A MASTER OF LYRICS
Karen Kavaleryan stands out as one of the most, if not the most respected Russian lyricist. He is one of the few, if no the only from Russia that actually have managed to make international hits outside Russia with songs in the English language. His career got a boost when he wrote songs for the band Gorky Park. The song "Old Hotel" started an international success for Gorky Park back in the 80’s.
As Karen is specialised in writing lyrics in English, it’s no wonder that his songs also enters the world of Eurovision. He wrote the lyrics for Dima Bilan’s Eurovision entry "Never Let You Go"last year as well as the group Prime Ministers Eurovision entry "Northern Girl" 2002. And after this interview was done it’s has beome known that he has written lyrics for Diana Gurtskaya and Dima Kuldun’ songs in the Belarussian national final 2007.
av Alexander Borodin
Alexander: I think most of our readers here in Sweden doesn’t know you at all by name!? Can you introduce yourself, short and simple? Who is Karen Kavaleryan!?
Karen: I was born in Moscow 45 years ago. I am a professional lyricist. And that means I do no other business but writing song lyrics. This kind of luxury is affordable for only 5-6 other colleagues of mine throughout the whole Russia. I wrote my first hit, ‘Old Hotel”, in 1986 for the then unknown Russian group “Bravo”. A year after the band became a celebrity and their album was even released in Finland (Polarvox Music, 1987). Within the period of 20 years after that I wrote over 600 songs in all possible styles – from heavy metal to acid-jazz. But all these songs were written for the Russian celebs whos names are not known to the readers in Europe, except for probably “Gorky Park”. They had their CD (“Bang!”) released in the USA at Polygram Records in 1989 and were relatively popular in Europe (in Denmark their record became Golden). In 2002 I first took part in the Eurovision with the song "Northern Girl" performed by the singing boys-band Premier Minister. We were number 10. In 2006 I took a better chance with "Never Let You Go" performed by Dima Bilan.
Alexander: You have competed with your songs in the Eurovision and in Russia’s national selections several times now. How come this interest in the Eurovision Song Contest?
Karen: Frankly speaking I was never really thrilled with either this or any other contest. I never created anything on purpose. It’s just that I am one of the few Russian lyricists who write in English. And to be more frank I really don’t know anybody else.
Alexander: Are people in Russia interested in the Eurovision?
Karen: The Russian audience has an enormous interest in the Eurovision. It has though some kind of a slight political touch in it and is brewd on patriotism. I have to admit that prior to the contest the mass media always pumps up this kind of approach.I personally view Eurovision as the symbol of the united Europe, a big Celebration of Music, taking part in which should be a great honour for any artist and any songwriter. Regardless of the final result.
Alexander: What can you say about how Russia handles their selections of the Eurovision entries?
Karen: The important thing is that any artist who presents Russia at the contest becomes a mega celebrity in this country. Knowing that all the top managers of the TV-channels normally unofficially run the concert agencies and own the record labels, I can suppose there is a lot in personal interest in that business. So the Russian “know-how” is simple: the TV station makes the choice all by itself. This is undoubtedly unfair. But if the contestant was to be approved by the audience you could probably get something incomprehensible at all.
Alexander: As an Eurovision viewer, which countries do you generally speaking think has the best entries? And which country do you think that the Russian viewers would generally like to see as the winner, if Russia doesn\'t win?
Karen: It is easy to guess that normally we tend to vote for the former insiders – Ukraine or Belarus. But indeed, when Ukraine won ESC, the reaction was even more painful that it could have been if the winner was from, say, Sweden. As for me personally, I don’t prefer any country, I pay attention to the particular performing artist. As an example, I still remember the Swedish song of the Eurovision 2002 – it was the best at that contest.
Alexander: A lot of people in Sweden have noticed that Russia always rewards Sweden with few points. Last year was actually one of the best given from Russia so far. Carola got 2 points from Russia) Why is this?
Karen: I don’t really think there is something meaningful to it. Jokingly, maybe people in Russia don\'t know Northern girls yet?
Alexander: Do you have an interest for Swedish music and what knowledge do you have about Sweden in the Eurovision and our national selections - as well as our music outside of that sphere as well?
Karen: I’ll tell you a little secret. I didn’t have a real chance to listen well to any song of the Eurovision 2006. Even the winning song. And naturally I don’t follow the other countries’ national selections. Regardless of my taking part in that contest and not even once, this is not my cup of tea, not my format. I love different music: jazz, funk, soul and the very roots of such. The rest of the music is relatively the same to me. From this point of view I’d put the Eurovision, Britney Spears, Rakhmaninov or Celtic melodies into the same basket. I have no interest towards all that and I don’t want to waste time on something of no interest as life is too short. I understand I could unwillingly hurt you by saying that but I don’t want to tell you lies because I respect both you and the readers. Speaking of the music produced in Sweden I’d say that the contribution of your country into the European musical pop-culture could be compared to that of the United Kingdom. There is no one to seriously compete with you in Europe.
