After a few years' break from the recording studio, accordionist Johanna Juhola is back with a fresh mix of playful gadgetry, virtuosic playing, electronic beats and folk whimsy. We met up with her to discuss tango influences, folk music camps and custom-made Italian accordions – among other topics.
On a summer’s day in the 80s, a girl sat on a swing in a Helsinki playground, wondering what to do when her friends were away in the countryside. Maybe she thought about the kind old guy who played accordion for her folk-dance group, her classical piano lessons and her old wooden recorder from music playschool. Perhaps she heard a melody in her head.
Fast forward to 2023, when Johanna Juhola, one of Europe’s most acclaimed accordionists, recaptured that wistful memory in her song Lähiökesä (“Suburban Summer”), which includes faraway playground sounds. That’s the most affecting track on "A Brighter Future" (Nordic Notes), her fifth solo album and the first in five years.
Most of the rest of the album is made up of the kind of peppy dance tunes that have made her a concert favourite for nearly 20 years. This time there’s only one piece featuring her trademark Finnish reinvention of tango nuevo. That jazzy, contrapuntal style pioneered by Argentinean bandoneon player Astor Piazzolla in the 1950s is quite different from the traditional, minor-key Finnish pop version of the tango.
“When I was young, I hated kind of tango,” she says with a laugh.
“It felt it was for old people, but in high school we started an Astor Piazzolla band and I really fell in love with tango nuevo. I started to arrange some Finnish tangos in that style. I started to like the oldies by singers like Olavi Virta when I realised I could play them in my own way. I just had to get there from a modern perspective.”
“It felt that tango was for old people, but in high school we started an Astor Piazzolla band and I really fell in love with tango nuevo.
“Tango influences have been present in almost everything I’ve done. It just so happens that there’s not so much tango on the new album except for Alarm, which was originally done for a performance with tango dancers,” she explains.
Juhola has played plenty of tangos, for instance on her "Fantasiatango" albums and in collaborations with pianists and harmonium players Milla Viljamaa and Timo Alakotila, whose band Troka was an early influence – and which she later joined.
“When I was 14, a friend who also played accordion invited me to go to a folk music camp with her. That’s when I got motivated to rehearse more, because afterwards we had a public concert with a real audience, not just family members. We got to compose and improvise and after classical music lessons, this felt wonderfully free, that I could make a lot of decisions about the music by myself, even if I was just a kid,” says Juhola.
She was inspired by a visit to the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival, where she saw accordionist Maria Kalaniemi and Troka featuring accordionist Minna Luoma, and then later by a folk arrangement course with Alakotila.
Kitchen appliances and toy instruments
While Juhola’s music is folk-based, she gracefully blends genres, this time with more of an electronic, even techno edge. Sometimes that’s playful like on Micro Wave + House Band, which mixes in kitchen appliance effects, Elektroniikkakerho ('Electronics Club’) and the Tokyo-inspired Pachinko Sensei.
“I wanted ‘Pachinko Sensei’ to have a naïve toy-instrument sound, so I played some recorder, which I can’t really play so well. I started playing it when I was five and am still at the same level,” she says with a chuckle.
"I sometimes get frustrated when the accordion is presented as instrument that always sounds bad and that can’t be played well at a high, professional level.”
“I was aiming for a fragile, childlike atmosphere. I hope that the really good, professional recorder players don’t hate me for this. I sometimes get frustrated when the accordion is presented as instrument that always sounds bad and that can’t be played well at a high, professional level.”
Juhola, who produces her own albums, is open to ideas from her bandmates, who include members of Rinneradio, Frigg and Nooli, along with programmer and engineer Teemu Korpipää, who works with many rock and hip-hop acts.
“I make the final decisions, but I like to let people do what they do well, and not always force my opinion on them,” she says.
Onstage alone with Imaginary Friends
The only vocals on A Brighter Future are on the title track, a schottische featuring Venla Ilona Blom of the vocal group Tuuletar.
Blom was also featured along with fellow beatboxer Felix Zenger on an earlier incarnation of the tune for Juhola’s Imaginary Friends concerts. In these stunning visual shows, she plays solo onstage, surrounded by animations and guest performers on floating video screens.
A Brighter Future is one of several cuts on the album that date back to Juhola’s Sibelius Academy doctoral recital in 2018 – “but these are very different versions; they’ve developed since then,” she emphasises.
Nowadays more people realise that you can play many kinds of music on an accordion.
Her instrument has evolved too, though it’s still a free base chromatic button accordion, as required for classical playing when she was a kid.
Now she plays a custom-made model made in Italy.
“When I had a concert there, I visited the Pigini factory and discussed things like how much weight I could save if we took off five buttons on the right-hand side, for instance. Accordions are so heavy! I wanted a lighter accordion with everything I need, but nothing more,” says Juhola, who tours Asia, North America and Europe.
Her cheerful interaction with audiences has also evolved since her early days, when especially older Finnish listeners expected her to play in the old dancehall style epitomised by Viljo Vesterinen’s 1939 hit Säkkijärven polkka.
“That’s a genre of sporty virtuoso playing with a very fast right hand while the left hand does a very simple accompaniment. When I was younger, people would ask me to play something like that. I felt like I disappointed them because that’s not my thing. Sometimes they were satisfied if I played some virtuosic Balkan-type music instead, which I really liked to play. Nowadays fortunately more people realise that you can play many kinds of music on an accordion!”