By Laura Palotie
Singer Amadeus Lundberg, who performed at Finland Center earlier this month as part of a tango-themed evening, shot to fame in Finland when he won the much-publicized title of Tango King in 2009. Since then, he has continued to channel youthful passion into Finnish tango, a long-standing and beloved genre of pop music. Earlier this week Lundberg came out with a new single, an interpretation of the 1940s classic, Amado Mio.
During his recent visit to New York, I chatted with Lundberg about his career and musical background, as well as his experience of bringing Finnish tango to New York.
Q: You’ve grown up with music: your father, Taisto Lundberg, has played in Romani music group Hortto Kaalo, your mother plays the guitar and sings, and your aunt is well-known singer Anneli Sari. How did your own music career begin?
A: I attended a music-oriented preschool, and began taking violin lessons at six years old at one of Helsinki’s music institutes. I remember my father coming home from a gig, putting his violin on the table, and my reaching for it, grabbing it and saying “I want to play this.” My mom was over the moon, of course. In elementary and middle school I also played the drums, and later the guitar. I also sang at the children’s choir at the Finnish National Opera, which gave me a great basic training for singing – until my voice changed, I had the highest voice in the group.
Q: Finland’s status as a music hub is often attributed to its accessible music education; music schools with private instruction are available in cities around the country. Would you say that you’re a product of this system?
A: Of course music education pushed me forward and helped me develop, but from a young age I’ve done things in an instinctual, unstructured way. When I was studying the violin as a kid, I remember rebelling sometimes. I loved music and the teachers liked me, but the idea of studying it was sometimes difficult for me, and there were times when my mom had to come and fetch me from a tree outside of the music school. Music has always been around me in such a strong way that the fire for it, the musicality, has been the bouncing off point for everything with me.
Q: It’s obvious that music is in your genes, but what would you say you learned from your parents about being in music professionally?
A: I learned that if you play a lot of gigs and travel long distances while touring, it’s important to rest enough and take care of yourself. This is wonderful work, but it can also wear on the body, and requires self-discipline. I try to exercise so that I can let off steam and stay in shape. It also helps that I love to drive; I’ve liked cars since I was a little boy, and I even studied car painting for a year before becoming a full-time musician.
Q: Auto mechanics and music seem pretty distant from one another. How did that come about?
A: I wasn’t sure that I could make a career of music, so I thought it would be good to have a job. I’ve always enjoyed cars, so I thought I could learn to fix them as well. I worked at Mercedes-Benz for a month and got into the car painting concentration at a vocational school. But the job didn’t feel exactly right – I’ve always been that way, a censor goes off in my head when something isn’t right – so I took a chance and quit. I decided to enter the singing competition at the 2009 Seinäjoki Tango Festival, and prepared for it by studying voice with opera singer Jyrki Niskanen for two months. Then I ended up winning the title of Tango King, and have been doing music for a living ever since.
Q: What is it about tango as a genre that sparked your interest?
A: It fits my style, I think. I like to blend the classic and the modern. In Finland, tango has a long tradition.
Q: Your rise to fame was rapid; after becoming Tango King, you became a household name. What did you learn from the experience?
A: How you react depends on what type of person you are. For some, it can be really wearing, while others can just push forward with tenacity – sisu. Meanwhile, some are able to employ sisu and enjoy it too. For me, it started with the idea of just pushing ahead, and eventually I came to enjoy it. It’s weird singing in front of 2,000 people and working 15-hour days, but you learn to pace yourself and gain a sense of independence. When you win a competition like that, it’s not fully in your own terms, it follows a standard formula, but eventually you begin to have more influence. It’s important that your career doesn’t feel forced and that you enjoy it. I work long days, but I’m doing exactly what I’ve always wanted. And I’m certainly not afraid of work. I also have a nomad’s soul; the touring lifestyle suits me.
Q: What was it like to perform tango in New York, especially to an audience that wasn’t entirely Finnish?
A: It was a great experience. I did it with my usual routine, but also found a new feeling in it. And it’s always nice to see that people like what you sing.
Q: You also performed at an open mic night in Manhattan, right?
A: I did; I sang New York, New York, Granada, and Elvis’s In the Ghetto. Afterwards I chatted with a number of people and got really positive feedback; one songwriter even sent me an email afterwards. I’m looking forward to making more contacts here, and hopefully returning to the U.S for a concert tour.
Q: What kinds of musicians do you seek out and work the best with?
A: I like to improvise a bit during shows, and enjoy when things aren’t too rigid or set in stone. There needs to be a sense of airiness, that things don’t always follow the same formula. Playing the right notes is important, but I value musicians who can play by ear and experiment.
Q: How would you describe Finnish tango music to a foreigner?
A: It’s melancholy, and compared to Argentinean tango, Finnish tango is a little simpler. You don’t have to be able to dance perfectly, and it has more of a poppy feel. Finnish tango is beautiful and can highlight gorgeous singing, and both the singing and the instrumental aspects are demanding.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m working on a new album with the Riku Niemi orchestra, and we just had a release party for our new single, Amado Mio. It’s nice to work with such a front-row orchestra.
Q: What’s the current state of tango music, and what do you see happening in the scene in the future?
A: Despite my gypsy blood, I don’t have a crystal ball and can’t predict the future; it would be nice if I could. My new record is tango, with some nice arrangements that put a fresh spin of classics. So that’s what we’re throwing on the table, and hopefully people enjoy it. As long as there’s an audience, the music will live on.