First, when I was starting out, I strongly believed that a music career has to be launched quickly while you’re still young. Otherwise, you’d soon be faced with ageism, specifically when dealing with record companies. And this is indeed what I ran into when, as a thirtysomething musician, I was sending my demos to record companies and looking for someone to publish them. Yet, the situation isn’t that bleak. By founding my own record company, I got around the difficulties of getting record deals. And by persisting with my vision, I have now launched my solo career, at fifty years old, creating my best music through my life experiences and without a sense of urgency. If I had understood early on that there’s no rush, I would have been spared from a lot of unnecessary pressure.
As a part of our series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Minna Ora.
She has decades of experience as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist in the rock scene. Last year the Finnish musician launched her solo career with music she has written, arranged, recorded, and produced herself.
Living in the countryside of her homeland of Finland, Minna draws inspiration from the mystery of life, nature — forests, in particular — love, spirituality, and her own life experiences and struggles, and she filters it all through what she has recognized as traits of high sensitivity. Harnessing and embracing these traits gives life to music quite different from what she has done before.
Minna’s first solo single, Forest, was released in April 2020, and the second single, called Sea, in November 2020. The upcoming single Fire is in the works and expected to be out this spring.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Salo, which is a small town in Southern Finland. Growing up in the 1970s, I have fond memories of my childhood home which I shared with my three sisters, my mother and father, and my grandmother. Every summer, we would spend time at our summer house in the countryside. It was a lovely, idyllic place with many wonderful elements of nature: the sea where we went swimming, the forest where we picked berries and mushrooms, the garden and fields where we grew vegetables. We were surrounded by farm animals, including horses. I was only six months old when first on horseback, supported by my sister. A few years later, horseback riding became my hobby. Over the years, my childhood immersion with nature has greatly contributed to who I am as a person. In addition, my connection with nature is a rich source of strength, healing, and creativity for me.
Music came into my life early on. I remember playing the piano with only my forefinger, and even composing my first songs before the age of seven. However, playing the piano didn’t hold my interest for too long, and I never learned to play it properly. As a young child, I would also sing in front of the mirror. One day I announced to my grandmother that I would be a singer or a jockey when I grew up. The year I turned ten, my father gave me my first acoustic guitar for Christmas. This guitar stole my heart, inspiring me to study the basics of guitar playing. I was accepted into the Salo music school to study classical guitar in the evenings. The playing part was enjoyable enough, but I soon noticed that the required music theory was not fun at all. I drudged through four years of classical guitar lessons and the dreaded theory classes before I decided to leave the music school. Classical guitar simply didn’t interest me enough.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
The path that led me to my solo career has involved many twists and turns — both in terms of my professional life and my personal circumstances. In my answer to a later question, I’ll explain how a serious health challenge influenced my musical trajectory, but first I’ll tell you about the various music projects that brought me to where I am today. For a long time, I would only perform as part of a band or a duo because I didn’t have the courage to sing and play under my own name — despite a persistent desire to do so. Still, besides being fun, singing and playing in bands and a duo taught me a lot and served as an excellent foundation for my solo career.
So, back to the beginning: After leaving the music school as a teenager, I set music aside for a while. Then one day, my classmates asked me to join their new band as their singer. I decided to try my wings because I had always enjoyed singing. We did a lot of gigs in our local area, and being the vocalist in this band marked the beginning of my singing career. I was fifteen years old. Around the same time my former guitar teacher suggested that I also learn to accompany my singing with guitar. He said this combination could be my thing. Following his suggestion, I taught myself a new way to play the guitar, mastering comping and chords. Interestingly, my teacher proved to be right; it really was my thing!
In 1990, my then-boyfriend Kari Ora and I formed a band called Suzy Gang with some of our friends. I was the vocalist, and we mostly played original rock music in Finnish. Kari and I both composed songs, and I wrote all the lyrics. In the early 1990s, we also did large-scale gigs with Remu Aaltonen as our guest artist. Remu had been the singer-drummer of the most famous and legendary Finnish rock band, Hurriganes. With his help, Suzy Gang landed a deal with a large Finnish record company, for two singles. By 1997, Suzy Gang was dying down, and I started my first acoustic duo with Kari. This duo was my greatest teacher in the realm of singing and guitar playing. Singing with the accompaniment of acoustic guitar was a completely different story than singing lead vocals in a large rock band; you hear your singing voice so differently. It was in the early days of our duo that I first envisioned a record with folk elements and acoustic guitar. However, Kari and I never got around to making such a record. Over many years, we toured all around Finland, doing hundreds of gigs and, to this day, we still occasionally go out and play together as a duo.
