As the movie adaptation of Nightwish's Imaginaerum makes its cinematic debut in Germany and Tuomas Holopainen prepares to put the final touches on the soundtrack he is writing to his favorite Disney book, Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, Maria Nayef takes a look at some of the literature that has inspired the man behind the band's songs. She sat down with the keyboardist in Australia recently to discuss how the books he has read have impacted his songwriting, and how one in particular changed his life. Enjoy!
Song of Himself: A Literary Discussion with Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish
It is the heart of summer in Australia and the fading sun brings some relief to a city scorched by the mid-January heat. In two hours Nightwish will play Melbourne’s Palace Theatre for the second time, after selling out their show the night before. Nearing the end of their Imaginaerum World Tour that began in the US last January, it is the band’s third tour of the country, Holopainen’s favorite outside of his native Finland. He spent six weeks here in 2009 with friends on a road trip that saw them camping and hiking from the Nullarbor to the Blue Mountains to the Great Ocean Road. “Australia is in my heart,” he says, looking out the window at the twilit, tree-lined Southbank street. The response from Australian fans has been “phenomenal,” he says, a huge grin on his face. “Life is good.”
Renowned for their synthesis of female operatic vocals, cinematic symphonies and fantastical lyrics, Nightwish are the biggest Finnish metal band on the planet. With album sales surpassing seven million, they’ve released anthems such as “Sleeping Sun,” “Nemo” and “Amaranth,” won a hoard of awards and even made a movie. Since the release of their debut album sixteen years ago, their sound has remained over the top while reaching a level of sophistication that sets them apart from their peers. Their lyrics, all of which are written by Holopainen, are greatly inspired by literature and his songs include odes to the magic of Walt Disney and J.R.R. Tolkien, the darkness of Edgar Allan Poe and the poetic beauty of William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman.
An avid reader from a young age (he read The Lord of the Rings when he was seven), Holopainen immerses himself in everything from fantasy, horror, literary classics and nonfiction texts. Nightwish’s latest album Imaginaerum is a celebration of imagination and existence, with soaring orchestral arrangements that sing of hope - a stark contrast to the anguished tone of its 2007 predecessor Dark Passion Play. The shift is mainly due to Holopainen having read Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, first published in 1855 and regarded as one of the greatest works in American literary history. Its famous poem “Song of Myself” spawned a thirteen-minute track of the same name on Imaginaerum that includes six minutes of spoken verse. Many Nightwish fans purchased the book, wanting to experience the magic that had inspired such an epic composition, and while Holopainen is happy to be an ambassador for Whitman, he acknowledges that the text embodies a philosophy not everybody will embrace as wholly as he has.
“I’ve tried to tell people about Whitman,” he says. “I’ve given Leaves of Grass as a present and I’ve gotten really mixed responses. Some people really get it and some don’t get it all. He really nailed the essence of existence, life, love and beauty like no one ever before. It was like it was written for me personally, and I wish people all over the world would share the feeling that I had.” Since reading Leaves of Grass back in 2006, Holopainen reveals it has made him a “much, much happier and appreciative person,” a gift for which he is heavily indebted to Whitman.
“I love life so passionately now,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed life, I’ve never been that depressed ‘life sucks and were all going to die’ guy, it’s just that the world has never been better and more beautiful to me than it is now. Maybe the biggest curse throughout my life has been really bad self-esteem, and then when I read “Song of Myself” – it’s all about celebrating yourself as who you are, no discrimination, nothing.
“Everything is beautiful, all the people are beautiful as they are, and that was also such a comforting thought, and a wake-up call. I thoroughly realized what an immense privilege life and existence is – it’s so unbelievable – and personally I think it’s just a one-timer, so that thought also gives you comfort and a lust for living even more.”
Holopainen wrote his own “Song of Myself” based on Whitman’s style that is characterized by free verse, irregular lines and detailed observation. There are some powerful moments in the poem that is comprised of 23 parts ranging from seven line stanzas to one-sentence statements. I asked him about his decision to write something modelled on one of America’s most celebrated literary works, and any pressure he felt doing so.
“I wanted to do something similar without it being a rip-off, but the point is I just wanted to observe the world my way as Whitman clearly did in his poem, just write down the thoughts as I see the world: certain situations, occasions, happenings here and there and just try to nail it and see what comes out,” he recalls. “Originally it was about twice as long so I had to cut it down as it would have been too much, now I think it works. It has artistic value as well and there are some moments that really work for me, like the girl that came to me in an elevator. That was in Cairns, actually.”
