Maybe it is a sign of the times. The decline in physical music and the lost art of the first play of a new album and pouring over the details in the insert as part of the ritual. Not just the lyrics or the main musicians but maybe a familiar name and a guest guitar solo or there is a cool backing vocal, details easily missed in the world of digital music. A new album arrives in the inbox, it is a new name and a real “wow” record with a knockout voice fronting it…to discover that same voice has appeared on albums already in the collection for the last ten years but has been in the business for the last two decades. It is a bit of a blindside swipe. How could I have missed that?
That album is by a band called Smackbound. The album is called 20/20. That singer is called Netta Laurenne. Maybe that name does not entirely jog the memory but search out albums by Amorphis, Battle Beast, Lordi, Elvenking – some of which are under Netta’s maiden name of Dahlberg- or the recent Heart Healer metal opera project by Magnus Karlsson – it is a name that will appear across hard rock and metal. It is also a name that is going to be around a lot more. We are not here just to talk about Smackbound though, today sees the release of the excellent new album The Reckoning under the banner of Laurenne/Louhimo which sees Netta teaming up with Battle Beast vocalist Noora Louhimo. Dynamite coupling? You bet and hearing is believing.
“I started in the music business at the end of the 1990s,” says Netta. “I studied classical singing at the Tampere Conservatory for classical music, but I searched out more mainstream pop music and landed a job as a session singer. My first paid job as a singer was singing demo vocals for song writers who were missing a solid vocalist and needed to send their songs off to labels.” Is there anything that drew Netta to rock music? “I didn’t do rock in the beginning,” replies Netta, “it was more mainstream pop music, but I’ve always loved blues and blues rock. I love to use my voice in different ways and not always cute, small and quiet [laughs]. That is what people usually ask and expect when you’re singing pop songs. I was really drawn to rock music, it gave me so much freedom to use my voice in other ways whether it be rough, with force or beautiful, melodic and quiet if I wish. It just gave me the freedom as a singer to be whatever I want to be. I also love the energy and the power in the music, so they were two things that definitely intrigued me in this genre of music, in rock and later in metal.”
That freedom is evident in both Smackbound and Laurenne/Louhimo, Netta is a vocal force of nature that drives hard on heavier songs like Wall of Silence and Tongue in The Dirt or the incendiary Bitch Fire and can switch the melody and aggression on Drive It Like You Stole It while swinging back to serene on ballads such as The Game. Netta Laurenne has a voice for all seasons. If anyone is wondering whether Netta committed her former musical persona to albums, then there are two very hard to track down albums out there and worth seeking out on streaming services that show a different side to Netta Laurenne. “I have two albums but only one real solo album called Lost & Found [released on Motley in 2010],” confirms Netta. “The story with the other album [titled Albumi A:lla released on Motley in 2012] is that it is a tribute, a cover album for a Finnish songwriter, it was part of a musical that I was performing the lead actress role in. The album was sold in the theatre so it’s not really a solo album, it’s part of this musical thing I did 10 years ago that somehow got released. People think that it’s my solo album, but it’s not especially arranged for me. It’s just that I sound the same in the keys that they played and performed by the other singers in the musical, so I sang them on the album they were selling at the theatre. My only solo album Lost & Found is blues rock, it has a little bit of pop, as you know, there is pop in Smackbound and you can look at it in terms of song writing and catchy melodies. You can’t really find them though; I think that is because they [the Motley label] only did about 2000 copies. We moved house about half a year ago and I found about ten of those albums so I maybe I could sell them sometimes, whoever bids the most, then maybe I will get get to make another solo album with the money [laughs].” Looking back and considering where Netta’s career is now and her current project, it must be strange reflecting on these two past projects? “It was interesting,” agrees Netta, “It was released on this tiny independent label. I wrote the songs several years before the album came out in 2010 and a lot of weird things happened, a lot of my demo keyboards ended up on that album. It is me; you can hear it is really me who wrote and sang those songs. For me, it is natural, it sounds the same as Smackbound or whatever I do [laughs].” Netta does pause for a few seconds and laughs again. “Maybe Smackbound production is a bit more…refined.”
Moving back into the present, Netta Laurenne is incredibly proud of the Smackbound album 20/20 and with good cause, it was one of the best albums to arrive in one of the most turbulent years in human history. It is also solid proof that hard rock has a place and when delivered well, it can be one of those moments where you find a band that you know is going to go onto bigger things and will be around for the long haul. The care and attention to both the song writing and performance is evident and Netta Laurenne is not just a top-quality vocalist, but she has surrounded herself with high calibre players. Make no mistake, Smackbound is a band but as a solo artist and a contributor to a lot of other albums, what was the inspiration for starting an actual band?
