|Nightwish – The BIG Uber Rock Interview Exclusive|
|Written by Steve Beebee|
|Saturday, 05 November 2016 04:00|
The door is ajar and you can see Nightwish singer Floor Jansen smiling and saying goodbye to a journalist, one of many she’s been talking to today. Needing a break, she rises from her chair and greets us outside with a firm handshake as she passes.
Photo by Ville Juurikkala
Floor has been with the band for over four years now. The fact that she has been centre-stage through its most successful chapter is no coincidence. It’s something that seems all the more incredible given that she first had to overcome a potentially career-ending health scare.
“I am the voice, the translator of these words and emotions, and I feel honoured,” is how she describes her role in the band, and her friendship with songwriter and keyboard player Tuomas Holopainen. “I let it transmit through me, but he is the maestro and it’s due to his brilliance that this band is what it is.”
Over six feet in height, Floor’s physical presence could not be more striking if someone had coated her in luminous paint, but she’s not at all intimidating. Her expressive features invite conversation and while she speaks in considered sentences, there’s a joy about her, a love for all this that you can’t see being extinguished any time soon.
It’s a crisply cool and clear September day in Helsinki, but the Dutch-born vocalist’s promotional duties have largely confined her to a cordoned off function room at the Finnish capital’s Helka Hotel, into which a procession of writers from all over Europe are being rotated in 20-minute intervals. Tuomas and bassist/vocalist Marco Hietala are on the same schedule in other rooms.
They’re here to spread the word about ‘Vehicle Of Spirit’, the Finnish band’s aptly-titled DVD which captures their sold-out Wembley Arena show in its entirety. It also features a jaw-dropping open air headliner in their homeland at which they played to a crowd of 24,000. With the band about to take all of 2017 off and Floor preparing for motherhood next March, it’s also a chance to reflect on what has been - to put it mildly - a remarkable few years.
Losing both original singer Tarja Turunen and her replacement Anette Olzon in the space of seven years might have spun an established band like Nightwish into an unrecoverable nose dive. Neither departure was amicable, and few – including this writer – expected them to bounce back a second time.
Floor Jansen on stage at Wembley, 19 December 2015
Faced in October 2012 with the catastrophic prospect of abandoning a troubled US tour, the suddenly singer-less band persuaded Floor Jansen to board a transatlantic flight. In 48 frantic hours, she attempted to learn the set before making her debut in Seattle. She hadn’t even heard latest album ‘Imaginaerum’.
Had the band approached her a few weeks earlier, they would have found the singer too sick to perform. Successive tours with After Forever and ReVamp had resulted in what Floor rather conservatively describes as “burn out”. Head spinning and body broken, she’d virtually become a prisoner in her own home. It was over a year before she could even venture as far as a local shop. Then she was asked to fly to Seattle to rescue one of Europe’s biggest rock bands.
“I had literally collapsed,” she tells me. “I thought it would be a month, but it ended up being a year and a half. I was at home thinking it was all over. The way you feel just before you fall into bed is how I was feeling all the time. It was shit, but I learned a lot, and that has been important because now I work harder than ever. I got professional help, learning most importantly about how I could change my ways. It was a very valuable life lesson. There’s no fast route to recovery, but thankfully I got there just before I joined Nightwish – there was no time in between.”
Floor was at sister Irene’s wedding when the call came. She’d known the band since After Forever supported Nightwish back in 2002, but receiving texts from the band’s management wasn’t a regular occurrence. Driving from the church to the party, Floor noticed she’d had a call from Toni Peiju, who manages the band alongside the amiable and Viking-like Ewo Pohjola.
“I thought it was weird and couldn’t imagine why Toni was calling. I explained where I was, and asked if it could wait till tomorrow. He said yes, but about 30 minutes later, he texted me. He said: ‘I just want to ask if you could sing for Nightwish on the South American and Australian legs of the tour, because Anette got pregnant and she can’t do those dates’. Anette wanted the band to cancel those legs, but you can’t just call off entire tours, so the band came up with the idea of bringing me in to deputise for her.”
Shortly after, as relations with Anette reached breaking point, a second call came. This time they said: ‘Actually, can you come right now?’. “So, off I went to the US. I had no time to prepare, but that was good in a way, because I also had no time to worry about it!”
On arrival, Floor could feel “stress in the air”. Although the band and its management made every effort to welcome her, she sensed the blind terror galloping hard on the inside. The only solution was to shut it all out.
“It was unbelievably scary. I don’t think I was very grounded, having had such long-term health issues, but I had loved Nightwish for years and to have the chance to join, and to try to fix things – that was great motivation. I couldn’t afford to pay much attention to them and just had to focus on what I was doing. Fortunately I knew a lot of the older songs but I certainly had a big challenge.”
