Christel “Chisu” Sundberg
Birthplace and date: Helsinki, 1982
Place of residence: Helsinki
Education: High school
Family: Mum, dad and four brothers.
Right now I’m reading: Tommy Hellsten’s Saat mistä luovut (You get what you waive).
Right now I’m listening to: Michael Jackson, because I just saw This Is It!
My favourite word in the English language: Love.
That’s the first thing that comes to my mind.
As a child I wanted to be: A film music composer.

Bottling her talent for the 
Finnish pop audience

CHISU has officially arrived on the Finnish pop music scene. Her sophomore album, Vapaa ja yksin (Free and Alone), is undoubtedly one of the freshest-sounding Finnish pop albums of this year. With her mature and poetic lyrics touching on a diversity of topics such as the recession, unemployment, depression and even swine flu, the Finnish public are sitting up and taking notice of the artist formally known as Christel Sundberg.

Utilising strong word-of-mouth, the album recently peaked at number 10 in the Finnish charts, with Chisu’s unique vocalising quickly filling the national airwaves. The recipient of two Emma awards (Finnish Grammys) in 2009, she was the only female nominated in the “best producer” category. In 2010 she is nominated in six categories.

Aside from writing all of the music and lyrics for her own releases, Chisu has also written songs for artists such as Antti Tuisku, Tarja Turunen, Jippu, Kristiina Brask and Kristiina Wheeler.

With her former days working at a clothing company far behind her, SixDegrees sat down with Chisu in November, to talk about her love of Bob Dylan, the significance of Tampere’s ghost train — and find out just why she would send her tears to Baden-Baden.

How have you developed as a songwriter since your first album Alkovi in 2008?

I was very young when I worked on my first album, as it was published a long time after writing the songs. I wanted my new album Free and Alone to be published in a short time frame. From the time I wrote the songs ‘til the album was out was about six months. My writing method has changed. I wanted the thoughts to be what I am still carrying when the album is out. I have written most of these songs in a very short time frame, mostly within two to four days. I believe that it’s not me who is writing, but a higher power that conveys the lyrics through me.

Lyrics: Baden-Baden
Translated from Finnish by Matthew Parry

One day I was sad and penniless

I was given the sack since there’s a recession on

I scratched my head: where will I even find one banknote

I couldn’t do anything but cry, but then I came up with something

I’ll bottle my tears and sell them to the Sahara

Where they are needed in that dry, barren land

The president herself heard about my idea

Here’s a solution to the export crisis, she thought

Production would be cheap, Finland is quite a depressed country

And there is more money to be made from Europe than Africa

So let’s bottle those tears

Let’s sell them to Baden-Baden

Where Finland’s sorrows are pumped through fountains

Yeah, let’s bottle those tears and send them by train to Baden-Baden

Where tourists and others will bathe in them

So the nation cried and the economy got back on its feet

And happiness returned, but the tears of joy weren’t enough

The government thought long about how to solve this crisis

Until someone remembered how the tax on alcohol is removed

And again let’s bottle those tears

Let’s sell them to Baden-Baden

Where Finland’s sorrows are pumped through fountains

Yeah, let’s bottle those tears and send them by train to Baden-Baden

Where tourists and others will bathe in them

Do you write the lyrics first, or the music?

They come almost at the same time. It would be difficult for me to compose for already written lyrics. I want both words and notes to be open and flexible to each other. At the same time, I want to write in a natural way where words work and sound like the way people speak and think. I read the lyrics aloud to myself — as if I was reading a story for you, to see if they work.

Your lyrics do indeed work as stories. Your songs have plots and dramatic curves. One of my favourites in this album is Saaliit. It’s a story in the present tense and, as you sing, the events and emotions of that moment are uncovered. The way you use nonverbal vocals in that song is also fantastic and somehow unique, not very often used in Finnish pop music.

That’s maybe because I do listen to a lot of foreign music, especially English language songs. My articulation and way of thinking in a song does not sound Finnish. At the same time I aim to sing in a natural way and I don’t want to do something knowingly exceptional. It’s as if I am in a role myself, letting things happen to that character.

When I heard the song Baden-Baden, I thought it was a courageous take on the present situation. You sing about the recession, unemployment, depression and tears with irony and a happy tune. How did that happen?

