Name: Marja Mortensson
Occupation: Yoiker, singer, songwriter
Nationality: Saami / Norwegian
Current release: Marja Mortensson's Raajroe – The Reindeer Caravan is out on Veadta and available via Diger.
If you enjoyed this interview with Marja Mortensson and would like to find out more about her background, history and work, visit her official homepage. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I think I would like to divide my creativity into what my mind needs to do and my way of using music to develop myself and my surroundings.
I have always liked to sing and perform in front of an audience. At my local school, we always performed at least 4-6 times a year. We were only 14-18 children at the whole school, so a very nice place to grow up, learn, and try things I wanted to do. I wrote small poems in my mother tongue, South Sámi, and in time also wrote my own songs in my language. To make music is what I love the most, and I'm truly happy to make it my way of living.
However, the traditional yoik, the Sámi way of singing, was not orally transferred to me, and there was a bit of a missing or hidden piece for me in terms of yoiking. But I’ve always known that it is our traditional music. In the South Sámi area, the language and yoik tradition were so suppressed by the majority states of Scandinavia, they almost disappeared. Through reindeer herding, our language survived, but a lot of the ancient stories and yoik have been forgotten. That’s why it is a huge reason to make South Sámi music in terms of telling our native stories, and continuing our strong music tradition.
There are many motivations creating music but those two are the most important. And of course, it also sends a great message being a visible role model for the generations to come. Work for a better future for the Sámi youth, lifting the struggles that being Sámi sometimes can be.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
Ideas of what needs to be written about comes all the time. There is just not enough time to actually start all projects I want to do. Whether it is documenting traditional material, histories, touring, writing texts, study South Sami language or make music to different projects. In the end, it always crystalizes what should be my main projects each year. And most importantly it has to be fun and motivating working with music and the world I create around it.
But I do have a struggle in balancing creative time and administrative time. Because it takes a lot of time and energy to be a musician doing booking, managing different bands, economic and financial strategies and so on. Things always take longer than planned, so my projects aren't always finished on time. But the finished product has to be as good as possible, so I take the time that I consider necessary.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
It often starts with an idea, like this doesn’t have a yoik or a song. I want to yoik this phenomenon, person, place ect. or write a text about this theme. And then it varies how much work and time it takes to realize the idea I have.
When it comes to the traditional life, I often interview or have conversations with people about the things I'm curious about. "Kruanavaajja – The Green Valley" is such a yoik I would never have been able to make without the stories my grandmother Inga told me.
This is the perfect valley for the reindeer herder to make a stop with the reindeers, it’s a place for rest and for getting a good overview. And that feeling is hopefully what the listener also can feel or relate to.
When I have a yoik (melody) theme, I perform for the musicians I am working with. Then they learn the phrases and rhythms and start to play in and out of this yoik theme. That’s the closest to an early version or research phase I have.
The yoik always varies, depending on how I perform it. It is always best to have enough space to be free in the composition and have some frames so we know where to start to play and end. The yoik has circular themes so sometimes, when making bigger composition based on the yoik, we compose different parts - but always with the yoik as the important theme.
An example is the way the orchestra plays at the end of the composition – "Johtelohke – The Migratory Route". Here I use the yoik syllables gå gåh gå, in the second part of the long composition, and Daniel Herskedal who orchestrated it, has in a very fun and cool way implemented this motive in the brass section of the orchestra.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
The lyrics can be written before, during or after the yoik or melody is made. Often, I have a yoik melody that is made without words, and sometimes with words or a sentence I really like. From here the songs really develop differently. Either I keep it as a more traditional yoik, or I write verses and have the main yoik as more a chorus.
If you listen to Piere Åvlan vuelie, I have used his name as the text for his yoik. And in the middle part I’ve added some more lyrics to describe him as a person. That extra text also works fine a capella with just the yoik melody and without the whole composition. And as Piere Åvla continues to grow as a person, his yoik and lyrics can also develop and change with him. That’s the wonderful thing about our tradition.
Other times I write longer lyrics and the song or melody develops from there. "Vuelieh sjaavoejin – The Yoiks Grew Silent" – is my way of understanding that nature has protected our language and always will keep it alive.
“When the yoiks grew silent,
the Earth kept on calmly singing her own yoiks,
the mountains, each river,
the birch trees, even the wind
kept their yoiks like calm whispers
As they wait for the day
when people once again will have regained their strength,
and they, in turn,
will begin to yoik with powerful voices”
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
The most important thing for me is that the text really means something for me each time I perform it. What I perform on stage must feel real, I need to immerse myself into the message that is important to me. The hard thing about writing texts is to compress the message into lines which are easy to sing and hopefully for others to understand as well.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
I find it most easy to play the songs and yoiks together with musicians. I would say we compose the music together and develop different themes to work with.
So, then the next step is to put things together and make the bigger frame and composition around the yoiks, melodies and texts I’ve brought on the table. I don’t write scores or use notes, it all works mostly just through learning by listening.
