Ville Valo Discusses What Went Into Neon Noir: “I Really Lost Myself in the Music”
Love Metal pioneer Ville Valo has played on stages around the world, getting by on his talent, charm, and charisma. Thanks to his time in HIM and now in his solo career, he’s garnered a reputation of creating music that so much heart and soul that that it’s easy to relate to. Those who understand what Ville Valo represents already know that he is one of the greatest at what he does.
VV’s masterpiece of a solo debut album, Neon Noir, is an addictive 12-song wonder that showcases an enigmatic depth, darkness, and dazzling color palette. Although Neon Noir is an escapist triumph, it’s also oddly sobering as a result of its rare authenticity. If this exceptional album can make a raving supporter out of an elitist black metal freak and cultural snob like me, anyone should be able to appreciate its lethal beauty. Yes, Ville Valo is my favorite artist, and Neon Noir proves that he should be yours as well.
We were humbled to have had the privilege of speaking with the artist himself, who shared the following insight about Neon Noir:
“… I think that the idea, at least for me — musically, and lyrically, and all that — wasn’t to do something that somebody else does but do my own thing and then hope for the best. Because through that, then hopefully, it is unique, and it is what it is — it is my own thing… I’ve worked on it [Neon Noir] by myself, most of it — solo recorded and produced it, and stuff like that… I didn’t have to make any compromises while working on it. So, for me, it feels really special in that sense…”
As long as you’re ready for a challenge, Neon Noir will become a truly important album for you as well. To learn more about Neon Noir and the genius behind it, enjoy the rest of our conversation below.
Congratulations on the upcoming release of Neon Noir! I absolutely LOVE the album! Could you please tell me what you’ve learned about yourself as an artist during the process of making this record?
Well, I think the most important thing I learned is that there’s no controlling music: The muse provides the melodies and the rhythms when she feels like it, and you have to be receptive, and you have to be ready! And also, that even old dogs can learn new tricks. Because I’ve been involved, I’ve been in the business, so to speak, more than maybe… close to 30 years already. It’s quite a long time. I’ve recorded plenty of albums, but with this new way of me working by myself, I found myself in tough spots. And I painted myself in a corner so many times that I thought that was really refreshing because it’s cool to be a sort of like an older chap, but yet with the sort of giddy, teeny excitement happening in the studio. Yeah, I was really giddy between all the daily naps that us older people do. But no, it was a great process! I think that that’s the thing I learned about myself and learned about music and realized that the music still, if she considers me worthy… has a lot to offer. So, it’s great after all these years because you can never tell in advance whether there’s a new song coming out or how it’s gonna sound. I think, especially when you’re younger, you stress about it. You stress about writer’s blocks and whatnot. But I’ve noticed that it’s better just to live your life and not to overthink it because after a while your subconscious has amassed so much information — it’s like a melting pot — and it starts to filter it out, in my case, through music. It just happens when I think the hard drive is too full and needs to be defragmented. So, it’s a big part of who I am, and it’s always been there. And it has been a crutch, but not in a negative sense — and it is a safety blanket, and it is my own little safe place and panic room, so to speak. I find it really special to have been blessed with the opportunity to do this for such a long time. And it’s still holding this fascination and holding this sort of specialness in my heart, if that’s the word, but yeah.
As the album unfolded, were there any songs that surprised you?
I think all of it because I worked on this album in a way that I always work on just one song at a time, and I finished that and moved on to the next one, which is very unusual… Usually, bands — you rehearse songs, and then you go and record the entire thing in one go. And with this sort of way of doing it, that one song was my life at that moment for that period of time. I worked on the song a couple of months, or three months, or whatever it might have been, and there was nothing else. So, for me, it was more all-consuming mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically even than anything I’ve done in the past. So, in that sense, there were a lot of woes because there were a lot of goosebumps. It was very meditative, and I really lost myself in the music because there were no distractions… And that was a good thing about the pandemic, you know, if there was a good thing about it. I’m not a social person anyway, but it forced me to be even less of a social person, and it enabled me to give my all to the music. There’s a song called “Heartful of Ghosts,” which I enjoy because I think it’s very different from what I’ve done in the past. It’s more like sort of noise rock, weird moody thing, and I like the lyrics. But people hear music very differently. Because I’ve been involved in creating the album, the little tiny minutia of it, I know the little tiny details, and those are the ones usually that make me giddy. But that’s the stuff that nobody else sees or hears, and that’s the way that it’s supposed to be as well.
