interview for DPRP by Charlie Farrell

Finland's Symphonic Metal heroes spare no expense in adding real choral and orchestral elements to their latest album - ONCE - to meld film soundtrack music and metal.


The journey from being one a student acoustic project into becoming one of Finlands biggest musical exports has happened remarkably quickly taking the band and their record label (Spinefarm Records) by surprise. In an industry where one good idea is quickly 'cloned' by competitors, Nightwish continue to outrun those who seek to follow on their coat-tails. Not only do they have a sound which mixes power metal, progressive metal and symphonic music but they have the operatic voice of Tarja Turunen giving them a sound that is immediately recognizeable as their own. For their new album, they have pushed on further in their quest to add a huge symphonic element to their core sound, having at last, the budget to use a real choir and orchestra rather than mere keyboard samples.

But first, for those who are relatively new to the band, a little bit of history.

A Bit of History

Old promo photograph of the bandBack in 1996, in Kitee, Finland a young Tuomas Holopainen and his friend Emppu Vuorinen began what was originally intended to be a purely acoustic project. Tuomas wrote the songs and lyrics as well as playing keyboards, while Emppu played guitar. Neither saw themselves as vocalists, so Emppu suggested that they add Tarja Turunen and then they decided to add drums, which brought Jukka Nevalainen into the fold. The following year the first seven songs that they recorded formed the basis of their first album Angels Fall First and won them a contract with Spinefarm records for two albums.

Following the addition of Sami Vänskä on bass, the band recorded and released their second album Oceanborn in late 1998 to a surprising amount of success, both in their own country and elsewhere in Europe. The band’s symphonic metal sound and the striking ‘operatic-style’ soprano vocals of Tarja gave the band a truly unique sound and their fame spread rapidly, enabling them to play gigs outside of Finland for the first time.

The follow-up album Wishmaster took that success up a further level, with the band scoring a Number 1 album. Gold and then Platinum disks followed and the success enabled them to tour outside of Europe for the first time, taking in South America, Canada, South Korea and Japan. However the hard work and constant touring took its toll and created tensions in the band that were only resolved with the departure of Sami during the summer of 2001 and his subsequent replacement by Marco Heitala, then bassist with Tarot and Sinergy.

End of Innocence DVDAfter a few months off, the band re-convened in January 2002 to begin the writing and recording of Century Child. It was difficult process, but the resulting album was swiftly accepted by the fanbase, propelling it to Platinum sales in Finland in a short space of time and high chart positions in larger markets, such as that of Germany. Despite the success, rumours about the band’s long-term future continued to circulate after it was announced that Tarja would take a long break from the band to continue her singing studies in Germany, so after an hectic series of summer festival appearances, the band went on hold while Tarja studied and other members worked on side projects, such as Altaria. They met up once more during the summer of 2003 to make further festival appearances and to visit countries such as the UK and USA, where they had never toured before.

The band’s sound has certainly changed and developed since the early days of Angels Fall First. Whilst the success of Wishmaster and Century Child has brought the band a much larger audience, many of the early fans yearn for a return to the days of Oceanborn, when Tarja's use of her 'operatic' voice was more prominent. Nowadays this is used less frequently and since Century Child, bassist Marco Heitala has also been contributing contrasting male vocals. Meanwhile the band's overall sound has become bigger and more symphonic, reflecting the fact that main composer Tuomas Holopainen is himself heavily influenced by today's major film music composers.

For a good introduction to the history of the band and their music, check out the End of Innocence DVD.

The Recording of 'Once'

Work began on the recording of Once during Autumn 2003, back in their native Finland. Though Century Child had included many orchestral effects, Tuomas Holopainen expressed the desire to add a real choir and orchestra for this new disk. As a result, the band paid a visit to London in November 2003 and then again in February 2004. It was on this second occasion that a number of UK-based press were invited to attend a listening party at the studio and to sit in on part of the recording process.

A small party, comprising Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish, the band's manager Ewo Rytkonen and recording engineer Mikko Karmila had flown in from Finland on to complete a day’s recording before returning to Finland the following day. Their objective on this particular trip was to complete the recording of the orchestral and choral parts for 5 of the eleven songs on the album, having already completed 4 of the nine songs that feature the orchestra during the earlier visit.


The recording sessions took place throughout the day, with the London Session Orchestra (perhaps best known for their performance on the soundtrack to "The Lord of the Rings") recording their parts during the morning and afternoon. Then during the evening session, the choral parts were completed. The songs for which parts were recorded included "Nemo" (the band's first single from the album), "Wish I Had An Angel", "The Siren", "Higher Than Hope" and "Dark Chest Of Wonders".

The Interview: 1 - At The Studio

Tuomas in the studioUpon arrival at just after 6pm, I was escorted to a room with comfy chairs and a great Hi-Fi system, which was already playing a CD-R of the rough mixes. It proved too difficult a task to take in the whole album on the first listen, though it provided some useful material for the interview that followed.

