With her new, third album "Demian", Ringa Manner from The Hearing is approaching an auditory space, where everything is "just alright".
Ringa Manner pulls up her left sleeve and shows me a tattoo of a unicorn.
It doesn’t look like your usual cute and shiny unicorn with a rainbow for a tail: this one is a rather rough looking long faced creature dressed in suit and tie. A few notes emerge from its chub – it appears to be singing.
The mythical creature (and the national animal of Scotland, she tells me) on Manner’s arm looks quite ordinary in its smart casual attire. It reminds me of the protagonist in the weird animated comedy-drama Bojack Horseman.
“Owen Pallett drew this for me”, she commences.
I’m trying to imagine how moves and moods would sound as music and to figure out how to morph these inner impulses and experiences into universal feelings.
Manner has a tradition of getting a new tattoo nearly every time she plays a show abroad. But this time she just happened to be on holiday in Great Britain. She ended up being in Manchester at the same time as the Canadian indie-violin virtuoso.
“Owen has been a huge musical idol for me! It was a miracle that I happened to be in town when he played. So I went to see him and just cried throughout the set. After the show I went to say hi, and I eventually asked him to draw a unicorn for me. He said 'sure', and drew this goofy thing!”
Manner's other tattoos include for instance an ice cream cone she got in Lisbon, and the word “Да”, “da”, which means “yes” in Russian.
“I got that in Moscow. Even though I find the Russian political climate rather disturbing, the people there were really nice and it was a beautiful city. I thought that ‘da’ was perhaps neutral enough to be a motif for a tattoo.”
Making movement to sound
Manner’s quirky tattoos seem to serve as symbols of her rich and vivid inner world.
“I get inspired by all kinds of beautiful and moving things. It can be a mood, a feeling or a rhythm – not just in a musical sense, but the rhythm in a movement or a sight. I’m trying to keep my filters open!”
Right now she’s inspired by the kalanchoe plant next to our coffee table.
“Look at the shape of that! I’m really intrigued by the way it is all over the place: how its aerial roots are claiming the space around them.”
This kind of fascination doesn’t sound surprising when it’s coming from a person who can also get excitement from her toaster (link in Finnish, sorry).
“I’m trying to imagine how these moves and moods would sound as music. I also try to figure out how to morph these inner impulses and experiences into somewhat universal feelings. That’s something I’ve been working on lately.”
Between the real world and illusion
This richness can be heard on "Demian", the third and latest album (and the successor to 2013's "Dorian" and 2016's "Adrian") by Manner’s solo moniker The Hearing. It’s a dense, cutting edge piece of experimental electronic pop. It contains stuttering bleeps, swooshing synths and beautiful, ethereal melodies.
The name comes from the Hermann Hesse novel. It’s a story about a young boy struggling between the real world and the world of illusion.
“I only read it once in my youth. The funny thing is that I haven’t returned to it since. So it’s not like I tried to make an album based on the book, because the book exists more like a faded vision in my mind. It was more interesting to build something on the impulse this vision about the book evokes in me.”
Yet Demian wasn’t an easy haul. At first Manner had decided that she will make the album completely by herself. But the outcome didn’t sound satisfying to her.
“After a year and a half I realized that I had a been working on a bunch of songs that all sounded dull and tacky! I needed another brain to make sense of it all.”
Samuli Kukkola, her partner in crime from the relentless progressive trance (or something like that) duo Yöstö – as well as one of the members in Ruusut – came to help. He ended up mixing and arranging the album.
“He did a great job, and the album sounds so much fiercer now! Though at first I got all those silly thoughts of frustration, like, ‘why didn’t I come up with all these sounds?’ But naturally I have the tendency to be protective with my solo work. In other bands I’m able to put my ego aside.”
I have the tendency to be protective with my solo work. In other bands I’m able to put my ego aside.
In the realm of “other bands” there’s the highly acclaimed and experimental pop group Ruusut, which works like a super computer run by four musicians, one writer and one producer. And then there’s Pintandwefall, the cult quartet Manner formed while still in school.
To progress by trial and error
Pintandwefall was Ringa Manner’s catalyst to playing in a band. The garage rock outfit came to exist during her last year of upper secondary school (roughly the equivalent of high school in Finland).
“We were four girls who didn’t yet know what to do with our lives.”
Initially the band was formed as a one-off performance, mainly to provoke. It was supposed to be a middle finger to the mentality of their music-oriented school, which valued musicaltechnicality over everything else.
“So we chose instruments we really couldn’t play, wrote a couple of tunes and took the stage only in order to make fools of ourselves. After that, the group was destined to split up ‘due to artistic differences’.”
I realized I have to create a space for myself between the outside world and my inner self – a place where I can just ‘be’, in a void of expectations and distress.
Things didn’t go as planned. Pintandwefall got another gig. And yet another. Now thirteen years has passed and the band is about to release their sixth album in early 2020.
Manner says that Pintandwefall has taught her what “musicality” is all about.
“Before the band, I was too scared to even touch any instrument that I didn't know how to play. For some reason I was afraid I’d break them. But eventually I understood that virtually every instrument is playable, at least to some extent. So I’ve given myself permission to progress in music with trial and error.”
"You matter, everything is fine"
This principle can also be elaborated to a more existential framework. Take for instance the Demian track When In Doubt Repeat These Words:
“You are allowed sadness / you are allowed weakness / you matter / you have worth”, Manner recites in the song.
Why is it important to exclaim things like this in a song? Is the world so ruthless nowadays that you need to utter things this directly? Can you call this “self-care music”?
“Pretty much, yeah”, Manner smiles.
“At some point I realized that I have to create a space for myself between the outside world and my inner self – a place where I can just ‘be’, in a void of expectations and distress. So that song is an interpretation of it; an auditory message that everything will be just fine. Maybe not that fantastic… but just alright!”.