Interview: Maarja Nuut & Ruum

Maarja Nuut & Ruum (Hendrik Kaljujärv) are a duo from Estonia who have been collaborating for a number of years. They put out their debut Muunduja in 2018 and recently followed up that release with World Inverted. This album features delicate electronic strands that underpin Nuut’s folk-inspired vocals and violin-playing to eerie and unsettling effect; “Style categories are for [the] weak,” declares Nuut herself. Her lyricism borrows from poets WB Yeats and Elizabeth Bishop, while the sonics at play drift between modern genres with eyes on an uncertain future. We spoke to the pair about the origin of their collaborations (a series of phone calls in 2016), their inspirations, current activities and future plans.

Hello there! How are you two doing?
Hendrik: “Hello! These times are worth to investigate. So no complaints.”
Maarja: “Indeed.”

What’s the period of pandemic been like in Estonia?
H: “It’s been varying a lot but really obscurely. I don’t want to make any generalizations. My days have always been quite erratic and I’m constantly looking for options to balance it.”
M: “I think in a way it’s been easier here than in many other places, especially compared to big cities in lockdown. Here you could take a car or a train and after 30 minutes you’re out of town in the middle of a swamp or a forest enjoying fresh air and silence in solitude. A collapse of some sort always opens new doors. I haven’t been touring but have been learning a lot about wooded meadows, from watching my vegetables grow and sorting through five generations of family stuff… things I’d never have time for if the world hadn’t stopped.”

How did you first connect? What were the phone conversations like?
H: “It was coincidence really. I’d say the conversations were pretty casual. Nowadays we call and exchange information like when, where, why, who and so on. But back then we called to talk, sometimes about music, sometimes about everything around music, our experiences.”
M: “Mhmhm. Our verbal conversation became musical ones.”

How do you approach each project?
H: “Through imagination I guess. I just start to think about it, then something comes up and then I do it.”
M: “Hard to say when or how exactly something ‘starts’… as a duo we’re still relatively young but it seems that there’s a great deal of intuition involved. We start playing, then some interesting elements might come up and when those elements start to re-occur that’s probably a sign of something bigger, you may even call it a theme. That’s also how I approach most of my projects, unless there’s a strict terms of reference already in place.”

Is the album title related to the sci-fi book? Or even the Shins album?
H: “What sci-fi book? The Shins album? I have to check those out as I’m not familiar with these things you mention. The title is actually taken from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop.”
M: “Haha, yes I know the sci-fi book but only because I googled it after naming the song ‘World Inverted’.

into that world inverted
where left is always right,
where the shadows are really the body,
where we stay awake all night,
where the heavens are shallow as the sea
is now deep, and you love me.

It’s a section from Elizabeth’s poem ‘Insomnia’ (above) that we use in the title track of the album. But I’d love to read the sci-fi book too!”

Your first album was full of Estonian titles, but this one is largely English, with English poetry – what determines the language you’ll use?
H: “The lyrics used on this album are largely from English authors. So I think it would be strange to somehow translate them into Estonian when English is the language we can speak and understand. On the previous album the lyrics were of very old Estonian origin.”
M: “Mhmhm, it was the source material that determined the language used, maybe also the way how I used my vocals. And who knows what’s next.”

As an Irishman I was immediately given a jolt when I heard the words of WB Yeats – what is your connection to the poem?
H: “Jolt you say? Well these are lovely put words, aren’t they. And even more pretty when they are sang. So I guess this is the strongest connection I have to this poem.”
M: “I received Yeats’s poetry collection as a gift, an edition from [the] ’80s that had poems in two languages, English and translations to Estonian. I of course knew WB Yeats as a writer but never really read his texts before and this poem just really touched me immediately. It talks about love and fragility through beautiful images.”

The music moves between almost neo-classical and full-on techno. Does this happen naturally or do you focus on specific styles as you work?
H: “Hmm… yes, I hear you. These terms techno and neo-classical are widely used but I think both of them are really broad categories, both musically and culturally. Our stuff certainly touches some areas from those huge scenes and from some other ones.”
M: “Style categories are for [the] weak, haha! More seriously, no, I never-ever focus on how one might want to label my music. Interestingly, people who are familiar with my strong folk/world music background can hear that too on that record.”

Maarja, you have a record coming soon with Sun Araw – can you talk about the experience of working with him? It sounds amazing from the few tracks I’ve heard.
M:‘Fantasias for Violin & Guitar’ is a result of a week-long residency. Here’s how it happened: we said hello, drove to the easternmost town in Estonia, Narva, made dinner, drank some schnaps and had a long night’s sleep. Next morning we unpacked the gear and just started testing the audio signals which sort of evolved into a three day long improvisation session. Then there was about 18 hours of material recorded and we thought ‘ok, maybe there’s something here, let’s listen back’. We listened, filtered, cut out sections, filtered again, cut again, slightly EQ here and there, even more slight overdubbing and here we are, coming out with it in a month. Lovely experience!”

What are you working on at the moment?
H: “We are working on our live set. It seems like a good idea to work on it when no live shows are planned and those that are might actually never take place.”
M: “Yes, experimenting with different ways how to perform our new music. I’m also working on a collab with Estonian chamber choir Sireen and then preparing my vegetable beds for next season (super excited about that)!”

Thanks for talking to us!
H: “Thank you! It was a pleasure.”
M: “Yes!”

Muunduja by Maarja Nuut & Ruum is out now on Õunaviks. Buy here.

Aidan Hanratty

Dublin ...