On a rainy September evening in East London, a woman with a body like a Cadillac is dressed in fetching white spandex, a red visor cap and sashes. There’s a slightly cyber-ish edge to her but, platform wedges aside, she looks ready to run a marathon. Thrashing her blonde hair from side to side with a wild grin on her face, she gyrates, slides, crawls and robots around a stage while lifting dumbbells and spinning giant foam letters, ‘H’ & ‘K’, above her head. The projector screen behind her explodes into a whirlpool of colour as two more digital versions of our sporty songstress appear on screen to dance, mime, exercise and smoke along to the highly infectious electro-pop that emanates from the speakers. The curious crowd had no idea what to expect, and they certainly got the unexpected.
A few weeks earlier, on a muggy weekday evening in Notting Hill, a pretty blonde lady sits quietly by herself in a quaint coffee shop, dressed in a casual but distinctive blue dress/poncho hybrid. She is quietly fighting with balls of bright red wool and yanking an endless thread of it out of her handbag. She explains to me that she’s knitting a “blank, activist’s patchwork blanket”, and describes in vivid detail the design, structure and meaning of the final piece that sits in her lap, currently barely the size of a Post-It. She is interrupted briefly by a delivery of Marmite on toast, and once we’ve had the love/hate Marmite debate we quickly jump into the difference between Heidi Kilpeläinen, the bubbly, polite artist from Finland who likes Marmite and knitting, and HK119, the pop bitch from outer space who hates propaganda, mobile phone radiation and probably Marmite too, whose eponymous debut was released in early 2006.
“Yeah, there’s a crossover. The debut was a little more like this bitch from hell character with lots of humour thrown in. Whereas on this second album [Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control, out today], HK119 is still a character but she’s softened up and coming from a different angle. I’m writing from a more personal place, and even though I’ve still stuck to the concept [of the character] there were definitely more ways to be personal on this album now. I think there will be even more so for the third album, which I’m looking forward to even more as ‘HK’ might take over ‘HK119′.”
It takes time to appreciate the balance that Heidi/HK119 mastered from the very beginning, that of transgressing the boundaries of being simply a cracking electro-pop performer into someone making some quite astute comments on the world we live in today. “If she was an acoustic guitar version, she’d be like… [huddles over with a mini air-acoustic guitar, smiles wildly and in a high, quiet singsong voice] ‘Be-careful-using-mobile-phones / don’t-use-them-too-much / brain cancer, lalala…’; but it was much more fun to turn it on its head and be the dramatic character that was like… [sits up and gets into scary HK119 mode] ‘STOP USING THE FUCKING MOBILE PHONE OR YOU’LL DROP DEAD AND YOUR EAR WILL FALL OFF!’. Maybe I’m building up to the folk version for the third album,” she laughs.
Barely two topics of conversation into our tea and toast, it’s clear that whether she’s thinking from Heidi’s point of view or from HK119′s, the future holds untold possibilities for them both, and it simply couldn’t get here fast enough for her. Her knitting gets that bit more furious each time she refers to it.
For those who don’t know the origins of HK119, the concept was something of a fusion of passions and interests from Heidi’s time at college. ”At the time I was at St Martin’s doing my MA in Fine Art, and I also made music so I found myself with this dilemma: ‘Oh, now I’m doing Fine Art does it mean I’m going to have to abandon music?’, and I thought ‘no, I shall make some videos for the music and see what happens’. Each song got a character, which I then performed live straight to the camera as performance art, with no editing, and this is how the character of HK119 was formed.”
Fuelled with science fiction references – the name itself is a barcode and a reference to George Lucas and the Hunter Killers from the Terminator series – and more opinions on current affairs than you could shake a glowstick at, these early video incarnations of HK119 saw the character rolling around in tin foil, playing with scissors and fondling credit cards over raw, homemade, DIY electro-pop that warned the world about everything from consumerism to plastic surgery.
