21 October 2022
Twenty years ago Vanilla Ninja burst onto the scene in their native Estonia, and on 2nd September 2022 celebrated their 20th anniversary together with a concert at Telliskivi Kvartal, in Tallinn, Estonia. It’s a phenomenal amount of time for a band that formed when all were teenagers, and the concert was as grand as the occasion demanded. It’s not quite 20 years for me, having discovered Vanilla Ninja just prior to the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest, when hearing their song, Cool Vibes, on the official Eurovision CD. I was immediately smitten by its energetic pop-rock nature, catchy vibe, and powerful vocals. It was precisely my kind of music, and really hit the right groove.
Vanilla Ninja would finish eighth in Kyiv, and that event provided the first big surprise: they were four girls. The “ninja” I presumed the artist was a guy, and he had a female vocalist as support. The second surprise was that they were from Estonia; representing Switzerland was due to David Brandes, the German songwriter and producer of Cool Vibes and two of their three albums at the time, who was born in Switzerland. Now, seventeen years later, I’m in Estonia for my eighth visit (on 6 separate trips), and it’s remarkable to think it all started with one song in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Eurovision came and went, and I didn’t really think too much more about Vanilla Ninja until someone uploaded some songs to an Ace Of Base forum I visited at the time. Songs like Liar and Don’t Go Too Fast hit that same groove as Cool Vibes did, so I bought their albums Traces Of Sadness and Blue Tattoo, and the Traces Of Sadness (Live In Estonia) DVD, from Amazon Germany, and the rest, as they say, is history. It was a bombardment of Vanilla Ninja music at this time, as their fourth album, Love Is War arrived in April 2006, while I bought their debut album, Vanilla Ninja, from an Estonian online store, and special versions of Traces Of Sadness and Blue Tattoo from HMV Japan. I began to collect all their CD singles, joined Vanilla Ninja forums, and ultimately ended up in Estonia to see Vanilla Ninja live in 2008.
That first visit to Estonia was for the Restart Tour, which coincided with the release of a single called Crashing Through The Doors, and ironically proved to be their final tour. Perhaps there was a single performance in Latvia or somewhere afterwards, otherwise that tour was it. Vanilla Ninja’s momentum had already slowed following a dispute with Brandes and his record label, Bros Music, over the rights to the Vanilla Ninja name, and finally winning those rights back came too late. Band members started new new careers, with Lenna Kuurmaa beginning a solo career. It seemed Love Is War, which was released by EMI Germany, and with new songwriters, including much more input from the band themselves, would be their final album forever. That was until Brandes would obviously realise over time that Vanilla Ninja’s success in much of Europe had just as much to do with the girls as it did his songwriting and production skills, and he reunited the band for their fifth album, Encore, released October 2021.
The Restart Tour comprised of about 6 concerts. I went to the final three, the first one in Tartu, where I mostly tried to absorb it all. I sat back on the steps of the festival grounds before moving right up near the front of the stage towards the end. Lenna singing “insane in the membrane” when introducing Insane In Vain and the surreal nature of actually seeing the band up so close are still the strongest memories of that event. I would meet Lenna the next day after the concert in the small town of Rapla. I still vividly remember the huge shock and smile she had when I said I was from Australia, and how she adored the little koala I gave her. Driving back to Tartu that night I was on the highest buzz ever. It was like drugs, not that I’d know. Hugs not drugs! The next day in Tallinn, for the final concert of the tour, fans were lining the fence afterwards and I got my Crashing Through The Doors CD signed by all three, Lenna, Piret Järvis and Katrin Siska. When I told Piret I’m the fan from Australia, she replied “Oh, you’re the one”.
After that first visit to Estonia and Europe in 2008, I would return in 2011, 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2022. In 2011 it was actually to see Estonia as the three days in 2008 was mostly following the band around the country. I took my mother to Tallinn on a trip in 2014, and for 2016 and 2017 it was two visits each on either side of the Eurovision Song Contests in Stockholm and Kyiv, respectively. In 2017, Lenna happened to schedule a small solo show in Parnu at a 100-year-old barn called Kõlli küün (Jingle Barn) the week after Eurovision, which I could work into my travel schedule. Nine years later it was just as surreal to see and meet her again, not that she remembered me, or really the Restart Tour.
Attending the 20th anniversary concert at Telliskivi Kvartal was the culmination of a journey that began almost two years prior. When the Vanilla Ninja comeback was announced in late 2020, it was the best news ever. In a dark period of COVID-19 lockdowns and the grief from losing your mother, it really provided a light of hope that not everything precious was gone forever. The first single and video arrived in June 2021, three more followed, then the album in October, a further three singles and videos, and then this concert. The timing of it was perfect, as we’d been locked up in Australia for over 2 years, unable to travel anywhere, and I really needed to get out. With airfares surprisingly reasonable (the same as in 2017 and a little more than 2016), I booked for 2 weeks away: 4 days in Estonia, 6 in Iceland, and the rest was travel time.
