August 10, 2021 Interview – Esa Holopainen of Amorphis Talks Silver Lake
Finnish Metal Guitarist Esa Holopainen has forged a marvelous career as one of the founding members of Melodic Death Metal titans Amorphis. Since 1990, the Helsinki native has churned out album after album and song after song of high-quality, timeless music. Like everyone else in the world, the forced time-out of the COVID-19 pandemic has torn down the cycle of touring and music production and given busy artists something which they once did not truly have – time.
Time leads to reflection and, in the case of Holopainen, a chance to share with the world art that existed only in his mind. This comes in the form of Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen, an album featuring sterling vocal performances from a wide array of singers. Together they bring to life one man’s vision. Recently Cryptic Rock were able to set down with the man himself and have a chat about the project, its inspiration, and much more.
Cryptic Rock – It is good to see you after such a crazy year, making music and remaining creative. Silver Lake by Esa Holopainen is a beautiful recording and shows you stepping into your own creative world after decades of hard-won success with Amorphis. It appears you had the songs for Silver Lake written, or at least in your head a little bit. Were you waiting for the right moment to release them and then this year provided you that opportunity? Or would you maybe have released this anyway, even without the pandemic?
Esa Holopainen – No, I don’t think I would have started to work with a solo project if it wouldn’t have been for the pandemic and the situation of all the shows and tours that canceled. And I’m really thankful to my producer, Nino Laurenne of Sonic Pump Studios in Helsinki, who actually called me and asked if I would be interested to start to work with my solo stuff, because he knew that I’d been talking about it. He’s probably the only guy that I was talking about it with, that it would be nice to do all my solo stuff at some point. So he gave a call and I replied to him that why not? Good timing. I’m super proud of it. And, of course, because it’s my own solo project, it’s more personal.
Cryptic Rock – Were these compositions ever destined for Amorphis or were they visions you knew didn’t fit and needed to be held until the time was right?
Esa Holopainen – I had a couple songs on my computer that I’ve saved for some reason, I don’t know why, but it’s some stuff that I did like. It’s very different from Amorphis; I didn’t offer them for any Amorphis session. So I looked back into those songs, and I played them to Nino, and asked what do you think about these songs here? He got excited and he said it’s good stuff, and it just needs a fine singer, or singers, I guess. They’re pretty versatile songs. And that’s pretty much when the thing started to click to me. I asked a couple friends – Jonas from Katatonia, Einar from Leprous, and Björn from Soilwork – because all these songs got little elements that I imagined might fit for these guys. And they did: they all picked a song that I sent for them, and replied to me that they could work with them. They had the time, obviously.
That’s how it got started. I got excited that the first three songs came out really, really good, and I got a little picture where I’m heading with the rest of the material. From that moment, I had a plan that I will ask some more friends to join me and see if they’re available, and good things happened. I got a bunch of great vocalists on this album and also great musicians. I have really good studio musicians, studio guys, here, as well.
Cryptic Rock – Vocally, it’s an embarrassment of riches. You have so many voices on here that probably would not have been available had this pause not happened. Was it different for you to create music with people who weren’t in the same room with you? Because I know Amorphis is generally together in the same room when you’re working on music.
Esa Holopainen – It actually wasn’t that hard. Me and Nino finished all the demos on the condition that they sound pretty finished. Then I send the demos to the vocalists, and that’s pretty much how it was. But each vocalist was its own case; and some vocalists wanted to work with their own lyrics, and with their own vocal melodies and vocal arrangements. For some vocalists, I did the vocal arrangements and the vocal lines, and lyrics, as well. It really varied a lot, how we worked, and it was almost like doing many albums inside of one album. The great thing was that we didn’t have to rush. I knew that my own duties with Amorphis would probably only be a couple of shows here and there, and, at some point at the end of the year, I would start to focus on the Amorphis album. But other than that, I really used my time with this album and in doing all the little arrangements and nuances for the songs. So, as horrible as it sounds, I really enjoyed the last year. It was pretty relaxing, and that was the overall mood that I also wanted to express throughout this album.
