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Photo by Juha Mustonen
During a recent video chat from his home in Helsinki, Finland, Ville Valo frequently flashes an affable grin. The former frontman for superstar “love metal” band H.I.M. has good reason for his upbeat mood: his solo debut album, Neon Noir (released on January 16 via Heartagram Records) has earned positive reviews – and his extensive spring/summer international tour to support it already has many sold-out dates. As he explains, there was some doubt about whether a solo career was possible, so in no wonder that he’s visibly relieved to find his latest work being received so well.
How does it feel to put out a solo album, as opposed to doing it with a band like before?
VILLE VALO: I think it still hasn’t really hit me because the only proper project I’ve had before had been H.I.M., so I have nothing else to compare it to. I think the most difference was during recording the album because I didn’t get the chance to brainstorm with anybody else. But then again, I didn’t have to ask for permission or verbally explain to anybody what I’m looking for when it comes to sound. I think the most important thing for me, personally, was the fact that it was a very, very different way of approaching writing and producing, so was a big challenge for me. That’s the special thing for me about the album.
VILLE VALO: It was starting out from nothing. You start your day with not a single idea. It’s just silence. And then pick up the acoustic guitar, and bit by bit start recording. I have a one-room studio, so it’s quite simple. I have all my musical equipment and stuff here, so I started laying down the ideas for a demo straight away. I didn’t have to call anybody. I didn’t have to sort out any rehearsals. I didn’t have to figure anything out regarding anything. I had everything set and ready to go. So it was very intense, and like being there in the creative hotspot all the time. I think I’ve never felt as intimate with music ever in my life. And that’s kind of cool because I’m 46 [years old], so I’ve been doing this for quite a while, and it’s so nice to be able to still find some new fresh perspectives and angles that enabled me to stay on my toes and make it fascinating and make it a challenge. It’s not supposed to be easy. Music is supposed to hurt a bit. Because that means also that you care for it. You care about it, and you don’t want to leave any stones unturned.
How did you know it was the right time to do a solo career?
VILLE VALO: Well, I didn’t. Originally, in the autumn of 2019, I started working on the first ideas. And it took me a while, because it’s not the easiest thing to make drums sound okay and all that stuff. I originally thought that the first demos would be just so I could find some musicians – songs I could play to people and see if someone was interested and we could start a project together. I had no high hopes regarding a solo project. H.I.M. was such an important part for me personally that I really didn’t know if I still had the energy or the willpower or the inspiration to continue. So it’s sort of like taking baby steps.
It must have been a relief when it became clear that this was going to actually work out for you.
VILLE VALO: Yeah. Since I grew up with the guys [in H.I.M.], I didn’t know if my life was going to change completely when the band was done – if I’m going to feel totally different or if the [musical] inspiration would be there. It was quite daunting. We got the band done and over with in such a positive way, in the end – and then, once again, music came to my rescue. It’s always been there, and it’s been the safety blanket and safe space and comfort zone, whatever you want to call it. And if it wouldn’t have been like that, then I wouldn’t be here with the album. So this album was sort of like reintroducing myself to music: going back to the basics. It was an interesting, very personal journey. Inspiration is a fickle mistress, in a way. You can never be sure if you have another song in you. So I think each and every song needed to be treated as a swan song. They’re always special.
_Why did you name the album after the song “Neon Noir”?
VILLE VALO: That was one of the first songs I felt has all the elements coming together in a way I wanted it to. When you’re in the meditative space working on music, it’s the little tiny details, and all the sudden, the pieces of the puzzle just seem to find each other. I thought that the title was perfect for this album because with H.I.M., and with my own songs, I love the juxtaposition of very different things, like the ying and yang, the darkness and the light. So it seems I’m quite indecisive when it comes to moods! I don’t want stuff to be too happy or too sad. It needs to be somewhere in between, just like life is. It’s important to see both sides, I think. I thought that “Neon Noir” sounds very glamorous, as well. Neon lights, like the ‘80s. I grew up during the ‘80s, so that was my time. Then “noir” being so highfalutin. So classy, if you think in terms of film noir and the overall Bohemian French, Baudelaire and whatnot. That’s very gothic, and all those little bits and bobs are very close to my heart, on various levels. And I like the fact that we’re talking about radiating darkness – which is, in itself, quite symbolic. The metaphor that it’s important to go through the worst to be able to appreciate the best. So in that sense, even the bad days need to be celebrated because without those, you wouldn’t be who you are. And without making mistakes, you’d never learn, and you’d never become a better person. So I guess it’s my self-help book from a gothic perspective, turned into an album.
How did you come up with that type of style in the first place?
VILLE VALO: I think I just started copying my idols. I love Black Sabbath and Kiss, bands like that. [Kiss singer/rhythm guitarist] Paul Stanley is probably my idol number one. I love his voice. He’s just a very, very big part of my childhood. Such a talent.
But how did you know that you could become a musician yourself, not just be a fan?
VILLE VALO: I got hooked on the idea of starting to play bass guitar, so that was my first instrument. I started playing it when I was maybe eight years or nine years old. So learning my idols’ songs first, and then it just happened. Music has always been a filter between me and the world. It keeps me safe, music does. And I’ve learned how to maybe understand reality and understand the world and the people in it through music. It’s such a big part of me that I don’t know how to be without it.
It seems to have worked, as you’ve had a long career now and your music clearly resonates very strongly with fans…
VILLE VALO: I guess it’s always something you can hope for, but it’s not something you can prepare yourself for and be. You can’t really make it happen. It’s the people that make it happen. The only thing you can make happen is when you write a song. You need to have that flicker in your heart. It needs to be true to yourself. It needs to be passionate. I’ve always believed in you creating your own world. It’s your place. Those are the reasons that make me do what I do. There’s no other reason, really. Something needs to be a hit for yourself. You can’t tell what’s going to be popular. You have no idea. I think the only way to really approach it is by being as instinctual as you can. With H.I.M., we were constantly surprised about songs. Like, we had a really big hit with a song called “Join Me in Death.” Which is odd because the lyrics are quite Romeo and Juliet. Quite dark. It was a weird combination. The song is quite poppy, but it’s also very dark and weird. You can never tell what’s going to happen when the actual album or the song is put out. You can never tell what its trajectory will be or who’s going to love it and who’s going to hate it. So it’s worthless to put that pressure on yourself about things you can’t do anything about. The only thing you can do is try to be the best for yourself that you can be, and to get better at it. Never take the easiest route.
Now you have quite a few tour dates coming up to support this album. What can people expect when they come to one of those shows?VILLE VALO: I was amazed that people wanted to actually see myself without H.I.M., buying all the tickets they have in advance and not really knowing what was going to happen on tour. The set will be zigzagging in between the older stuff and the newer stuff. There will be songs, I think, from most of the H.I.M. albums. What I find really interesting is the fact that the older songs share so many similarities with the new stuff. There’s way more similarities than there are dissimilarities. It’s like musical time traveling in a sense, in that we play a new song like “Echolocate Your Love,” and then we’ll play [H.I.M.’s] “Rip Out the Wings of a Butterfly.” They come from the same source: I wrote both of the songs, and they have a lot of similarities, as I just said. But they just seem to support each other; I feel that both of those songs are stronger with them together, as opposed to just playing the new stuff or just the old stuff. I’m really happy that through so many happy accidents and beautiful mistakes that it’s taken me this far and it’s lasted for such a long time. I feel blessed and humbled and flattered about all the affections and the interest, after all these years, toward the music I make. It is quite special.