Arriving in Tallinn the day prior to the concert, it’s like a second home now. While the city is clearly changing, especially with several newer buildings about, and Telliskivi Kvartal was new itself, so much still remains. The Old Town is as charming as always, and the Vanilla Ninja ice-creams are as good as ever. My sister arrived a day earlier, as she was on her own travel plan, so I went straight to the hotel and had breakfast, and we caught up. There she gave me Lenna’s new book for my upcoming birthday (8th September) to make it one of the most unique gifts ever. We walked to Telliskivi Kvartal to check the stage in advance, went to Kadriorg Palace, had a Vanilla Ninja ice-cream, and went to the new T1 Mall to ride the ferris wheel on top.
Even though I slept for much of the flight between Singapore and Helsinki, with the 7-hour time delay, I was asleep by 9pm… and then awake at 2am! More so because it got so warm inside the hotel, not so much the time difference. The next day, the Friday of the concert, we would walk along Linnahall (old Soviet concert and sports hall next door to the hotel), along the coast to the Seaplane Harbour, back through the Old Town and its familiar places and points of interest, and climbed St Olaf’s Church (once the tallest building in the world) again. It was the fifth time for me, and while I have slowed down a little over the years, I’m proud to say I climbed the 232 steps without needing to rest. Then it was another Vanilla Ninja ice-cream and back to the hotel to prepare for the Vanilla Ninja concert.
That one fan was coming from Australia was quite sensational, and this was picked up by local media following an interview with the band, and after I posted an Instagram story when departing Melbourne to which they shared. Of course, fans came from various parts of Europe, including Germany and Poland (where the band had much of its success), Italy and Serbia, so it was a big deal for us diehard fans, and quite the nostalgia trip for many at the concert. Much like the band were teenagers at the start of their career, most of their fans would have been teenagers, or younger, too. I was already “mature” at that time, so for me it was more like a reacquaintance; visiting an old family friend. They’ve always been a part of my life without directly in it, with their music being the enduring connection.
Thanks to my sister, we won a meet and greet with the band, which took place an hour before the concert. I got quite the thrill watching the other winners have their experience and meeting their heroes, before it was my turn. Lenna sort of seemed to remember me, and I gave her a small hug, and then introduced myself by way of my Instagram ID (the modern world!), which they seemed to recognise. Lenna asked if I was excited, before I ask if they were, because it had been so long between big concerts for them. Yes, we were all excited. Talking about coming from Australia, I said it’s really just sitting on a plane longer. I was trying to convey that flying so long is not difficult or requires any special endurance. Of course, time and cost is the main imposition, which prohibits visiting for a weekend, as those in Europe can do.
Asked how long I was in Estonia, I said 4 days and then 6 days in Iceland. That got a “wow” response. Getting my stuff signed, I mentioned to Lenna meeting her in 2017 at a 100 year old barn in Parnu. She didn’t really remember anything, not even the show. If I had remembered to say Kõlli küün, the Estonian name, that might have triggered her. Piret didn’t really remember the Restart Tour when I mentioned she signed a CD for me there. Upon pulling out the photo taken with Lenna at Kõlli küün, that drew a reaction from her, seemingly she recognised her clothes. She signed that for me, and her book (she’s such a sweetheart!). They personalise the signings, too, with a little flower, a heart or “with love”. They care about the experience. Then it was a photo with the band and it was all over. I would like to have asked Lenna if she liked my shirt (it was one of her “Lenna” ones) and if her vocal inflections are instinctive or she works on them. I was in the mode of not taking too much time by this stage anyway. We’d all probably want 20 minutes with them to ask everything we’d like.
Once the first song, Tough Enough, started, immediately noticed was the quality and purity of Lenna’s vocals, and she remained stunning right to the end. Singing in English, especially these types of songs, is quite the departure from her softer Estonian voice and the more subtle nature of her Estonian songs. To project the big vowel sounds in English, and add her quintessential inflections, this takes some practice and conditioning when this part of voice has been inactive for a period of time. You could see her concentration was quite high to get it right, whereas, in contrast to 2008, it was such a familiar routine that she sung mostly on autopilot.
The set list covered all five albums, from Vanilla Ninja (2003) to Encore (2021). Traces Of Sadness (2004), Blue Tattoo (2005) and Love Is War (2006) are their other albums. The songs Vanad teksad ja kitarr and No Regrets were performed acoustically on chairs on a runway into the crowd.
