rest of the ASG catalogue. Although there have been many people involved in ASG, the writing has primarily been my work – and slowly the writing became more and more personal, shifting from the naive imagery of the early years into this extremely personal project. I think I was mostly influenced by Christina Rossetti’s poetry, Leonard Cohen’s first four albums, Red House Painters, and The Green Pajamas’ Jeff Kelly’s solo albums by then, but, to be honest, ASG has always been influenced more by everyday encounters than anything else. I have no interest in making music which has been done before.
By 2013, I had moved to Amsterdam & was working on “The Tower & The Hanged Man” while my personal life was gradually unraveling due to various reasons – and this was to be reflected in the music. The collections of songs which are also available in Bandcamp from years 2013-2016 document the unraveling. The biggest shift in my musical output probably after I met my future wife in Amsterdam, spring of 2014. I was living in a commune of artists, and had over time developed a taste in contemporary dance and performance art.
Matilda, whom I later married, is an academy-trained dancer and choreographer, and through her influence I realized that the audience-artist relationship I had been searching for can probably not be found in the “music scene” format alone. To be brutally honest, I have never liked the image building and cheap mystical qualities of bands and the scene in general – it was probably cool when you’re 14, but not so later. In the end it all boils down to the audience-artist relationship.
The live recordings as Aura Shining Green after 2014 were combined with performance art & contemporary dance, and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed making music more than during those sets. I moved back to Finland and decided to pull the plug on Aura Shining Green for good after two carefully constructed albums, sung mostly in Finnish. At the same time, a Russian label put out “The Green Man & The White Witch” (which is probably the reason why the music of ASG has been thought to be “Neofolk”, which it is not, and never has been). The Green Man was based around a long poem, “Refuge in the Triple Gem”, which I wrote when I became a student in Buddhism under a Tibetan teacher a couple of years back, and rest of the songs were old texts recited around a campfire long time ago. I think that album is undercooked and was supposed to be a mere addendum to the more fleshed-out The White Witch, but the label turned the order around. The White Witch was a drill for the two final albums, and a good album in its own right too, I think.
Suomenlahden Aarteet & Kuumusiikkia (and the accompanying EP, Keväänsäde) are the final works as ASG, and to me, they represent all the romantic and spiritual qualities which were present in the music during all the formative and later years.
The path that I had been on with ASG had led to the formation of Kiiltomatolyhty. The name translates as “a glow-worm lantern”, and for me it represents a guiding beacon of light in Maya, the darkness of pretense and deceit. The project started with 4 album-length recitations collated from my dream journals, which were not intended for any sort of release, just personal trinkets. At the same time, I had gone completely synthesizer-mad – I have slowly built a mostly-analogue synth arsenal which I have been using in my artistic work as a sound worker and in contemporary dance.
The first release as Kiiltomatolyhty is Kalastajakuningas (The Fisher King) which we performed live at an animal rights conference. The first “album” is Kultasarvi (Gold-antler).
So, what is the difference between ASG and Kiiltomatolyhty? ASG was a project which was mostly concerned in delving deep into the personal, while Kiiltomatolyhty exists as a polar opposite: the journey into the universal. Also, Kiiltomatolyhty will probably never perform live in a purely musical context. ASG was probably also the playful and youthful romantic-idealist project, and Kiiltomatolyhty is the more thoughtful. I’m 40 now, so I really can’t be fucking about anymore. The time is running out!
You have an album of covers from busking in Amsterdam and clearly have been influenced by a variety of songwriters. Are there any that you feel particularly influenced your work?
Yes, definitely. I need to check who I covered there…yeah, there’s a Cohen song there, his 4 first albums are definitely an inspiration for much of the later work as ASG. And it seems I also covered Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine – one of my all-time favourite groups. There’s also a Jeff Kelly tune there, he’s one of my big influences – a criminally underrated artist. To me, he is bigger than all of the Beatles combined. There’s also “Jerusalem” by Simon Finn, a song which I hold very dear. That first Finn album has a magical quality – I really love how rough it is yet filled with vision and fire. There’s some bluesy stuff there too, I think around that time I was really into Lightning Hopkins.
But most of all, I think Townes Van Zandt’s ghost hovers over that era…as I mentioned earlier, I was in a downward spiral sound-tracked by Townes’ songs. I am unable to listen to those recordings nowadays, except A Secret History, which is a great album – I wish some label would put that out. Thinking back now, those years in The Netherlands seem like a youthful golden dream. It didn’t seem like it at the time.
Another big influence has always been Pekka Streng, a Finnish artist who died young – shortly after releasing one of my favourite albums, “Kesämaa”. I’ve never had the guts to try to touch any of his songs. I need to add that I have always loved the 60s-70s Finnish bands, progressive rock and folk mostly – not namedropping that bunch here – but if anyone wants to go digging around, it is a treasure trove. Try Wigwam’s “Being” for starters, or Haikara’s first album. The first two Hector albums, “Nostalgia” and “Herra Mirandos” have always been a huge influence. He is kind of the Finnish Donovan.