I think that people definitely will pick up on the details eventually because Neon Noir is just one of those albums that you just can’t stop listening to! — Every day! I’ve heard the pre-released songs a million times by now and the others a bunch of times already as well. [Of course, three of the Neon Noir tracks first premiered in the form of the EP Gothica Fennica Vol. 1 in 2020 and three singles dropped last year.] At first, as a listener, you’re just amazed by their beauty, but then you eventually realize that they will become your favorite songs for life! That’s been the case with your HIM material and your art in general for me… So, anyway, what was the hardest thing for you to master technically on Neon Noir?
I think the hardest thing was to learn how to stop and when, because, a lot of times, when I did get sucked into the world of music, I didn’t sleep much. And it was like those fourteen-hour days working on the music, and then sleeping a bit, and starting again. I’ve never done nine-to-five, so I don’t know how that works. I’m all in when it comes to this sort of thing, so that was tough. I burned myself out many times, and for a good reason! I did have the time to recuperate, so it was good. But that’s something I’ve never been able to control very well — to have a balance in my life. I always overdo things no matter what they might be. I think that that was the hardest thing technically. But otherwise, just building a puzzle… And I have quite a bit of experience learning from the best of the industry — a lot of great engineers, and producers, and mixing engineers that I’ve been able to sort of like spy on when they’ve been working on the HIM stuff. And also, musician-wise, the guys in HIM: all the drummers; and the keyboard players; and Migé, the bass player; and Linde, the guitar player. They’re fantastic musicians, so being able to stand beside them onstage for 25 years, you learn a lot… seeing how they record, and how they perform, and just trying to keep my antennas up, and suck in all the information I can along the way. So, it’s more about, as it is these days, modern days, it’s like, you know, computer errors. You’re like, “What the hell is going on?!” And you’re stuck with an error message for a day and a half and not sure what to do, but God bless YouTube, I guess. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!
Speaking of Migé, he helped you out a bit while you were making Neon Noir. He provided some emotional support, I believe. How important was it to have him involved because, as you told Metal Hammer, this project is “a bridge between HIM and the future”?
Well, you know, at the end of the day, you have to remember that Migé is such a good friend that he’s always involved, and it’s not about necessarily being involved with music per se. It’s about being a friend and involved in my life, and I’m trying to intrude on his life on the occasion as well. So, we’ve stayed in touch since we disbanded with HIM, and that hasn’t changed one bit, one iota. You know, he came over every now and then, and we were drinking a ton of coffee, and talking about life in general. And then, I usually played a few songs, and he gave me the nod of approval, and maybe asked a few questions. He was like the sort of Rick Rubin of producers, like a guru, not doing… saying really much but really influencing proceedings quite a bit. So, that’s how Migé has always been. Once again, he’s a close friend and a person I respect tremendously. So, I’m glad that he was able to be part of it as well as Antto, the guy who played keyboards with HIM on Greatest Lovesongs Vol. 666 . We fell out back in the day and became enemies for a while, but, especially when you’re younger, that’s how stuff happens. He found a new life in the restaurant business, and he’s been very successful at it. He’s traveled the world quite a bit. We’ve become really-really close friends. He does a lot of music too. He’s more into electronic sort of music, so it was interesting to get that perspective.
I loved your 2019 album with Agents, so I was wondering if there’s anyone that you haven’t worked with who you would like to collaborate with in the future.
I think most of the projects, the weirder and left-of-the-center projects I’ve been involved with, they’ve always happened sort of organically and sort of by lucky accident. And regarding the future, I think that whatever might come, it has to be sort of a surprise. I don’t think that really working on sort of putting stuff on paper and kind of making a PowerPoint presentation of it is gonna work; it’s in the realm of art. I think it’s about those lucky coincidences — bump into someone at an airport who knows someone and all of a sudden you’ve made an album or whatever. That’s the cool thing about it. But yeah, it would be great to do a duet with Debbie Harry, or Annie Lennox, or Kate Bush. It’s good to have daydreams and hopes… Or Cyndi Lauper! So, they all rock my boat.
Given that, do you have any plans regarding your art that maybe you would like to share? I know that you said that you weren’t sure that you’d do a solo album again.
