Sagas of the North: An Interview With Amanda Aalto

Seidr is the Nordic tradition of shamanism, to draw wisdom from the Gods through ecstatic rites, maybe meditation, maybe enhanced consciousness, walking the line between madness and clarity. The revival of Nordic Folk bands like Wardruna and Heilung has hailed a whole subgenre of neofolk that tries to revive the emotive music of the Vikings, and Finish neofolk artist Amanda Aalto’s solo work is one of the most surprising breakout examples of the year. Drawing on the traditional folk styles of the North, she moves towards ecstacy rather than archeological fidelity, and each track feels like it could either prefix warfare or celebration.

We interviewed Amanda Aalto about how this project came together, how the Northern Tradition informs her music, and how her music is a visionary process trying to break free.


How did you start making music? 

That’s a good question yet, I am not sure if I know the answer. I have been writing songs as long as I can remember, ever since I was a child I would come up with some silly songs by myself. I think writing songs and making music is such a big part of who I am that it’s impossible to tell exactly how it started, it probably just happened one day.


Is this your first project?

No, not really. I started by playing in bands when I was about 14 years old, mostly heavy metal and rock. I still wrote some stuff for myself but started my solo project only about 7 years ago. 


How does song writing work? Do you have a set process or does inspiration strike a number of ways? What’s the step by step?

It varies. Usually I sit in front of my piano and come up with a melody, which I start to work on more. Then I continue to vocals and lyrics, usually this happens quite fast, from like 15 minutes to an hour. Then, when I have the whole structure of the song, I record a demo and start adding more stuff to it, more instruments and such. This is how it usually works, but I like to try things differently as well. On ‘Ríkr‘, which is my latest solo album, there are a couple of songs which I wrote in the wilderness in Norway when I was camping last summer. That was something I’ve never tried before!


Do you have a number of collaborators even though this is your solo work?

I always like to collaborate with other musicians, so yes I have. Some have evolved to projects, some have been for one or two songs and so on. I feel it’s always a privilege to work with other musicians and artists because that’s when you usually learn the most about songwriting and producing.


Your music draws heavily from the well of traditional folk music and Norse traditions, where did you learn about these traditions? 

Oh yes, well this whole folk thing is a bit new for me as a musician but I have been into folk and neofolk for a quite a long time now. I’m a bit drawn to darker side of things so finding bands like Wardruna and Heilung really opened my eyes as an artist and a songwriter. When I listened to their (and other similar great artists’) songs it felt like home and something that I’ve always wanted to do but haven’t really known how to do it. After that it’s been a really inspiring journey learning about old traditions and old instruments and I know there is still a lot to learn. I have always been interested in shamanism as well, so that plays a big part in my songs as well.


What role does tradition play into your songwriting process?

It has a role, yes. Sometimes more and sometimes less. Not sure if I understood the question the right way, but if tradition here means respecting the old ways yes, I like to write this kind of music sometimes even outdoors or lighting candles and such. It is a ritual for me, for sure. 


How does Nordic paganism inform your music?

It has quite a big role in my lyrics, I have to say. I was raised as a Christian but always felt more drawn to paganism, not meaning that I worship the Old Gods but I do have a respect in the old beliefs and they interest me a lot. Still I like to leave things open and let the listener to decide what goes on in the stories of my songs. 


What bands have been most influential? 

Well, mostly Wardruna, Heilung, Dead Can Dance and Danheim. At the moment.


Have you faced any white supremacist attitudes in the neofolk scene?

Personally I haven’t. I have heard that this kind of stuff happens though which is very unfortunate.


Why do you think it is important to stand up to racism and fascism in the music and pagan world?

It is always important to stand up against racism and fascism, I think. It’s sad to hear that these things are involved with this genre and with my music I wish to send a message of equality and respect between all people.


What drives your music most? 

Feeling. Being free. Or wanting to be free. 


What instruments are you using? 

For songwriting I use piano (or sometimes guitar), then for recording I have bowed lyre, shaman drum, other drums & percussions, flutes and I am planning to rent a harp for next album, but we’ll see.