“I think that it was time to start a band,” responds Netta. “It was just me getting restless and frustrated because I wanted to do music in English and not Finnish. I wanted to do more heavier stuff and I realised that I really have to put out a band and find the right people for it to get the vision out of my head. I founded Smackbound in 2015 and as it had been five years since I had released anything, I just felt that I wanted this time to not make it a solo album, I wanted to try something new. I had been in bands before and a lot of cover bands, but I wanted to have the kind of experience of really being part of a band rather than a solo artist that has a band. I wanted a different kind of family around me. So that was the initial push, and I had this vision to do heavier stuff and I felt that I really wanted to make it happen.” Were the songs on 20/20 written as a group or were there ideas brought to the group situation? “Yes, I had some songs ready,” says Netta. “When I asked the guys to join the band, I got them to listen to some demos, one of which was Those Who Burn. They listened to the songs and checked the style I wanted to do and said yes. I founded the Run For Cover band to see if we really get along because I wanted to tour right away to see if the dynamics work with these guys. We toured for a year and then I said, ‘now I want to change so that we do more together and not only me’ and in 2016 we started writing together. It is Vili Itäpelto [keyboards, formerly Tracedawn], Tuomas Yli-Jaskari [bass, formerly Tracedawn] and I that are the core song writers in Smackbound.” You have to admit that it is quite an unusual and clever way of testing out if the dynamics work by setting up a cover band and touring with it before going back to the main project. “Smackbound was created before that, so everyone had joined the band, but I said that I was not going to let anyone write songs with me if we don’t know if we get along, so we waited it out,” says Netta. “We made versions of the demos of the songs I had that and when they joined the band, we got them ready in the studio, but I wanted to hold off writing more. I needed to bring the guys into the song writing or else it would have been another solo album, I wanted to write as a band. Run For Cover was founded at the same time as Smackbound, was a trial of seeing how we get along, Run For Cover was for that purpose only, to see how the dynamic works between the members. Then we know what happens when we go on tour, and everyone is stressed and tired. We got along great after a year so I said ‘ok, let’s start writing.’”
Smackbound is completed by guitarist Teemu Mäntysaari (Wintersun) and last but by no means least, drummer Rolf Pilve (Stratovarius and Wintersun) and Run For Cover clearly was an important part of the development of Smackbound. It is more than worth anyone’s time checking out Run For Cover material on the internet and seeing that dynamic in action in the guise of a cover band who go far and wide on the classics covering anything from Dio (Don’t Talk To Strangers), Whitesnake (Still Of The Night) and even Pantera’s stomping classic, Walk. It is the Yngwie Malmsteen cover of I’ll See the Light, Tonight that gets the blood pumping though. “Thank you so much!” exclaims Netta. “They are from our rehearsal and studio sessions, and it was funny because the Malmsteen one was the first that was filmed. There was no plan to record it, we were just having a rehearsal for a gig. We played it once and rehearsal and then said, ‘let’s do it again!’. It was my husband Nino [Laurenne] who secretly recorded it, we were connected to the studio gear and then he came in with an iPhone [laughs]. It really was that organic and natural, but it was only the second time we ever played that song together, you know some of my melodies are not 100% perfect or where they should be and I’ve done something from the original but it is very organic.”
It is inevitable that the conversation would touch on the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that the UK government is at the point in their ‘roadmap’ which means that restrictions are lifted and that leaves the prospect of gigs happening. The pandemic has been a destroyer of plans and no doubt this was no different for Netta. “Yes, we were supposed to start a club tour in March 2020,” says Netta. “We were in our rehearsal space on 16th March getting ready for our first gig on the 18th, we were all happy and then we get the call that everything is cancelled. We were all sat on the sofa and saying, ‘this can’t be happening, we’ve just rehearsed and we’re due to start a club tour in two days.’ We sat there for a little while and everyone was feeling like shit of course and the only way out was ‘shall we just go back into the rehearsal room and play the set, get all of this bad energy out of our systems?’ At least we get to play for ourselves, so we did that, played the set twice and then said ‘thank you! That’s all we’re allowed to do.’ We had to cancel the club tour and summer festival appearances and everything for this summer also, there were so many plans and a lot of gigs. Life happened, the pandemic happened and now we’re waiting for it to clear out so we can start performing these songs live. Now we’re back in the studio to record the drums for the next album, we’re starting on that now so we’re probably going to tour with two albums.” It does not need to be said that the arts and music hav been decimated during the course of the pandemic, but Netta does go beyond that and into the humanity of the effects of a pandemic. “It’s been tough for everyone,” says Netta. “I believe that music is so important to everyone, not just those in the profession but it is a part of all of our lives. I would not be alive if I didn’t have music in my life, it has saved me from when I was stressed or other feelings that I’ve gone through. Music has always saved me and given me energy and I don’t think some people understand how big an influence music has in the wellbeing and everyday life. We’re hoping for music to come back but of course, live music has a different energy, the communication that you get between audience and artist is something that you cannot get anywhere else.”
