Remember libraries? If you’re under 25, perhaps not, but for those who do, recall that they used to loan CDs as well as books. It seems more than a little antiquated when compared to the touch-of-a-buttonness of the iTunes store or Spotify, but it was an important method of discovering new music nonetheless. Especially since without that process, we might not have rising Finnish singer-songwriter Mirel Wagner, whose haunting, self-titled debut album is released later this month. It was while browsing the library in her hometown of Espoo that a thirteen-year-old Wagner, who was born in Ethiopia but moved to Finland as a baby, found herself drawn to records by blues legends like Skip James, Son House, Jr., and Robert Johnson.
“I just liked the song titles,” the now-24-year-old explains from Finland (she’s getting ready to leave for Austin, where she’ll be making her U.S. debut at South by Southwest on Wednesday). “They were called things like ‘Devil Got My Woman’ and ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’,” she continues. “I like anything dark like that.”
Inspired by her new Delta-blues heroes, Wagner, who has been playing the violin since she was seven, began writing her own doom-laden tales of woe. But out of fear that this new hobby would alienate her from her Spice Girls– and Backstreet Boys–listening friends, Wagner decided to keep the whole thing under wraps. “I never told my friends I listened to the blues,” she says. “I didn’t think some old dude moaning about whiskey and women would be that interesting to them, so I was a Spice Girls fan on the outside.”
After she began performing at an open-mic club in Helsinki, Wagner was finally able to shed her facade and is now “much more confident as a songwriter.” But, those hoping to sample her moody acoustic ballads should be warned. Just like the bluesmen who first motivated her to pick up a guitar, Wagner doesn’t shy away from morbid topics like murder, depression, and death. “My songs were always dark,” Wagner explains. “I was never going to write about girl power, or anything like that.”
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