How does recording take place?

Well I have a very small and humble home studio where I like to play around. I like to be free with the recording schedules and doing things my own way so it works for me quite well at the moment. 


What role does your native Finland and its natural landscape play in the music?

It definitely has a role alongside with other Nordic mythologies and traditions. On ‘Ríkr’ there are two songs with lyrics from Finnish folklore tales ‘Kalevala’ and ‘Kanteletar’, both really old poems and they were fun to work with, I have to say. In Finland we have always been very close with the nature and forests so that theme can be seen in my lyrics quite often as well. I hope in the future I can learn more about these traditions and bring them more into my music as well.


What is coming next for you? Any new releases, collaborations, or tours?

A lot of things! I am working with my next solo album which should be out some time next spring. Before that I am releasing two singles, ‘Mustan Parantaja’ (hopefully coming out in January) and ‘Pohjola’. I have also got a band together around this project and we have gigs coming up next spring and summer, so looking forward to that as well! I have also a new neofolk collaboration project ‘Járnviðr’ and we are releasing our first EP ‘Manatar’ shortly. 


What other bands would you recommend for antifascist neofolk fans?

Vetten Runotar (my other band), Crown Of Asteria, Uumenet, Lovi. For starters!


We are embedding Amanda Aalto’s new album Ríkr as well as tracks from her last two albums, and we added several of her songs to the Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify.


The Quiet Consumes You: An Interview With Evergreen Refuge

There is a world of neofolk music so indebted to subtlety and emotion that it almost sounds as if someone tapped in to the slow hum of the forest.  Within this world there is the trend towards the single-vision solo project, often done with intense introspection and a nod towards its own meditative quality.  The solo project is an often under-rated mode inside of genres, often seen as a “side project,” but it has the ability of really exploring the extremes in its lack of group compromise.

This may be why the project Evergreen Refuge resonated so much with us, because it does not seek to placate its audience.  Instead, the long, nature inspired tracks force the listener on a journey, longer than most, and with a lot of unpredictable mountains to cross.

We interviewed Evergreen Refuge recently about what really drove this incredible musical diversion from the norm, and how their radical animism and antifascist is at the heart of this solo journey.


So can you tell me how this project started?  Is this your first musical project?

Evergreen Refuge was born initially out of a desire to express feelings and thoughts I’ve had while in the wild and as an outlet for spirituality regarding nature. As with all music projects I begin, I also wanted to make music that I wanted to hear. It is not really my first project, though it’s certainly the first “fleshed out” project. My first foray into music was actually in much more of the electronic and ambient music world.


How do you define your music?  It is incredibly varied, sometimes ambient, sometimes uses folk traditional music, sometimes descends into industrial noise.

You know, that’s funny actually. Like you mentioned, Evergreen Refuge albums vary quite a bit in their “genres”. Though there is definitely a base of “black metal” throughout a number of them, I feel very much on the outside of black metal. I feel more, at its core, that Evergreen Refuge is an ambient project that incorporates elements of folk music, black metal, and post-rock.


The first thing that will strike people is the long, paced, songs.  Why have you chosen to do these long orchestral tracks?

The long songs are an attempt to invite the listener to be immersed within the piece. When I listen to music, I oftentimes prefer to sit down and give an album my full attention, when possible. Each album is supposed to offer some introspection or reflection for the listener, just as it does for me as the creator, albeit in a very different way. I also write music in this manner. Evergreen Refuge pieces are conceived as one track that has been created over the course of up to several months.


How do you think your project relates to the larger neofolk scene?

In the beginning I was definitely inspired by a handful of neofolk or dark folk artists, especially the ones that expressed a deeper connection to the natural world. Being somebody who has always identified with the more “pagan”/animistic philosophies, I was initially drawn to neofolk that had these aspects as well. In addition, There are some elements to what I make that could possibly be labeled as “neofolk”. It is a genre I have felt part of but not really, similar to black metal, like I mentioned previously.