Cryptic Rock – An opportunity to spend so much time with family, and to get into your own head, I could understand how it would be a relief. The brooding “In Her Solitude” features a voice familiar to all fans of your work in the form of Tomi Joutsen (Amorphis vocalist). Did you work on this song together with him, which you have done regularly since 2005, or did you present him with the music and allow him to add his own vocal lines?
Esa Holopainen – I wrote it for Tomi and, actually, we only worked together one day in the studio; he was one of the only singers that we actually got in the studio because of the lockdown. I know how he works and, obviously, his vocal range, as well; I knew pretty much how to arrange the song even had I not had him present. It’s a very typical song sung by Tomi, in the way in what he does in Amorphis, as well. You have these crawling verse lines and clean chorus lines, and a very, very traditional way to do it, and that’s the way I wanted him to do it. It’s one of those songs that also, besides his vocals, I guess it’s the most like a band song; there’s a lot happening with drums, keyboard solos and guitar solos. It’s truly like a band song. I’m really happy how it turned out.
Cryptic Rock – Your guitar playing is masterfully woven into the songs of Silver Lake, which should come as no surprise to fans of your career. It is emotional, melodious, and driving all at once. Is there a unifying theme on this album in any way? In your head, were these songs developed to sort of look back on your life or look back on Finland, that you were there for so long without leaving?
Esa Holopainen – Musically, it’s strongly influenced from the landscape views from Finland. That is something that I try to express throughout my music, and throughout the songs, as well; the sort of melancholy and beauty that’s in the music. Besides that, I try to express all the different kinds of music that influences me: Silver Lake is like a musical map inside of me, and it shows what I enjoy to listen to myself. And my approach as a guitar player was to serve all the vocals, and for the songs themselves, rather than be more up-front. I was really happy, because it’s a weird approach, as a guitar player, to do an album where you don’t put yourself that up-front. I wanted to come out with music that I would like to listen to myself from these great vocalists. So, from that perspective, I think I succeeded.
Cryptic Rock – You definitely did. I mean, “Storm” featuring Håkan Hemlin and “Ray of Light” featuring Einar Solberg – you are talking about two of the better male voices in Prog and Metal right there. Yeah, you really succeeded in that. And the storytelling, the bard-type vibe of “Alkusointu,” that’s beautiful too. What is that man saying?
Esa Holopainen – He is telling an old poem from the 18th century. I think it was 1890, or something like this, when the poem was originally written. It is based on Finnish mythology, and it tells the world creation story according to our Finnish mythology. It tells about how the world was created from little islands, so it’s very sort of traumatic lyrics and fits well for Vesa-Matti’s voice.
And why I picked the poem was because I knew that Vesa-Matti Loiri has actually recorded the poems from this same poetry guy before, and he’s done many albums from the 1970s still until today. So Vesa-Matti himself, I guess nobody knows him outside of Finland, but he is the most famous Finnish actor and singer and everybody knows him here. So I was really, really honored to have him on this album. When he did this organ work thing, we recorded it in Sonic Pump studios, and it was one of the highlights of making this album – to actually meet him and talk with him. He is a wonderful person.
Cryptic Rock – That is really special. It must’ve been cool for you too, because Amorphis’ lyrics, which are some of the best around, are provided by a lyric writer with a background in poetry and literature. Was it cool for you to be the lyric-writer for a change again? It is known you used to write some of the Amorphis lyrics.
Esa Holopainen – Yeah, back in the day one or two. It was definitely something of a jump into the unknown, because it wasn’t just writing the lyrics, but it was also arranging the lyrics, and trying to find the synonyms that really sing in the song. I think that was probably the trickiest part, to find the synonyms, and arrange the lyrics so that they don’t really lose the original meaning. At some point, I don’t remember which song it was, but me and Nino were composing the vocal melody lines, and we had the lyrics. We really found a cool melody line, but we couldn’t find any words, or any synonym that could really sing with the song. So it was a lot of struggling, and for me it was very educating in that way, that it was a new area to work with vocals on that deep level. So I respect every vocalist even more from now.
