As a child I wanted to be... a singer
Singer-songwriter Manna has all the makings of a pop star: looks, talent and guts. A lot of that stems from her Finnish-Algerian family background.
Things are looking up for Manna. Released at the end of September, her second album Songs of Hope and Desire has already received a full set of rave reviews and gotten decent exposure. Though things have changed in the Finnish music industry, it’s still far from easy for a Finnish indie rock record with English lyrics to get noticed. While her 2007 debut Sisters raised expectations, the follow-up testifies that the comparisons to the likes of PJ Harvey and Nina Persson were not unfounded. The record takes cues from 1970s New York punk pioneers, but at its base lies the rich soil of American popular music: soul, blues and folk. Shifting from the debut’s country-tinged pop towards a more rough-around-the-edges rock sound seems to be hitting the right notes.
How do you feel about the great response the new album is getting?
It feels great, of course. After so much hard work it’s really rewarding. At some point in the process I realised that it was going to be a pretty good one.
It’s pretty different in style compared to your first album. Why is that?
It came out that way quite naturally. The songs on my first album were mostly written by others, but now I did everything myself. That first record was an important initial step, but in many ways I feel like this is my first album. I think here you can hear the music I grew up with more.
At what point did you know you wanted to become a singer?
I’ve always sung. It has been a way of being to me for so long that it was never a question of if I would sing or not. Whether I would be doing it for a living and making records, however, was not always clear to me.
You’re a singer and a songwriter, but before that you’ve done modelling and acting as well. Did you always aim at a performance-oriented career?
I guess it has been my orientation since I was a child. I mean, I am interested in other things too, but music has been what I have wanted to do in my heart – although it wasn’t always so clear to me. Now that I’ve done it more and more it has felt right to me. I used to take modelling jobs to pay for my music studies and the acting experiences came from my involvement in small basement theatres. But for the past few years now music has been my job.
Born in Paris to a Finnish mother and Algerian father, Manna Mariam Jäntti spent the first few years of her life living in France and Algeria. At the time she had little connection to her mother’s homeland, save for a few short visits. That, along with everything else, changed when her mother finally decided it was best for the two of them to move away to Finland. Overshadowed by the breaking up of her family, it was an uneasy transition.
Do you have any memories from your childhood in Paris and Algeria?
I have warm memories from my childhood. For some reason I still remember some flashes of Paris. In a way it has remained a second home to me, I really love that city. I often see my father there, because of the unstable situation in Algeria. My father and I share the French language. When I was a child we spoke French in our household, and I only learned Finnish when I moved here. My mother tells me she did speak some Finnish to me, but I don’t remember any of that.
You moved to Finland at a relatively young age. Did you feel any connection to the country before then? Did you ever visit Finland when you were young?
We came here only a couple of times. To this day I feel just as much Algerian as I feel Finnish. I remember feeling like an outsider as a kid because of my limited Finnish. You know, language is incredibly potent; it’s an instrument of power. Without it you can start to feel helpless in a way. After all, expressing yourself to others is a really important part of life, and if it doesn’t come to you naturally or you’re unable to communicate life can be pretty confusing. I remember the difficulty of learning the language making me really anxious when we first moved here.
Do you feel more intensely Algerian when you’re in Finland?
The contrast is interesting. When I’m here I feel very strongly that I’m part Algerian and when I’m there I feel I’m Finnish. In a way France has been a neutral zone to me. I don’t know, maybe that’s partly the reason I like it there.
How did you ultimately adapt to your life in Finland?
I don’t know if I’m still completely adapted to it. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy living here and feel like it’s my home. But I consider it a richness, that experience of being connected to other places. Having said that, it has also been a challenge. It does bring up feelings of isolation at times, and I think being part of a group and adapting has always been a bit of a challenge to me.
Your family has spread out quite far geographically. How do you keep in touch?
Via telephone and the internet, obviously, and we travel a lot to meet each other. We get by any way we can. I’ve only thought about this stuff now that I’ve grown up. I had some intense difficulties and I felt pretty lonely growing up only with my mother. Back then there was no internet or mobile phones, keeping in touch was much more difficult than now. When our family has been together I’ve clearly felt a greater sense of security.
You and your brother have quite a few years between you. Were you very close growing up?
For many years we didn’t keep in touch actively, but when I became pregnant with my daughter I got a kind of inner urge to unite with my family. At that point I started to take the initiative and get in touch with him more often.
The casual observer might be forgiven for thinking Manna was destined to become a musician. As the press never neglects to point out, she grew up surrounded by music and musicians, including some very influential members of Finland’s rock royalty. Her brother Harri played guitar in Smack, one of the most influential Finnish bands of the 1980s. The eminent manager Seppo Vesterinen is a friend of the family and Manna’s daughter is from a previous marriage with HIM guitarist Mikko Lindström, and the list goes on.
You grew up surrounded by a lot of musicians. How has that affected your life and career?
When I was growing up in that environment I was a child, I didn’t have any plans or expectations of what I was going to do in my life. Those people were my godfathers, brothers and friends of the family. To a child whatever situation you’re in sets the standard for what’s normal. If growing up in those circles had any effect, it was that certain lines of work were perhaps more ‘acceptable’. But I’m sure I would’ve gotten the same support whatever I decided to do. In my upbringing I was encouraged to be headstrong, in a good way. I mean, my mother decided to become a documentary film maker when she was 50. Before that she had run a vegetarian restaurant, studied sociology and worked as a journalist among other activities. You’re always responsible for your own path and you don’t have to go by the book. That’s basically what I took from growing up in those surroundings even if at times they were unstable and insecure.
You’re pretty adamant about doing things on your own terms.
Well, I am building my career all on my own. The fact of the matter is that you need to create the music yourself for it to have the substance you want. I’ve always wanted to create things myself. Simply ‘being a musician’ was never an end in itself. To me it’s about artistic self-expression, and I want to develop as an artist. The first album was largely a cooperative effort and I’m grateful for the experience. I found my own way of doing things, what works for me and what doesn’t. But after that I gradually rebuilt the whole palette. I guess I threw caution to the wind, but in a more positive sense I took responsibility for what I was doing. It was a pretty serious decision, throwing out all those safety nets and going into a whole new direction. You never know how people will react. It’s been really encouraging to discover that this album, which I did on my own, has received so much better and stronger reactions.
Fri 30 Oct Dynamo, Turku
Thu 12 Nov Suisto Klubi, Hämeenlinna
Sat 14 Nov Korjaamo, Helsinki
Sun 29 Nov 45 Special, Oulu
Wed 2 Dec Klubi, Turku
Thu 3 Dec Kuudes Linja, Helsinki
Fri 4 Dec Doris, Tampere
Having poured so much of yourself into the record, how do you feel now that it’s finally on the shelves?
I feel terrific! Making it was a really difficult process in many ways. While I was making the album I was not only creating music, but in a way I was rebuilding my own life anew. In that sense I guess this album symbolises a kind of – how can I say this without sounding corny – a kind of new beginning.