Finnish singer Saara Aalto is already having the biggest week of her professional career, with her brand new international album Wild Wild Wonderland landing at number one in the Finnish charts.
Britain’s Metro newspaper calls it “one of the best pop albums out this year”.
But the week is going to get even more wild for Saara, as she represents her country at the Eurovision Song Contest in Lisbon, Portugal.
She’ll be performing her track ‘Monsters’ on Tuesday night in the first semi final, and hoping to be one of the top ten tunes that go through to the grand final on Saturday.
Before then, her time in the Portuguese capital is spent schmoozing, performing and rehearsing – which doesn’t always go to plan.
“You always have to have some technical issues to give more pressure and challenge” Saara told a Lisbon press conference.
“We had a set piece that didn’t work unfortunately, but we are fixing it now, and it’s going to be fine” she said.
Monsters is a high energy song, which sees Saara and her backing singers and dancers cavorting around a neon-lit stage. She climbs up and down the stairs of her pyramid set piece, and at one point she sings upside down: the kind of fast-paced action that won her a legion of fans and second place in Britain’s X Factor TV talent show.
“Eurovision stage has been my dream for the last twenty years, and when I go on that stage I want to do something I will remember for the rest of my life” says Saara.
The Evolution Of Monsters
Saara was pre-selected by Finland’s state-funded broadcaster YLE as this year’s Eurovision entrant, and she performed three songs at the UMK national finals in March.
Monsters beat out the two other songs Domino and Queens as the Eurovision entry, but they still find a place on Saara’s Wild Wild Wonderland album.
Since March, the creative team have been refining her routine, testing out the vocals in countries which could give maximum 12 points to Finland, like Netherlands, UK and the Baltic countries. It’s a similar tactic that other nations have used successfully in the past on their way to Eurovision glory.
Monsters has evolved a lot since the original UMK performance, and critics say the rigorous extra rehearsals have made a positive difference.
“The Finnish team have taken Monsters from circus to Cirque du Soleil. At UMK it was too much and all the props and movements seemed untidy. The performance still had a lot going on, but the choreography is simpler and the stage feels cleaner. This all allows Saara’s voice to shine through more clearly” explains William Lee Adams, a professional Eurovision pundit and broadcast journalist, whose Wiwiblogs website is ground zero for hard core Eurovision fans and contestants alike.
“This has just improved so much since UMK. This is as strong, and just more confident than it was previously. Finland is going to the final” he predicts.
Finnish Eurovision expert and journalist Anna Muurinen agrees that Saara should qualify from Tuesday night’s final, in part thanks to some of the other countries performing in that same semi final.
“For some reason it has been terribly difficult for Finland in recent years to get to the final. But if she doesn’t get to the final, then it will be because of something other than her performance” says Muurinen.
“The first semi final has a lot of strong female singers. But there is a lot of quieter songs with female vocalists, so Saara stands out pretty well, her performance is somehow aggressive” she adds.
Finland’s Eurovision Hits & Misses
Finnish singers at the Eurovision have had a run of bad luck recently.
In 2017 Norma Jean‘s ‘Blackbird’ failed to qualify from the semi final. It was the same for Sandhja in 2016 and Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät in 2015.
In fact, Finland has finished last a total of ten times at Eurovision – most recently in 2009 – and scored the dreaded nul points three times. The most recent successes were SoftEngine who came 11th in 2014, Finland’s highest placing since winning the contest for the first and only time in 2006.
Eurovision expert William Lee Adams explains that Finland’s recent duds come down to a mix of factors.
“Eurovision songs frequently cancel each other out. I think that in the first semi final in 2017, Portugal had the ballad of the year. Unfortunately that meant Finland’s Blackbird couldn’t fly. Sandhja’s staging felt flat, she didn’t fill the stage and the song grew monotonous as a result. PKN lacked musicality” he says.
But Finland has had success with Eurovision monsters before. That 2006 win in Athens featured Lordi, the monster-masked heavy metal group who sang Hard Rock Hallelujah, and charmed audiences across Europe with their stage theatrics, intricate prosthetic makeup and on-stage pyrotechnics.
At one point, Saara Aalto’s Eurovision performance was set to pay homage to Lordi’s win.
“In the original original plan that [choreographer] Brian Friedman did, he wanted me to have this [axe] like Lordi had” says Saara, who nixed the idea of copying Lordi too much, but still has a pyrotechnic element at the end of her routine.
“I have so many sides to me and I just decided on the Eurovision stage I want to do it all. I can sing and play piano everywhere. But these big shows, I can’t do everywhere. So I just decided I want to do it all. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity” says Saara.