A Love Letter to Planet Earth: An Interview with Floor Jansen & Tuomas Holopainen

Abandoning a Weak Fantasy

Back in 2015, Nightwish released the critically acclaimed Endless Forms Most Beautiful, marking the beginning of a new chapter for the band. The album was a celebration of science and reason, motivated by Tuomas‘ own spiritual and philosophical journey. It suggested an intellectual move towards naturalism and atheism, leaving behind the naiveté of the kid who wrote “The Carpenter.” This is not to say that the album was about Atheism (the occasional anti-theistic lyrics notwithstanding), as instead it was more about celebrating nature, and reflecting about our place within it. And though Nightwish have never made religion and faith the most prominent element of their music, as Tuomas himself concedes, the topic has become more evident.

“When I wrote ‘The Carpenter’ I was still praying, and I’m not praying anymore. That’s why there are songs like ‘Tribal’ [in Human:Nature] and ‘Weak Fantasy’ [in Endless Forms Most Beautiful]. It’s an evolution in personality and an evolution in music.”

Moving away from superstition is difficult. The magical thinking underpinning religion often serves as a protection against our deepest fears, while also explaining an otherwise very complex universe. For Tuomas, as for many others, leaving superstition had come hand in hand with the process of learning.

“It came about from just reading and finding out about things, and then having the courage to change my mind in the face of evidence. And I found it really fascinating, after coming into the light, that there is still so much superstition in the world. And once you get really fascinated and inspired by something, you feel forced to write songs about it!”

Tuomas with Nightwish @ Wacken 2018 (Photo: J. Salmeron)

In his 1997 book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan argued that “it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” To put it another way, enjoying a lie doesn’t make it less false; the warm blanket of ignorance should not deter us from seeking the truth. In what some have referred to as a “post-fact world,” however, truth-seeking can seem political; add to that the subjectivity of interpreting art, and you’re bound to get some push-back.

“A few days ago, somebody actually dared to say to me that, with HVMAN. :||: NATVRE, Nightwish had now ‘made their first political album… because obviously, the last song is about climate change’ I was like… ‘what?!

Then again, it just goes to show that people hear different things, and that’s actually a good thing. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the songs and in the albums; it’s not restrictive. You can interpret the songs in whatever way you want. We’ve never been a political band, and we still aren’t.

People don’t like to be preached at. The beauty and the purpose of art is to plant seeds and make people think. To give some food for thought and to make them dream and think again. That has been our purpose with every single album.”

All the Works of Nature

Nightwish (Photo: Tina Korhonen)

Although nowadays a metal band with a soprano isn’t exactly rare, the landscape was very different when Nightwish started. Though bands like Haggard and Therion had incorporated operatic vocals, Nightwish were the first to really bring them to the forefront, with former singer Tarja Turunen pulling in a lot of the band’s early fans. As the band evolved, however, and the split-up with Tarja happened, they decided to follow a new path, recruiting (non-opera) singer Anette Olzon, and taking their music into a more cinematic path. The arrival of Floor Jansen facilitated this move, as her vocal skills allowed the band to go even farther.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Floor Jansen‘s first studio album with the band, continued the musical progress of Nightwish, creating larger than-life soundscapes. The influences of the likes of Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer seemed more evident than ever before, as the music took on a very epic feel. As Tuomas explained, HVMAN. :||: NATVRE, their new album, serves as the perfect follow-up.

Already back in 2015, when we finished Endless Forms Most Beautiful, I knew that, thematically, we would continue on this path. It felt like, even though we all had a good meal, we were still hungry. I see HVMAN. :||: NATVRE as a sequel to Endless Forms Most Beautiful. In fact, if you listen to the ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’ the last song of that album, and then just continue with ‘Music’, the first song of HVMAN. :||: NATVRE, they blend-in perfectly.

This new album is 9 songs about humanity, humans and human nature, sung with human voices. And there’s a lot of singing, and a lot to say. After that, after you’ve heard those tales about humanity, you can put the second disc, the second part of the album, and just relax for half an hour. It’s an orchestral piece [‘All the Works of Nature Which Adorn Our World’]; there’s very little singing. There are some uilleann pipes, some piano parts, but mostly it’s just orchestra and choir. And it’s separated into eight parts. It’s Nightwish‘s love letter to planet Earth. That’s the best way I can describe it.

In writing this orchestral love letter to nature, Tuomas was inspired by the works of David Attenborough, particularly his acclaimed nature documentaries.

