A Q&A with Composer Johanna Telander

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  1. Tell us a bit about yourself and your career path, what sparked your interest in music?

    I’m so grateful to get this chance to get to know the fabulous women of AWFC! I’ve been immersed in music from the womb. I went to music schools since I was young, started playing the harp at age 7, and also took piano and voice lessons. After signing a recording contract with Universal Music at 19, I toured and performed professionally in my native Finland, before moving to the US to pursue a BA in music at Capital University’s Conservatory of Music, specializing in Jazz. After my bachelor’s, I continued my education with a degree in musical theatre from AMDA. Since then, I’ve been working, contributing to radio, television, film and the stage as a performer, actress, voice over artist and composer.

  2. How does your Finnish background influence your writing?

    Finns tend to be fond of melancholy music. Many of our folk songs recognizably feature an unhealthy number of consecutive minor chord progressions! That Nordic darkness surfaces up in my music from time to time as well. I also relish in lush classical romanticism, which I contribute to listening to Sibelius and Oskar Merikanto.

  3. What were some of your first steps in the music and film music world?

    Over a decade ago, when I was hustling jobs in New York City, I booked an indie film as an actress. While filming, the director discovered I also write music. The indie film ended up featuring a score partially written by me, as well as one of my original pop songs for the ending credits! It marked a significant step towards where I wanted to take my career next.

  4. Alongside singing, songwriting, and composing, you also occasionally perform on an acoustic lever harp! When did you pick up the harp, how difficult was it to learn it, and do you find it easier than the pedal harp?

    I learned to play on the lever harp originally, but played the pedal harp throughout my teens. Even though I didn’t end up pursuing a career as a harpist, I still consider the harp my “spirit animal of sound”. I compose on both piano and harp. I’ve only recently picked up the lever harp again, after an old antique one came to my life. I’ve loved re-learning how to play it, working around its harmonic limitations. The pedal harp is still distinctly easier and more all-encompassing to play, but the portability and the beautiful, delicate sound of the lever harp has made it a favorite companion on my newest projects.

  5. What are your tips for incorporating a harp in one’s music, and do you have any tips regarding recording techniques for it?

    I’d encourage composers to think of a harp more like an acoustic guitar than merely a supporting element to the percussive sound of a piece, as it is too often treated. A harp is just as versatile as a piano and really can carry harmonic accompaniment in its own right.  I would record sound from both in and outside of the soundboard and experiment with electronic pedals for SFX too. 

  6. You recently composed the score for Gray Land, an upcoming musical short film. How did you approach the score for this film?

    The creativity that birthed this film was fostered in deep friendships and trust, and made it such a special piece to work on. In scoring this film, beyond the set instrumentation, I got to approach the music from my own points of inspiration; a rare gift in the world of so many fast paced and deadline driven projects. I let myself be led by the colors of sounds and experimented with how they could help the visuals of the film travel between the different moods. It was therapeutic and exciting.

  7. The “Telander-sound”, is becoming somewhat of a brand name in the NYC indie music and musical theatre scene. One of the examples for this success is Sandcastles, your newest pop release. What makes this release special for you, and what are you most proud of when it comes to your music?

    It took a gut-wrenching realization of the finiteness of life to be brave enough to share Sandcastles. It is the most raw and unapologetically honest song I’ve released. The baring of truths, the owning up to human imperfection and vulnerability is what I strive for in my work, and also what I’m most proud of when I feel it’s achieved. Only then do I get that sense I can finally put the pencil down. I think it is the hardest thing for artists to do- to make something that resonates with your truth and then own it. 

  8. Alongside your work as a film composer, you’re composing Kalevala the Musical, an original concept album inspired by the national poem of Finland, which combines pop, folk, world music, and jazz. How did this album come about and what musical explorations did it lead you to?

    The music for Kalevala the Musical spans nearly two decades of my songwriting, so it wasn’t all specifically written for this show. Every character has its own musical style in a series of storytelling vignettes. There are solos, duos, trios and big ensemble numbers, which flexed me greatly as a composer. This show has questioned, challenged and deepened my music education. The album came about after approximately 5 years of developing the show, when actor/producer and Kalevala cast member Quentin Garzon suggested producing a concept album of some Kalevala the musical’s songs. He vigorously took on making the project a reality. We then enlisted Kristi Roosmaa as co-producer. Petra Haapamäki was later added on as associate producer to the album. I leaned on Marko Hilpo for orchestrations for this piece. He did an incredible job bringing the magic alive on a whole other level, while staying true to the song’s original flavors. As a fellow Finn, he was able to bring just the right touch of “Finnishness” to the material. We recorded the material over the pandemic in studios in LA, NYC, Helsinki, London and in home studios across the world! It was a worthy journey, which has opened many doors for the project.

  9. For this project, you’ve collaborated with Tony and Olivier nominee Ramin Karimloo, and many notable performers such as Julia Murney, Marina Pires, Natalie Toro and Kay Trinidad. What is it like to collaborate with such talents? / What do you like the most about collaborating with artists, and in your opinion, what makes a great collaboration?

    Working with Ramin remotely while recording between London, OH and NY was such a highlight for me. I found it nothing short of inspiring to follow his process of taking on the completely new material. We were able to record Julia Murney’s songs live in a studio in NYC. She is a smart actor and a true powerhouse singer. I am equally in awe of the slew of other talented Broadway stars as well as the Finnish Theatre star Reeta Vestman, who has been our Rainbow Maiden almost since the very beginning. She recorded from a studio in Finland. The whole cast brought so many rich layers to these mythical characters! I love collaborating with actors who are not afraid to make bold choices and to ask insightful questions. Some songs only truly come alive when they are reborn from the perspective that someone else’s vision brings, and this reflection is invaluable to me.

  10. What’s next for you? What is your dream gig, and what are you looking forward to in 2024?  

    I am looking forward to a number of exciting projects: next steps for Kalevala, and another musical collaboration, Watcher in the Woods, a musical. I also want to work with other female composers! I want to break that glass ceiling, keep learning the ins and outs of this craft and this industry from a place of passion and support. In my heart of hearts, I want to get a chance to score a Hollywood film. That would be a true dream gig for this Nordic lady. 2024 will be the busiest year yet, and I’m ready!

    Check out the AWFC Directory for Johanna Telander

    Interview by Connor Cook

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