In Search of the Source of the Tale: An Interview with Tuomas Holopainen of NIGHTWISH

Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish

Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish

“You shouldn’t start telling a story if you don’t have a story to tell.” From his seat in the lunch room of Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre, Tuomas Holopainen leans forward and speaks into the digital audio recorder resting on the coffee table in front of him. “That’s always the main emphasis for me as a songwriter – I need a good story to tell: whether it’s a song about Native Americans; about the feeling of falling in love; about the departure of our [previous] vocalist; about appreciating our parents; whether it’s total fantasy, whatever – you really need to have the story first.”

As the founding member and principal songwriter of Nightwish, the longstanding Finnish symphonic metal outfit currently touring North America in support of its eight studio album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Holopainen’s work consistently reflects his appreciation for narrative. With the exception of instrumental track, “The Eyes of Sharbat Gula”, the lyrics of every song on the new album make some reference to storytelling. He concedes that humanity inherently loves stories but says that the inspiration for creative expression should amount to more than mere emulation of one’s influences. “It’s more of a subconscious thing, so that the thing that you enjoy – the books of Stephen King, or the films of Spielberg, or the music of Vangelis or Hans Zimmer – they all go inside of you because you enjoy them and then, after some time, they come out as inspiration.”

Prior to his composing for the new album, the writings of evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins had a profound affect on Holopainen and influenced the lyrical direction for many of the new songs. His accumulated personal experiences, filtered through the lens of reason as informed by Dawkins’ work, culminated in what he describes as an epiphany: “I [came to understand] that truth is the ultimate virtue – trying to find the truth of things by yourself, never ever assuming anything until you find evidence – that’s the key of approaching every single aspect in life. Once I realized that, it made my life easier and more beautiful. This philosophy can be applied to anything in life, whether it’s reading a Facebook comment, or thinking about supernatural beliefs – never ever assume or put things on pure faith, it makes no sense; try to find the evidence first.”

Holopainen says that his creative work is similarly challenged through interrogation.””I do that all the time, challenge every single lyric and chorus and melody and riff, ‘Could this be done better?’ Maybe it’s, instead of the piano riff, could it work with an acoustic guitar? Trying it out somehow you just feel it, ‘This is the best that I can do.'”

He says that searching for the truth of a song is not only fulfilling in itself but also provides an opportunity to share ideas and collaborate with others. “The prime example on this album was “our decades in the sun”, I had the story, I had the text, and I just couldn’t find the right music. I did two songs, totally different songs to match that story; it didn’t feel right, it didn’t feel worthwhile. It’s like, ‘This a story that tells how much I love my mom and dad; [but] this is not enough’. And then Marco (Hietala, bass and vocals) came, ‘I have this chorus and this riff, listen to this’ – and I was like that’s it, immediately. Goosebumps, it was a perfect match, the lyric and his song.”

Following the navigation of his inherent creative compass has always been the definition of artistic integrity for Holopainen. “The thing that I’m most proud of in Nightwish is that everything we’ve always done is thoroughly honest and it’s what we want the music to sound like. I could listen to some of the earlier albums with a big smile on my face and I wouldn’t do that again, but at the time it was made for really sincere purposes and it’s very innocent and it’s very true.”

The album title is taken from the closing sentence of Darwin’s Origin of Species and notes the author’s awe for the breathtaking diversity and adaptability of biological life. The same sense of wonder permeates Holopainen’s music and demonstrates his impassioned perspective. “Everywhere I look I see awe, whether it’s natural beauty, love between people, music, everything – it’s just awesome to be alive, and to be here, and you kind of want to spread the goodwill and the good message.” Considering the current state of global ecology after more than a century of mass industrialization, one wonders if the album could also be construed as a poignant elegy for the decline of Western civilization; Holopainen admits that our shortcomings can be frustrating, but he remains optimistic. “The thing is, the human species is quite an exceptional animal – we have such a brain that we could easily save the world, and make it a really good place. Easily. But there are just some things that we don’t get and the realization of the privilege of existence – that we are here, that we are capable of loving, altruism, appreciating the real natural world, and spreading truth and education throughout the whole world – that’s the key to saving the world.”

The video for Élan, the first single from the new album, mirrors these sentiments through its spotlight on the persistent spirit of forgotten places. He says, “The basic idea for the video was that the world is full of abandoned, desolate places that are really beautiful and they feel like they still have a story to tell, but they are just forgotten; so, how about going into those locations and bring them alive for a few seconds more, as they were in their days of glory? Then bring those people from that era back alive for a moment again to celebrate the joy of existence for one little party.” The recruitment of several prominent Finnish actors to play the characters from past eras added to the magic: “It is a visit to the past, it is a visit to a very wonderful place and one of the best days ever was when we shot the video and we saw these actors, legendary Finnish actors…It truly captures the joy-of-life philosophy that we were after.”

The dramatic character of Nightwish’s music adapts itself well to visual expression, but Holopainen says he also turns to film as a component of the songwriting process, which begs the question of future film scoring projects (last year he recorded and released a conceptual soundtrack to his favourite Disney comic, “The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck”, by Don Rosa.) “I’d love that. There’s just something about the idea of combining audio with visuals that really intrigues me. I even use it as a songwriting method – I put a favorite film of mine on, audio off, and then just play on top of it, like the film The Village, for example. It’s really inspirational, how to bring moving pictures alive with music.”

***

Nightwish’s North American tour with guests Delain and Sabaton continues through May 14, 2015. Check out the photo gallery from the Vancouver show here.

Thanks to Loana, Kristin, and Roger for facilitating the interview!

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