Once the disk had finished playing, the band's manager Ewo then led us down into the main studio control room where we watched producer and arranger Pip Williams and his team record the choral parts for various songs. Mikko and Tuomas were also present with Tuomas indicating to Pip his satisfaction or otherwise with the singing, while Pip communicated with the conductor and the leader of the choir as their performances were fine-tuned to Tuomas’s satisfaction.

After an hour or so, the choir were granted a ‘tea break’, which gave me a brief opportunity to speak to Tuomas at a table in the cafeteria. Once we had got the introductions out of the way, I asked Tuomas why he had chosen this particular studio (Phoenix Sound Studios in Wembley, England) for the recording.

TH: Well the simple reason is that we really wanted to have the best, you know. It sounds kinda corny, but we wanted to have the best no matter the costs, and our record engineer Mikko Karmila, he had some connections with Pip Williams who is doing the arrangements and he recommended him to us. We contacted him and he was very interested in us and then he booked the orchestra for us. To be honest, the whole thing, the orchestra, it costs like twice as much as the whole previous album altogether. But it doesn’t matter because the result is so awesome. So I’m very proud to be working with them.

CF: The rough mixes we heard before, how much is going to be reworked?

TH: There’s gonna be 11 songs on the album and the orchestra is playing on 9 of them, so you just heard pretty much nothing.

I was a liitle surprised by this response as some of the songs already sounded very elaborate and tunes such as Creek Mary's Blood and Ghost Love Score were already quite heavily orchestrated.

CF: I wondered if there were any particular inspirations behind the album? Anything that motivated a number of the songs?

TH: I wanted to take this album even more to the Film Music direction. I want this to be not a metal album. I wanted this to be a film music album which is covered under the mask of Heavy Metal.

This certainly struck a chord, as my own reaction upon hearing certain tunes was that the music might well have been composed as a film score. Tuomas continued ...

TH: Exactly, and you haven’t heard the rest of them yet you only heard like less than half of the orchestra on the demos so, its gonna be. Like I said, when I listen to the album I just see movies in front of me. That was the whole idea.

Having noticed in the studio that the arranger Pip Williams and the choir were all working from what appeared to be a detail led score I then continued by asking Tuomas what part he played in preparing the music for the orchestra.

Tuomas in the studio TH: I had a lot of ideas and we made a demo recording where I played the keyboards, the choirs and everything. I wanted it to be like this, but I talked to Pip and said that you can have a free hand to do whatever you want and he has done an AMAZING job with the arrangements, you know. A lot of new ideas, I don’t understand anything about notes, so he has written all the notes and everything. He has a very strong part in this album. He’s a great guy.

CF: I know that most metal musicians can’t write music, so I wonder how much he was involved and it sounds like he was a big part of it.

TH: Yeah he is, he really is.

I then asked Tuomas about one of the other songs which had struck me on the first listen, in particular The Siren, which oriental or middle-eastern feel to it. I wondered what Tuomas's reasons were for including that sort of sound.

TH: That song in particular? I just wanted to do something Eastern like Egyptian or Arabian. Then I saw the Disney movie ‘Sinbad’ Have you see this movie?

I had to admit that I hadn’t.

TH: There’s this scene of about 5 minutes where the sirens come and tempt Sinbad and it has AWESEOME music behind it and I said ‘I wanna make a song about this ... about Sirens tempting the listener that’s the whole idea of the song.

CF: And also the guitars seem to be more prominent or heavy on quite a few of the songs.

TH: Yeah, I think so too because they are much more to the front in this album. This album is more riff orientated guitar riff orientated but still there is more orchestra and the choir so its really funny.

To close, I asked Tuomas if the writing of the album had been a difficult process. I referred back to the band's most recent DVD The End of Innocence in which Tuomas had explained that the band's previous studio album Century Child had been a really difficult album to write.

TH: It was very difficult and this one was equally difficult, but its been more fun than ever though. I mean its been in a very positive spirit, both for me and for the whole band. The whole process has been really smooth even though it has been really difficult and really long but we’re all having the time of our lives here. I think that there is a bit of a positive touch to this album, more than before. Just fun, having fun doing what we’re doing.

At this point the singers began to make their way back into the studio and it was time for us to conclude the interview. I thanked Tuomas for his time and we made our way back into the studio control room. Unfortunately I was unable to stay for much longer as I had a ticket for a concert that particular evening I thanked Tuomas and Ewo for their hospitality and left.

The Interview: 2 - Press Tour

A month or so later, I had a further opportunity to meet with Tuomas, who in company with drummer Jukka Nevalainen gave me a more detailed insight into each of songs on Once.

To be continued ...


The Official Nightwish Website

Read Part 2 of the interview with Tuomas Holopainen

Read our Round Table Review of Once

Studio Images © 2004 Charlie Farrell
Promo photos © 2004 Spinefarm Records

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