Meet Johanna Telander – composer extraordinaire and mom of 2, originally hailing from Finland now based in New York City. For Johanna, music has been a huge part of her life since she was very young, and her career has taken on a number of interesting twists and turns. In this male-dominated arena, she was signed to a label as a promising young pop star, but eventually decided to forge her own path when she realized that taking agency and ownership over her artistry was not something executives wanted her to do.
Johanna’s lifelong career in music writing and performing eventually lead her to write and create her own musical concept album, drawing on ancient Finnish legends and lyrics and music that have been in her head for many years. She is the creator of ‘Kalevala The Musical’, which has been in consideration for a Grammy nomination.
‘Kalevala The Musical’ is a story inspired by the national epic poem of Finland. Passed down from generation to generation, these tales were finally collected in a book of poems by Elias Lonnrot in 1835. Widely cherished across the world, Kalevala has been a source of inspiration for many fantasy authors, including J.R.R. Tolkien.
The story follows two children who find an ancient artifact in the woods, unleashing a magic portal in to the forgotten world of Kalevala. Four Nature Spirits guide the children on an epic adventure through the runes of Kalevala in order to help return the lost Spirit of Humanity, Väinämöinen, back to his roots, hereby saving the world from imminent darkness. The kids follow Väinämöinen’s journey of self discovery while encountering many Kalevala characters along the way, all vying for the enigmatic Sampo, a mystery object of desire. Ultimately, the kids become entangled in the story, learning how their creativity can hold the power to change the world.
It is that last sentence that made us immediately see the connection between this ancient story and Johanna’s current day musical career. So we had the chance to speak with the composer to learn more about Kalevala, motherhood, the music industry, and why you should never let anyone else decide your dreams for you.
Where did your music career begin, and what was your “breakout” moment?
The very first time I was “discovered”, I was 13 back in my home country Finland. I was approached by a label when I was singing original songs I’d written at a school function. I collaborated with an A&R person who worked with BMG at the time and recorded a few demos for them. I was discovered again at age 15 by a rep for Warner, then again at 17, this time by someone who was an A&R for Universal Music. I signed a deal with them at 19 as a recording artist. I released a pop single that year, which became the most played hit song on one of Finland’s biggest radio stations. I was ecstatic to have recorded and be the one to perform the song, but I didn’t write it.
The label felt strongly that I should focus on establishing my brand as a performer first before trying my hand at writing my own songs. Something about that ended up being a tough pill for me to swallow. While it was cool touring my native Finland with the released single, and getting a taste of performing regularly, it was also an important learning experience for me to hone in on who I really wanted to be as an artist. I learned that writing songs was actually a non-negotiable for me moving forward and that I couldn’t ignore the truths of my own that I wanted to tell. I tried to dig my heels in to push my own narrative with the label, but when we couldn’t come to an agreement on song content and image, the contract dissolved.
I decided to take time away to study abroad and reassess what I needed to do and who I wanted to grow into. I went to Ohio, where I got a degree in music at Capital University in Columbus. My husband, whom I’d met as an exchange student, and I moved to NYC in 2007 when I got accepted to study Musical Theatre at AMDA, and we’ve lived in and around NYC ever since. I’ve had a handful of cool gigs that really standout, such as a role on ’30 Rock’, and performances at the United Nations, the Lincoln Center, and headlining my own set at the Bitter End as well as performing with Residente and Bad Bunny on ‘The Tonight Show’ with Jimmy Fallon.
But the biggest highlight has surely been the birth of Kalevala the Musical. I think of a breakout moment as a turning point in your life where you are seen and recognized for who you are professionally, where you feel your vision is received with the intent you meant it when you put it out into the universe. That’s certainly true for this musical.
Can you tell us about Kalevala The Musical, and how the project began?
Kalevala the Musical is a fantasy musical inspired by the national epic poem of Finland, the Kalevala. The original poems were gathered, compiled and abridged by Elias Lönnrot in 1835, and consist of thousands-years-old stories largely stemming from the Karelian Region and Finland, where those stories were kept alive via oral tradition through generations. The tales have inspired the likes of J.R.R.Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and beyond.
While Kalevala is the basis of the musical I wrote, the themes I wove into this are also the byproduct of this other story I started writing in my student years. I pocketed the project when life got busy, but it became relevant again when I had a bit of an existential crisis in 2017, right around when Finland turned 100 years old as a nation. I was exploring who I was as an artist, a mom of two toddlers, and as a human being in general, digging into what it meant to me to be an expat Finn, having made The US my permanent home. I wanted to find ways to meaningfully share parts of my cultural heritage with my Finnish-American kids. I turned to Kalevala for inspiration, and started writing a simple song cycle based on the first few runes, really just for my kids at first.
I chatted about it with a few friends, and, sparked by their encouragement, decided to debut two songs at the annual Kalevala Marathon at Columbia University, an event where people come together to read translations of the Kalevala, often in several languages. The attendees were intrigued by my performance, and one project soon followed another, as the song cycle quickly grew to 12 songs. It was around then that I found the connection with the haunted tree fairytale musical I had pocketed years back.