With such a distinctive character carved out so early on in HK119′s existence, the comparisons to some of the most legendary pop and style icons of our time were too easy, but highly complementary. “All these fantastic performers and strong characters – Grace Jones, David Bowie, Nina Hagen, Iggy Pop – have been lodged into my memory and every cell of my body since I first discovered them and have never left. It’s like the first time you took drugs or made love; y’know, when it really mattered! So, they were always there, but they weren’t something I was thinking consciously of at the time. I might have been listening to The Cramps and then I wrote [cannibalism anthem] ‘Friend For Dinner’ as a consequence. The influences came from everywhere, like New Scientist magazine or whatever.”
Her reputation as an up and coming force to be reckoned with was established quickly due to some very well crafted live shows around London. “It was a natural progression from my final graduation performance. I was wearing this paper cape, horns and a white suit, jumping around on top of a set I’d built with the videos projected on. I didn’t even have a microphone, just screaming over the top of it. But, it was fantastic and that that was the birth of it, and I just carried on from there.”
The thought of her work ever turning into anything like an actual pop career hadn’t even crossed her mind until catching the attention of a friend of a rather influential friend. “I think because of the strength of the videos combined with the music, a mutual friend showed them to Leila [Arab] who then showed them to Björk. Björk then picked me as her favourite artist of 2005 in Q magazine, which was really nice of her. Her label boss then asked her, ‘What’s this HK119, is it one of your things?’, and she just said ‘no, it’s this Scandinavian bird!’. And then I just got an email from him saying he wanted to help me put my stuff out. No one else would have touched me with a pole, and then I get an invite like that!”
Heidi would probably be the first to admit she’s been pretty lucky in how she’s ended up where she is today. But no doubt, her work has certainly spoken for itself. On asking if there was ever any pressure to conform into more of a ‘popstar’. “Oh god no. I love One Little Indian. They let you do what the hell you want, no pressure. Total artistic control, and I was just myself from day one, and still am.”
The debut album, largely consisting of Heidi’s MA college compositions, finally saw the light of day almost two years after HK119′s conception and a year after her debut on the London gig circuit. It gained Heidi a noble cult following and some great critical responses, enough to spark the interest of curators, fellow artists and festival producers around the world to keep her busy for the next year or two. ”I got lots of invites to perform all around the world, which was lovely. Last summer I worked with a gallery and did a whole new body of work called The Great Non-figurative ‘K’, where I built a huge set and used dancers. It was really funny because we filmed the performance and put it on YouTube and it got a lot of comments because a lot of people in America were confused and thought it was about the Ku Klux Klan, and I was getting death threats and comments like ‘You fucking bitch, die in hell!’
“It’s funny because in my country ‘K’ would be advertising a chain of supermarkets, and here a brand of cereal, or perhaps ketamine or something. I do like how it could mean anything. It could be any letter or symbol of course, but I chose ‘K’ as a symbol of authority. Partly because it’s my surname, but also the title is borrowed from an old friend of mine, Petri Hakkarainen, who used to be in a fantastic Finnish band called Pin-Ups. He wrote a libretto of the same title in the ’80s which was very close to what I was trying to do then. When we met after not seeing each other in years, he loved what I was doing and I said I loved that title of his and asked if I could use it. It just made sense with the use of the letter K.”
It’s clear that whatever project she’s focusing on, they are all met with the same amount of passion as the last. These separate endeavours aside, Heidi has been reinventing her own musical wheel in the run up to the release of Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control. Here we find Heidi evolving beyond the realm of 8-track DIYtronica and into the world of the realm of glossy, co-produced pop. ”During those few years, I had a bit of crossover in writing my tunes. I finally moved from my old 8-track machine and into the world of computers. I got myself some new tools – Logic and some plug-ins – and started from there. The same HK119 concept was still there, but was becoming a bit more tongue-in-cheek and a much poppier approach, and I was singing in a slightly different way. I had actually filled the memory of my old 8-track, so after a bit of an ‘oh god, what do I do know’, I just knew it was time for a change, to move with the times and maybe time to collaborate with other people.