01 Tough Enough (Traces Of Sadness)
02 Don’t Go Too Fast (Traces Of Sadness)
03 Blue Tattoo (Blue Tattoo)
04 I Know (Blue Tattoo)
05 When The Indians Cry (Traces Of Sadness)
06 Club Kung Fu (Vanilla Ninja)
07 Vanad teksad ja kitarr (Vanilla Ninja)
08 No Regrets (Encore)
09 Encore (Encore)
10 Rockstarz (Love Is War)
11 Dangerzone (Love Is War)
12 Cool Vibes (Blue Tattoo)
13 Liar (Traces Of Sadness)
Early in the concert, Lenna spotted us fans that met her, and waved enthusiastically. We waved back. It brought a big smile to us. At one point she spoke in English and mentioned fans came from all over the world, and then specifically me from Australia (I’m fairly sure my name too). My new German friend, Robin, made sure everyone realised where I was, so I raised my arm. Then it was Germany’s turn, then Poland, then Serbia. We were all famous for a little time.
Much of the concert is now a blur. It happened so fast and I only wish I could live it over and over again. Songs that still stick in my memory are When The Indians Cry, Blue Tattoo, Club Fung Fu and Cool Vibes. WTIC is still Vanilla Ninja’s most beautiful song, and the band, especially with Lenna’s vocals and the background graphics, delivered an exquisite version. They really captured the audience. It was the first time I heard Blue Tattoo live, so I really took note of it, especially with its mix of subtlety and big notes, and if Lenna could nail it. She did. Piret and Kerli Kivilaan would drop their guitars for a classic version of Club Kung Fu, and reprise the dance moves from 20 years ago. It was so much better than the strange country version of the Restart Tour. Cool Vibes was the song that really ignited the crowd, and had the most extraordinary finale with fire, lights and, of course, Lenna vocally superb again.
Speaking of Piret and Kerli, both excelled in their roles, notably Kerli integrating well into the band with her vocals and guitar play, and Piret her usual professional, cool self on guitar, and strong with her vocals. Her main song is I Know, where she sings the entire verses, and was clean and crisp with her distinctive clear voice. I was standing right in line with Piret so could watch closely her playing guitar, and her swapping guitars after almost every song (a guy would run out each time). Kerli had recently replaced her older sister, Triinu, in the band, and with this her first big Vanilla Ninja gig, I was intrigued to see her perform. She was accomplished on guitar, and vocally impressive, with particular note to her sections on When The Indians Cry. It was like she was in the band for years. Keyboardist, Katrin Siska, had also left the band when Triinu did. Both she had Triinu have lives in Portugal and Switzerland, respectively, so it was a logical decision.
The biggest highlight of the concert actually involved Triinu herself. During the performance of No Regrets, she appeared on stage towards the end. There were smiles and hugs, and I shed a few tears, as the four finished the song in somewhat an official handover of duties from Triinu to Kerli. It was the perfect farewell to someone who was initially a replacement member herself (Maarja Kivi had the original role), before leaving the band in 2005, and then returning for the comeback album, Encore, all these years later.
If there’s any regrets, it’s that Vanilla Ninja only performed two songs from Encore (No Regrets and Encore). While the intention was, to quote Lenna,“Only singles, only hits and the songs I think are loved the most from Vanilla Ninja”, not to include The Reason Is You, the marquee song on Encore and among their best ever, was an oversight. Speaking with other fans afterwards, they shared similar sentiment of too few songs from Encore, specifically The Reason Is You was a surprise not to be included. It could easily have been added in place, of say, the 4-minute drum solo that came after Rockstarz. You ask anyone, Lenna or the drummer, Lenna or the drummer, and they will all say Lenna! Anyway, it’s a very small gripe on a wonderful night.
After the concert, a few of us fans gathered near the side exit of the venue, and I could see Kerli and tell her that she did so well, and see Triinu, who I told her appearance was my favourite part, and then got a photo with her. After some time, Lenna and Piret would appear, complete with their families. I had to tell Lenna the concert was superb and she sounded so good. Then she just walked away with her husband and three children, with one in a pram, to the carpark. It was a surreal moment, and a stark reminder that Lenna is a regular person. She’s not super human with a super power and everything happens automatically. She’s a mother, a wife, with a regular life, who was given a special gift, and it’s her dedication and hard work that makes the magic happen.
The next day my sister and I would catch up with Robin, and bump into the Italians a couple of times while walking around Tallinn. We then went to the KGB Museum and saw the Victims of Communism Memorial (an ironic combination). Obviously there was another Vanilla Ninja ice-cream during the day. On Sunday we travelled to Tartu primarily for the upside-down house (Tagurpidi Maja) and for my sister to see the city. While I did land in Tallinn from the ferry in 2008 and instantly marvelled at the city, Tartu was really my first destination in Estonia. I still have fond memories of it, and this was at least my third time there.
On Monday it was to Iceland, and let’s just say that place is unbelievable. I saw whales, the Northern Lights, lava, hot springs, glaciers, stunning waterfalls, spectacular coastline, a lava cave, stood across two tectonic plates and soaked in the Blue Lagoon. It’s nature’s theme park, and only 2-3 hours flight from any European hub.
Coming home to Australia actually involved a return to Tallinn for a 5-hour stay, which meant, you guessed it, another Vanilla Ninja ice-cream. A perfect finale.