When I was asked to perform my work at the Finnish Street Fair in Greenwich Village hosted by the Finlandia Foundation New York Metropolitan Chapter, I repurposed some songs from my “tree musical” and added them to the song bunch. The songs that I “borrowed” fit in perfectly- I only had to change a word or two of the existing lyrics. Just like that, the song cycle became a theatrical piece.
Fast-forward to a handful of concert readings that followed at The New York Estonian House, The Scandinavia House NY, two concerts in Helsinki’s Kapsäkki Theatre, a staged reading at Signature Theatre in 2019, and a pandemic, here we are now, with a released original concept album produced by Quentin Garzon, along with Kristi Roosmaa and Petra Haapamäki, starring Broadway stars, such as Ramin Karimloo and Julia Murney, as well as a whole slew of other incredibly talented people. I can hardly believe it, but the musical has now had over 200 people from several different countries involved in getting to this point!
What is the story and meaning behind this project?
Beyond an epic adventure journey weaving in the myths of Kalevala, including tales of wizards, music battles, magic, giant eagles, great villains and a great solar/lunar eclipse, the driving force and red tape of this story is rooted in nature. I’ve always had a connection to the woods. They show up in my dreams a lot. In one such dream, a tree beckoned me to explore the golden inscribing on its falling leaves. My ancestors were nature people too, people of the forest. That spoke to my very core. So while this musical is about Kalevala’s stories, l also wrote it as a love letter to this connection we have with the natural world.
I placed a magical forest at the real heart of it; wanting it to be more of a character than a mere setting. This is a story where the forest is the leading lady. The trees are the storytellers, the preservers of these long lost characters, and they themselves want to set the spirit of humanity on an alternate course by sweeping a new generation of listeners into the realm of these fantastical tales. Two kids, led by the trees, follow the protagonist Vainamoinen through the forest on his epic journey of self-discovery to help him find his way back to his roots. My forest is one full of melodies and memories. I’d like to think of it as an escapist’s favorite place to hang, reassess and reset some values. That’s what the musical is really about.
The music industry is still very much a male-dominated industry, but there are more and more women paving their own paths, including you! What has been your experience as a woman in this field?
While the playground is certainly changing, and changing fast, there are still roles for a woman that seem to be more accepted in this industry than others. It has always been somewhat my experience to be more readily seen as the flashy cover, rather than the book itself. That’s easier to deal with now that I’m a bit older. My first experiences as a young songwriter certainly point to that sort of perception. I extended so much energy into convincing others my musical thoughts had value or that I could add my own spin to the material I was presented with. I wanted to be given freedom to express myself and was often told to just stay in my lane.
I’m generalizing now, but I find female songwriters are too often told that we need co-writers or collaborators to make our visions come to life. While I have no problem with collaborations and think they can be life changing, especially when you find someone that echoes your sentiments and sees right into your soul, I do have opinions on the perception of young women “needing” them.
There are so many other trailblazer women in our industry whom I’ve come to admire deeply for setting the expectations straight for the rest of us. I admire Joni Mitchell (the fearlessness, her artful and truthful word-smithing), Ella Fitzgerald (her confident musical genius), and Carole King (her hustle as a mom, her striving to achieve wholeness as an artist on her own terms). At time it has been a battleground in sticking to our visions and setting our own narratives, even at the risk of being branded “difficult” by our male counterparts.
Now I’m seeing more and more female decision makers, and that’s so empowering. My own Kalevala the Musical’s team, in addition to Quentin Garzon, who produced the album, also includes two incredibly gifted, dedicated women at the decision making forefront. Any creative artist knows how important it is for your vision to gain visibility, and Kristi Roosmaa and Petra Haapamaki have done and are doing an incredible job in strategizing business, PR and marketing decisions to move the narrative’s needle forward.
Over the years, I’ve been told I’m too nice “to make it” by several industry people I’ve met. I find this feedback so telling of how strength is still viewed and interpreted by too many people. Why is it assumed we as women have to be more hard-lined in our communication to earn respect, in this, or really any industry? I think it is possible to lead with kindness, encouragement, resilience, and patience. That’s my strength, not my weakness. When I smile, it’s not to please people, but to build a connection by reaching into someone’s core as a person. We are capable of choosing our own collaborators or having a voice all our own if we so wish. We can make the art we want, and carve out the career that’s right for us.
In addition to being a woman in music, you are also a mom. What was it like to navigate and continue your career through motherhood?
Segueing right from carving a career that suits your needs, artistry combined with motherhood means spinning a lot of plates in the air at once. My husband and I live far from our families, so most of the time we are playing the logistical puzzle of kids’ activities between just the two of us. And that is at times very trying.
For me this often means writing at night when the house is quiet. It’s recording new demos on my phone while in the car en route to kids’ activities. It’s scribbling lyrics during hockey practice, humming a new song while buying groceries. It’s taking hikes to breathe in the peace so I can hear my thoughts clearly, away from the buzz of a well lived-in house. It’s being present with the kids and snuggling them closer, when all you may want to do in that moment is disappear into a song. It’s then, when you have to force yourself to put that pen down and to not forget to live the real life with the family!
