Interview: Mirel Wagner

Okayafrica sat down with up-and-coming Finnish/Ethiopian singer Mirel Wagner to talk about her beautiful bare-boned folk compositions and her upcoming self-titled US debut on Friendly Fire.

"No Death" has gotten a lot of coverage in the US, can you talk about the background of the song?

That's a difficult question because I don't really remember much about the writing process. I do remember that I wrote the lyrics in one-sitting. But the melodies and that sort of stuff just happened when I was playing guitar. Then the song just came to me. I think I wrote it 3 years ago.

How about the music video, it's quite stunning.

Yeah, that was shot last summer at this remote town in this renovated house. It was shot very fast. We just kind of went for it. We wanted to make a video that's simple, like the song, but still has that something, you know? [The video is] a bit scary, or so I've been told, but I think it's a very beautiful video.

Yeah, it's both gloomy and beautiful. Is this something you wanted to portray with your music as well?

Yeah, what I really like to do in music, and what I listen to, has that sort of simplicity that creates a huge emotional response. I like simple things, you don't always need to shout to make an impact.

Where do your influences come from?

Everything I listen to. Everything I see, imagine. There's not one thing that's the cause of it all. But I'm inspired by everyday life, and many things that don't happen everyday. Love and happiness, books I read, things I see, people I meet. And just my imagination.

What are some artists that have influenced you?

I don't know if they've influenced me in a way that I sound like them but I've been compared to Leonard Cohen, who's a big hero of mine. Then Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. And old blues, I really like old blues.

Been into any books or films lately?

I've been reading a lot of classics lately. Classic horror stories, like Edgar Allan Poe, I just bought this big book of his collected works. Then I like horror movies. I'm not picky. I wont be like "I'll only watch [Federico] Fellini movies." I like really bad movies, like slasher films from the 80s.

Anything you'd like to add.

[pause] ... One thing, I don't really like to explain or analyze my music or lyrics because I just love to leave it to the listener to make their own interpretation or connection to the song. That's why I didn't really talk about the music.

That's all right.

Yeah, because I think it blocks something if you start to lecture people about "this is how you should listen to my music" or "this is what it's about". And I love to hear people's interpretations of the songs.

Have you heard any interesting interpretations?

I've read a couple of reviews where the song has been interpreted as a song about a dead baby or a dead lover. It's interesting to hear.


6 Samples From 'Éthiopiques' in Hip-Hop

A brief history of Ethio-jazz cultural exchange featuring songs by Nas & Damian Marley, K'naan, Madlib and more.

This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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