Finnish pop avant-guardian Heidi Kilpeläinen's MA graduation project from (then Soho-based) Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in 2004 was a collection of songs subsequently released as an album titled HK119, which also ended up being the name of her alter-ego.
Since then, HK119 has successfully continued nudging boundaries, merging music with visual art to — often — startling effect, and doing it in an accessible way. On her most recent release, Imaginature, she's combined forces with The Knife and Fever Ray producer Christoffer Berg, and the album's live incarnation will hit Hoxton Bar & Kitchen next week.
Here we learn from Kilpeläinen about what inspires the HK119 project, how she likes living in London and what she makes of Central Saint Martins College's new King's Cross abode.
What brought about your initial move to London?
I was going around Europe a bit and I met a boy in Madrid [she smiles]. He wanted me to come and visit him in London. The rest is history.
Do you have fond memories of your time at St Martin’s?
Oh yes, I had some great times there. We had a fun and supportive group and I liked my teachers. One memory is performing for two teachers who were marking the work — actually, the stage might have been the same one Sex Pistols performed on — and it felt odd to perform in such a context, much harder than performing for 200 or 2,000 or 20,000 people. But it went well and I got a distinction. I was wearing a paper cape and horns!
Have you had the chance to check out the new location in King's Cross?
Yes, it's great, although there was something really charming about the run-down building in Soho. What a location! You felt like you could make a mess and I loved that 'old school' stage that I had for my degree show on a Russian Constructivist/Bauhaus-inspired stage set with video installation and live performance. I had a ball!
Your first album was, essentially, a collection of songs created as part of your graduation work. How do you feel about those songs 8-ish years down the line?
Short and to the point. No fluffing about. Now I enjoy the fluffing about bits in Imaginature. I most enjoy the DIY videos I made to accompany those short songs. I think they are pretty good songs. I still really like some of the melodies and choruses. They were great to perform live, quite theatrical and fun. It was great to perform around a concept. Now everything, including me, is more organic, more heartfelt and gentle. The live show still has an element of the old HK. I love the fact that I've had a chance to evolve and try both approaches. Now I even love just the playing the ukulele free of amplification anywhere. If you told me that a few years ago I would have probably laughed at the idea. I guess I was scared to reveal the gentle sides of myself. I had to mature and arrive at it when the time was right.
You mentioned Imaginature. On this record, you’ve taken your sound in new directions. What was the inspiration for this?
The amazingly rich and dramatic Finnish saga Kalevala was one of the things that really touched me and inspired me. It inspired the world of Imaginature that includes ceramic sculpture, drawings, fabrics, jewellery and videos — and, of course, the music. Also trips to nature, listening to a bird in spring for the first time. I mean really listening not just hearing. Meeting a shaman on one of my travels was pretty special, too. He sings and speaks his poetry on the record.
How did your collaboration with Christoffer Berg come about?
I heard the Fever Ray album and loved it. I saw Christoffer worked on it and I instantly thought of him. He is the right producer for Imaginature. Then I lost my confidence until Brett Anderson, after hearing my demos, said "Christoffer Berg for sure would like these". So I found Chris via some mutual friends and we got on straight away. It was amazing to get to work with him. I got in there just before Depeche Mode [she laughs].
In what way was your work with Berg different to your previous projects?
It is as if we were part of a same family, universal music art family, if you know what I mean. Pretty special to find this kind of match.
You’ve released two singles from the album already. Do you think we’ll get a third?
Oh yes! And a juicy remix too. I can't wait to share it.
London is still home for you, isn't it...
Yes, it is. Although sometimes it frustrates me, but I think this is normal wherever you live. I think, to be fair, a lot of it is the weather. Weather and people are linked, I think if we had nicer, warmer weather, people also would be warmer and there would be more outdoor cafe life, more relaxed attitudes. Weather-wise, it has been a hard few years. Enough of clouds!
What are your favourite things about London?
Hampstead Heath is my number one location, then the galleries and museums and the river.
And where was the first show you played as HK119 here?
A club called Nerd, I think. Hoxton Square area.
When you came to plotting the Imaginature live shows, what was your starting point?
The videos I kept shooting while collecting field recordings to use in the songs I was writing. And thinking about wearing paper.
Crikey. And what can we expect from the forthcoming performance?
New songs and new ways of playing them. Possibly wearing paper [she smiles] and those videos I shot in different parts of the world while collecting audio material. It's a gig with a full band, including an accordion which I love, so I am very excited! Next stop after London is Secret Garden so come and join us before we go to the great outdoors! I'm praying for some good weather.
Finally, you were famously championed by Bjork when you first started out. Is there any emerging musical artist which you are particularly excited about at the moment?
Bjork is famous for that. She is great at championing people, where as I've been a hermit working, working, working. And I am hard to please. I really wish I had come across someone 'special' in my world. Someone like Adailson, the shaman who sang for me in his hut, is inspiring and exciting but he is not emerging into the 'commercial' world of music or trying to 'make it', whatever that means. This kind of nature-inspired, spiritual and ancestral relationship to poetry, singing and music interest me, this takes me back to the beginning of the interview and to the book of Kalevala, which is a collection of sung poems hundreds of years ago around rural Finland. It is fascinating to think, that to keep the work evolving and alive it had to be learned by heart, sung from house to house, families as audience, probably in return for some food and a roof over your head.
Imaginature is out now on One Little Indian. HK119 plays Hoxton Bar & Kitchen on 10 July. Tickets are but one click away.