Cryptic Rock – The talent involved in these endeavors is outstanding, and the results of everyone’s efforts on Silver Lake demonstrate that. There is also a smoothness and natural feeling that makes it seem like you have worked with all of these people always. Also, the video for “Storm” is incredible. Did you have a lot of input in the creation of that video?
Esa Holopainen – Not that much. My input was that I knew the video director before. Owe Lingvall is a good friend of my producer Nino and mine – although he actually did Amorphis’ “Silver Bride” video back in the day. He’s the sweetest guy and he’s a good friend of Håkan Hemlin, who is the singer in “Storm.” As I knew that, I contacted him to then ask what do you think? Would you be able to shoot a video from this song? He replied to me that, yeah, it’s actually good timing because he was just about to go to the Canary Islands where he’s got another apartment. His plan was that he is going to bring Håkan Hemlin with him, and they were going to shoot the video there. My parts were shot in Green Screen in Sonic Pump Studios. I couldn’t enjoy the Canary Island view, but I was really stunned when I saw the first version from “Storm.” They really found the best spots on the island and it’s a beautiful video. Håkan Hemlin is actually now living in the Canary Islands – he never went back to Sweden.
Cryptic Rock – Better weather.
Esa Holopainen – (Laughs) Yeah, yeah. He stayed there for good.
Cryptic Rock – It is probably far ahead of us, and it’s not something that you’ve got to worry about right now, but would you ever consider presenting this music live with these people when you’re able to? It would probably be impossible to get everybody together, but is that something you would ever attempt?
Esa Holopainen – Yeah, I would love to. I like the idea of that. It would be so amazing to have all the people in the one place to play one or two shows. That would be great, but I don’t know how realistic that would be. So we’ll see. It could be doable, perhaps during summer festivals, if we get most of the artists to the same place to play with their bands. We’ll see. That’s something that people have already asked. Another thing is when the world opens again, and we start to tour with our own bands, I know when the next Amorphis album comes out next year, we’re going to be again really, really busy. And, I don’t know, we have to see.
Cryptic Rock – Fans will be super excited to get your solo album and a new Amorphis album right after that!
Esa Holopainen – We are actually almost halfway done with recordings for the Amorphis album. I’m flying to Sweden next month to finish the guitars, then the sound producer flies back to Finland with me and he’ll start to work with Tomi’s vocals and with keyboards. Then I think everything should be finished. If everything goes well and smoothly, everything should be finished at the end of the summer.
Cryptic Rock – Awesome. So you’re able to go back and forth between Finland and Sweden?
Esa Holopainen – It’s tough because Sweden has the highest amount of cases when it comes to COVID at the moment. They have chosen a little different approach to the COVID situation than other Nordic countries or countries in Europe, in general. Well, it is what it is, and you have to sacrifice for the greater good, which is art.
Cryptic Rock – Most definitely! Congratulations on succeeding with your first solo album, Silver Lake. The album particularly shows fans that you are not stuck in any one type of music. Your influences, whether it is Death Metal or a classic Prog Rock band like Kingston Wall, you have woven these influences into a magnificent whole.
Esa Holopainen – Absolutely, and thank you. When I had this great opportunity to make my own project, I really wanted to put a lot of my musical influences into it and I wanted people to hear it.
Cryptic Rock – Amorphis is unafraid to go anywhere you fancy within the structure of the band’s sound. You’re not married to any one type of music, though. At its heart it is Melodic Death Metal, but you take such beautiful departures into other forms of Rock. Silver Lake, in that respect, both was and was not a departure for Esa Holopainen, the artist.
Esa Holopainen: I think the great thing with Amorphis is that we can easily fulfill our musical needs there. That is one of the reasons I didn’t feel it that necessary to release any solo project before, because I could easily put all my musical needs and everything into Amorphis’ songs. But with the opportunity like this now, it’s like it gave me more chances to explore my inner-self even more as a musician.
Cryptic Rock – Fantastic. Last question. Have you seen any good Horror movies lately or, if not, what are some of your favorites?
Esa Holopainen – I haven’t seen any seriously good Horror movies made lately, but I like The Exorcist (1973) and The Evil Dead (1981) – these are the classics to me. But I really enjoyed the Halloween (2007) that was directed by Rob Zombie.