Holopainen is referring to the girl in his poem with the “green butterfly on her neck,” admitting all of the spoken verse of “Song of Myself” is based on real-life experiences. The encounter took place in an elevator in a hotel in far north Queensland the last time he was in Australia, and that Holopainen is still moved by it is evident by the emotion in his voice and countenance. “It was such a powerful moment,” he reflects. “She came and she was really scented with too much perfume and she was really made up. She really touched me because she started to talk to me saying ‘I’m going to dinner and I’m going alone,’ as if it was because she was really, really big. And it made me feel really sad, and touched at the same time… Such a beautiful moment; I was a stranger, but she started to talk to me…”
Just as Whitman had wanted to sing all of America into existence with his “Song of Myself,” it seems Holopainen did that very thing for many of Nightwish’s legion of fans who resonated with the people and powerful thoughts of the poem: “Stop saying I know how you feel. How could anyone know how another feels?” it asks. They felt understood, acknowledged, and wanting to celebrate themselves. While he finds that knowledge comforting, Holopainen stresses the impact his songs have on Nightwish fans is not premeditated. “We never intentionally want to influence with our music. I’ve just found that when you do music for the most selfish reasons it becomes so honest that it gets through to people in the best possible way. So whenever I write music and lyrics, I just do it for myself. I don’t think ‘OK, I need to write a song that maybe somebody somewhere will get something out of and it will save his or her life’ – it’s all in here,” he says, pointing to his temple, “there’s such a mess inside this head.”
“The Crow, the Owl and the Dove” is another song on Imaginaerum that is influenced by an American transcendental literary masterpiece, Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Holopainen wrote the lyrics in response to the quote “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth” from the book, an autobiographical account by Thoreau of the two years he spent living in the woods in a tiny cabin. Walden celebrates solitude, living a simple and unmaterialistic life, and promotes a return to nature. While Thoreau’s philosophy may be celebrated more in theory than in practice, Holopainen believes it is not that difficult to take on board. “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” he says, “that’s the best lesson in Walden and that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s something that really caught my interest in that book: the idea of downshifting and simplifying, ‘cause life is such a beautiful and simple thing and it is us human beings that make it so complicated.”
Like a modern-day Thoreau, Holopainen relishes solitude and being in the wilderness. His home is in Kitee in Finland's east, nestled amongst pristine forests and right beside a lake. It is where he has completed each of Nightwish's seven records, away from the clutter, noise and demands of the world, while living a simple life where he grows his own vegetables and takes long hikes in the woods.
“There’s not a place on the planet that I feel more whole than when I’m hiking in the wilderness,” he says, “where you don’t see other people, buildings, or anything like that. That is the ultimate feeling of belonging somewhere.”
Aside from frequent references to epic fantasy series such as The Lord of the Rings, Dragonlance and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, Holopainen’s lyrics also borrow from the great poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s influence is mostly evident on Nightwish’s third and fourth albums, Wishmaster and Century Child, but also finds its way into the lyrics of 2007’s Dark Passion Play. Growing up in Finland meant Holopainen was not exposed to Shakespeare in high school as is typical in Australia and the US. It was something he discovered for himself despite, the Bard not being such a hit amongst Finns.
“Shakespeare was a big thing for me about ten, twelve years ago. I think I read Hamlet and then thought ‘this guy’s really good’ because Shakespeare has the kind of reputation – at least to a non-native English speaker – of being something really boring and artistic. I think the sonnets are his best work. I tried King Lear but that was a bit too much. A Midsummer Night's Dream was good, but some of the stuff was a bit too slow and difficult to read, so I had really mixed feelings about him. But the sonnets especially are really beautiful,” he says.
When he does reference particular poems or books in his lyrics, Holopainen says it is done subconsciously: “It’s not like I read a book and immediately turn it into a song, although it has happened once with Creek Mary’s Blood. Usually it’s something you really enjoy – something that really touches you. It goes inside, stays there for a few years, and then you feel inspired and it comes out,” adding his songs must be full of integrity, “It has to be authentic and real – absolutely nothing calculated. I think that’s the power of what we do.”
The influence of Edgar Allan Poe on Dark Passion Play was immediately evident in the artwork that featured a swinging pendulum, as well as the title of the first track “The Poet and the Pendulum,” both reflecting the powerful symbolism Holopainen found in Poe’s tale “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Holopainen describes the time of writing the music and lyrics for Dark Passion Play as one where “I was going through my own personal Hell, which I hope I never have to go through again.” It was a time during which he questioned everything, including his existence. “I just kind of identified with the guy under the pendulum in the story and thought ‘this just might make a really nice metaphor and a really good song.’ It’s still my all-time number one song that we’ve done.”
