Finnish R&B singer Jonna hit it big in 2002 on the Finnish reality show Popstars, and within a year had released a debut album that got up to #7 on the Finnish charts. She joined the LDS church less than a year later, instantly making her the most visible Mormon in a country where only 2.4 percent of the population belongs to a church other than Lutheranism.
She recently spent over a year in L.A. gathering inspiration and writing an upcoming English-language album, due out later this year (watch the music video for the debut single, Puppets, which she recently performed in Finnish finals for the Eurovision Song Contest).
I had a chance to Skype it up with Jonna, and we chatted about her unique vocal style, what it’s like to be a pop star and a Young Women’s president, and why Eurovision is so bad at promoting good music (my words, not hers).
I’d love to hear about how the Eurovision selection process works in Finland.
A: In Finland, the way they choose the representative is through voting. And the people who vote are mostly middle-aged people who like tango, or Finnish Iskelmä music [similar to easy-listening in the U.S.], or people who like heavy metal.
Yeah, I remember a few years ago Lordi won the grand prize, and ended up being one of the few Finnish heavy metal bands to make it to the U.S., but we were all a little confused by it. [here’s a video of their winning performance—bizarre]
A: Yeah, they’re funny. That time around, they were lucky. And they play a different type of show—if they were just in normal clothes playing their music, they might not have made it.
So maybe you need makeup and spikes and fire and whatever else.
A: Yeah maybe so! My performance is on YouTube already. I sang Puppets.
When I served my mission in Finland (2008-2010), the big bands were groups like Aikakone and Nylon Beat. Three years later, you were the big Finnish pop star, but your sound was a lot different from theirs. It sounds more like Pink, especially songs like Tyytyväinen [released a year and a half before Jonna joined the church].
A: Pink was one of my favorites, as was Christina Aguilera. I suppose you can hear it in my music—as I listened to them and sang along with them, I probably started to sound a little bit like them too, but hopefully I still formed my own sound. I was listening to a lot of pop music and R&B—stuff that made me dance.
As I got older, I wanted to listen to other types of music too. Especially when I lived in L.A. for a year and half, I found a lot of interesting indie artists. You know, Regina Spektor, Ingrid Michaelson, for example. And those indie artists really gave me a new vibe.
I was collaborating with one indie artist in L.A., writing songs for the new album. I wanted to bring some of the craziness of those indie melodies into my pop music. I didn’t want to make all the obvious moves in my music, but still wanted to make the music easy for people to access.
In terms of language, the differences between songwriting in Finnish and in English must be incredible.
A: It was more challenging writing in Finnish. I guess I wasn’t such an expert in Finnish language that I knew the poetry and all the old sayings, which might have helped me. But I couldn’t have really used that poetic language in my R&B anyway. I was writing my songs in the style of the American music I was listening to, which was straight-forward, and about life.
I remember in the beginning, the Finns were criticizing my Finnish writing, saying it was blunt and awkward. But I could see that they just thought that because they had never paid much attention to English songs. Also that style of music hadn’t been done in Finnish before—as you said earlier, Finns were listening to Nylon Beat and Aikakone, a very different type of pop music that isn’t too popular anywhere else.
Yeah, I agree with that. But I listen to your rap duets with Cheek, and the style of that rapping sounds really different—perhaps because of the amount of syllables you have to fit into a line to get the idea across. In your hit song, you managed to rhyme the word “pessimistinen,” which is something we’d never even try to do in English pop music. Is it easier to write in English just because of the flow of the language?
A: The flow in English is easier, but I do realize as I’m presenting my English-language music to the Finnish people first, that there’s a huge gap between me and the listener—they don’t necessarily understand all the meaning behind the lyrics. For my Eurovision performance, those people at home who don’t understand English and don’t know about the message of the song, the lyrics didn’t get through to the audience.
So I’ve actually decided to translate all my English songs into Finnish and put them on my website so that people can understand the meaning behind the lyrics more. But that means I need to rewrite the song, I can’t just translate it; it would sound awkward. So it’s like writing the song twice.
Speaking about Puppets, the song has a message, but it’s not necessarily a faith-based message right? Or is it?
A: Well, everything I’ve written since I joined the church—so my last two albums and this English one—has been me kind of reflecting on these truths that I’ve found in the gospel and through my own experience. In Puppets, the main message is that if you make your own decisions you’re happier. Whether it’s religion or the media that guides you, you’re not going to be happy if you don’t listen to yourself. Even people that join the church, if they don’t make their own decisions but just do what they’re told, might at some point lose their motivation. When I was investigating the church and when I joined, I definitely was not listening to anybody. I knew that it made me happy, and that’s why I made the decisions I made.
Can you talk about what it’s like being a pop star and working with the young women in your ward? How do you balance having a “cool” job with showing your spiritual side to the young women?
A: My goal is to represent the same values and standards in my music that I have learned and that I now teach these young women in Church. So I think my music and my calling in the church go hand in hand. At the same time, I’m hoping that my music can touch these young girls. I know that the principles of the gospel are true, so if there is anything that makes them a little more interested in coming to church and learning about it for themselves, I think it’s all good!
To find out more about Jonna, you can visit her website HERE.