I first encountered Aura Shining Green on an acid folk sampler, but on Bandcamp the one tag that is consistent for your breadth of work is devotional. How would you describe your music? Is there a spiritualism that informs your work?
Yes, definitely. I think it is impossible to separate what we are from the art which we create, so there’s always parts of you seeping into the work even though you do not intend the work to be spiritual per se. However, I have no intention of creating art which requires a spiritual outlook from the listener – and my personal spirituality is not of the religious kind, as I don’t follow any specific creed.
When describing my music, I need to draw a line between ASG and Kiiltomatolyhty, as the initial spark for creating music for the two projects is fundamentally different. ASG was highly personal music which was distilled from my diary entries and life experiences, sometimes veiled behind clever use of images and language – but in the end it was very down-to-earth and reality-based. So, I would perhaps describe ASG as highly personal songwriting-based project. A reality show of sorts, haha.
Kiiltomatolyhty on the other hand operates on a highly symbolic level, and is much more composition-based music, which has a meditative quality. The lyrics are more evocative and universal – the lines on Kultasarvi touch animal rights, ecological and eschatological themes, space travel, and animistic, almost Shinto-like reincarnation and regeneration as a part of the cycle of life.
The composition process for both projects relies heavily on meditative improvisation and “first take is the best take”-philosophy. The process for me is a 50% improvisatory thing. I might have an idea what the track should sound like, but then as I’m adding elements, the goal tends to shift away from the original idea. I might have an idea imprinted in my mind, and throughout the creation process I’m just picking up the pieces and “channelings” in order to come up with the finished song. During my years working as ASG, I never had the gear or the room to actually polish the recordings in any way, so they are very barebones and lo-fi in parts – but that was the intention all along, to keep things spontaneous. Kiiltomatolyhty is a much more curated and controlled affair, but there’s way less songwriting involved. It is more evocative and spacious, with less focus on the songs. This kind of approach makes it even more important for me as an artist to just add elements which manifest spontaneously.
So…excuse me for rambling…what I tried to describe is the fact that the creation process is in a way informed by a “spiritual” approach – the spontaneous channeling of music has a quality to it which can be experienced as something resembling spiritual practises, such as meditation, where initially you let the ideas flow – if they need to, in order to clear the mind. Only now you are recording the ideas on tape, and afterwards you deem whether the idea was good enough to form the basis of a song.
To me, devotional music is the purest form of music – I have an unending passion for field recordings of communal devotional music and such, and as an artist I can respect the power one can tap into by just opening yourself up for improvisation and acting as a conduit for all your material which exists in your head, yet to be recorded.
There bits in some of your English songs that feel like echoes of traditional ballads, but you’re also not afraid to add synthetic and natural sounds or delve into the electronic. What role does folk tradition, Finnish or other, play in your songwriting and what inspired you to incorporate these diverse elements?
Musically speaking, I think I have always been intrigued by traditional ballads – and as I stated earlier, the English ballad form is probably one of my earliest musical influences. I can also appreciate the cultural aspect of Finnish traditional song. I have Roma blood, and at some point, I was really into Romani music, but have no idea about the traditions. However, I don’t consider the music of ASG or Kiiltomatolyhty to be “folk” in any sense – it is music composed and performed mostly by people who have little connection to any tradition. Myself, I’m a thoroughly urban IT professional from a non-working-class background with an university degree, born with a silver spoon in my mouth – never had to even endure manual labour – completely out of touch with any kind of authentic folk tradition. Also, I don’t really have any interest in reviving any traditions – or to claim to be a representative of one. I tend to prefer the future, not the past. The disconnect from any sort of tradition is a natural process for someone with a background like my own – I have no interest of trying to reclaim something which was not there in the first place.
Hence, I find it interesting to mix up a lot of the elements I love in the world of music – the electronic and the acoustic, the compositional and lyrical, the traditional and the avant-garde, the melodic and droning, the popular and the experimental.
With Kiiltomatolyhty, the intent to incorporate the more droning, experimental elements was there in the beginning. I have learned from working within the performative arts scene that the subdued and non-defining elements usually are the elements which are more easy to work with, for they do not define the mood so strongly – yet they can “tie” an album or an performance together more effectively. There was a time when I could listen to or play a show with only guitar + vocals, but gradually I fell out of love with such a straightforward approach. I don’t mean I disown the music I did in the past, but I really can’t see myself playing a “singer-songwriter” show in the near future.
Kiiltomatolyhty also performed live in support of the Finnish Animal Rights Party (EOP), how did this come to be?
I have been an animal rights advocate/activist since the 90s, and a proponent of a vegan way of life from an early age. We were invited to perform at the event because when representing the Kiiltomatolyhty project, I have been openly discussing and promoting these values in public – and also promoted the new political party which we certainly need in this country. We are one of the last countries to allow the exploitation of animals in the fur trade, and a country where the meat-industry corporations have a firm grip on public propaganda channels. The public image of Finnish factory farming has been effectively whitewashed to appeal to the masses as more “ethical” than factory farming abroad. This is the greatest lie, which has been echoed for decades, and people are still buying it.