Floor Jansen with Tuomas Holopainen.“I am the voice, the translator of these words and emotions, but he is the maestro and it’s due to his brilliance that this band is what it is.” Photo by Ville Juurikkala.
Tuomas also has vivid memories of this traumatic but ultimately game-changing chapter in his band’s timeline. Backstage at Madrid’s Barclaycard Arena, the week before the DVD launch in Helsinki, he recalls the radical decision the band had to take.
“There was only ever one name in mind. It was just a matter of whether she was up to the challenge, but even after the first soundcheck in Seattle, I knew we’d got it right. I thought ‘if she’s already this good, just imagine where we’ll be in a few months’.
“Before the first show I was really confident, but she was nervous. She had to read some of the lyrics from paper which looked really cute, but the audience was very understanding. In fact, a big thank you must go to the fans for their open-mindedness and support. When Floor replaced Anette for those shows, we offered all ticket-holders a refund – and I think only seven took it.”
Barely two years later, a reborn Nightwish released ‘Endless Forms Most Beautiful’, an intoxicating celebration of life, the planet and our own privileged position upon it. Arena-headlining status swiftly followed.
“I’ve always been interested in natural sciences, and I even studied biology for six months,” says Tuomas, explaining the inspiration for the album. “That was my dream as a young kid – not to be a musician, but to become a scientist. When it comes to writing music I’ve always been drawn to more personal or fantastical stuff, but for some reason that I can’t really explain, this felt like the perfect time to bring these other issues to the music.”
To instil the required sense of wonder, Nightwish decamped to what they describe as “a cabin” in a remote, rural part of Finland. Here, surrounded by nature, ‘Endless Forms Most Beautiful’ was shaped and recorded. Floor paints a happy picture of this process, remembering how they would spend evenings around a camp fire “eating vegan sausages and discussing the topics on the album.”
Nightwish enjoy a moment of levity during a photo shoot. Photo by Ville Juurikkala.
“I strongly felt we had to do something a bit different,” says Tuomas. “I’d discovered authors like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Brian Cox, and for a couple of years I didn’t read anything else. I found it so inspiring, and I saw it as a good way to connect all the people in the band. I knew they had also become interested in this, and thought alike.
“Not everyone in Nightwish is so keen on fairy tales and Tolkien, but we all had a mutual respect for this subject matter and everyone played their parts with big smiles on their faces. Songs about evolution, songs about religion; this was stuff we could all get enthused about.”
Floor says she wasn’t surprised by the subject matter. “In fact, it made total sense to me and I could identify with it, almost as if I had been the one coming up with the ideas,” she adds. “We initially played the songs on the piano. There were melodies and lyrics, and I’d speak with Tuomas about how to phrase them. It was a nice process. He is such a fantastic songwriter and lyricist that it would be arrogant of me to interfere too much – it would be pure ego. However, if I woke up with the most divine melody in my head, it would not be unthinkable for it to end up on the [next] album. He is certainly open to other ideas.”
Born on Christmas Day 1976, Tuomas is a thoughtful and artistic man who strikes you as being slightly bemused to be living inside the body of a rock star. Save for the occasional shy smile, he’s not easy to read, but he’s patient, humble and engagingly honest. When not being interviewed, he tends to waft around quietly – there’s a sense of gravitas, a seriousness about him which suggests he feels great responsibility towards Nightwish and everyone involved with it.
Inscrutable he may be, but there are oceans within. Take the old classics - the lone wolf sadness of ‘Nemo’ (“my loving heart, lost in the dark”), which made a certain journalist sob like a twat in the squalor at Download. Or the pointedly autobiographical ‘The Poet And The Pendulum’, in which “a widowed writer torn apart by chains of hell” fantasises about his own death before finding hope in a devastating mother-to-son coda.
Marco Hietala on stage at Wembley, 19 December 2015
These songs and others like them are today sung with the utmost care and respect by Floor, who also inserts the supercharged emotions they always deserved. During ‘Ghost Love Score’, at the point where Tarja used to wave and walk off stage, Floor instead launches a series of seemingly impossible notes skyward, befitting the song’s climactic final act. “To me, it’s not a Tarja song or an Anette song, it’s a Nightwish song,” she explains. “I never tried to sing them in the exact same way they’d been sung before, but it’s a process, and slowly you make those songs your own more and more.
“I knew my own identity as a singer, so that helped me give them a face. I’ve been able to implement my own sound and personality without wanting to copy what had been done already.”
There’s a lovely scene in a Dutch documentary in which Floor is shown footage of her parents – their eyes wet – watching her sing ‘Élan’ at Tampere, Finland, in front of 24,000 people. It cuts back for a reaction shot of Floor, and she’s in pieces. How is it that she can convey and be affected by such powerful emotions without, as the band’s British multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley puts it, “blubbing” on stage?
