This article was also picked up by the excellent Baltic Reports.
The music group HU? may be the finest Estonian invention since Skype. Their 2008 debut album Film aspired to be a classy underground effort, but far exceeded those expectations (wrote music critic Erik Morna of Film in Eesti Ekspress, "We've been waiting for this disc for over 20 years”). The album's songs were licensed to TV ads, its music was discussed by Estonia's leading politicians, and its lyrics won them both admirers and enemies (proof that they must be doing something right). The follow-up, HU2, has now arrived, and like its predecessor it is packed with shimmery synth hooks woven through a spectrum of musical styles that ably demonstrate the band's creativity, versatility, and unwavering sense of cool.
I exchanged email with the group's 23 year-old singer Hannaliisa Uusma—sociologist by day and rock goddess by night—to find out more about her life, the band whose name is plucked from her initials, and Estonian pop music in general. This is her first English-language interview.
EorE - Estonia looks set to join the eurozone in 2011. Are you ready to exchange your krooni for euros?
Hannaliisa Uusma - I am absolutely ready!
EorE - How were you "discovered"?
Hannaliisa Uusma - When I was 15 I was a member of an Estonian underground rap band called CSQ. There were four members: me and three boys from my neighbourhood. After that I performed with a rap group called Connected People (Ühendatud Inimesed) once in a while. Chalice—the head of this group—is a really honourable singer, poet, and producer. Chalices's first album came out in 2001. It was revolutionary and fresh, in contrast to the monotonous sounds which had generally characterised our pop scene in those days.
At one point, DJ Critical (producer and DJ in HU?) decided that the girl singing backing vocals to Chalice surely deserved her own chance! A bit later, Leslie da Bass (the author of HU?'s music and bass player) joined us. We worked terrifically together! We were full of inspiration and ideas, and we had the same vision about music.
EorE - So are you Hannaliisa Uusma, or are you HU?
Hannaliisa Uusma - Our band is called HU? True, this letter-combination comes from my initials, but it is the band's name. And jokingly, we can steal some of the spotlight from The Who! ;-)
EorE - Who are those people playing the instruments behind you?
Hannaliisa Uusma - Leslie Da Bass is a songwriter and bass player. DJ Critical (also known as "Bert on Beats") is a producer and DJ. Kristjan Oden plays the drums and Sigrid Mutso—who is actually a classical singer—is rocking on the keyboards. I am responsible for the vocals.
EorE - Who writes most of the material?
Hannaliisa Uusma - The main songwriter is Leslie. Film featured some other songwriters [also]. My good friend and old music mate Chalice was the author of two songs. And Sten Sheripov wrote the song "Linnasuwelaul". This song is definitely bright and full of sweet emotions. I believe it will live for many years in the hearts of the Estonian audience.
EorE - What is the songwriting process for HU?
Hannaliisa Uusma - Just three of us work together in the studio: Leslie, Critical, and me. Leslie writes all the lyrics and music at home. The next day we normally meet in Critical's studio. Leslie hums something. I catch it and let it through my brain, heart, body and soul. If it fits me, I add my own ideas and colours. Then it's Critical's turn. [The rest of us] go home, but he has to stay in the studio and work hard with recordings and beats!
EorE - How would you describe Estonia's music scene, and how do you fit into it?
Hannaliisa Uusma - Our success shows that we are fitting. Our pop scene was very unfashionable for a long time. Really "juicy" music was only in the underground. Critics have said that HU? spiced-up the Estonian mainstream pop scene with a fashionable sound. Many people have said that this was the key to our success. People were thirsty for modern sounds.
The last two years have been a time of change in our pop music and club culture. Suddenly, we are surrounded by more and more world-class local pop music. For example, bands like Vaiko Eplik & Eliit, Malcolm Lincoln, Pop Idiot, and Mimicry. The paradigms and generations have changed. And god damn, I'm really happy about it!
EorE - Who are Heini Vaikmaa and Kare Kauks, who are credited as guests on your new album?
Hannaliisa Uusma - They are the very best part of our old school pop music scene. Their creations have inspired and influenced our music a lot. Now we have had a great opportunity to make music together on our newest record. This is a great pleasure and honour!
EorE - Were the 1980s a major influence on your sound?
Hannaliisa Uusma - The 80s have definitely influenced our music. [80s music] was around me in my most formative years. It is strongly and maybe even unconsciously deep in my brain.
On our second record we have many nuances which also reflect the 90s. I think the next volcano in the world's pop music is the sound of the 90s. There was a lot of awful 90s pop, but also many extremely bright nuances. It is important to try to transform those good sides into modern pop-music.
EorE - Are you full-time HU'ers?
Hannaliisa Uusma - Most of us are working in different fields ["day jobs"]. I am a sociologist. Leslie is the owner of an advertising company. Kristjan is a designer also. After the working day, music is a brilliant opportunity to put the performing suit on and to rock out, to find inspiration, and to be passionate. It's like a creative orgasm. :-)
EorE - What songs do you most look forward to performing live in the coming days?
Hannaliisa Uusma - In performance, my favorites are "Riia Tallinn Vilnius", "Varas", "Tähed", "Sa meeldid mulle" , "Nõiaring" and "Kosmos". The last three are from our first record.
EorE - "Miks ainult mõni asi on nii hea?"—I love this song. What does the title mean?
Hannaliisa Uusma - It means: "Why Are Only Some Things So Good"? I also like it. It features Kare Kauks.
EorE - I presume I am missing out on a lot by not understanding the lyrics. :-/
Hannaliisa Uusma - Lyrics are the really important part of our music. This is the reason why we are at the same time so loved and so hated. People have written protest letters about us. But at the same time our albums are the most wanted and most sold in Estonia. Politicians have quoted us. The President of Estonia has said good words about our music. With Film we won most of the prizes in the Estonian Music Awards. Our concerts are sold out. We have been in the top of the local charts with both of our albums.
Our new record is still quite recent and I don't yet know how the audience is going to react. But the reviews have been very approving.
EorE - "Protest letters?" What sorts of controversies did you stir-up?
Hannaliisa Uusma - We have one song from Film called "Depressiivsed Eesti väikelinnad" ("Depressive Estonian Towns"). It was a very sensational song. Suddenly, we heard that a local association of small towns had written a public protest letter against us. Briefly, their statement was that our lyrics about these little towns were an overreaction and that the towns are not so depressive as we had said. There followed a long public and even political discussion in the media about social life in local small towns. It is still continuing.
EorE - I love that you sing in Estonian. Has this been a subject of discussion within the group, though? Can an Estonian musician do all right marketing oneself to the 1.3 million living in one's own country?
Hannaliisa Uusma - Well, a major part of our songs are in Estonian. But "backstage" we also have some interesting new stuff in English.
EorE - Do you perform outside of Estonia?
Hannaliisa Uusma - We have had some offers. Let's see how things go!
On the Web:
HU?'s Facebook page
Mindnote, HU?'s record label
Mindnote's YouTube Page
HU? tracks on YouTube:
"Miks ainult mõni asi on nii hea?"
"Depressiivsed Eesti väikelinnad"
"Sa meeldid mulle"