Into the Woods With Kerli: Cover Story
Kerli looks as if she floats in 12-inch midnight-black platform heels obscured beneath a metallic lavender silk robe in the lobby of our busy midtown office building. Her silver hair is pulled back into tight braids that cascade down the sides of her face, falling at her waist.
A nearby pianist plays a lively rendition of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” to which the nymphlike singer pleasantly hums along before turning to her boyfriend, Brian, to talk about the music.
“Everything has a vibration,” I hear her start to say, but the loud swells of melody sweep away the rest of that thought.
She fusses with the belt of her robe, borrowed from an Estonian designer, when a man comes up to us and puts his arms up.
“DOPE!” he declares, eagerly nodding in approval. She smiles, laughs a little and thanks him for the sporadic compliment.
Kerli, in a massive black fur jacket that gives her the appearance of a strikingly tall alien, strolls out onto the street to meet our Uber. She glides across the sidewalk into the black SUV, defiantly side-stepping puddles better than the camera crew trailing her as a crowd forms to watch.
When the cameraman turns around in the front seat to ask if she's okay, she politely shoos away concern.
“I’m from Estonia. We don’t even have SUVs. Rough conditions are fine,” she says, surveying the leather seats inside the car. "Roughin’ it,” she quips.
Only weeks ago, she was gathering plants and living in a hut in a remote forest in her homeland of Estonia, the nearest town more than a half-hour drive away.
Kerli is an artist who has always sought refuge, physically and spiritually. She grew up in what she's described as an abusive household, trapped in the small town of Elva, home to fewer than 6,000 people. (In comparison, Madison Square Garden, a few blocks south from the office building we just left, regularly hosts more than 18,000 people a night.)
Music was a source of freedom and escape for Kerli, and by age 16 others had taken notice of her abilities; she inked a publishing deal and dropped out of school.
"Not for me," she explains succinctly of her academic career.
She moved to Stockholm for two years in the early 2000s, where she wrote music and competed in Melodifestivalen, the competition that determines Sweden's Eurovision song. She also competed in Iceland's own version, Eurolaul, the following year, but won neither.
The singer then moved to New York, where she was signed to Island Records by L.A. Reid. Her first major contract, she resisted Island's request for her to record R&B music. This would be just the start of Kerli's many future frustrations with record labels.
"I used to live in this building, I think. 57th and, like 8th Avenue, when the labels were still spending money," she remarks, calmly gazing outside the SUV window as we drive to Central Park for a photo shoot. "It's great for what it is. You don't get peace here."
It became clear early on that Kerli was not exactly equipped for city life.
"I came here and I got really confused at Starbucks because the coffee choices were so much ... so abundant. I’d get so nervous. What’s really good? Caramel macchiato? I drank one every day. And then I found these cheesecakes from Whole Foods, and I ate two of those every day. So I got, like ... really fat."
Her major label debut, 2008's Love Is Dead, spawned the single "Walking on Air," which enjoyed minor success on the charts overseas and found its way into America soundtracking shows such as So You Think You Can Dance? But the album didn't dent the charts anywhere else as hoped — except for in her homeland, where it peaked at No. 1. Where she did have an impact, however, was with a dedicated fanbase, affectionately coined the Moonchildren.
"It's been since 2006, even before Love Is Dead," she says of her fans.
"I got the label to put out my album because I started promoting s--- by myself, like on MySpace. I created this community, and I was literally sitting for days, responding to everybody who wrote me. It kind of started with the community, and then my label caught up."
She started to write again.
By 2012, Kerli reemerged from her chrysalis — this time as a sparkly EDM butterfly, armed with surging, empowering club anthems that ignited a new kind of audience: the club scene.
"It was a different chapter of my life," she says quickly, visibly less interested in discussing that era of her career. While her song "The Lucky Ones" went on to become a No. 1 on the Billboard Club charts, the EP that followed in 2013, Utopia, fared no better than her debut. She and her label parted ways soon thereafter.
"I couldn't adjust myself to other's people vision anymore," she says, referring to the deep House direction proposed by her old label. "I was just dying," she says. "I still owe them some collaborations. I just, um—" She starts to explain further when her boyfriend interjects.
"Talk some s---," he goads her.
"No," she resists. "I got into the music business when I was, like, 15 years old. I got my first record deal. So, it's been a long time really finding my voice, which I think I finally found now with all the music I'm making. I'm independent now." She pauses for a moment to reflect. "I really burnt out at some point. I was working so hard. I wasn't really putting my energy into the right..." she trails off. "If I wouldn't die for it, I shouldn't do it."
Was it scary to abandon ship after years of dealing with record labels and producers?
"Very scary," she says. "I left everything behind. I took my two suitcases and went to the forest and was like, 'F--- this shit.' I want to make music, but I don't really want to be part of the music business. Unless I find some super backdoor way of doing this, I'm just going to have to do something else as a job, and I was OK with that. I just couldn't do it. It was really destroying me."
