(written by Rhian Daly January 2020)
What do you get when you mix a fighter pilot grandad, airline captain parents and an uncle who’s the most successful songwriter in Finland with a determined work ethic, tons of talent, and undeniable charisma? The answer is Finnish singer/songwriter Tomi Saario – one of pop’s most exciting new hopes taking off in 2020.
On his debut single ‘Just A Little’ and on his first EP ‘I Think We Need To Talk…’, Saario introduces himself as both a compelling storyteller and an artist with an innate knack for writing pop hooks. His are melodies and choruses that burrow into your heart and mind and take up residence there. Those traits are unsurprising when you learn that Tomi has been playing guitar since he was five years old, when his uncle and his father bought him an acoustic guitar and taught him to play rock and roll riffs.
At age seven, Saario discovered a genre that would be fundamental to his songwriting in later years. “I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan and that’s when I fell in love with blues music,” he says, listing John Mayer and D'Angelo as other important influences. “I love writing pop melodies and songs but having a backbone of something soulful and bluesy is where the real magic happens for me.”
Although the musician has been strumming on six strings since childhood, it wasn’t until he was 17 that he wrote his first song. Before then, he focused more on football, taking part in training camps for the junior Finnish national squad and playing against teams such as Real Madrid. “I took Spanish lessons just for the reason that I knew I was going to play for FC Barcelona,” he says matter-of-factly. “But then I had the realisation that I was better at music and when I finally started writing songs it was a no brainer.”
Before he could focus entirely on music, however, Saario had to complete military service, which is still mandatory in Finland for men over the age of 18. He served in the urban warfare squad for about a year and describes the experience as a rewarding one. “If I had done anything else for that year, it definitely wouldn’t have enriched my life in the way military service did,” he reasons. “The tests we did were great ways to show how far you can actually push yourself.”
After returning from the military, Saario left his home in the south of Finland and headed to one of the music capitals of the world – London. Once there, Saario didn’t expect things to just fall into his lap. He gigged relentlessly, playing over 1000 shows in four years, turning up at any Open Mic night that would have him. His mother helped him out by doing extensive research on places he could play in the city and handwriting a guidebook for him, including locations, times, and how to sign up to perform. “I would recommend Open Mics to everybody because it’s so freaking uncomfortable,” he says, explaining that the crowd is made up of people who really pay attention and aren’t afraid to share their brutally honest feedback once you’re finished. “It’s been a massive help and when I play bigger shows I definitely think it will be something to draw inspiration from. If you can create that conversational connection with everybody there, that’s the dream right?”
Saario’s debut EP ‘I Think We Need To Talk…’ feels like a conversation in itself, one in which the musician is entrusting you with stories from his own life. It maps the different chapters of relationships, from the giddy infatuation in the beginning (‘Just A Little’) to the post-mortem afterwards (‘Blame’). Each is defined by specific, evocative lyrics that make it easy to put yourself in Saario’s shoes or project your own experiences onto his canvases.
His debut single ‘Just A Little’ opens: “Draw something on me and I will guess/Feels like it’s a heart but it might be that I’m just that obsessed.” which is a great example of Saario’s lyrical writing, that plays out over jittery fingerpicked guitar feeling like the fluttery butterfly-filled rush of new love. “Writing from the whole spectrum or circle of life within love is too wide,” he explains. “I need to draw inspiration from a certain moment like laying in bed on a Sunday and having someone special just scribble something on your back with their finger.”
‘Blame’ finds Tomi trying to work out rational reason to why things end. Specifically relationships. “What I realised is falling in love doesn’t really make any sense, so why should falling out of love?” he reasons now.
Elsewhere, ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ deals with the moment of knowing when someone’s right for you and ‘I Wanna Be Your James Dean’ yearns for an era of dating that was less about swiping right and more about real human connection. It opens with Saario singing: “Take me back to those days/‘50s with the class dames/When dressing up was lowkey/No more fast tinder wives/I’m so sick of blurred lines/my life ain’t that MTV.”
“I feel like the old school romance in songs like Tony Bennett’s version of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ doesn’t really exist now,” he explains. “I felt like a big part of my EP is that retro James Dean thing but bringing it to 2020. I think that old kind of romance is way more exciting than this modern fast dating.”
As debuts go, ‘I Think We Need To Talk…’ is a strong first body of work that sets out its creator as a bold new one to watch and someone with a lot of ambition. For Saario, music is just one way of expressing himself and he cites Donald Glover as someone who’s career he’d like to emulate. “I want to do acting and create stories,” he says. “I’ve gone through enough heartache and happiness to really have something to say and I feel comfortable creating stories for decades now.” This is just the beginning for the Finnish musician but already his future looks set to be one long, exhilarating adventure – buckle up now.