Kallio is the second solo album from Päivi Hirvonen, a Finnish folk singer and fiddler, but it scans like the work of a mature artist who knows where she’s going and what she’s doing. To be fair, Hirvonen has been touring the world for years both solo and with the group Okra Playground, and she talks straightforwardly about being “middle aged” in the album’s publicity materials.
“I, or any woman my age, should have the right to exist and live the way we want to – regardless of our years or whether our preferred way of living follows the norms set by the outside world,” she says about the album’s themes.
Hirvonen composed and arranged all nine songs presented here, and she also performs all of the music herself, with the exception of some backing vocals on the opening track. In addition to the violin, she also plays the Finnish bowed lyre called jouhikko, and there are also some dramatic electronics and studio effects added by the Finnish artist and producer Oona Kapari, to the extent that Kallio does not come off like a solo project.
Exhibit No. 1 is the anthemic second track “Tuulen Tyttö (Wind Girl),” which she says is about “the power of being a girl and breaking glass ceilings.” She’s breaking them very dramatically, I’d say, based on the driving fiddling and jouhikko playing and multi-tracked vocal harmonies that grab you right from the opening note. The song wraps up with an extended section of very cinematic chanting and pounding, explosive electronic effects that would be at home on the soundtrack of a fantasy film like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.
The sixth track “Vahvan Viitta (Cloak Of Strength)” is on a similar theme. Hirvonen’s percussive, forceful fiddling drive her in-your-face lyrics, which are about breaking free from the strictures laid on us in childhood to find our true adult selves. In the final section she delivers some amazing Värttinä-like vocal harmonizing on this intricate tune, with a strong fiddle drone underneath.
The rest of the album is a little gentler than those two – a little more folk, a little less “rock,” though often no less rhythmic. This is, after all, a Finnish fiddle record at its core, which means if it’s not overtly dance music, it’s based on it. The first track “Kulkijat (Travellers)” is a case in point. It begins simply with only a plucked fiddle behind Hirvonen’s wordless singing of a beguiling melody, but more layers of accompaniment are continually added – including the backing vocals by Tero Pajunen, Oona Kapari and Pekko Käppi – until the rousing final chorus features Hirvonen’s rhythmic bowed fiddling. The title track “Kallio (Rock),” a gentle folk-pop ballad about polyamory, again starts with pizzicato fiddle behind a lilting melody, with layered vocal harmonies behind her sweet but strong lead. A driving fiddle break in the middle makes it a joyous dance that fits with the lyrics: “Who said you can only love one person / I have space in my heart, so I refuse to believe this / But hey, luckily with you I don’t need to / Our love is a rock.”
I really like “Irti (Letting Go)” a haunting, somewhat dark fiddle instrumental whose haunting introductory melody eventually breaks into exhuberant, very Finnish polska. Hirvonen plays some really neat tricks with her fiddles throughout, particularly on “Varjot (The Shadows),” where she double-tracks two plucked fiddles in a syncopated counterpoint, and on “Surulintu (Sorrow Bird),” where she creates a spare accompaniment that resembles a hammer dulcimer, by picking pizzicato style on three differently tuned violins laid on the floor. The vocals on this one are very forward in the mix and sung in her deepest register, a startling and comforting contrast to the jittery violin picking. Finally, she gives the whole thing extra impact with a lone fiddle that sounds like an oboe, occasionally wailing a lamentation in the background.
Wrapping things up, the darkly atmospheric “Tie (The Road)” makes fine use of the droning jouhikka lyre, to which the gentle closer “Vanha Ja Vapaa (Old And Free)” is a stark and welcome contrast. The mellow octave fiddle, which she bows and plucks, is a perfect foil for her relaxed vocals, and all reflect the mood of the lyrics: “I’m not young or beautiful or innocent / I bear the signs of life in my hands / I can now sing: I’m old and free.”
Kallio is a triumph. Highly recommended to fans of contemporary Nordic folk.
(Nordic Notes, 2022)