Album review: Maarja Nuut – ‘Hinged’: percussive and playful, free as a bird future folktronica from Estonian genius


The Breakdown

Maarja's latest joins the dots between a strong and specifically Baltic northern European folk tradition, ambient electronica and some of the more rarified dance musics current in ways you weren't entirely sure could be possible; be glad she has. Vivacious, engaging, we need more people like Maarja, who aren't wrenching her folk tradition into fusion forms, spraining them en route to the altar; but blending it with the smoothest, most devil-may-care deftness. Maarja is an absolute songbird, untrammelled, singing on the wing, exultant, exploratory, innovative and deeply fun. Let this album bring light into your world; I'll be outside, setting up the stage for the dancing.
9.0

BORN in Rakvere, a small town in the very north of Estonia, a handful of miles from the Baltic Sea, the experimental musician Maarja Nuut was first introduced to music by her mother, a choir conductor, which opened up a world which would become her métier.

Aged 7 she began taking violin lessons, studying at the Tallinn Music High School from the age of 12 and pursuing musical academia at three universities; Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, Viljandi Culture Academy and Royal College of Music in Stockholm.

Early on she developed an interest in folk music, in a country with a rich tradition of the same, and began to adopt the style of traditional village song, taking that canon and marrying it to contemporary electronica.

Maarja says she’s always been interested in storytelling and what the past can tell us about the future; for her, myths provide connection points to the modern world and societal upheaval. 

“One’s existence hinges on past generations – we are what has come before,” she says.

“I gradually began to grasp this thought after inheriting my grandmother’s old farm. Five generations’ worth of personal possessions; land that had sustained my forebears. Clearing the impenetrable brush, and sorting through buildings bursting with artifacts, felt like a long ritual filled with layers, layers, and more layers.

“In between this physical, emotional work, I spent time in my seaside studio randomly wiring modulars, experimenting with my voice, and strumming old Vermona organ, just as a spontaneous reflection of my thoughts or, at times, as an imaginary reunion of relatives.

“Those sessions eventually became Hinged, a record deserving of its very specific bilingual title – in Estonian, it means departed spirits and soul; in English, a link that holds things together.

“These songs are a thread between the two meanings, and a summation of a year spent exploring my family history and my place in it,” she says.

Hinged almost feels like my first real solo album,” she continues, “as I’ve recorded and produced it all alone. [Note should be made here that she brings in Swiss exploratory jazz pianist and percussionist Nicolas Stocker on three tracks].

“My background has been more about playing acoustic instruments and performing live; so recording has mostly been about going to a studio and being recorded by someone else, but this time the experiments with different ways of recording myself, searching for the right character and sounds, became an integral and most enjoyable creative part of the whole process,” she reveals.

Creative; enjoyable; both hugely so. These are the descriptors to take along with you into the album. Also pick up futuristic, playful, delightfully odd to add to your backpack for this journey.

Maarja Nuut, photographed by Taavi Arus

The first brace of tracks are both with Nicolas Stocker: it’s the title track that opens proceedings, in a skitter of chopped and refried voices, some boombox-percussive, free drum play entwining; Maarja ethereal and wordless, tremulous even, a little something of Selected Ambient Works Vol. II lent an earthy anchoring by Nicolas’ fluid, crisp play at the kit. Chit-chattering electronica unscrolls as Maarja remains hidden behind, a ghost in the machine. “On Vaja / In Need” grows from a clockwork ghostliness, Colleen rendered android, into a rolling, skeletal post-rock, tUnE-yArDs offered up to a pastoral deity of the brilliantly odd, loose and swaying, transmuted into a kind of clanging, alien pop beamed back from many centuries into the future, watery blipping and swoops, Maarja’s voice a turntablist interjection.

“Kutse tantsule / A Call For Dance”, was the fragile, playful, beautiful first single to be taken from the album, and saw release back in the heady days of June. And it’s. A. Cracker: what may be a gentle, thumbed guitar, fractured and reassembled through a cloudy mirror of electronics, thrums with a skeletal beat, over which Maarja part-speaks, part-sings an impressionistic lullaby, all cries from the soul, mutters, sudden lofting into crystalline, beauty, a voice absolutely free. It’s joyous, devil-may-care, occasionally has an air of a French psych/yé-yé track completely through the looking glass, absolutely given free rein to be exactly the self it’s always wanted to be. It sings of an absolute musical freedom. It’s like a glass of elderflower cordial on a hot afternoon; it brings new life.

