KERLI, Estonia’s most successful music exports, released her new album ‘Shadow Works’ late February this year. In her music career she has defied all genres and created one of her own, with ‘avante-garde’, ‘mystical’ and ‘magical’ being some of the words her fans use to describe it. In this interview she gives insights into her journey, her creative process and the drive behind her newest endeavours. KERLI’s success was inevitable when you learn about all the hard work she puts into her music and how she’s involved in all steps and processes from concept design to the final take.
Keep reading to learn more about KERLI and her art, and if you aren’t already familiar [and maybe slightly obsessed] with her music, drive and personality, I would like to say “Welcome and Enjoy”…
How did you start making music?
I always knew what I was gonna become so I started singing when I was about five. My grandfather, who was a hobby songwriter, became my first singing teacher and we started going to singing competitions. He would accompany me on his synth with wonky beats and funny sounds and it was a really big deal every time we’d do it. I once lost badly and he had a heart attack that night. I wish I was joking but it’s a true story. It’s a scary story though if I’m being honest, so scary that it made him figure that he might want to get critical illness insurance… just in case something happened. Yeah, that time was quite scary. But it all worked out in the end.
On a more professional note, I got my first recording contract when I was 14 after winning an idol type thing in all three Baltic countries. I then started writing music as well. By the time I was 16, I dropped out of school, started traveling the world and dedicated my life to becoming a full time musician.
I am currently ingesting this incredible book called ‘Psycho Cybernetics’ by Maxwell Maltz. It’s about re-coding your self-image and one of the tasks in the book is about praising your past accomplishments. I did it just the other day and was thinking about how proud I am of this little girl. Her endurance and her ambition was extraordinary.
What is your creative process when writing a song?
I’ve done it many different ways. In sessions with other people, we first connect, come up with a vibe and start jamming. However, I mostly write by myself these days. My routine usually starts with the title and the overall feel since I mostly write concept pieces with a visual attached as well. After the title, I start jamming on the melodies. Once that is locked, I inject lyrics. A lot of research of interesting words goes into my process. Sometimes I write just a line, record it properly, and then write the next line. It’s like putting together a puzzle until the whole picture looks right. I almost never re-record the song. Vocal production and writing happen at the same time.
You are very hands on in the creation process behind your music videos. Does the idea for the video come to you easily or is it a difficult process to choose something to focus on?
This and that. It’s usually pretty effortless but takes time and “feeling into it” as I like to say. I have a little temple/studio in the ancient forest of my native Estonia and I come here to zen out and get obsessive about the vision at hand. I clean my house, gather inspiration, practice an intense self care routine daily and come up with the ideas bit by bit. I create every composition in Photoshop first, and then hand make the costumes, sets and everything else. As long as I have time, I feel like anything can be brought to life. As I get more crafty and have better knowledge of myself, I can also trick my brain into thinking I have time, even if on a deadline. It’s really, really exciting to see something through and continuously learn about materials and the possibilities. I feel like there’s so much growth that happens with every project. I’m really looking forward to making more and more stuff.
Where did the idea for your ‘Instagram book’ come from?
From the air, like all the ideas. I don’t think ideas belong to anyone. It’s about clearing away your own gunk so one can be in a receptive and magnetic state.
You’ve created an almost movie-like experience through your Instagram for ‘Shadow Works’ by introducing the characters and narrative with love letters, poetry and secret psychology. How long did this process take to finalise and complete to get to a stage where you were ready to share it?
I actually didn’t have it all ready before I started. There were guidelines but it’s something that is alive and evolves with me. I still have 3 chapters left and even though I know what they’re gonna be, they might still change.
Your music contains all sorts of different genres but is mostly labelled electronic. However, it is still very unique to you. How did you develop this style of music?
I feel like developing their own, original fingerprint is something that all artists eventually come to, if they don’t quit. It’s the most challenging, but the most rewarding part of it all. I am not exaggerating when I say it’s taken me 15 years to come to my own fully. I’ve just this year gotten to a place where I feel like I can tap into anything and bring it to life, both musically and visually. It’s mostly about the hours one has put in to develop the skills, of course, but also hugely about feeling into your gut. If my gut isn’t screaming “fuck yes”, I work on it, until it does. It’s also about removing your own bullshit so you stop caring about how things are received. At the end of the day, our art is our legacy, something we leave behind and it will only feel satisfying if it’s authentic. It’s beautiful to be in a head space where it’s all about expressing something, and no more about impressing someone.
Where do you think you get the most inspiration for your music from?
From the air :) and from my own human experience.
What was your artistic vision for your ‘Shadow Works’ project?
I wanted to create something that went to the dark side fully. The artwork is all black on black on black, with only the different textures reflecting light in a different way. Lyrically, there’s lots of vulnerability there, lots of dwelling in the helpless corners of life. I originally struggled with this vision because my goal is to inspire and I don’t like to put negativity out there but I then realised that the goal of this body of work is to connect the listener to their disowned parts and hidden darkness. The term “shadow work” is actually coined by Carl Jung and is an inevitable step in the process of becoming ourselves fully. Our shadows silently run our lives until we know, own and love them. Only then can we be free.
Shadow works is an exploration of my own shadow. It’s a collection of music designed to connect the listener to their disowned parts and to honour their hidden self. I explore the feelings of victimhood, codependence, lust, guilt and defeat. There are also frequencies that symbolise the eventual triumph over darkness. The vocal scales that start, part and end the collections, are designed to bring the listener into a meditative state so that the shadow work can be performed.
How did you research and brainstorm for your most recent body of work, ‘Shadow works’?
I studied a lot of psychology and went through a lot of therapy and working with my spiritual teachers. I basically went through the most extensive dark night of the soul and an existential crisis that seemed to have no end. All of that provided the inspiration.
What key themes do you like to comment on in your work?
Shadow works explores many of my darkest moments – abuse, addiction, defeat and lust. But it also comes out on the other side of the tunnel and forgives.
You have written songs for celebrities, for example ‘Skyscraper’ for Demi Lovato. Do these artists approach you to write them a song or do you give it to them once it has been written? How do you decide which songs you would like to keep for yourself and which ones to give to other artists?
It’s different every time. Skyscraper for example was originally written with my own album in mind, but the label scrapped it. Someone then, 3 years later found it and got it to Demi. The rest is history. You just never know with art, especially music. It’s a completely magical thing – it’s invisible to start with, but brings people to their knees. I love music so, so much. I owe it everything I got and everything I am.