“So as soon as I had done the demos I contacted I Monster in Sheffield and they were happy to collaborate, and later Simon Duffy came on board as a producer. So, I Monster became the main sound behind it with me. I’d send them the tracks and let them get on with it, and they’d send me versions back for me to approve. Sometimes they’d keep quite close to my originals and others they’d completely change a whole beat or something, but 99% of the time I’d be, like, ‘wow!’ when I got them back. They were brilliant to work with.”
Another obvious evolution to the Phase II package is the image. Gone are the alien queen slinky black catsuits, Mohawk hair, eyes painted on eyelids, black capes made of inflated binbags in favour of a new, Earthbound, sporty HK119. “It all extends from my research into modernism, but looking back to the 1920s with the big massive sports rallies in Germany when sports became part of our daily lives. [There was] a new kind of propaganda to be fit, sporty and healthy, and a supposed way of encouraging unity with the Olympics etc.”
When I ask her if she’d been taking notes at the recent Beijing Olympics, she laughs back: “Well, I don’t really like sports. I’m not really interested in who jumps furthest, y’know. I do go to the gym, swim and do yoga, but I guess that’s more personal maintenance and wellbeing than sports. That’s what the album artwork kinda shows: this personal dilemma of loving hedonism but still wanting to be fit and healthy. That’s why there’s smoking while using the dumbbell, the constant battle of being human.”
When we move into the specific tracks on the new album, Heidi seems genuinely surprised and flattered when I refer to the track ‘Celeb’ as “sexy”, as if the she’s so deep in the pool of its concept the more surface appeal of her work is totally alien to her. “Sexy!? Is it!? Wow, I like that…a new life!” Despite the track’s dirty, double bass-driven, cymbal tapping piano jazz pop – complete with the sounds of champagne bottles popping and the buzz of a party deep in the mix – its sexiness is perhaps an easy thing for her to over look when the track is actually a graphic commentary on the typical lifestyle of the current London celebrity circus. “I took cocaine, Valium, acid and some codeine / I had a deep desire to destroy myself from within!” she sings as the song seductively warms up.
“I am not part of that scene, thank god, and I’ve given up reading all that rubbish. But yeah, I remember when all the free London papers came out, and you’re sitting on the bus and you turn to the music pages and that bollocks celebrity section only to see the state of that posse of Amy Winehouse, Kate Moss, Peaches Geldof, Pete Doherty etc., and how off their faces they are. It plays on people’s natural curiosity. It’s just ridiculous that people have become famous for that. If they’d have fucking seen me 20 years ago, they wouldn’t believe it! But yeah, it’s not a competition and it’s just a bit sad now.”
“Politics is a form of theatre that I’m not very interested in,” she admits when we talk about what else in current affairs inspires her. “They are just really dull characters who play their parts really badly. My television broke down ages ago so I haven’t seen the news in ages. But, if I had, I’m sure it’s the same old stories that go round in circles to keep people in check. I go in and out of love with knowing nothing because it’s all the same, but then feeling the need to know what’s going on.”
I try to reassure her that it’s not all bad in the world at the moment and tell her about the recent news announcement of NASA’s plans for the next 30 years, including another lunar landing and a manned mission to Mars. She greets this with a relieved, “yeah I read about that, it’s fantastic!”, as if she has taken comfort that at least one other person has taken notice of some ‘real’ news, finally. And speaking of space travel – which a conversation with Heidi will frequently result in – Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control actually takes its title from an essay by an American writer who “wrote about sending tiny little robots to space and making them multiply, rather than sending big ships which would cost lots of money. I can’t remember how I found it, but there were millions of rejected titles, like ‘Critical’. It just suited better.”
