There was a stark sense of doom in the rustic Pub Arthur that Friday 13th. Situated in the heart of Turku’s old wooden house district Port Arthur, or Portsa, this sparsely lit basement bar was the perfect setting for Mirel Wagner, the sullen troubadour famous for her death ballads. Although you could argue that this was a somewhat unexpected venue for a world-renowned artists such as herself, whose latest album was released on the legendary American label Sub Pop. A label famous for housing artist such as Nirvana and Sonic Youth.
You only have to walk a few blocks from the city centre in order to suddenly become immersed by the small village charm of the Portsa neighbourhood. There is a sense of community there between the quiet houses, a feeling not dissimilar to the one inside Pub Arthur when Wagner brought us all into her warm intimate world this particular evening.
The weather outside employed the usual pallet of most February nights. Snow falling down in a monotone rhythm, blinding streetlights shifting in orange, green and red. It was the perfect backdrop for Wagner’s gloomy and introverted music. Wagner’s introspective songs carry an enormous weight, both lyrically and musically as she alternates between light and dark. Her singing is monotone and hushed, her music a gloomy and introverted take on traditional folk that backtracks via a muddy winding road through American roots music and blues.
One chair, two microphones and a spotlight lit up the floor otherwise reserved for the Friday Night karaoke singers. The spotlight lit up the wall behind her creating a soothing and warm red light, at the same time haunting and mysterious. Anyone familiar with the aesthetics of David Lynch can imagine the atmosphere that evening. Think Julee Cruise singing at Roadhouse in Twin Peaks and you’ll get a sense of the mood in the room.
Only seconds into her first song she had turned the place into an intimate living room, where people sat on the floor (after one man in the audience thankfully encouraged people to sit down so that everyone could see). Everyone politely sat down, made room for each other. Everyone’s eyes seemed to be fixated on Wagner, except for maybe that one girl who took the time to braid her friend’s hair. Which in and of itself perfectly illustrated how at home Wagner made you feel. That old pub was our living room that Friday evening and for a short while we were all connected and invited to a front row show of the dark, narrow streets of Wagner’s world.
The feeling that everyone was moving around in a very deep emotional landscape was imminent from the concentrated looks on people’s faces and the silence that dominated the room. The only thing connecting us to reality were the voices at the bar. They did little to break the magic moment we shared together. ‘Is this what love looks like?’ Wagner sang at the end of her set, and the subtle smile as she delivered the line was a nanosecond of complete and total heartbreaking and beautifully honesty. Mirel Wagner has the ability to not only captivate her audience with her heartfelt stories of life and death, life and misery that come to life and die a slow death on the edges of her acoustic guitar. With her slowunaffected and monotone delivery and deep concentration she can force you to feel all those things and bring you close to the core of existential anxiety. All on a Friday night.