An Original Finn: Steven Solkela


Where do you hang your hat, the place you call home? How is that location connected to Finnish American or Finnish culture, heritage, and history?


I don’t actually remember being born, but I (never) “grew up” in Palo Minnesota far “north of ordinary,” as we say on The Iron Range. Now my proverbial hat hangs in Duluth … but I’m really not much of a hat guy. Lol. And as far as Finns go, they got more Finns in Palo than in an Aquarium! The basic history of Palo in a nutshell, is that it was mostly all homesteads built by former iron ore miners blackballed by the mines for unionizing. Somewhere along the line the Norwegians showed up to keep us from going insane.

There’s still a handful of folks that Feak Spinnish there too. 


Was Finnish spoken around you? How about your early connections to Finnish heritage?


Yaya, the Grandparents knew a handful of words (mostly the swears) but really my Finnish language came from Duolingo and YouTube. Plus, the Berlitz Learn Finnish in Sixty Minutes CD I “long term borrowed” from the Mt. Iron Library. It’s been a LOOOOONG sixty minutes: eleven years, I think.

I’m about as good as I can get in terms of speaking Finnish without a teacher, friends, or investing hours a day into it. Maybe halfway fluent. The vocab is there: grammar not so much. And ya, heritage has been all over my life. Saunas, Mölkky, breakfast foods. I grew up near the Laskiainen Festival in Palo, so that was always something to look forward too. I’ve even competed in Wife Carrying a few times!!!

Plus, we still have some Finnish Tunes in the hymnal at church! I’ve been the organist for a few years. And even in childhood I remember hearing “Jeesus Mua Rakastaa” 


Knowing you to be a gifted, professional musician, where did your interest in music come from?


Music from my childhood? My mother shoved ABBA down my throat, classic rock constantly, and country too. I honestly never liked music … still don’t! Just kidding: To me, music is a vehicle for the deep thoughts of an artist. I prefer listening to Rodney Dangerfield’s Stand-Up Highlights to gentle pop music. Most of my songs have a surface meaning as well as a deep one. It gets so creative even the artist can’t understand it! But the jokes make it easier to digest.

When I was in high school, an uncle played a Bobby Aro CD for me: Finn-glish Fun! That changed everything! I wasn’t forbidden to be a musician. But there wasn’t much urgency to support that choice either. I remember my first couple of trombone lessons as a fifth grader. My step-dad said something like, “One of us needs to bring Steven to horn blowing class.” When I played accordion, the folks looked at me like I was about to bomb the property: it wasn’t the best environment for a musician to start off. But disappointing everybody, now that’s what’s made it fun! 

Step-dad was a miner and mom worked in a hospital. They were up early. As a high schooler, I’d be sauntering in from a gig when the step-dad was going to work. I had a cheap little keyboard. I’d take an extension cord and a lamp into my closet and stuff clothes under the door to mute it. I’d shingle roofs or work fast food during the day and practice music at night. I would have traded years of my life to have taken piano lessons earlier. But it was not to be. Nevertheless, my dreams could not be dissolved by the circumstances of my life. And they still can’t now. I’ll outwork any competition: it’s terrifying what I’ll put myself through to entertain.

I love my folks, and I always will. But supportive families can be a double-edged sword. To be honest, I think I got better in music because I honed my skills in introverted, rural silence. I’d play my accordion for the cows when no one was home. They always cared and they always listened, though they never bought a ticket! 


Explain your musical training. I note your bio says you attended Rowan University.


I never didn’t start piano lessons until 2015 (when I was eighteen). I was a late bloomer. I had to be forced into choir and theater by peer pressure. Even though I was a courageous youth, playing trombone abnormally well in band was really a nerdy, inside joke. I may have had dreams back then, but I never saw a future in music until I started making money. A lot of the motivation honestly came from shutting up all the people telling me to get a real job. “A simple-minded farm boy like you is best be fit for the mines or in military.” That quote lives rent free in my mind. I won’t mention who said it, but he motivated me by saying it!

Another character from my Musical Mt. Rushmore is Veda Zuponcich. There’s a documentary, Iron Opera that reveals in depth her impact on my life. From troubled youth; to hostile teen; to confident college kid; Veda deserves a lot of the credit. She’s responsible for me going to college and validating the existence of art in my life. I grew up very tentative in art. I’m so glad she found me and that I found art. It saved my life. But that’s another story.

Rowan University made me twice the man I am (and eight times the musician!). I got to be a little fish in a big pond. Six hours a day on piano, skipping parties to compose and rehearse: it didn’t last long. I played trombone in the pep band: my first instrument, and first love. Played piano, even accompanied a little. Got into church organ a bit. But the accordion was my breadwinner. I played the Hurdy Gurdy in a medieval music ensemble. Got a harp somewhere in there. Bagpipes too. I play over twenty-four instruments. But remember gang: it’s not about the number, it’s about the memories!

Then the rise started (if you can call it a rise.) Two engineering buddies signed me up for the battle of the bands competition as a one-man band. It was a joke. They knew I could play instruments with my feet AND my hands. Their pressure caused me to assemble a ragtag one-man band out of duct tape and prayer. The rest is history. The passion, the niche, the confidence, the creativity: it was all unique, and the future was bright as the sun. 


Presently, you tour as “Steve Solkela’s Overpopulated One Man Band”. Could you tell the readers of FAR what went into your decision to become a solo act, one that not only includes music but a hint (just a hint) of self-deprecating humor?


God forbid someone shakes up this earth with humor!

What kind of nerd is a “serious musician” anyway? Humor is the purpose of life. You can still do a few sensitive pieces and arias amongst the laughter: help people be removed from their daily woes and trials at your shows. That’s my advice to any musician confused about his or her purpose. Life is complex: you are simple. Make things better by being you! Even Mozart was known for his bold sense of humor. Quit licking the salt shaker and live a little! 

