Bastiaan Springer catches up with the singer and fiddle player who’s been making waves with her experimental take on Estonia’s traditional music
There has been a buzz among world music aficionados for a few years now around Estonian fiddler and singer Maarja Nuut. This young, very talented musician stole many hearts with her spellbinding showcase at WOMEX 2014 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. In a unique way she combines classical and traditional Estonian dance tunes, songs and stories with live looping.
A solo artist, Nuut commands the stage with her mystical songs, haunting vocals, dancing and foot percussion. She often starts her songs with a single violin motif, deftly looping it and adding harmonic layers with voice and violin improvisations. Her magical music can be categorised as minimalistic folk, leaning strongly on tradition and adapted to the present. With elegant songs about silken-feathered birds, horses and ghosts Nuut creates dream-like music, inviting her audience to travel to other times and places.
“For me, music and the images and stories hidden in it offer an opportunity to travel from one reality to another, visiting places where everything is possible,” she explains. “We spend a large part of our lives sleeping. There are also many different borderline states, for example lucid dreaming. I think excessive rationality is restrictive and in a wider sense dreams give us a chance to sense life in all its possible shades.”
Maarja Nuut was born in 1986 in the small Estonian town Rakvere, where she started learning the violin when she was seven. She continued studying at the Tallinn Music High School and the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. Love for traditional Estonian music inspired her to study at the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy before going on to take a master’s degree in Stockholm.
Her debut in 2013, Soolo, was the result of her research into early 20th-century Estonian field recordings and contains a fascinating mix of Estonian folk, spoken words and remarkable, constantly changing soundscapes. “Soolo was rather sketchy, a combination of different approaches and ideas, put together in the middle of a process of research.” The album received a lot of attention, rave reviews and invitations to perform outside Estonia. In recent years Nuut has toured the US, Canada, the UK and Europe, making her the face of Estonia’s recent folk revival.
On her new album Une Meeles (In the Hold of a Dream) Nuut again explores the boundary between reality and dream with lyrical songs. What makes this modern folk masterpiece so exceptional is the delicate balance between Nuut’s technique and almost psychedelic improvisations. “My new album is the outcome of an internal, ripening process,” she explains. “I have created a lot of new material and explored my technical set-up. It’s a slow process but my new album feels much more solid than my debut.”
It’s a breathtaking introduction to Nuut’s melancholic dream world, which is rooted in the mysticism of the Estonian soul and nature. Transferring this fairylike Estonian folk music to the 21st century makes Maarja Nuut one of today’s most interesting traditional music innovators.
This article originally appeared in Songlines #119. Nuut’s new album Une Meeles is out now.