When I was doing some parts of the song, I actually put on Planet Earth and Blue Planet on Blu-Ray, turned off the volume and just looked at the images. That’s, for example,  how ‘The Blue’ came to be.
We actually asked David Attenborough to come and do the spoken part. I wrote him a letter, and he actually replied with a handwritten letter where he said ‘I’m not going to do this now, I’m very sorry, I hope you’ll forgive me, but all the best with the album’. Honestly, just to get a letter from him was something else!
We tried the same tactics that we used with Richard Dawkins, but they didn’t work! [laughs]. And we did some serious name-dropping as well! (‘You know, your pal Richard Dawkins was with us on the previous album, he was at the Wembley show with us, how about you do this with us???’) [laughs] It was very nice of him to reply.
It’s a rare thing that you get those “fanboy” moments. I’ve seen Hans Zimmer live twice, for example, and the second time he actually invited me to go backstage to meet him, but I didn’t go. There’s something about your biggest heroes, a mystical aura surrounding them… and I don’t want to break that illusion.”

We Were Here

Floor with Nightwish @ Wacken 2018 (Photo: J. Salmeron)

If you wait after a Nightwish show has ended, you’re bound to encounter a small regiment of fans carrying cakes, cookies, cards, flowers, and other assorted gifts. They will wait behind the venue (or wherever it is that they think the band might come out of), and try to give these things to the band. Some of them will still have tears in their eyes, as they will have cried a couple of times during the show. And though you might think that this is a new phenomenon for Nightwish, a by-product of their more recent successes, that assumption would be wrong. In fact, as Tuomas explained, this deep connection with their fans goes all the way back to their early days, in the mid 90’s.

“I think it was after the first album. Fans would come to me after the shows, and I’d also hear from them through letters (yes, back in the day people sent letters!). They were really heartwarming moments then, and they still are today. Some of the personal things  that people tell us are sometimes truly and utterly sad stories, while some are happy stories. They are really inspiring.”

The sadness of the stories shared by some fans makes sense. Tuomas‘ lyrics are very personal, dealing with topics such as love, loss, death, and redemption. Though many fans like Nightwish simply because of the music, many flock to the band precisely because of these themes. For those fans, the songs are a cathartic experience, allowing them to find companionship in those shared emotions. This isn’t exclusive to Nightwish, of course, as several studies have shown how genres like metal serve as a therapeutic outlet for otherwise alienated fans. When we discussed the topic, Tuomas was  eager to ensure that heavy metal’s reputation was protected.

There are many scientific articles about that. It’s been proven! You can see this in practice in metal festivals. They are really peaceful; the police almost never have to intervene. The Tuska festival in Finland, for example, is known for being the easiest-going festival in the country… and the ‘worst’ are the jazz festivals and the Finnish Schlager festivals. They are fighting all the time! Every year! Tangomarkkinat is the worst; but there are never any problems at Tuska!”

Of course, the deep connection that some fans develop with the band can also have a negative side. It can be overwhelming to, all of a sudden, have to deal with armies of fans waiting for a photo or an autograph. Floor, like  Anette Olzon before her, has experienced this overwhelming force first-hand, and realizes what the challenges are.

“When the setting is there, it’s super nice to meet people. When it’s planned and facilitated. Meeting people can take a lot of energy but, if it’s done right, it can also give you energy. But when it’s at an airport, for example, where you are completely drained, and everybody is just screaming at you because they want something from you… then it becomes really hard to stay friendly. That is not because I’m unfriendly, but because I really can’t take it; and if people then start to grab me, I might actually become unfriendly, because I find it highly intimidating. It’s a very human reaction… so if you think I’m a goddess, that might actually help you realize that I’m not! [laughs] I might even be rude, which I don’t want to be, because I do want to meet people, and I do want to hear what they think, and I want to have that moment with them, just not when others decide that it is a good time for me to do that. In those moments it’s really a challenge to maintain the calm and the sanity and the friendliness going.

With meet and greets it’s easier. I hate to say no, and sometimes having to disappoint people because the situation isn’t right for what they want, has even made some say that I’m a diva because I might not want to take a photo. It’s really not like that.”

Through the Noise

Nightwish (Photo: Tina Korhonen)

Although, in hindsight,  getting Floor Jansen on board was definitely the right move, at the time, it was a challenge. She was first recruited as a temporary replacement for the Imaginaerum tour, after the dismissal of Anette Olzon. Floor had to learn the setlist in a record time, and to face the biggest audience of her life.

I had been listening to Nightwish since it formed. I knew the old songs to a certain extent, but I had never sang them… and I had never listened to Imaginaerum, their latest album at the time! I got a crash course in the songs [laughs]”

Of course, for Floor the challenge was even bigger. She was just finishing her recovery from a truly paralyzing burnout, and which had kept her (and her musical pursuits) out of the spotlight for over a year. She had tried to get back to work a few times, but it had not gone well (“I thought I was fine, and very quickly realized that I wasn’t,” she tells me). While joining Nightwish would be a difficult process for anyone, it was even harder for someone who had just come out of such a dark place. Floor took on this challenge head-on, and quickly found herself a new home.