At some point, I started to teach myself recording and music production, and I purchased the necessary software and equipment. Eventually I founded my own record label, O.R.A. Music. I began to compose and write songs, tucking them away in my desk drawer because Kari and I were only playing cover songs, including songs previously released by Hurriganes.
My desk drawer eventually had a nice pile of songs waiting to be brought out to daylight. To that end, around 2008, the band Electric Lady was formed. Our drummer Pepe Lindholm did the arrangement for the songs I had written and composed. After putting some of our music on an Internet site, I was contacted by a French journalist Nicole Morgan, who liked our sound and suggested that our songs be translated into English. We were more than happy to begin a collaboration with Nicole, and she has become a good friend to me over the years. We co-wrote songs for Electric Lady, and through my record company, I produced my first full album Black Moon in 2011.
All the while Electric Lady was active, Kari and I still kept playing as a duo. One evening, after finishing a gig, we were approached by one of Remu Aaltonen’s friends, a drummer called Biitti Nieminen. Biitti was excited about the sound of a female vocalist singing Hurriganes songs, and he suggested we start a band where he would join us as our drummer. The new band would play Hurriganes covers with me as the lead singer. We agreed, and the band Rack Doll was formed. With Rack Doll, I produced two albums, and we have toured around Finland.
For as long as I can remember, being a lead singer in a rock band has been how I’ve seen myself as a musician, but gradually, my earlier vision about a record with folk elements formed into a yearning to produce my own solo album. And all these different experiences throughout my music career provided important ingredients nudging me toward this goal.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The idea of launching a solo career had been at the back of my mind for a long time, but I just hadn’t done anything about it. Then one day, as I was driving to the town center with my son, I experienced something that would wind up being very meaningful in terms of my solo career. All of a sudden, words literally started to flow into my mind. This had never happened to me before; writing lyrics had always required much more effort. I stopped the car at a bus stop and quickly typed the words from my mind into my phone. As soon as we got home, I dug up an instrumental demo I had previously made, and I tested whether my new text would fit the tune. To my amazement, the words and the melody were a perfect match. I couldn’t help but immediately dive into completing the demo. When I was done, I listened to the track from the beginning to the end, wondering the entire time what on earth had just happened. Then it hit me: the song was about a cancer patient who was wasting away from the disease. This realization moved me deeply and I broke into tears. I cried for three hours, without comprehending where the whole thing was coming from. Two weeks later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s when I knew that the song had been a forewarning, brought to me via channeling. I was sure I wanted to make a studio version of it right after finishing the record I was producing for my band Rack Doll. However, the cancer was very aggressive, and it spread to my lungs in spite of the chemotherapy treatments. The doctors told me I had no more than five years left to live. This was in 2013. Given such a sobering prognosis, I didn’t want to take on another recording process. But I wasn’t giving up on life. After the initial shock, I devoted myself into finding ways to actively contribute to my own healing. Luckily, I found help in Germany where I learned about biological treatments, special dietary modifications, and a complete lifestyle change. The prognosis the doctors had given me turned out to be wrong; I went into full remission, and I’m still cancer-free. I have been living a healthy life without medications since 2014. Now, more than seven years after my diagnosis, it is finally time to produce the studio version of that mysterious and life-changing song. Fire, my third single is due to be released later this spring.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This story isn’t from the very beginning of my music career but from the year 2011. My band Electric Lady had our first gig at a festival in France — it was the first time I played outside of Finland. During our second to the last song, the electricity went out and wouldn’t come back. While we were waiting, I eventually had an idea: My bandmates and I could play acoustically using two guitars. After all, we didn’t want the audience to leave. We were quickly handed two guitars and I was looking around for a place to sit down. Then, pointing at the edge of the stage, I called out to our sound engineer in a loud voice, “Can I shit here?!” My intention — of course — had been to ask, “Can I sit here?” The audience went crazy. They were cheering, laughing, and shouting, “Yes, yes!” I had no idea what was going on. After the gig, our drummer asked me whether I had realized what I had said on stage. Well, I hadn’t! This slip taught me to not be afraid of allowing my inner comedienne to show up; after all, it brings joy to people, including myself. Since the “shitting incident” in France, I’ve happily embraced my uncanny ability to be unintentionally funny, which happens quite often because, for some reason, hilarious things keep happening to me!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Currently, I am most excited about my solo project where I work under my own name, Minna Ora. My first solo single, Forest, was released in April 2020, and Sea came out in November 2020. Currently, I’m putting the finishing touches on my third one, which I originally wrote back in 2013 just before the cancer diagnosis. There are two versions of each single: one version is in Finnish and the other is in English. With the English renditions, my aim is to attract interest to my music outside of Finland. In these solo productions I am finally fulfilling the vision that first emerged back in the late 1990s when Kari and I started our acoustic duo.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
- It is important for all people to gain visibility.