I loved the collaboration with Twilight Fauna, can you tell me a bit about how that came together and what the goal was?

Paul has been a dear friend–hell, he’s been family–for years now. We have had a deep connection and have collaborated on a few things, including our project Arête. We kind of decided pretty spontaneously to do that split together. I believe the label that put it out, The Fear and the Void, first reached out to Paul about it. They wanted it to be their first release. Paul had this idea of making pieces kind of based around the changing season and how it connects to us. I had been meditating on the ideas that became the basis of my piece, “Light Seeker, Dawn Bringer”, since the previous yule and decided to channel that into the music. I have had a pretty firm stance on only doing splits with people that are good friends. This is for a number of reasons, but one of those is just that to me a split is kind of intimate. It’s an interesting way to forge a bond between two or more people, which I think was certainly true with that split in particular. 

Do you feel like antifascist and revolutionary politics runs deep in the music, if a little hidden from its outward face?

I am a political person and my art is deeply political too, despite it being instrumental music. Although my music may not express political messages per se, it’s almost always informed by politics in a way. A lot of musicians tend to shy away from revealing their politics or taking a stand these days, and I find this bothersome. I am not necessarily interested in telling people what to think, however I am firmly against oppression and I’d rather be up front about it in a way. I am not interested in having fans who are complacent in the oppression of the ones I hold dearly. These days especially, I think people need to be standing up for what they believe in. I guess if you truly believe in what you say, you ought to actually stand up for it.


Why do you think it is important to be a public antifascist musician?

Art is a breeding ground for politics of all kinds, whether people want to believe that or not. There is a tendency within black metal (and neofolk) circles to talk about being “apolitical” and whatnot, yet it seems more and more nationalists are drawn to black metal and neofolk. I think there’s some correlation here. People don’t seem to realize that the “apolitical” claim draws people with sketchy politics in because they can use it to hide behind. In addition, it’s not “just politics”. Some of the political views I’ve witnessed people having in circles like these have very directly harmful implications to the people I love. So, of course I believe in taking a stand on that. Because I believe it’s a real problem. It’s not role playing. People seem to forget that. And, like I said, neofolk and black metal circles these days are quite volatile politically. I have grown pretty tired of artists not taking a stand. These days, I am more drawn to bands that make a stand and am more likely to listen to a band that is up front about being against oppression. I know I’m not the only one who feels that way.


How does pagan or folk spiritual practice inform the music?

I am very guided by my own spiritual practices, and Evergreen Refuge is part of as well as the result of those practices. My beliefs fall in line more with animism and buddhism, rather than anything traditionally “pagan”, though it does fall under that umbrella in a way. I guess I am not at all interested in any worship of “gods” or anything like that. Each piece I do is the result of my own personal spiritual experiences but I try to leave it open for interpretation, so that others may connect with it in ways that are more along their spiritual path. Like I said, I’m not really interested in telling people what to think, per se. However, each album has a central meditation and I hope people spend time to connect with it in a way that helps them along their own personal journey. The world is so horribly sick finding connection with the earth and each other is incredibly important now more than ever. I hope my music can bring some light into this world.


What’s next for you?

I am always working on something, be it with Evergreen Refuge or the many other projects I have. I will say that I somewhat recently completed the recording of a new full-length. It is quite a bit different, being entirely acoustic and pretty minimalistic. I am extremely proud of it though and it definitely represents a new chapter for Evergreen Refuge. It will be some time before this sees the light, due to the fact that I just released a full-length on the equinox. I also recently completed a piece that I am very excited to share, hopefully by winter. It will be part of a split, I am hoping. But I won’t say much more about it just yet. Despite recently releasing the tenth full-length for this project, it is still very active for now. The future beyond that, as always, is uncertain.

We are putting several tracks from the Evergreen Refuge Bandcamp below, and included their collaboration Twilight Fauna above.  We will be adding tracks from the Evergreen Refuge/Twilight Fauna collaboration to the Antifascist Neofolk Playlist on Spotify!  Please add the playlist anyway, there are great newly added tracks on there and we will be adding more regularly.