It’s the development and progression of a person, culture or humanity as a whole that drives both Heidi and HK119: anything that might stand in the way of such progression is what ultimately upsets Heidi, and pisses off HK119. With her head firmly rooted in the scientific reality of our planet, Heidi assures me she’s a huge science fiction fan too. “Not furry monsters or anything. But y’know, things that could actually happen one day.”
The brilliant glam, electro-stomper ‘Clone’, which is introduced with a humorous spoken word “Hi, my name is HK / I’m a member if the biological underclass / but not for long!”, and the quirky fluffy pop of ‘Super Bug’ is another example of Heidi’s thoughts on the pros and cons of our (un)natural evolution. ”‘Super Bug’ isn’t about how pissed off I am with the NHS, it’s about the possibility of being wiped out by another bug like AIDS, bird flu or whatever. It goes back to when I was reading more papers and the whole spreading fear in people thing by politicians. Maybe I’m just a sensitive soul, but you can’t help but take it on board sometimes. It’s all blown out of proportion of course though. I spoke to a journalist friend of mine who told me that it’s quite random how they pick they headlines sometimes. It could be ‘We saved a kitten from a burning building!’, but they’ll nearly always opt for ‘Terrorist spotted buying a paper from a shop!’ type of thing.”
On the surface, lead single ‘C’est La Vie’ may appear to be a straightforward love song but of course goes much deeper than that, almost encapsulating all the worries that HK119 may have about society. “In the grand scheme of things, with all this development in science, technology, where are we heading? Are we becoming post-human?…so it’s basically asking, “what does it mean to be human?” – it’s a question that one does have to ask, and to remind us to please stay human, because that’s all we have left! Going back to that sports thing, too. It’s not really about saving humanity, but about bettering ourselves…but, yeah, we must also remember to save the kitten from the burning building too.”
The wonderful thing about Heidi’s songs is that describing one always seems to lead straight into another. Talking about ‘Tropikalia’ and its evil, dark voiceover, we’re told that it belongs to ‘Über-Machine’, a character from the first album who “only now really has a voice”, and that Über-Machine is laughing at how humanity has destroyed Earth’s climate and how we have forced ourselves to look elsewhere for a home. This leads us nicely into the album’s more beautiful moments of ‘Space’, parts 1 and 2 no less.
Part 1 is a haunting and beautiful epic hybrid of Air’s ‘Sexy Boy’ and Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’. What could have been a simple homage to space tourism is given much more depth when Heidi explains that we may eventually have no choice but to seek asylum there, while the Über-Machines among us say ‘I told you so!’. To rub salt in the wound a little more, Part 2 finds us floating around in a chilling and spooky ambient wash of beautiful stars, but with the unsettling feeling in the back of our minds that we brought this on ourselves and we’re now stuck with the consequences of our actions.
HK119 might be just quirky electro-pop to those who have only just discovered her, but to deny there’s anything more to her than that is to do Heidi a huge injustice. Everything she speaks about leaves a poignant thought in your mind and a question on the tip of your tongue. She has simply learnt how to turn it all into wonderfully digestible pop, without having to preach, patronise or campaign. Certainly a welcome change in today’s world of toe-curling, ego-driven, eco/sociological friendly popstars. ”All these issues are out there, you don’t need me to tell you them. Just pick up a newspaper,” she says. “I just write about the things around me and the society I’m in. I’m acting like a natural mirror for them. But you can just appreciate it from a pop point of view, too – it’s pop! But if it helps people become aware of something, change their behaviour or how they think about something, then great. I’m really happy about that. But if we only have a little time left, then let’s just have fun.”
By the time we wrap things up, Heidi has a grin on her face like she’s been waiting three years since she made the last album to get all this off her chest in order to carry on with whatever the next creative chapter in her life may be. As we get up to leave, her activist’s blanket is already three times bigger than it was an hour ago as she stuffs it all in her bag. No doubt by the time we’re talking about her third album in a year or two, she’ll have a whole collection of blankets to show us as well.