The tale is familiar to many struggling musicians: a record deal inked at a young age, a stalled career, dubious boardroom decisions before being cast back into the sea of hopefuls. But it's Kerli's fervent fanbase that make her story truly unique. After all, they're the ones responsible for her newest album due early 2017 — an entirely independent venture, funded primarily through donations via PledgeMusic.
Through her Pledge page, Kerli offers an array of magical self-designed wares corresponding to the new music she's putting out to help fund the creation of her music and videos: T-shirts, vial rings filled with seeds, stickers, posters, customized journals, even socks.
"It's really amazing that they stuck with me," she says with sincerity and genuine gratitude.
In February, Kerli released the first video for her first independent single, "Feral Hearts," an empowering call-to-arms. The clip was shot in the otherworldly woodlands of Estonia, a feat somehow never before attempted.
"There seems to be a lot of people who are into how I showed our country," she says of the response back at home. "I was looking for footage. No one shot it, ever ... I was looking for a specific kind of visual, and it's just really hard to find. "
While the album is still shaping up to completion, it already has a distinct sound.
"It's a mix of organic and electronic elements," she explains of her literal return to her roots. She tells us there are real instruments and real musicians on the new record — and even an Estonian children's choir.
"I call the shots. I decide which song will be the single. I basically direct all my own visuals. It feels really, really good ... I'm totally on fire creatively," she says with enthusiasm.
Despite the fact that her upcoming record was crafted largely in an isolated hut inside the forest, community is still crucial to Kerli, who has collaborated with dozens of songwriters and producers while making her own music. The singer has been featured on tracks by Seven Lions, Karma Fields, SNBRN, TyDi and Cash Cash.
"The word I would use is 'precious',” says Sony Music songwriter and Creative Director Jesse Saint John, describing Kerli's songwriting style. Saint John has earned credits working alongside artists such as Charli XCX and Brooke Candy, and on the the latest Empire soundtrack.
"Each part of the song is very thoughtful and she’s very precious with the way that it’s not only created, but she’s conscious of the way that it’s heard."
Saint John initially met Kerli at SXSW in 2013 during a DJ set and reconnected the following year for a few writing sessions, followed by a writing camp in Bali. (A writing camp, for those less versed in the inner workings of the pop factory, comes together when publishers throw top-tier songwriters in one place in an attempt to churn out big hits. Rihanna, Beyoncé and Justin Bieber have all workshopped albums this way.)
"She’s very thoughtful of every step, which is very much a real artist — even down to the way she looks and what content she wants viewed. She’s so committed," Saint John says.
Indeed, Kerli seems suited for self-made stardom. Earlier in the day, she arrived with her small entourage and an array of outfits to choose from, but she'd decided on her plan before walking in the door.
“Metallic soft geisha elf creature,” she'd very specifically instructed the on-set makeup artist, holding a mesh, star-adorned dress up to her body for reference. With no one but her very particular self to answer to, there is a sense that this, above all else, is the music and art that Kerli was born to make. What she's less enthusiastic about is the work that must come after all the making.
"For me, when I'm in the studio, when I'm creating or sewing my outfits, this is what I do. All the other things are what I have to do so people can see it," she says. "I do promotion because I want to do art. I don't do the art because I want to be famous."
That's not something a record executive wants to hear.
"I was kind of debating if I even wanted to release it to the world," Kerli says of her independent music. "I went and lived in this little shed in the forest and I made this art, and I was training myself to really have it be all about expression. If no one else would hear it, what would I do?"
To this point, every aspect of Kerli's life has been focused on directing, designing and making music. Does she ever take a break from it all?
"What else do we do for fun?" Kerli pondered, looking over her shoulder to her boyfriend, who is carefully focused on straightening her hair.
"We don't do fun. We just make more art," he deadpans.
"We just make art," Kerli smiles, surveying her dress in the mirror and smoothing it out carefully with her hands.
"And even we decide we want to have a day off— " she starts to explain.
"We do four photoshoots in the same day," he says, finishing her sentence. She giggles and nods in agreement. They do this often.
Throughout the day, Kerli comes alive when the conversation turns to anything creative. She excitedly talks about her new music, including her latest single "Blossom," which she describes as everything from "folk to Portishead to Sigur Ros." She talks about plants and herbs she grows in the forest. She trades hair and makeup tips and mishaps with the stylist. She brightens up at the idea of creating beauty tutorials for YouTube.
"I want to do everything!" she proclaims at one point. "I don't want to just make music. My only problem is that there are 24 hours in a day and that I have one of me."
There are plenty of pop stars who have an off switch at the end of the day. Kerli is not one of them. If she burned out of the music industry four years ago, she has certainly rekindled her creative flame.
"It's really a big journey about loving yourself and to realize you have very little time here to do the things you actually want," she says as we head into Central Park. "You always want to do the smart thing, but it's not really about thinking. It's about feeling and trusting that you actually have the answers for yourself."
Suddenly, escaping the hum and glare of the city is more enticing than ever. And into the woods we go.
Kerli Takes Central Park: