KEXP Live at Iceland Airwaves 2017, Day 3: Mikko Joensuu

Photos by Jim Bennett

Opening today’s broadcast live from Kex Hostel at Iceland Airwaves was Finnish singer-songwriter Mikko Joensuu. Over the course of the last year and half or so, Mikko has released a series of three records over the course of a year or so, called Amen 1-3 (Svart records) exploring coming into faith, then later abandoning it, themes heavily influenced by the singer’s own Pentecostal background. When he was a child, Mikko’s family was very active in the church, as was he before leaving at age 15 after a crisis of faith. The stylistic shifts from record to record feel like a symbolic progression, echoing the personal journey taken over the course of the three works. From the more traditional analog/folk feel of Amen 1, symbolizing a more traditional upbringing in the faith, to the more modern, digitally-influenced sound of Amen 3, symbolizing the departure and full realization of the self individually. 

Eight musicians crammed onto the small Kex stage, including a string ensemble, an elaborate assembling of all of the elements to make the rich, cinematic sound we would be treated to for the next half hour. Echoing the journey taken over the course of the three albums, he opened with “Warning Sign” from Amen 1. It’s a sleepy, folky tune swelling with beautiful strings. His rich, demure voice has a unique quality that could put him on a list with the great folk voices of previous generations, among the Bob Dylans and Neil Youngs of the world. “Closer My God,” also from Amen 1, is dramatic and heartbreaking, the instrumentation paying tribute to classic folk roots, the rolling melody feeling like a nod to the likes of Vashti Bunyan. His performance fills you with a deep sadness that is hard to articulate, intermittently tightening your chest and filling your eyes as you hear the sighing harmonies floating over gentle strings.

“Dream About a Miracle,” from Amen 3, continues the explorative progression. Mournful, but hopeful, it describes the elating feeling of recreating yourself, coming into your own and taking the best parts of yourself with you into your new life, and leaving the rest behind. The crowd was mesmerized, drawn into the touching, emotive performance, giving a feeling that the entire room was nearly holding its breath. Mikko is compelling as a performer, his voice is powerful, but understated, without pretense, but commanding anyway. He closed his set with “Drop Me Down,” from Amen 2, is more distorted, shoegazey, and cathartic, a fitting climax to the transcendent experience that was this performance.

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