As far as the one-man band, it’s a product of my environment. I tried to collaborate with people. I learned the lesson, OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN, that people don’t care, and will never be as passionate as I am about music. I’ve started fourteen bands. Only six have been profitable and only three had everyone pulling their own weight. You have to pick your battles. I learned the hard way that I was the only one who’d show up when it mattered.

It started as accordion practice on the farm. I’d get paid gigs and try to share it with drummers, bass players, piano players etc. … but they would flake. “Collaboration is key!” Flake. “I’m getting lonely here with all these gigs.” Flake .”I’ll send you video clips of the bass part if you’re having a hard time learning.” FLAKE. I’d type up music, get gigs, advertise, take photos, do social media, incur most of the costs, handle all the phone calls and confrontation … and they’d flake! Four-digit gig in Michigan, three months’ notice and my bandmates couldn’t get off work at Walmart. Flake. Start a band, set weekly rehearsal times convenient to their work schedule. FLAKE! Go to their house to rehearse and the doors are locked. FLAKE! 

So, yes, the One-Man Band started out of pure anger and hatred for liars. Now, I make my living from music: doing over two hundred gigs a year and selling my T-Shirts and CDs. I’ve performed on five continents. And contrary to my resentment to flakers, I hope they all eat. I hope they find fulfillment through music, and I hope they find the courage to not only accept a challenge but attempt it. The standards I set for myself would crush an average man. I’ve never found the healthy work/life balance. I gave up the life portion to pursue greatness with all my ability.

As for scaling back, I flaked on two out of over two hundred gigs last year. One because I went in the ditch on my way to that gig and once due to a massive snowstorm. 

Long story short, flakiness is a pet peeve of mine.  If you work with a musician like me, bring your A game.


I know you tour quite a bit, having just come back this spring from traveling that included a jaunt to Florida.


I’ve been quite the globetrotter. I believe I’ve performed in over twenty states and five countries. Sometimes I just fly with an accordion and leave all the one-man band instruments and trinkets behind. Whatever the gig calls for. Some of my absolute favorite places are New Jersey; UP Michigan; Milwaukee, WI; Jerome, AZ; Lantana, FL; Oulu, Finland, Kaleva Hall on the Iron Range; and good ol’ Duluth, MN. 

My repertoire is diverse. I keep the Finnish stuff to a minimum unless it’s requested. Comedy goes over best. I do a lot of covers: I’m better than a jukebox! When I was in Finland, it was before my prime as an entertainer. I really hope I can go back now that I’m entering my prime. Maybe the summer of 2024? Start a rumor! Finland is a very different world but I can’t wait to see it again. Maybe I’ll bring my unicycle …


Could you given the readers an idea of your recordings, where they can be found, and what else might be in the works?

I’ve made seven CDs in my lifetime. One a year since 2015. Sold out the first 3 but I’ve no interest in pressing more. I’ve improved so much since then: every musician hates their past work. You know you’re doing it right when you’re regularly crushed by your own standards. There’s nothing easy about it: so many sleepless nights.

I owe much of my success to a fella by the name of Rich Mattson at Sparta Sound in northern Minnesota. He recorded six of my albums and was able to harness whatever you want to call this caffeine-fueled-tidal-wave-of-creative-rage that is “me” into something beautiful. That man is also on my Mt. Rushmore. My music can be found on Spotify Apple iTunes YouTube, or on CDs purchased from me at gigs. 


Are you available for events? Is there a Solkela YouTube channel?


Youbetcha there’s a YouTube Channel. It’s called “Solkelamaniax” check it out!

I’m comically easy to get a hold of. Facebook is easiest: I post my schedule on my page monthly. But I do the Insta, Snappychat, and even telekinesis! Plus, the website (which I need to update) but you can reach my team at .

My schedule is packed, but like every working-class person, my time and talent is available for purchase. 


Last question. Do you think your accordion skills will ever rise above “average”? (Your word choice, not mine!)


LOL! Humility is a weird thing. If you talk to an old accordionist who knows the standards from the 50s, I suppose I might appear weak in repertoire. At least, before I started the Polka Band and learned most of the old stuff. But the truth is, there’s over 6000 songs in my repertoire. If I ask that same old accordionist to play the metal, rap, Finnish reggae, or classic rock I know, the tables would turn. The creative and committed server (my brain) rivals a robot! Come to a show: I take requests and can do just about anything, including playing my accordion on a unicycle. 

The truth is, I’m an incredible accordionist (gosh, I hope so). I skipped so many social events to practice and compose. The discipline I possess isn’t humane but I won’t allow my ambition to be tarnished. Humility works hard to make sure you never get credit for your work. I’m glad I started believing in myself more after college. So much time was wasted with the self-deprecating stuff that was deemed safe by my conditioning.

It’s a great show I’ve conjured up. Music, comedy, stunts. A twenty-three-piece one-man band! Humor. Danger. Even time travel (musically).  I’m proud of it and folks are going to love it! I wish I’d have ignored all the comments weighing me down earlier in my life. It took years, but I gave myself permission to be myself when no one else did. I’ve given my life meaning through sheer focus of will and the desire to amount to something. We’ll all confront death. Will you be proud? I, for one, am proud of what I’ve been able to do artistically in the short time my hourglass sand has been falling. In the end, I believe I’ll be remembered as the hardest-working entertainer of all time.

Thank you so much for interviewing me!

(This interview originally appeared in the August 2023 edition of the Finnish American Reporter)

About Mark

I'm a reformed lawyer and author.
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