So depending on what project and band I’m working with I need help to adapt the music into scores if that’s necessary.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I think the stories show themselves as the process of writing continues to develop. I start with an idea, write more text than needed, and then just use the most important lines in the song. I like the idea of my creativity to develop during the process and welcoming everything new that emerges. Also there’s a fine thing talking about the songs while still in the process writing them. To have other people’s thoughts on the music can be very helpful. My mother is always reading through my South Sámi texts, just ensuring the spelling of the language is correct. Sometimes I get new angles on my text by discussing them with her.
Doing the big orchestral project Raajroe – The Reindeer Caravan, it was very important that the musicians I work with truly understand my yoik tradition. The trio consisting of Daniel Herskedal and Jakop Janssønn, have been following the compositions closely. I have co-written the pieces together with Daniel Herskedal since he also orchestrated the whole piece of music.
To invite an orchestra joining the traditional world of yoik, was a really interesting and different experience. Daniel had the hard job of merging the two different soundscape of yoik and orchestra, and here I really trusted his visions in orchestrating it. So you just have to listen yourselves to get an impression of it. But working with different soundscapes is what I really love experimenting with.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
My creativity feels like it is combined a lot with the lifestyle I live. Playing music with others is often the time when I get new ideas and find that place in my brain to make more music. Touring and playing with amazing musicians, getting musical impulses from them is a wonderful thing.
Also, the traditional way of living close to nature, our life of reindeer herding and harvesting from nature make me feel very lucky for the life I’ve been given. The importance of continuing and developing our tradition is essential in my musical work. And it would not be possible without the transferring of knowledge between generations.
We humans are social beings, it’s important to keep contact, talk and just be together. That’s the time I feel most happy, and motivated. It's such a good time.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
I do believe I like to have control of what I’m about to create, but in the process new ideas keep coming, and then I often do follow them and see where it leads me.
On my latest album Raajroe – The Reindeer Caravan I looked into how the past influences our present. After a long time of thinking what the direction of this piece of music could be, I presented it like this:
By choosing to focus on the past, one is able to discover and understand past experiences, the intergenerational transmission of knowledge, stories and important meetings between people. Together, this forms the basis for maahtoe – the important, embodied knowledge one needs in order to survive in the future. This knowledge is a vessel, meant to carry and sustain future generations. Without this knowledge, we are poor. Those of us who listen to old teachings from those around us, those of us who pay attention to nature’s teachings, will bïerkenidh – survive.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I don’t think I ever feel as though I've arrived at a good place to end the creative process. There will always be new ideas and things that emerge in the last part of recording an album or writing new music. But when I feel I have worked for quite a long time with the music, have enough material to play a concert or record the album, then the process changes. From just being a creative phase to how can I get this message out to the audience. Should I rewrite something or add an extra piece of yoik or music.
At that point, the deadlines begin to enter and the plan must be followed. And the scary moment when the music is released and will live its own life from then on.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practice?
When I’m working with a piece, I do work until I feel it’s finished. I don’t end up working and changing it multiple times. For the lyrics however, I can add and withdraw lines and verses until I feel it has the right amount of text and meaning. So, for those pieces with more lyrics it can take quite a lot of time to finish. But the music often find its forms and the yoiks always have their fine strength of being impulsive and easy improvising around. Yoiks are always developing and changing for me.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
With my latest album, Raajroe – The Reindeer Caravan, I have been very active in listening to the mix, producing and approving the mastering. I also have released it on my own record company Veadta, because it’s such an important musical piece for me, I really had to do this myself.
I have always been active in the process on the other albums I’ve launched, but not on my own label. I have had great opportunities to learn the process, album by album, and I’ve been more and more in charge. This is my fourth album since 2017, when my debut album Aarehgïjre – Early Spring was released at Frode Fjellheims label Vuelie.
He has been a great mentor in my work and career. And of course the musicians also have huge competence that they share with me.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I feel it has been very different this time with releasing music. The Raajroe piece was first a concert meant to have its premiere in September 2020, but covid-19 changed that plan. Then we recorded it as an album at the Store Studio with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. And we got the chance to make a great studio recording of the music. One year later the music was performed at the South Sámi festival Raasten Rastah, and filmed to be a TV-program. So, this is a much bigger project than ever before. Therefore, it’s more a feeling of really releasing my music into the big world and just letting it live its life.
While the other albums feel more like the state my music had at that moment when they were released. And when it was finally released, I was already working on my next album. I’ve released music in 2017, 2018, 2019 and now the grand finale 2021.
What projects will develop after this, I have some ideas of, but I don’t feel any hurry to fulfill them. The best way to recharge is to travel home to my parents' place, be active with the reindeer herding, and just use the time with my family. The tradition is such a strong part of whom I am. That means I can’t travel all year, or play to many concerts, I need to go home to do this as well because it’s as important as my musical creativity.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Yoik is giving me a new view of the world. It is as old as human beings are. It still exists and lives with us. That is such a powerful thought and I really love being a part of this world.
It is part of my everyday life, it’s storytelling, it is connected to a long line of ancestors, it describes the whole world we live in and the relations between people. It is both everyday life and existential life. So this is what my creativity is based on, the small and big things expressed through our music tradition, vuelieh (yoik).