Book review: ERJA LYYTINEN – The Blues Queen by Mape Ollila

Erja Lyytinen - The Blues Queen

Docendo Oy Publishing [Publication date 06.11.20]

‘Erja Lyytinen – The Blues Queen’ is a refreshingly honest biography about a hugely talented classically trained violinist turned rock blues guitarist,  singer-songwriter,  band leader and perfectionist in search of respect and acceptance.

It’s the tale of a musical force of nature who learns to balance an independent entrepreneurial career with motherhood.  She comes out the other side as a wiser human being with a Zen like quality to her outlook.

The fact that Erja Lyytinen has enjoyed international success in a predominantly male dominated blues scene, is evidence enough of her drive and passion, but the fact that she’s also Finnish makes her story even more groundbreaking.

Finland boast a wealth of composers outside of Sibelius, while in the roots rock world, there’s plenty to explore in the timeline separating 70’s heroes  Tasavallan Presidentti and say Nightwish, but with a small population and impenetrable language, it’s never been a mainstream musical destination.

Erja generously name checks plenty of her contemporaries who share her love of music, but what makes her different is the sense of perfectionism, extending from her own music  – her blues genre now extends into a more proggy direction whilst she’s also performs as a singer without guitar – to the fact she manages her own company. And it’s the twin pillars of her independence and creativity that provides her with the energy and spark that has translated into 15 albums, 3 DVD’s, a clutch of Finnish and European awards and international recognition.

‘The Blues Queen’ is a concise biography by the experienced editor/biographer Mape Ollila. It’s the story of a new generation artist who has steered clear of the music business sharks and rock and roll excesses to become the first woman to study the electric guitar (as a main study) at the Sibelius Academy and then build a contemporary music career on her own terms.

Much later in her multi-tasking world, she somehow manages raise twins, albeit at the cost of her relationship to her long time musical companion Davide Floreno, who provides a significant backdrop  to her nascent career.

So while she tells us : “I was changing diapers at the back of the van and at service stations,” there was also a musical cost to be paid: “You start to write stuff to appease the other person, even though you should be following your gut feeling and own heart.”

It’s that sense of honesty that glues together a biography that sometimes breathlessly skips through situations and memories. And while she illustrates both highlights and the opposite, she doesn’t always offer too much critical insight. This might be a function of her relentless lifestyle that never for a moment looks down.

Outside of her reflections of being a rock and roll mother, the closest we get to self analysis is when as an emerging rock-blues musician she is thrown in the deep end of a Ruf records Blues Caravan tour with Aynsley Lister and Ian Parker: “I was like a fish on dry land. Those other musicians didn’t care much about my achievements in Finland, and there was an air of competition and one-upmanship that could be readily felt.”

But when her naivety gives way to experience she says: “When I was younger, I felt like the acceptance of my colleagues was even more important than that of my audience, but over time, that has turned itself on its head.” She later realises that:  “Only after you’ve proven yourself and become something, do people begin to get behind you.”

Happily those same feelings resolve themselves years later, when working with industry veterans on her own crowd funded ‘Stolen Hearts’ album. “It is very important to be able to respect your colleagues. It’s the final thumbs up, when you get recognition from your field of peers.”

She gets that from playing with the likes of Jennifer Batten,  jamming in front of a big crowd with Carlos Santana and being feted in India.

In effect her biography is her journey towards that recognition, as more diverse opportunities present themselves and enable her to become to multi faceted artist she is today.

She offers honest reflection after realising that it is no longer viable to take her twins on the road: “You want to be near to your children, but at the same time, you have a burning passion toward your vocation and a need to make a go of it.”

Interestingly in a career fuelled by hard work and mapped out by meticulous planning, some of the most significant moments such as becoming a de facto band leader come about by seizing the moment.

In the chapter on her ‘Dreamland Blues’ album – her 2nd American recording, but first solo release – the recording session is about to hit the wall because of wasted studio musicians and limited time. She takes the initiative by getting Davide to play the bass parts and getting the session back on schedule. There’s more to the tale of course, but it shows she has the mettle to be a band leader.

The subsequent release is marketed as a blues album, though there’s still room for soul and pop, which suggests that even early on in her career she sees blues as a catalyst to matching her own musical versatility. This is later born out by the chronologically ordered chapters on her albums.

On ‘Voracious Love’ for example, she further explores her own song writing. This leads to a curious contradiction in which she extols the virtues of pre-production and playing the material live before recording. Yet when it comes to cutting the album, she tells us the songs weren’t performed live before the session, and offers no explanation as to why.

She goes on to making the leap from being a Ruf recording artist to setting up her own record company and booking agency. And label boss Thomas Ruf is right when quoted as saying; “We created an internationally-viable European blues artist.”

And while Erja has fully embraced her role as a bona-fide European blues artist with her own back catalogue and moniker of ‘The Blues Queen’ etc, it is Reality TV that breaks her to a bigger demographic.

She appears on an entertainment show called ‘Tahdet tahdet’ (‘Stars Stars’) on Finland’s MTV3 as a singer and tackles everything from Shirley Bassey to Europe. She also makes an appearance on ‘SuomiLOVE’ and the upshot is another exponential growth in her fan base.

Just like the flow of a great album, ‘The Blues Queen’ rolls seamlessly through the salient points of her career leading into her last aptly titled studio album  ‘Another World’.

Featuring different rhythms and guitar tones alongside metaphoric imagery and a proggy feel, the album is the very stuff of a restless artist in search of new horizons.

And it’s that consistent musical exploration that lies at the core of an engaging biography that is an index short of being the perfect appraisal of her career so far.

One part promo, one part revelatory, this is the closest you will get to a star in the making. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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