It’s being at least ten things at once. It’s forgiving yourself for not being perfect as you’re attempting to be all those ten things, and being honest with your kids about your struggles, about your intentions for motherhood and your intentions for your family. It’s expressing your wishes for yourself and for them out loud so they can see you, and receiving their feedback when you sometimes fall short on their wishes.
It’s about being honest with yourself, about who you are. It’s reminding yourself what you do it for, and how that has shaped and will shape you as a mom. It’s making sure you always show them and don’t just tell them that you love them. It’s finding the time to listen to their latest joke, even when you burn their toast or forget their homework on the counter before leaving for school, because your mind is writing that next chord change or melody line or lyric whether you want your mind to do it right at that time or not.
My kids have to live with an absent-minded mama who never sleeps, but who loves them unconditionally through all her shortcomings and that’s the reality. While we haven’t figured out that tricky balance thing completely, and while I have occasionally had to turn down work to do the mom thing too, I also know it means everything to me to show them it’s possible to be both an artist and a mom. I hope they’ll remember the way I was present when I was present, even while doing all this, even if imperfectly, and be proud of me when they are grown.
Your work on Kalevala was on the GRAMMY ballot, being considered for a nomination. How did it feel to hear this news?
It’s an awesome thing, being recognized by your peers. I’m so super grateful for the rising attention the work is receiving, and remain hungry to set the next wheels in motion. I really can’t wait for the forest to grow, for more people to visit, and if we are fortunate enough to receive more ears on the project, that’s a sign to keep going. I’m so flattered to have been a name circulating among the best Broadway has to offer! So proud of our genre, and the incredible pool of talent we bring to the awards through our music. Just being considered alongside them for something this big has been huge for me, personally.
Who are some other female composers we should know more about that inspire you in your work?
I was inspired by several fantastic writers I heard at this year’s NAMT festival: Nikki Lynette is a raw, honest powerhouse of an artist who focuses on mental health activism in her performances. I was moved to tears by her incredible autobiographical show Get Out Alive!. Lynne Shankel and Sara Cooper are a writing duo of established creatives whose show Perpetual Sunshine & the Ghost Girls is so musically impressive, it’s kept me thinking of the lyrical lushness and the rich harmonic textures and melodic complexities ever since seeing the reading of it performed in late October. It’s no wonder they received this year’s Richard Rodgers Award for their “pandemic project”, as they lovingly call it.
Another favorite composer I’ve been following is Rona Siddiqui, an award-winning NYC-based Musical Theatre composer/lyricist who is so prolific in her writing, that her growing list of shows (including: Salaam Medina: Tales of a Halfgan, Vagina Monologues, One Good Day) simply makes my head spin. She’s got the MMT ie. Musical Midas Touch, where everything she’s involved in turns to pure gold. So inspiring.
I also want to give a shoutout to my “Diamonds of the North”. This is a group of fellow Finnish songwriter expats living in NYC who all have their own successful songwriter careers in the indie music scene. Eeppi Ursin, Petra Jasmiina, Jonna, and Ida Metsberg. These incredibly talented, hard-working women with very distinct, unique voices in pop are a must-add on your feel good Spotify playlist. And I’m so humbled to call them my friends.
For other women and up-and-coming composers wanting to break into the industry, what advice would you give them?
Be not afraid to fail, be not afraid to just set something down on paper and see it grow. Be accepting of yourself and tune out the doubt. You don’t have to be brilliant on the first try, or the second or even the third. Be whimsical, explore your thoughts and just see what sticks to you on the fly, because that is, in my experience, where those best ideas like to live and be discovered. Never compromise on your vision, but be open to it changing along the way if the vision itself asks for it.
Your biggest power and your biggest task as a composer is communicating what you already know to be true. No one can read your brain, so do the best you can to explain what you sense and hear, with all the tools you have at your disposal. If you’ve done all that you can to communicate your vision, and they still don’t get it, then they simply aren’t your audience and that’s alright too. Keep looking for the place where your music can live. It’s out there. Composing and writing is the professional path that chooses me, over and over again. Though I’ve tried other things, I’ve accepted my True North. So, if this professional path wants to find you, don’t fight it, don’t shut it out, let it open doors for you and see where it takes you.
What is the next project in the works for you, and where can we follow your continued success online?
I’m beginning to work on two other exciting projects: a collaboration, as well as a second, very special musical. But Kalevala the Musical is definitely still high on my priority list. I want to see my baby go through another milestone! I’ve written the book, the songs, and the vision for it in overall, so it’s ready to be performed in its entirety somewhere, be it the stage or maybe even a film adaptation in some woods near or far. And that would keep me plenty busy, growing the magic forest in those ways, to make it 3D.
In addition to that, I’m planning to release an album of some singer-songwriter stuff. That’s for fun. And for me to stop hiding these scribbles in my desk. Music is meant to be out in the open and be heard!
To hear more of Johanna’s compositions and keep in touch, you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and be sure to support and listen to Kalevala the Musical Original Concept Album at www.kalevalamusical.com.