- It is important that viewers get to see a wide variety of individuals on the screen because it can encourage more people from diverse backgrounds to be visible and to be themselves.
- Diversity is a richness.
I hope that better visibility and representation of persons from diverse backgrounds and with a variety of experiences increases tolerance and openness, as well as gives new insight to experiences and lives different from one’s own.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
I was able to come up with three distinct things to answer this question. First, when I was starting out, I strongly believed that a music career has to be launched quickly while you’re still young. Otherwise, you’d soon be faced with ageism, specifically when dealing with record companies. And this is indeed what I ran into when, as a thirtysomething musician, I was sending my demos to record companies and looking for someone to publish them. Yet, the situation isn’t that bleak. By founding my own record company, I got around the difficulties of getting record deals. And by persisting with my vision, I have now launched my solo career, at fifty years old, creating my best music through my life experiences and without a sense of urgency. If I had understood early on that there’s no rush, I would have been spared from a lot of unnecessary pressure.
And that leads to my second point: Many musicians go through a burnout, especially when they think they are in a rush to “make it big” or they find themselves at the mercy of external demands. Working long hours and doing gigs at venues and conditions that turn out to be draining can really take a toll on you and your health. The importance of taking care of myself and my needs is something I wish I had understood before ending up in a burnout.
The third thing I want to mention is the value of uniqueness. Years ago, as I was offering my demos to record companies, I was asked the same question, over and over again: “Which English-speaking artist would you compare yourself to?” Since the question always came up, I kept trying to pick out a famous musician to replicate, but it just didn’t work. Now that I’m working as a solo artist, I don’t even try to emulate anyone but to be a naturally unique musician: to be myself. To my delight, several recent reviews of my second single, Sea, have stated that I have a unique sound. Mission accomplished and to be continued!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
As someone who has gone through and survived a burnout, I have learned the following lessons:
- Learn to say “no” if a suggestion or something else doesn’t feel right to you, or if you’re being pushed to work at the wrong venues or asked to do too many gigs.
- Make sure to have entire days off from music.
- Create the kind of music that makes your heart sing and soul vibrate with joy.
For me, an important step was the founding of my own record company O.R.A. Music, under which I publish my music. This way nobody else is dictating my work pace; I get to manage my own time.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
When you’re given a diagnosis of a serious illness, it really makes you stop and take stock of your life. In coming to terms with your new life circumstances, it is important to understand that you’re not helpless, and things might not be as hopeless as they seem. As I mentioned earlier, I went into full remission from what was said to be an incurable cancer. I accomplished this by taking an active role in my own care, alongside the doctors. After I personally experienced how helpful the complementary biological treatments, a special diet, an exercise regime, and mental training were in beating my illness, I wanted others to benefit from these amazing tools as well. These days I offer peer support to those suffering from various ailments, and I hold courses where I share the knowledge and insight that I’ve gained on my own healing journey. For anyone battling an illness, I want to stress the importance of not becoming passive and expecting doctors and medical science to take full responsibility of your healing process. Instead, you need to take an active part in your own recovery. The doctors will do everything they can, and so should you. Your body wants to be well, and when you give it the right ingredients and proper attention, it starts to fight the disease alongside you. Besides the body and mind needing care, the human soul also needs loving attention, and, for that, connecting with nature is a key element. In fact, the connection with nature that I first started forming during my childhood in our summer house plays a major part in my solo songs.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
In the early stages of my career, I was helped the most by my former spouse Kari Ora, who taught me the secrets of rock music. He believed in me and my abilities and pushed me forward. I was constantly learning, more and more. At the present time, when talking about my solo career, I owe my biggest gratitude to my partner, Tuulia Vihanto, who firmly believed in my song, Forest, the very first time she heard it in 2019. I’d written the lyrics in Finnish, and I asked her to help me create an English rendition of the song. She also translated my second single, Sea. A singer and musician herself, Tuulia understands me completely, complements me and gently pushes me forward.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Carpe diem”! When I got sick with cancer, I was forced to learn the importance of living in the here and now. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is unknown, so embrace what you have in this moment. When you express appreciation even for the smallest things, the sources of joy and delight grow exponentially because there is great power in gratitude.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Definitely Kate Bush. Ever since I was a teenager, I have been a huge fan of her music. It is amazing how she has the freedom and capability to do anything she wants with her songs without having to consider their radio-worthiness. If a track is seven minutes long, then so be it. Time and again, she keeps demonstrating that you don’t have to take yourself so seriously. Her music serves as proof that it is possible to be a successful musician without being a slave to the artificial restrictions imposed by the music scene. Kate Bush is an artist that I hold in a very high regard.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!