Erik Koskinen Interview
Let’s start with your roots, where you were born, where you grew up?
EK: My father was born in Helsinki and was adopted in Negaunee, Michigan as a young child. As an adult he traveled and lived around the United States but met my mother in Marquette, Michigan. I was born with my twin brother in Fort Collins, Colorado. By the time I started grade school, I was living in The Copper Country and my parents worked at Suomi College (Finlandia University). My mother’s family has been in the US for generations and are Irish/Scottish/British. My whole family on my father’s side resides in Finland still.
A bio of you on the First Avenue (a famed Twin Cities music venue) website indicates you were “raised in Northern Michigan”.
EK: The Keweenaw Peninsula is a large part of my upbringing and of course I grew up with Sauna. Some of my relatives in Finland fought in the wars of the 1940’s on skis. I grew up skiing all the time. Food that was either brought from Finland or adopted by Finns in the UP was around me often. In general, Sauna, skiing, fish, stews, pasties, polka. Cussing in Finnish was a popular activity. Part of my high school was in NE New York, near Quebec, and I only met one Finn there. I took French classes, but I let everyone know I was a Finn!
Growing up, was the Finnish language spoken around you by parents or extended family members?
EK: My family from Finland speaks English so well (maybe better than I) that my household never took it in as a necessity. My father has lots of terms and phrases he uses from the old Finn world. Many of these are now unknown to family in Finland. I heard a language program on the radio recently that mentioned that the two most used Finnish words in America are Sauna and Sisu. Sisu has strong sentiment in my world. I believe in it and I’m very proud of my heritage which has heavy influence on my daily life, including writing music.
I’m a huge folk, rock, blues, and Americana fan. One of my favorite singer/songwriters of the past several decades is James McMurtry, son of famed author (Lonesome Dove, Last Picture Show) Larry McMurtry. I hear some similarities to Jim and his austere, stripped-down songwriting and arranging (including simple yet elegant guitar work) in your songs.
EK: Interesting question. My parents are writers and teachers. They taught me about Larry McMurtry early on and I was in his hometown visiting his bookstores at the end of a tour in Texas about twelve years ago. Archer City, Texas. It’s where they filmed The Last Picture Show. Very close to where my mother was born. I wanted to visit both places.
The first time I heard of James I was on a road trip playing shows in Duluth, MN and I called my father from a payphone. It was the late nineties. He said that he just heard an interview with James on the radio and Dad said James reminded him of me. I’ve heard that more in the last 25 years than I can count. I’ve been compared to no one else more than him (in a positive way). So early on, he wasn’t an influence. But I’ve grown to love his music, writing, phrasing and the intent of his delivery. He’s brilliant. I would imagine I’ve been influenced inadvertently, but not directly. I always take it as a high compliment when someone mentions the similarities, but I feel like a novice comparatively.
In that same First Ave bio, you’re listed as currently living in Cleveland, MN. I have to confess, I’ve been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, OH but never, at least knowingly, been to Cleveland, MN.
EK: I don’t live there but I have my recording studio there. It’s a small but grand farm town near Saint Peter, MN. Folks treat me with respect, and I do the same. I moved to the Saint Peter area from the city because of true love with my lady. Why else move? Before that I’d been in Saint Paul for a while. I play annually in Cleveland (early August) and it’s a ruckasy, fun time. Lots of people from all over Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. The show has a bit of a Willie Nelson Picnic vibe. City folks, farmers, townies, hippies, musicians. Everyone gets along great and has a lot of fun.
Have you toured outside the United States?
EK: I’ve toured in Canada, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. I felt very at home in all of those places. In fact, I loved it and I can’t wait to go back. That side of my blood felt soothed. I really want to play Finland: it’s in the master plan. If it doesn’t happen soon, I’ll be going to visit family regardless.
The same First Ave bio indicates you spent some time in “upper New York State”. What timeframe are we talking about? Did that include time near Woodstock, where famed Band drummer Levon Helm operated and recorded at the infamous Barn? I only ask because another Munger interviewee, famed Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitarist, Jorma Kaukonen has done some work there and in fact, will be headlining a show at The Barn next April. Have you ever met or played with Jorma?
EK: The music world is like a small town: you’re always one person away from knowing the President, so to speak. But I’ve never crossed paths with Jorma. I sure hope to. I’ve seen him play but let him be at the end of the show. He’s brilliant. He’s also way more influential than he gets credit for.
Just a couple more and I’ll let you get back to making music. It looks like you’ve worked with quite a few folks based in or from my hometown of Duluth, MN.
EK: I’m pretty old school as well. I still listen to “albums” and prefer that. I hope the tradition never dies and even if it fades a bit, I believe it never will die. It will have a resurgence, which I think has already started.
I get hired many ways as a working musician. Sometimes I’m a guitarist or a producer or an engineer or co-writer. Many times, I’m all of the above at the same time. I feel very lucky that people keep contacting me to work with them. My own Duluth history goes back almost to my beginning. It’s the first town I “toured” to. My history with Sacred Heart also goes back to the beginning. A musical mentor, Bernie Larsen, sold his recording gear to the people that started Sacred Heart. The very gear I learned to work on in Michigan made its way to Minnesota! I also recorded one of the first records ever recorded there. I was told I was part of the influence to record the first “Duluth Does Dylan” compilation record. Even though I never lived there, they included me on the record! That was all done at Sacred Heart, along with many others compilation records that involved Trampled By Turtles, Haley, Low, and Charlie Parr. Teague Alexy (from Duluth) is a dear friend. Sarah Krueger too. Tim Nelson has a lot to do with that scene. I wish I could mention everyone.
Last one. Looks like your latest, album-length recording is Burning the Deal. I thoroughly enjoyed “Big Plane” which to me, again evokes not only McMurtry, but also the Finnish folk duo (no longer so, I’ve been told), Ninni and Mika (whose great album Powder Burn was recorded and engineered by Amy Helm at The Barn). Is Burning the Deal your latest? Where can folks, including newspaper writers not of Finnish heritage, find your music?
Thanks much! That’s the newest. There’s a new one coming very soon. I’ve been so busy working on musical projects for others that my own work has taken a back seat, but only to refine it slowly. I’m fine with the time it’s taken (four years). I’ve not listened to Ninni and Mika but now I will: thanks for that as well. I was honored to play with Amy Holm once but not at the barn. Hopefully, one day …
My website, www.erikkoskinen.com has an online store and all the streaming platforms have all the records. I love to sell them at live shows. Coming soon to a town near you! Kiitos! Kiitos!
(This interview first appeared in the February 2024 issue of the Finnish American Reporter.)