As an art project, Kiiltomatolyhty is unapologetically in opposition of the murder and exploitation of sentient beings and will not stay silent about this stance. Matilda, who is also a member of Kiiltomatolyhty, now serves as the vice-chairperson of EOP. Since then, I have also composed background music for the party’s campaign video.
How does antifascism inform you politically and as a musician?
I think it is absurd that in the modern world one needs to specify that they are antifascist – fascism reared its ugly head not so long ago, and where did it lead to? It is a failed ideology. A thing of the past – and if you feel the need to dig it up from its grave, something has gone wrong at some point – not with the world, but with you. If there is anything good in it, it is poisoned by the inherent rot at the heart of it. I think we should learn from the past and discard the things which did not work. I don’t want to go about declaring that I am an antifascist, but the sad state of affairs leads to situations where I actually have to do that – and that is really fucked up. I don’t want to use my music as a vessel to state this – however, I am unable to separate the music from my person, so the stance is there in music, stealthily.
Politically, I think that animal rights and antifascism go hand in hand. Add equal rights and intersectional feminism on top of that, and zoooom, you have just become enlightened, a real thinking human being. From there on, you are able to concentrate on the ultimate goal – to end speciesism for good, and usher in an eco-conscious golden age of rationalism, re-vitalized ambition and purpose.
Kiiltomatolyhty just released an album, Kultasarvi, in November. Would you like to say something about the album and what’s coming up next for you?
Kultasarvi the idea and Kultasarvi the album had a very different sorts of genesis. The idea was to record the album at Viitala, our cabin in the woods of southern Finland – where I also wrote the lyrics for the album. However, it was originally coined as a sparse, acoustic album, but I just wasn’t happy with the recordings. There are hours and hours of the acoustic versions of the songs stashed away on tapes somewhere. Once I started adding in more and more of the electronics, and Iina joined the project (on this album I was mostly working alone before that), the proper end result was starting to materialize. I also didn’t want the first release as Kiiltomatolyhty to sound like ASG, so I had to be careful about that.
Personally, I think it is my favourite album, and since I was so harsh with the cutting of the final tracks, there is absolutely no filler on the album. I don’t think it has any songs which pop out of the context, but as a whole it is the best I’ve done so far. Of course, compared to Suomenlahden Aarteet, which has some of the best songs I have written, the competition is unfair.
The album itself is a sort of prayer or meditation on the preciousness of the ecosphere, the life of sentient beings, guided by our totem animal, the badger, and the hundreds of birds who sing in the orchard of Viitala. It is a spiritual album, completely devoid of any sort of religion, a scientific-pantheist devotional album for the new age.
Kultasarvi was ready in early spring 2020. Then COVID-19 hit.
It was supposed to come out on vinyl this year, but the plans fell through. It is currently available from kiiltomatolyhty.bandcamp.com, and from the UK label Reverb Worship as a limited physical edition. I am now slowly working on Valonkajo (“a faint shimmer of light”, hard to translate…) exploring and expanding the sound of Kultasarvi further.
COVID-19 has pretty much decimated my creative output – and as an artist I am “out of work” right now. I am able to work on my own music, but I have been paralyzed creatively of late, since I draw a lot of inspiration from being out there. And I can’t really be out there. Also, my work with synthesizers in performance arts is on hold, as is the work with the krautrock collective. Let’s hope 2021 will be slightly better.
Are there any metal, folk, or other bands you could recommend to Antifascist Neofolk fans and fans of your work?
At the moment I’m thoroughly in love with Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, but I could also recommend something like Ali Farka Toure’s “Niafunké”, Harold Budd’s “Avalon Sutra”, Georges Moustaki, Mark Fry’s “Dreaming with Alice”, Perry Leopold’s “Christian Lucifer”, Fela Kuti, Fall of Efrafa’s trilogy of albums (Owsla, Elil, Inle), Luzmila Carpio’s “The Song of the Earth and Stars”, anything by Popol Vuh, Pearls Before Swine, United Bible Studies, David Colohan’s solo work, Bob Theil’s first LP, Clive Palmer’s COB (Moyshe McStiff & The Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart + Spirit of Love), Hamza El Din, Jackson C. Frank, Pekka Streng, Renaissance’s “Scheherazade and Other Stories”, first four Red House Painters albums, Jeff Kelly’s “Coffee in Nepal” and “Portugal”, Hildegard von Bingen, Yndi Halda’s “Enjoy Eternal Bliss”, Marja Mattlar, Townes van Zandt, John Dowland, Vashti Bunyan’s first album, William Lawes, Henry Purcell’s “Music for a While”, Roxy Music’s “Avalon”, and of course The Incredible String Band, Coil’s lunar phase albums, Bill Fay, and Gene Clark’s “No Other”.
Check out Aura Shining Green from Spotify below, and you can listen to Kiiltomatolyhty on Bandcamp. We have added Aura Shining Green to our Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify, so make sure to follow it!