And for all its musical multivalency, it’s actually quite an open and honest invitation, she reveals. “‘Kutse tantsule / A Call For Dance’ is as simple as that – a kind invitation to join me for a little dance wherever you are, stuck in your flat, bog-walking or dreaming of a tropical sea breeze. Nature is flourishing, and so should we!” 

“Mees, Kes Aina Igatses / A Man Who Ever Yearned” has a buried folk melody, woodwind and clicky beats, what might be a harp lending purity. Folk music for a better future, it wears all the positives of a thriving and vibrant Baltic musical tradition proudly while synthesising it with a gentle ambience and drone; it’s enchanting and enrapturing and comes with a soul-stirring vocal coda, Maarja free-flying and strong.

“Vaheala Valgus / I Hear Behind The Moon” is a title that translates beautifully; not beyond; behind. A slow, zero-gravity odyssey of warm organ tones, the subtlest, hummed vocal counterpoint, it’s certainly the music I’d want playing as I bounced from crater to crater on the darkside; exultant, grand, human and changeling-otherly, an off-kilter lullaby, complex in its wordless expression.

“Subota” is an ambient dub, recalls Seefeel in the way Maarja’s voice sets up as a gently oppositional swirl which mutates into a phantasmagoria of clicks and fizzes and all kinds of tones swirling as free particulates in a gaseous state; Aphex Twin as played by Silver Apples, with a tiny garlanding of Tom Tom Club, Maarja arising from within intoning a playground chant, all rhythmic response delight; while “A feast” is broken beat for a brighter world, music for a harvest evening of the most psychotropic stripe, cooing and chanting, clicking and cantering, a tribal call with a wide grin. Come celebrate, it calls, appealing to our innate rhythmic need to draw us in.

“Jojobell” is the last, and the slightest, of the three tracks to feature Nicolas Stocker, and has a wholly space-age approach to its percussive investigations, tones swooping and curling through like miniature comets, an exercise in sparse breaks which gathers glitch accents and tones to its merry band; it’s a great bridging track from the celebratory “A feast” into “A Scene / Merevees”, a more intimate future folk pop, revelling in possibilities and reminiscent of the sleepy 22nd-century breathiness of Broadcast, here Maarja very much front and centre in a sweep of enchantment, satellites of microtonality at play in the ether, a mournful keyed melody grabbing the limelight towards the end.

And it’s another all-too-brief future folktronica lament that drops the drapes once more: “Moment” has a stillness, the exploration of a point in time, a burrowing away from linear time into a pause, a capturing in sound of the time it takes to draw breath, all the many circumstances and thoughts and stimuli that play into that. It demands a slower awakening to the totality of consciousness, an engagement. It’s an oddly downbeat leaving note, in a way, leaves you wanting more and with questions unanswered – but then, Maarja isn’t an artist who wishes to mould herself to the demands of what we might need; she’s free and she brings us such joy. Would we question how starlings murmurate? I mean: we can, but there will be no answers from their little beaks.

Maarja’s latest joins the dots between a strong and specifically Baltic northern European folk tradition, ambient electronica and some of the more rarified dance musics current in ways you weren’t entirely sure could be possible; be glad she has. Vivacious, engaging, we need more people like Maarja, who aren’t wrenching her folk tradition into fusion forms, spraining them en route to the altar; but blending it with the smoothest, most devil-may-care deftness. Maarja is an absolute songbird, untrammelled, singing on the wing, exultant, exploratory, innovative and deeply fun. Let this album bring light into your world; I’ll be outside, setting up the stage for the dancing.

Maarja Nuut’s Hinged will be released digitally, on limited edition cassette and on vinyl on August 20th and may be pre-ordered from Bandcamp, here.

Connect with Maarja elsewhere on the web at her website and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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