Interview by Zach Grossfeld
In today’s do-it-yourself atmosphere, the artist can be in complete control of their work. Every intricacy, emotion, lyric, and backdrop can be carefully crafted by one mind. The mind of Timi Tamminen ventures to the outer edges of the spectrum rarely exposed in the mainstream. Any notion from the darkest thought to the most blistering ecstacy is fuel for the creative process.
Timi Tamminen does not hesitate to explore his darkest thoughts. We all have these thoughts, that if unveiled, would signal an unbalance or a mental instability. Our society encourages us to bury the seemingly insane, psychotic threads that run through all of our minds from time to time. Vocalize these notions and others infer that something must be “wrong" with you. Questions like “How does a psychopath’s mind work?” or “What is it like to be inside the head of stalker?” can cast cringes upon the faces of most.
To Timi, these questions are worth exploring even if no definitive answer exists. He will move himself to tears on camera, dance with inanimate objects, experiment with different voices, and study human psychology to embody a mindset that most would shy away from. Over the phone, we had a long, insightful conversation on the creative process, the intricacies of psychopathy, spending time alone, and times the could have ventured down the wrong path.
Timi is not crazy, far from it. Much of his music harnesses a an upbeat vibe, what most would consider more “mainstream.” But he isn’t afraid to explore the darker sides of the spectrum that pop-culture rarely navigates. Timi’s sound flows through moments of beauty, uncomfortability, intense joy, and bare loneliness. Thousands of hours of vocal experimentation, working through insecurities, and studying human emotion have brought him to this point. And this point, this melody, this lyric, may have a counter meaning beneath the surface, so listen closely.
Auxoro: What are your earliest, formative memories of music?
Timi Tamminen: My mom started putting me through piano lessons around six years old. She’s the typical middle-class mom, and loved playing Elvis and classical music around the house. I’d fall asleep to classical cassettes or world relaxation tapes.
From the beginning, Elvis’ voice struck a chord with me. I wanted to sing like Elvis, that low tone he produced when he belted from his chest. Also, around nine years old I got an mp3 player. I played a mix of Ennio Morricone, Limp Bizkit, Celine Dion, and a bunch of major hits by Michael Jackson. Smooth Criminal was a jam of mine.
What was is like being Timi the kid growing up in Finland?
I was a weird, nerdy kid. I spent a lot of time by myself. As a teenager, I was addicted to video games and read a lot. I didn’t start to make friends until around 15 years old in primary school. Hanging around these friends, we formed bands. I didn’t enjoy playing music in the beginning, and I didn’t take music seriously because I felt out of place.
In my first band, I was more like a hype man. I didn’t sing much besides harmonies and brief vocal lines. Boredom was the engine that fueled my curiosity in singing. In my town, there wasn’t much to do besides hanging out with friends. Most of my friends were into music, so I started to explore.
How did spending all of this time along affect you, not only as an artist, but as a person?
Back in my teenage years, I played video games to distract from the loneliness. I learned to speak English well by interacting with online players. I played twelve hours a day to escape from reality. Now, I don’t play games at all.
At 22, I moved away to London to study music production at Goldsmiths University. I knew nobody. Open to a new world of music, I spent most of my time researching singers on YouTube. All that time I spent gaming, I realized I could channel into writing and creating. I wanted to teach myself a talent instead of staring at a screen. I became conscious of improving my artistic ability every day.
What are the biggest differences between London and Finland?
Finnish people are better at recycling. Also, in Finland, people are not used to getting approached by strangers. We are more introverted. Ironically, I became a bit more self-isolating when I moved to London. I didn’t know anyone around me so I lost myself in the music.
In London, everyone’s here for business, to fulfill their ambitions. In Finland, people have this weird attitude where the system teaches you to be too humble. The Finnish culture breeds people to think they can’t achieve greatness on a wide scale. We have tremendous talent as a nation but think little of ourselves. Nobody is allowed to dream big. People knocked down my dreams of becoming an artist. This type of atmosphere seems even more toxic now that I’m on the outside.
For example, Sweden and Finland are neighbors. Swedish music has such a rich history of amazing pop and electronic artists, people that make names for themselves all the way in America. Finnish artists have equal talent but lack the mentality. Nobody makes it. People ask “Why is Finnish music not mainstream?” It’s because of the attitude.
Once I found the internet, I was exposed to a wealth of knowledge outside of my hometown. I could listen to the wisdom of people from California or Japan. When I’m by myself, I listen to YouTube interviews, hearing different perspectives to understand opposing mindsets. I absorbed multiple vantage points from which to construct my own artistry. Constantly researching new techniques or ideas, I realized there was a place for my type of personality, that other people want what I want.
How do you enter the “clean slate” mindset to create songs without worrying about past precedents?
I’m a musical sponge. I suck in the influence and aesthetic to use later on. Working with different people has given me a layered approach to music and writing. I started out as a sound engineer and didn’t write at first. I spent years focusing on ambiance and dynamics.
Once I did start writing, I forced myself to experiment. Sometimes I’ll write around a vocal melody. Other times I have the production nailed down first. But, if you write the same way all the time you’ll end up creating the same types of songs. I can write songs with freestyle vibes, sticking with the earliest ideas that pop out of my brain. Then a week later, I can spend hours changing and rearranging the lyrics of a different song.