“I sometimes do,” she sniggers. “It’s a fine line. The thing is, if I get too affected, I can’t sing. I try to let it transmit through me, but then I become very sensitive to what I get back. If I’m already close to feeling it too much and then I see someone ‘blubbing’, I’m gone and I simply have to look away.”
The last two years have seen a change of tone, as the music has become less turbulent and more celebratory. Tuomas regards the last album’s 24-minute closing track ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’ as his band’s finest achievement. It ends with the mantra “We were here! We were here!”, an attempt to remind us that our very existence is the result of our winning an unlikely genetic lottery.
“It’s a positive force overall, I hope,” he says. “It’s a celebration of life; about making the most of your time. I don’t even think we’re living in particularly dark times. We sometimes think we are because the media covers troubling events with such intensity. All kinds of shit is still happening, but in the past there have been more wars and conflict going on than today. It all comes down to education and science. One of my heroes Bertrand Russell said ‘the beginning of wisdom is to see the world as it is, and not as how we wish it would be.’ I think that’s a very wise statement.”
This same vehicle of spirit moved Nightwish to go ahead with their Paris show on November 25 last year, even though it came just 12 days after the terrorist atrocity at the city’s Bataclan theatre. With nearly every other touring band calling off their Paris shows, it was a move that won the Finns much respect. “I considered not going for about five minutes,” shrugs Tuomas. “We all wanted to play Paris. It’s not that we didn’t feel for the victims, it was the contrary. It was about making sure that life goes on – you don’t want to send out the message that darkness has won. There was a special atmosphere and for me it was one of the top three shows of the tour.”
Nightwish live at Wembley, 19 December 2015
Floor is especially defiant: “A lot of mostly American bands decided it was too dangerous. No, it’s not! The odds of being killed in a road accident tomorrow are far higher than being killed in a terrorist attack. These suicidal idiots with their bombs want to spread fear, so let’s deny them that.”
The band sealed a triumphant year with the now immortalised Wembley show. As you’ll see on the DVD, it ended with the front rows in tears and Tuomas staggering backwards, as if stunned, holding his head in his hands. And that’s before evolutionist and writer Richard Dawkins stepped out to deliver a concluding speech in one of the most memorable – and strangest – endings to a rock gig ever.
After another full year of touring, the end of the road has finally been reached – for now at least. Floor and partner Hannes Van Dahl (Sabaton’s drummer) will go home and prepare for family life. The rest of the band – completed by their quiet, underrated guitarist Emppu Vuorinen and drummer Kai Hahto who has been deputising for the unwell Jukka Nevalainen – will go their separate ways.
There are only two things that Tuomas will reveal about the future. Firstly, that their calendars for 2018, 2019 and 2020 are already populated with yet-to-be-announced Nightwish activity, and secondly, that the next album will continue the theme established by the last.
“I think we got about half way there – there will be more. I think this is probably just part one of the process; we didn’t yet say all we have to say. It is such a vast world of inspiration and we have only just touched the surface.”
That said, and perhaps indicative of the need for a break, Tuomas admits that he is “completely empty” and doesn’t have any new material written. “Usually by now I would have five or six songs. I haven’t really felt like doing any, but maybe it will come next year. If it does, that’s great, but if it doesn’t, we are not in any hurry. To be honest, I will be surprised if inspiration doesn’t come next year. I’m not taking any pressure though – that’s the whole idea of having the year off.”
Before that comes the wrench of the long goodbye. “It’s going to be emotional by any measure,” he sighs. “I am already feeling melancholy creeping in, but at the same time I’m really looking forward to just being at home with my family. But I love all of these people – the band, the management, the technicians, everybody. It is going to be hard, but a year goes by quickly, and we know the story will continue. We have the plan for the following three years in front of us, and that will keep us sane.”
The promised calm waters will be an interesting contrast to the passage thus far. If there’s one thing that has separated Nightwish from other bands it’s the sense of drama. The size of the emotion. The turbulence and the triumph. The book waiting to be written. The film waiting to be made.
Floor Jansen with Steve Beebee
Since joining the band, Floor has had her arms and right shoulder festooned with colourful, empowering ink, courtesy of Italian tattooist Silvia Pretto. The centrepiece is an owl, a creature almost as symbolic to Nightwish as Eddie is to Iron Maiden. It’s a mark of her transformation from housebound invalid to striding rock colossus. That journey, from darkness to light, is clearly also reflected in how fans experience the music.
Erika Althreya from Slovakia went to a Nightwish show in the Czech Republic this year, and was moved to write the following on their Facebook page: “It took me some time to process what I saw. I was standing there covering my tears with shaking hands, feeling every picture, every note, every single second of that show. For the moment there was no band, there were no people, because everything just worked as one and I felt so peaceful, emotional and, I am not afraid to say, divine.”
For Erika and all those who interpret the colours of life through the glass of music, Nightwish is more than just a band.