Onto even more current events then and the release of the Laurenne/Louhimo album The Reckoning. To many, the name Noora Louhimo will be a name that is familiar, the front woman of Finnish power metallers Battle Beast. Louhimo is another formidable vocal talent that as well as fronting Battle Beast has her own solo album and is a much in demand voice that has graced other albums by bands such as Arion, Crystal Ball, Grave Digger and Magnus Karllson’s Free Fall to name a few. So how did the Laurenne/Louhimo project come together?
“Well, you might want to thank COVID-19 for that!” laughs Netta. “The pandemic cleared our schedules and with no gigs at the moment there was a positive from what was happening. I’ve had this idea and dream for several years that it would be cool to do something with Noora because we have collaborated on a few songs and featured on songs together. We felt that our sounds and voices go well together, and it was in the metal band Black Sun that we did this Still Alive song [from Black Sun’s 2020 EP Silent Enemy] together and we were forever laughing ‘I’m not sure who is signing, is it you or me?” [laughs]. On some tunes and tones we sound quite similar but of course there are different elements which makes it more interesting. I called Noora when this whole horror story of the pandemic began. It took me a month to get myself off the floor, thinking that everything has gone, I’ve worked 5 years for this album [Smackbound] and then everything is down the toilet, we’re just getting ready for live shows and then this happens. Then I got up and decided that this is the time, it’s now or never and Noora said ‘yes’ and that she has been dreaming of collaborating with me too so we both had the same dream of working together but didn’t know it. It was funny because it was three seconds and Noora was like ‘yes! I’m in” [laughs]. So it began, Noora came to the studio in Helskinki and we listened to the songs, we had a few demo songs ready when she arrived. I had been writing with my husband who is a producer and guitarist in Thunderstone, Noora listened to those songs and really liked them. We hung out some more, drank a lot of wine for a few nights and really got talking. I wanted to know about Noora, we had got to know each other over the years but it was more chit-chat as to someone’s birthday or back stage but this time we got to talk on a deeper level. We talked about our hopes, dreams, fears and how we see the world which really helped me to write the lyrics to the album so that Noora could feel that they were her own words and feelings and things that she was going through. It helped a lot. We had the demos ready, and we wrote the rest of the album with Nino, last Summer into early Fall. When the songs were ready, I wrote the rest of the lyrics and then we hit the studio. Vocal recordings were done, I think that Noora started at the beginning of January 2021, so everything happened fast.”
The result is something to behold, not just two powerhouse vocalists and knowing that Netta was writing not only from her own perspective but from Noora’s as well gives the union some extra oomph. It is the music as well, different to Smackbound or Battle Beast but hardly ‘standard’ hard rock either and yes there are a couple of slower songs and a ballad, but these are nestled between some nuclear charged material. The bruising Tongue in Dirt has a rolling riff that will level a small town, this is an album that is ram packed with high octane melodies and soaring choruses that just rattle around the grey matter. There is something of a 1980s flavour, but it is contemporary and for not one single moment does it feel anything other than a superb hard rock and metal record.
Netta Laurenne does not intend to let the pandemic get her down or in her way and confirms that work has already started on Smackbound album number two. “We hope to have the second Smackbound album out in the Spring and to be able to tour with two albums, hopefully with Noora too.”
You may not know the name Netta Laurenne – yet – but The Reckoning is upon us and Netta is making her presence felt. Long may it continue.
Laurenn/Louhimo – The Reckoning is available now on Frontiers Music (vinyl is available 6 August)
Smackbound – 20/20 is available now on Frontiers Music