The hardest part about writing is sitting down. Once you focus, dedicate the time to write, things will take form. The more conventional topics, I can write in a day. For a few songs, I’ve written on topics that I’ve never explored before. These are topics that I haven’t experienced personally, but I’ve witnessed the behavior in others. It takes time to flesh out these ideas. Listening to other songs for inspiration helps greatly. Before I write, I listen to a couple of drastically different songs to create puzzle pieces inside my head.
What makes the hooks come more quickly to you than the verses?
It depends on the song. I play around with different voices and characters. When I start singing, I have a sense of when a melody sits in the place of a song. Sometimes, it comes out quickly and I stick with the initial urge.
On a new song, ‘Fleeting,’ I had to rewrite the chorus four times. It’s unconventional and the time signature is in ¾, something I haven’t done before. My first run through felt pushed, too busy. I consciously picked away notes and kept only the interesting sounds. If I’m singing the hook for another artist, I can get that in fifteen minutes or so. The more abstract songs take time because there aren’t a lot of precursors.
How did you start portraying different characters with your voice?
I felt stuck. I had so many opinions and viewpoints with no place to go. I needed to be careful not to stray too much to where people couldn’t latch onto my identity. I started to add different influences into my sound, and my voice took on these influences. I’ll add odd, idiosyncratic components with familiar elements to tie the art together.
When I started making music, I spent more time on the manic side of my artistry. Now, I’m mellowing out. Not in a safe way, but I’m finding a musical maturity where less is more. I can convey a wide spectrum of emotions through a minimalist style. I don’t need to play a thousand notes per second and add these constant, explosive elements.
What made you want to embrace the “stalker” vibe for the ‘All I Want’ Video?
I knew the song would have a double meaning. The production has a dark, sensual vibe. I’ve always wanted to write the “stalker” song. ‘All I Want’ can appeal to the regular mindset for a bedroom slow-jam, but also fulfill the listeners’ interest in the darker side of the character.
I had this idea to follow a woman around as the premise for the video. After a conversation with my housemate, I knew I wanted to incorporate a doll as the obsession of the main character. In a stroke of luck, I went outside my house and saw that somebody dumped a doll on the street. We then dressed the doll and I danced with it on camera.
After shooting wrapped, I edited the video myself. I struggled to transform the clips from a random series of images into a storyline. Fortunately, I worked with people who cared about my vision which helped this idea take form.
Many artists would not be open to embracing their darker side. What made you want to channel those instincts?
While growing up, I hung around certain people who were a bad influence on me. I was close to going down a worse path in my life. Looking back, I realize moving abroad was the best choice of my life and it expedited the maturity process.
However, my past experiences developed my interest for the darker side of human psychology. Since then, I’ve studied thought patterns and the various aspects of what creates and affects our behavior. I’ve had all types of interesting friends and acquaintances from the lighter ’spectrum’ to the darker variants of the human mind, and they all inspire my writing.
What made you want to cry on camera for the ‘Big Boys Don’t Cry’ music video?
I had never made myself cry on camera before, but I knew I wanted to convey that emotion. I cried many times while filming, but finally nailed the right mood during the third session. Most of the time, I only see women crying on camera. Why can’t men be the ones showing that feeling?
You play every instrument, sing, and produce all the tracks. How did you start with the “do it yourself” approach?
I went through a gradual series of disappointments. I linked up with different people to make music and many bailed out. I needed a bass player, then the bass player left, so I taught myself the bass. Similar things happened with production and other instruments. I learned as much as I could, which gave me the creative freedom to express exactly what I wanted.
Next on my “to-do” list is to learn vocal mixing which can get quite expensive if many songs are involved. Plus, learning to mix would help immensely as I always have a strong vision of how the vocal layers and tones should sound.
However, I realize that I need to find a balance and work with other people. No matter how many ideas you have, at some point, you need other people to bring the best out of yourself. Working with others inspires new ways of expression, reinvention.
You have an eclectic singing style and wide vocal range. How did you develop that approach?
I was a vocal nerd as a teenager. I studied singers and listened to thousands of different voices. Recording my voice has helped me harness my own sound. When I was 15, one of my bandmates blurted out “You can’t sing for shit!” I was offended, then went home and recorded myself. I was so pissed off when I heard my own voice that I threw my phone through the wall.
Studying my own voice has helped me control the tonal quality. I experiment often by making weird noises, trying to push the boundaries of “normal” sound. When I would scream high notes in school, my friends would think that someone was having sex. It was really me just practicing in the studio. I practiced that way for years. I felt embarrassed, a bit like walking into the gym naked, but I knew I had to make uncomfortable noises in order to reach that range. I also practiced scales and vocal exercises daily to master the basics.
Walk me through the creative process for your most recent, self-titled album, Timi Tamminen. What are the main inspirations behind this project?
Some of these songs have existed for two years, and I’ve finally been able to make them properly. The most important thing about the whole process was finding my sound. I learned so many different things in a short time. This past year has been the most productive growth period of my life. London has inspired me. I’m around people who have an innate hunger to succeed, to make something of themselves.
On a sonic level, individual songs have been influenced by emotions I’ve felt just sitting in my room. I wanted to display my eclectic style but maintain a throughline message for the album. I try to use my voice to anchor overall aesthetic of the project.
Over time, I’ve taught myself to enjoy the feeling of getting something, like an album, ready. Releasing music is a drug. It can be hard to focus on the current project with future ideas floating around your mind. I’ve become a chronic finisher. I press the brakes on future music until I complete the task at hand. I hate the feeling of great music floating around in my head, but I force myself to make the ideas of now concrete.