Karina: For those about to rock

Karin Mäkiranta and Helmi Tikkanen are two high school friends who started to make quiet and intimate music as Karina, with only an acoustic guitar and a double bass. For their second album “2” they have conjured a loud, sonic wave of guitars and reverb. “We yearn for greatness in our music”, they state. 

“We have had this inner will to ‘roar’ and ‘rock’ for a while now”, says Helmi Tikkanen.

“Yeah, we kind of gave ourselves a permission to use power chords and to show the sign of the horns”, Karin Mäkiranta continues and chuckles.

The two members of Karina put their words in a bold yet modest way. “Rock” isn’t perhaps the word one would instantly combine with Karina’s music.

Take for instance their debut single Laivat, a slowly growing 8-minute folk odyssey that reminds of Joanna Newsom’s epic stories rather than, say, any AC/DC riffage. The average buzzwords around the band have perhaps been “folky”, “minimal”, “intimate” and “quiet”.

Albeit these characterizations can be accurate with Karina’s 2018 eponymous debut record and the music prior to it, their second album 2 sounds like a literal second chapter in their musical story.

“I guess we both yearn for a certain kind of greatness in music. It’s something that can be very loud but very quiet and frail as well” – Karin Mäkiranta

The record is a lavish and grandiose cathedral of sounds with huge guitar walls and lots of reverb. The sonic vortex reminds of 1990s shoegaze bands or the poetic post rock by Icelandic favorites Sigur Rós.

It turns out that the duo has a penchant for dynamic extremities. Tikkanen explains:

“I guess we both yearn for a certain kind of greatness in music. It’s something that can be very loud but very quiet and frail as well.”

“Also silence can be powerful”, Mäkiranta elaborates.

“When we played our first sets together with just an acoustic guitar and a double bass, it felt huge to just play those songs in front of people. The power was inside us.” 

Low in high school

The impact that Karina has already made in the Finnish music scene has also been powerful. Or at least as powerful as an indie music act can make these days. 

Whether it’s the five-star review of their eponymous debut album in the biggest Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, being nominees for the Nordic Music Prize or a European tour with the American indie folk prodigy Beirut, Karina has fastened their position as a part of the strictly modern and forerunning wave of modern Finnish pop.

“Of course it’s been lovely”, Mäkiranta says. 

“Comparing to how long we’ve been making music together it feels really privileged to be in a situation like this, where we can only focus on the music and play shows.” 

Despite being in their mid-twenties Tikkanen and Mäkiranta have a long history together. They studied in Sibelius Upper Secondary School in Helsinki and became friends on a musical camp nine years ago.

“At first we were too shy to get to know each other, but there was a mutual admiration between us”, Tikkanen recalls.

“Comparing to how long we’ve been making music together it feels really privileged to be in a situation like this, where we can only focus on the music and play shows” – Karin Mäkiranta

But something clicked on that camp. They realized that they had fun making music together. They also considered being in a music school both a blessing and a curse.

“We sensed that certain expressive personalities had an advantage in those circles”, she continues.

The words are put it a diplomatic way, but the bottom line is, that Tikkanen and Mäkiranta did not fit in that outgoing art school character. This led to a wave of different feelings, including envy and frustration, Mäkiranta says.

“But I guess it was eventually a positive experience to battle through situations like that: after studying a bunch of jazz singing it felt wonderful to escape to a cabin in the woods and just write the simplest songs in the world.”

Despite these growing pains the duo went on to study in the Sibelius Academy. Mäkiranta graduated as Bachelor of Music and got an additional degree in music technology from the Pop & Jazz Conservatory in Helsinki. Tikkanen has studied the classical double bass for a couple of years.

“Girls can’t play bass”

High school hasn’t been the only source of frustration for Mäkiranta and Tikkanen. In the year 2020 one would expect that two women making music together wouldn’t be too big of a deal. Sadly this hasn’t been the case, and every now and then Karina has been framed as specifically female, which has led them to having to confront all kinds of musty attitudes. 

This covers everything from male sound technicians thinking that two women don’t know how to plug their instruments to hearing things such as “girls can’t play bass”.

“This concerns music schools as well. I’ve felt myself uncomfortable as a female bass player in several situations. The teachers should recognize what kind of behavior and roles they are conveying to their students”, Tikkanen states.

“At times people even forget that we don’t just sing in ‘pretty harmonies’. We also play all the music”, Mäkiranta points out.

"It’s great that our band has received so much media exposure. Through that, diversity becomes more commonplace and nobody has to view a band like ours as an anomaly" – Helmi Tikkanen

“I remember reading a concert review where our singing was labeled ‘girly’ and our music ‘tender’”, Tikkanen recalls.

“Like, what the heck do those words even mean? Why couldn’t it be ‘boyish’ for once? And I guess the talk about our music’s ‘tenderness’ wouldn’t be as acute if we were men.”

The only way to change this culture, according to Karina, is to make it more diverse.

“I think the problem lies in how the music is mediated to us”, Tikkanen says.

“The less popularity alternative music gets, the less everyone knows about it. People should be told more about different musical phenomena – and looking from this perspective, it’s great that our band has received so much media exposure. Through that, the diversity becomes more commonplace and nobody has to view a band like ours as an anomaly.”

Playing abroad is liberating

Karina’s international popularity can be seen as quite liberating from the sometimes narrow contexts of Finnish music circles. Even musical comparisons feel a bit more sophisticated when being free from the domestic burden. 

“Sigur Rós is perhaps the most common reference”, Mäkiranta reckons.

“But that’s just great, since they’ve always been an important band for me. I guess the other reason is that we also sing in a language that no-one understands.”

It is true that Karina can easily be listed as an ethereal art pop band from the breezy Nordics, but the band forms a connection on other levels as well. Mäkiranta recalls a situation when she played their single Teko for her friends in Berlin, her current hometown.

“At times people even forget that we don’t just sing in ‘pretty harmonies’. We also play all the music” – Karin Mäkiranta

“Just for fun, I asked my friends what they thought the song was about. Many of them said that they felt it dealt with ‘letting go’ – which was absolutely correct. It’s mystical how certain feelings and atmospheres can transmit without a common language.”

Playing abroad is fun also because the audience doesn’t have the same kind of expectations as in Finland, Tikkanen says.

“It’s a tabula rasa: people can’t refer us to the usual Finnish names or contextualize our music too strictly.”

However, she continues, the Finnish audience in smaller towns and venues greets the duo in a similarly eager manner. 

“It differs a lot from playing in front of our friends in Helsinki.”

“Yeah”, Mäkiranta answers.

“People dare to stand up and ask us what we’re all about, or tell us about the feelings our music has evoked. This doesn’t happen too often in big cities. That’s interesting and also very rewarding!” 

Album

Karina: 2

(Playground Music, 2020)