Tomi Saario moved to London to play every jam session and open mic night he could find. After signing a management deal in the UK as well as record deals in Germany and France, he released his debut EP this spring. Its classic pop songcraft serves as a bare introduction to the world of the multifaceted Finn. Eventually Saario will reveal more, even surprises, but he's not in a hurry.
In a parallel universe Tomi Saario would've been celebrating the release of his debut EP in Brighton after performing at The Great Escape festival. Instead, after performing from Finland via stream he sat all by himself in an empty playground in Helsinki at midnight. When Thursday turned to Friday he opened a wheat beer: his EP "I Think We Need to Talk" appeared on streaming services globally.
"My parents have taught me to appreciate the work I've done", Saario says the following afternoon.
"I listened to the title song smiling and reminisced about the long road behind, just savoring the moment."
Saario's musical career had a very promising kick-off. His debut single Just a Little soared straight into the German radio charts, got him media coverage both in Finland and abroad and landed him on the billing of international music events.
Then came corona, messed up his plans and cleared his calendar. His EP was rescheduled by the record label. He had to learn to perform for online gigs and shoot a music video with a smartphone in his studio flat. But the road to this point was a lot longer.
"Maybe you should move to some place where people speak English", suggested Saario's close friend. Saario was in the talks with a local record label, which wasn't keen on him singing in English. They loved Saario's soulful voice but wanted him to record an album in Finnish first. Saario's pal was joking but the stubborn young Finn took it literally, packed his bags and left for London.
"I was persistent in my vision and performing in Finnish just wasn't a part of it. I had no other plans."
Saario comes from a family of pilots. Thanks to them, he has seen the world since he was a little kid. But this time the travel was not about fun and leisure. His mom gave him a notebook filled with a list of clubs and pubs with open mics and jam nights and good street corners to busk on. Saario took on the challenge and ended up spending four years in London.
I was persistent in my vision and performing in Finnish just wasn't a part of it. I had no other plans.
"I played over 1000 gigs, so I started to know the scene there. It doesn't matter if I'm playing for the bartender or a crowd of hundreds, I'll always give the same amount of energy. I love writing music, the studio has it's own appeal but everything crystallizes when playing live. There's no substitute to the almost telepathic dialogue between the performer and the audience. That connection is special. And I don't mind being addicted to that."
London was his calling but it wasn't all honeymoon. There were times of despair, being broke and hungry. But Saario kept banging his head against the wall, as he expresses it.
"I believe that there's two sides in every artistic person: on the other hand you have ultimate self-confidence and then the astounding self-doubt. And you'll have to cope with both of them. I did mental exercises: what if I gave up music and get a steady job in... acting!", Saario laughs.
The countless hours of playing his guitar, singing his heart out and meeting people finally paid off. Saario signed a management deal with Whole Entertainment in the UK, a global record deal with Sony's Four Music in Germany and subsequently RCA in France.
Still got the blues
Tomi Saario was seven years old when his father bought him Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Austin City Limits" VHS tape. He watched it over and over almost religiously. He fell in love with the blues. The blues got him to pick up a guitar.
"The soulfulness of blues appealed to me. Blues guitarists played fewer notes than other guitarists but the notes they played felt like more, much more."
He learned to play the guitar by listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn, B. B. King and other grand names. The first song he performed in public as a teenager was by John Mayer.
"When I started writing music I tried to sound like my influences. If I didn't, I thought of it as a failure. Later on I got a crucial epiphany: I'm on my way to finding my own voice if I don't sound like the artists I grew up listening to."
I'm going to bring together pop and blues. There will be more guitar riffs because I'm eager to show people what kind of a guitarist I am.
Saario says his roots in blues and r&b will be heard in his music in the future. "I Think We Need to Talk" is intentionally a stripped down pop EP.
"I wanted it to be as approachable as possible. It serves as an introduction to who am I. I'm going to bring together those worlds, pop and blues. There will be more guitar riffs because I'm eager to show people what kind of a guitarist I am."
I Wanna Be Your James Dean is a song that Saario describes as "bluesy at heart". It's a classic pop tune with a proper chorus and soulful instrumentation. It's a nostalgic song about romance and longing for the times before Tinder. James Dean, a sex symbol to both women and men, serves as an example of silver screen love.
"Art isn't supposed to bring romance in your life. It's supposed to display the romance that already exists in your life. Otherwise you couldn't relate to anything."
The world is his oyster
The most successful song Saario's been involved with so far is Coconut Water by We Are Gold. The French producer duo asked Saario to sing on their track which features a sample of Spandau Ballet's iconic 1983 classic True.
"I instantly heard the potential of that song and to what direction I would take it. You can be anything from 15 to 75 years old and you'll know that sample from somewhere when it plays."
The project took him to Paris to record the vocals and to Romania to film the music video. The song got radio play in Germany, Finland and in France, where it went on to become the most played record on Virgin Radio for weeks, eventually peaking at 70th on the national charts – stunning performance for a song with English lyrics. It was also one of the most shazamed songs in France last winter.
I've always felt like I wanted more out of music than what Finland can offer me. It's possible to be from a small town in Finland and still make it out there in the big world.
"Coconut Water isn't the kind of music I'd normally do, but I'm always open for suggestions. If you have a cool idea, I'm on board! I'd love to do an EDM banger."
Saario says he's going to travel to Stockholm to write music as soon as possible. He plans to move to Berlin at some point, but wants to stay close to his family for now. There's also plans for Los Angeles and he hasn't forgotten London.
"Professionally I've always felt like I wanted more out of music than what Finland can offer me. I want to demonstrate that it's possible to be from a small town in Finland and still make it out there in the big world. I also want the world to see the talent we have here and help build those bridges along the way."
Anatomy of a hit song
Saario uses his debut single Just a Little as an example of a successful track.
"We thought about what would resonate in several markets. The depth in the lyrics works in the UK and the USA. The chorus is simple so the people in Germany can dig it. It has to be melodically interesting to function in Scandinavia."
The more he's been abroad, the more convinced he's become that there's room for a singer-songwriter like him.
"I see being Finnish as a real asset because it's so exotic everywhere else on the globe. That's why my main focus is to always stay true to myself and just develop my craft."
The years in London and the misfortune caused by the coronavirus have grown his patience.
"Nothing tops my work ethic. As long as I keep on going, I know I'm constantly moving closer and closer to my dreams. That's all I need."