I think I have to be realistic in a way that this is the first album that I’ve worked on by myself, and I’m still very close to it. And what I learned from HIM is that usually you understand the album you just made after the tour. Because then, you see people react to different songs, and it gives you a bit of time and a bit of perspective on the whole operation. So, it always takes a while. I think it would be stupid of me to say that, yeah, there will be another album following in the footsteps of this thing because, as we just sort of discussed, the lucky accidents, and coincidences, surprises, and stuff — that makes me tick! So, no idea. I’m into whatever. But it has to feel right. It has to be for the right reasons like the Agents thing. It was such a weird step to make, but that was the music my parents were listening to when I was a baby, so it felt like this weird circle had closed, and it just felt like the right thing. You know, when in life things feel right, there’s no rhyme or reason necessarily! It doesn’t make sense, and it’s hard to explain those things, and you can’t do those in ones and zeros. It’s just you have a gut feeling about something, and then it’s important to follow that intuition. I feel that regarding whatever my future in music is that it will continue in that vein. But I’ll, once again, just try to keep my antennas up and see what comes. But now, I know I’m going to be tied to touring. So, hopefully, traveling… and usually traveling does inspire regarding new music. And so, I have to remember to bring my acoustic guitar along and strum and hum on occasion and see if I can come up with the goods.
You always do! This is a bit of a different kind of question, but I read in Kerrang! that you originally wanted to be part of a black metal band. I was wondering how your love for black metal arose and if you’re still a black metal fan at heart.
Yeah, I guess you can’t take it out once you’ve fallen in love with that stuff. At the time when the churches were burning in Norway, that was the time when I really got into it — probably, I was like 18 or something — and there were a lot of Finnish bands like Impaled Nazarene, one of my favorites, still are. That was the time when Cradle of Filth came up with Dusk and Her Embrace  and Dimmu Borgir from Norway came up with Enthrone Darkness Triumphant . So, a lot of sort of big black metal and sort of like the second- or even, you might call it, the third-wave of black metal, the sort of more commercial bigger sound, started happening after all those years of the sort of very lo-fi necro sort of Burzum, the early… all that sort of stuff. And yeah-yeah, I still — I’m into that stuff. There’s just a lot of bands in that genre. It’s tough to keep up and sort of know what’s good. And then, also, there’s so many weird bands with so many weird political leanings that you’ve got to be careful. The music might be quite good, but at the same time, it’s like… It’s a weird and a wonderful world of black metal. It is, but… Yeah, you can consider me a fan. I think, yeah, yeah — I should be listening to more black metal to be honest with you. But no, I just, you know — I was kicking back to ‘80s goth when working on Neon Noir. That was my thing now like getting all those albums out and getting some re-released vinyl and stuff. But — so that might be a good idea for me to bring out my T-shirts, and my vinyl, and my cassettes of black metal and see if that brings some new inspiration to the table!
There’s always DSBM!
True that! True that!
So, what do you think is the most important thing that maybe fans get wrong about you?
They get wrong about me? I don’t think there is such a thing because it’s all up for interpretation, all the music. And, you know, I have my own stories, and I mean my own things when I’m writing and working on the songs. But that’s the beauty of music, and I guess artists as well, that you can… There’s a lot of imagination. Or, in other words, if you can get the imagination of the people working, that’s always fascinating! Because it’s great when people come up with their own stories and their own ways of interpreting lyrics! Because that’s what I do when it comes to like Black Sabbath, or the Fields of the Nephilim, or The Sisters of Mercy, or Type O even. It’s your world. And even if your favorite artist tells you what the song is really about — you know how many times it can be a disappointment because you thought that it was your own thing that you really owned by yourself and that it was nobody else’s but yours. And I think that that’s the cool part that should be kept alive in music. So, whatever misconceptions there might be like stuff that is factually incorrect, it doesn’t really matter. That creates a better legend and a better myth. The more there are weird stories about, you know, the better it is for everyone involved, especially for the imagination of humankind.
Obviously, HIM’s debut was Greatest Lovesongs Vol. 666, which you mentioned. That album actually contains a lot of my favorite love songs. So, what are your favorite love songs?
I’ve been rocking to — I love “Echo” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. That was, I think, on their previous album [Wrong Creatures, 2018] that came out a few years ago. That’s a tough question. A lot of times, they don’t necessarily have to be love songs, but it’s more about when you hear the song… There’s a band from London called Zetra. They sound like somewhere in between Cocteau Twins and Type O Negative, and they did a great cover of an ‘80s… There was a band from the ‘80s called Mummy Calls and the song is called “Beauty Has Her Way.” They [Zetra] made a beautiful cover of that tune, and that’s a great love song. That’s an amazing song. And “Skin of the Night” by M83 — that’s a great song. I’m not even sure if it’s a love song per se, but it’s very sort of like endearingly, gothically romantic. And yeah, that’s a never-ending topic. You know, you opened a can of worms.
That’s a great way to close things then. I can’t thank you enough for your time and all your music through the years — no words can do it justice!