When you’ve had a burnout, you become afraid of things, because you don’t want it to happen again. You might even become afraid of the work that you’ve been doing; when you’re in the burnout you even hate it. I had a profound hate for singing, for metal music; I went from unlimited love to truly hating it all. I couldn’t even sing. I simply could not sing. And when you start to get out, and things start to get better, the fear is still there. Bit by bit, my love started to grow again, and I got the energy to start doing things, but the fear was really there.

I’ve heard this from other people who have had burnouts; regardless of what you do. It’s a logic thing that you fear it, because that’s precisely the thing that made you sick. At least that’s what you think at first. Of course, when I had the possibility of having good guidance to get out of this (not at first, but eventually) and to learn why I got sick to being with, which is vital to avoid getting back in there, and to take the right steps to get out. I was very fortunate in that sense, since Nightwish called right when things started to get better, and it was such a no-brainer for me to do that.

The fear was very strong, but everything went by so fast that I almost didn’t have time to doubt myself, and to really be afraid. It was ‘up or out’. It was such a big step that instead, of a slow process, it all went very fast. After two very scary days, and then the first show, things really started to roll. And it was such an unusual situation that it really just broke the fear right there, and it confirmed to me that I belong here. I belong on stage. I am a singer; it’s not just something I do, it’s what I am, and it was great to reconnect with that feeling and to see things start falling into place. For me that was a great start, and a great way out of it. I don’t think I had ever worked more, or harder, than I do nowadays; there are so many balls to keep up in the air at any given time, Nightwish, my solo career, being a mother, and the combination of it all. Now I can almost be happy that I had a burnout, because it gave me the ultimate lesson in how not to do thing. Even now, I am always reminded of what happened, but you hope that you learned to pick on the signals much earlier, and not to ignore them or push them away as if they weren’t there. You have to deal with it, you have to adapt to it, in order to keep everything order so that it’s not just a long phase of being well followed by a big crash. It’s a almost a daily reminder.”

Mental issues are often surrounded by a very damaging stigma, shaming those afflicted by them. Simply out of shame, many people struggling with mental disorders will delay seeking adequate medical care. On this, Floor had a simple message.

“It’s OK if you’re not OK! Burnout and depression are nothing to be ashamed of. It was not your choice to get there and, hopefully, you’ll learn vital lessons in how to avoid it in the future. There is so much that we learn in our lives; we go to school, we learn about everything in life, except about those things. You don’t learn anything about psychology or about yourself. It’s interesting to think about that. Only recently we’ve began to understand these things, and it’s still very difficult to really understand what’s going on inside of a person who has depression or a burnout. People who were very close to me didn’t even see it it coming when it happened.”

The Poet and the Pendulum

Floor Jansen @ Wacken 2018 (Photo: J. Salmeron)

As we continue discussing how the fans relate to the music, and remembering Tuomas‘ story about how some of his lyrics were mistakenly perceived as “political”, we turn to the issue of interpretation. How does an artist deal with the endless ways in which their art is interpreted by their audience? After all, an artist’s expression must be felt and “translated” by someone. By the mere act of getting their art out there, artists give up their control as to what every detail meant.  For Floor, this is just part of the fun.

“I don’t think that’s the difficult part. I think it’s the beautiful part. If you don’t want to have that, you need write a song and never play it for anyone but yourself. But, since you chose to share it with the world, everybody who listens to it will have their own take on it. It’s great that it’s open to interpretation, and that maybe you’ll hear something different than what anybody else in he room heard, and you’ll feel something different than what anybody else there felt. If it gets misinterpreted, and it comes back that you get accused of something, like being called a political band, that’s obviously not great, because that was never the intention; but if you do hear a message in it, whether or not we meant it, and it helps you in any way, perfect. We’ve had many interpretations over this new album, because everybody is different, so everybody hears different things and comes back with different favorites, and interested in the meaning behind different songs. Everybody gets something different out of it. That’s the beauty of it; it’s a timeless thing.

Even when Tuomas writes a song and plays it to us, from that very moment we start to interpret things differently. When I sing his words, I sing them through me, I can’t sing them through him. I understand what he says, but only to a point, because I am a different person, and though I try to transmit the feelings behind the words, I always do it as if they were my own. But then, when you hear my voice, these words become yours. That’s how it works, and that’s when you have to let it go. At that point, anything goes.”

Similarly, Tuomas, who has penned the vast majority of the songs, seemed unperturbed about this.

There are no certain facts in art, like there are in science. That’s the beauty of it. Ambiguity is the essence of art; that’s why I never want to go very deeply into the lyrics and explain what I meant by them. If you brought DaVinci to this day, and asked him about the smile of the Mona Lisa, his answer would change everything, the mystery would be gone.

One of my all-time favorite songs is ‘Wonderful Life’ by Black… and it took me about 35 years to understand what it was about!

HVMAN. :||: NATVRE is out now on Nuclear Blast Records. Nigthwish will embark on a European tour in late 2020… provided COVID19 doesn’t get in the way.

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