In the story, one of Poe’s most celebrated psychological horror tales, the narrator ponders: “what sweet rest there must be in the grave,” a thought Holopainen related to. “Just the anguish, the overall anguish that the guy’s going through, it’s so horrible and it so goes under your skin. I don’t know how he [Poe] did it; how he wrote it in such a way, I get goose bumps all the time when I read that book.” Holopainen has the Finnish edition of The Collected Tales of Edgar Allan Poe at his home and says “The Pit and the Pendulum” is his favorite story while others include “The Gold Bug” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom.”
Holopainen channeled the anguish he resonated with in the story into a fourteen-minute extravagant composition “The Poet and the Pendulum” in which he ended his life: figuratively speaking. “The songwriter’s dead,” it begins, “The blade fell upon him.” His fictional death and his initial reading of Leaves of Grass in 2006 proved to be cathartic enough for Holopainen to move forward from the darkness that had engulfed him. He has read Leaves of Grass about ten times since then and usually has a copy of it with him on tour. As an avid reader of horror, however (he has read every book by Stephen King), he still brought a little darkness to Imaginaerum, he says, like in the songs “Ghost River” and “Scaretale,” to show that dark epochs people experience in their lives should not be shunned but embraced. I recall a quote from Poe’s story “Mesmeric Revelation” and recite it to Holopainen: “Never to suffer would have been never to have been blessed.” It is a statement he resonates with instantly.
“Definitely. You have to secretly enjoy the dark times as well. And laugh at them. I think that’s really important. I just don’t get people who come and say to me ‘I don’t want to fall in love because I can’t take the misery if it ends’...I just don’t get that kind of thinking. They are missing out on the whole point of life. There will be darkness and sorrow, but without it there’s no beauty either, or love.”
He recounts a recent and personal event to clarify his thoughts on the topic some more. “My mum just lost her cat...it was my cat when I was still living with my parents and it really, really hurt, and she came to me and said, ‘I can never take another cat again because I can’t take this feeling,’ and it was then that we had this same talk, and I told her, ‘you have to take another cat. It’s really worth it,’” and she did, he says. “It’s just human to fear pain, but you shouldn’t. Don’t be afraid to live. Live fully, love fully, and then be really sad when the time comes. But don’t be afraid of the emotions. Again, these are all really subjective opinions,” he adds. “I don’t want to preach. I’m not telling truths to anybody.”
Aside from genre fiction and literary classics, Holopainen also reads a lot of nonfiction. More recently he has become fascinated with what he calls the scientific “thought plays” of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. “I’m reading them at the moment. I was just reading it an hour ago, The Magic of Reality it’s called, and it has the most beautifully written introduction to science ever. Just full of thought plays, its great.”
Holopainen is currently tapping into the scientist part of himself; after all, he was studying science at university before he left to form Nightwish. “It’s just so cool; it’s as simple as that,” he enthuses. “Nothing is cooler than science.” I ask him if this literature will too work itself into his lyrics, or even inspire the next Nightwish album? “I already know now that since I have been so enthusiastic about this kind of literature for the past few months, and will be for the upcoming months, that it’s going to come out somehow,” he admits. “I don’t know how just yet, but it will come out. I know it from experience.”
The enormity of the impact that literature has had on Holopainen’s music as well as his life is not lost on him. “Sometimes I come across interviews I did ten years ago and see that I am quite a different person. So something has happened say during the past five, six, seven years, and a lot of it has to do with the books that I’ve read, mainly Whitman, Hitchens and Dawkins,” he says. And although Holopainen has referred to Leaves of Grass as his personal Bible, he says he doesn’t want to be perceived as a preacher; rather as somebody just “spreading the love” of a text he believes has the power to change people’s lives for the better. “Just give it a shot,” he encourages, “I feel that if we would give that book to high school kids to be learned at some point, instead of certain other things that they teach in school, it may be a direction for the better.”
In May, Nightwish will tour Japan before going on to play European summer festivals throughout June and August, including Wacken Open Air in Germany. After that, Holopainen will retreat to his haven in the wilderness to contemplate the next Nightwish album, something he says he has already given a lot of thought to. “Every single album is a reflection of its time, what we are as a band and what I was as an individual. It’s only natural and that’s the way it should be,” he says.
As the lyrics of Imaginaerum’s “Storytime” suggest, “Caress the tales and they will read you real.” In the case of Tuomas Holopainen, it seems that they certainly have.