Lots of things had happened and it was a hard time for me. I was just crying at home when one day I was talking to a good friend over the phone. I told her that “I’m gonna bottle these tears and sell them to Africa.” That’s how it started: turning a negative thing into something positive. I had also met a few people who had lost their jobs because of the recession. I thought that if those people, or any other person who has lost their job, would hear this song, at least it would make them feel good and know that they are not the only ones. I love Bob Dylan. Many of his fans say they love him because “he sings what I am thinking.” I love to write what people are really thinking right now. We live in this society and I am lucky to have the situation and the power to focus attention on some issues right here and right now.

Why did you decide to sell your tears in Baden-Baden?

(Laughs) I had written the first part about sending my tears to Africa, as I was thinking that Africa has been sucked empty and poor. I then googled for a place in Europe which would sound nice and rhythmic. Baden-Baden was perfect: It’s our ally, Germany, and there is a bath in that city so the tears would have a use; and the name is repeated, which is good for pop music.

Also in your other songs you deal with contemporary issues. I get the impression that the songs are written based on the feeling you have had at that moment — not the other way around.

I think in Finland people are often afraid of expressing their opinions. There is a fear of sounding gross or not being accepted, which makes us take a low profile. I am trying to get rid of this fear and say what I think - even if I’m not right. That could lead to discussion and dialogue, which would hopefully lead to the right direction.

You have written a few songs for other singers as well. You have a wonderful voice yourself, why give the songs to others to sing?

When I first contacted the record company, I said I just want to write songs and lyrics and not to sing myself. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sing. Then Asko Kallonen from the Helsinki Music Company encouraged me to sing. Then again, I write more songs than I need for my own albums and I thought “why keep them in the drawer when I can give them to someone else to sing?”

“Crying I told my friend that ‘I’m gonna
bottle these tears and sell them to
Africa.’ That’s how it started: turning a
negative thing into something positive.”

How did you start your musical career, by playing or writing?

I got a piano when I was 11 years old, and I have been playing since then. The first piece I published was the background music for the ghost train of Särkänniemi Amusement Park in Tampere. I think the breakthrough was the title song Pidä musta kiinni (Hold on to me) for the Tyttö sinä olet tähti movie in 2005. The success encouraged me to contact Asko. I haven’t been to any music school or anything; I am mostly self-taught. I bought a computer program and started making music.

Are keyboards still your main instrument?

Yes, I do my music on the piano. I am now taking guitar lessons and actually an electric guitar is on my wish list for Christmas.

Do you do lots of gigs? What is the importance of gigs for you?

Last spring and summer we did. I’m taking this autumn easily and next spring we will start again. The gigs are a good way of getting reactions from the audience and to develop as a performer. There is also the financial aspect. Most of the income of Finnish musicians comes from gigs. Because of pirating, the income from record sales is not what it used to be. The most important thing is, however, to enjoy music. I always tell my band that we should really enjoy performing and playing.

What are your international career ambitions? Are you going to write some songs in English?

I like the English language very much and it’s even somehow easier to write in English. I have written a few English songs for Kristiina Wheeler and that was fun.

The words are shorter and the language is more flexible. You can play with English and this is more difficult with the Finnish language, which has all these suffixes and so on. I think that the possibility of working with international bands would be a developing experience for me — not necessarily as a singer, but maybe as a producer or songwriter. If I once write a song in English, I want the motive to be that I have something to say to the wider international audience and not just to have a larger market for the records.

You have said that through music you get to analyse your own thoughts. What do you mean exactly?

I was involved in a project called Myrsky (Storm), the aim of which is to help young adults and kids in small communities with alcohol and other problems in their family. We try to help them through music and theatre and its fantastic how it works. One can deal with even mean issues through art. You can try to take a brush and start painting. Music has that effect for me. I see where I’m heading all the time through my music.

Do you paint yourself, or how do you spend your free time?

I practice yoga. I do it every morning and it’s amazing how you can discover yourself through yoga. I also like painting, and just recently bought lots of brushes and water colour equipment. My main thing is, however, music and most of my time goes to that.

What kind of music do you listen to yourself?

All kinds. Lots of soundtracks. I like Bob Dylan, as I said, and Björk. I like The Doors and White Stripes. At home I have Internet radio open all the time, which transmits meditative music. I like any music that has been done with affection — Michael Jackson, for example.

Most of the songs in your new album are a bit melancholic. Is that how you are naturally?

Well sort of. I have two totally contrasting sides. Sometimes I am energetic and full of joy, but altogether you could say that I am a melancholic person. I experience emotions in a strong way. For me music is a playground, I’d like to be able to do with it whatever I want. But naturally, when you sit down and think about what you want to say and write music, you get serious. Maybe that’s how most of the songs turn out to be serious.

Alexis Kouros