Alexander: Last year you wrote the lyrics for Dima Bilan -both the Eurovision entry "Never Let You Go" and the turned down song "Lady Flame". Which one do you personally hold as the best song? And which one is your favourite when it comes to the lyrics?
Karen: I prefer “Never Let You Go’ and I liked it from the very beginning. It’s got a charismatic angle to it. “Lady Flame” is not bad but it’s empty inside. Although sometimes it is good for the real hit. But not all hits are the same. I wouldn’t be very proud to make something like “Hands Up” by Ottowan or «You’re my heart, you’re my soul» by Modern Talking, though millions of copies were sold. But I’d be happy to create something like “Your Song” or “Rocket Man” by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. To be absolutely sincere I am not mad about “Never LetYou Go” either. It’s just an average song. If it were ever to be included into the first “Gorky Park” album, it’d be there on the Side B, If ever. You’ll probably ask why is it that I compare “Gorky Park” and “ Never Let You Go”? It is because these are the only two releases that came out into the western music market within the last 20 years. I don’t count “Tatu” for I consider it to be a foul play and I prefer the real thing, the fair play. I can imagine I am one of the few here if not the only one.
Alexander: What are the songs about? What were you thinking of when writing them?
Karen: “Never Let You Go” is a love song. A man loves a woman who is intending to leave him but finally doesn’t. I believe it’s clear. Why is it a man’s love? Perhaps because I personally never experienced anything different. While writing this text I tried to compose it of the nominative sentences, using as few verbs as possible, though I didn’t have too much time to think. I used a few verbs but it would have been better to drop them totally, but basically I am satisfied. But I only had 3 days for writing both texts, the deadline was no strict that what we have is what we have. Perhaps everything I just said sounds too technical, while we are speaking about the lyrics. But to me everything was clear from the very beginning: how to write and what to write. I could see every little detail of these two people being in the room, the particles of dust whirling in the moon beam that came from the space between the curtains. All I had to do is sit down at the table and arrange the whole thing into the musical rhythm.
Alexander: How come you got involved with Dima Bilan’s team?
Karen: Simple question calls for a simple answer. Just because they couldn’t find anybody else in Russia . Besides, go look for another queer fish who’d agree to make two Eurovision songs in 3 days! But I can’t really call myself a member of his team, nor of anybody else’s team. I am an independent artist, the cat that walks all by itself.
Alexander: Why weren’t you present in Athens last year?
Karen: Unfortunately I didn’t go to Athens and neither did the composer Alexander Lunyov. Dima Bilan’s producer decided she couldn’t afford us there. She did her best to make sure that our names are not mentioned in any interview. A lot of people in Russia who are not used to read the subtitles used to think that Dima had created the song himself. Why share the success between four people if there is a chance to share it between the two of them. That’s her logic.
Alexander: Did you agree on the performance of the song on stage, I mean are you satisfied with the concept the Russian team used for "Never Let you Go? Or would you have preffered it to be different?
Karen: I respect success with the capital “S” but it’s beyond my preferences. Too much fuss and motion. Besides I am usually annoyed at the sight of the people who walk up to the stage wearing jeans and a wifebeater with the underwear sticking out. But it couldn’t have been different for the whole thing was inspired by the children of the MTV and Fashion TV.
Alexander: Are you still disappointed being so close to win, as Russia was this year?
Karen: I only care about the first place. Then comes the second as well as the twenty-second. Probably I used to be an athlete in my previous life. That’s why my answer is YES, I am disappointed. On the other hand that is the best result of the Russian song ever achieved. Even the song with which Alsou became number two in 2000 was recorded by the songwriters from the USA . And that is the reason for me to sleep well at night.
Alexander: Are you planning to continue to write songs for Dima?
Karen: Dima is a good guy and I’d gladly go on working with him. But due to his weird management group it doesn’t look possible anymore. I’d say it rather looks impossible. 200 years ago I would have thrown down the glove if she (the producer) was a man for there is so much smear tactics about her.
Alexander: You\'ve had success with the Eurovision now. Do you plan to stick to the contest in the future as well, or will you embark upon other projects? (This was before it was known that Karen writes the songs for Dima Kuldyn to the Belarussian national final).
Karen: Planning anything in Russia is naive. Everything is so unstable. But within the last two months I have already written 3 songs in English for some Russian singers. Knowing that the real interest to such product in Russia is next to nothing I assume all of them plan to go to the Eurovision 2007. They never touch upon the matter, real guerrilla warriors, but I suppose that is the case. One of the singers will for sure take part in the national selections in Belarus or Georgia.
Alexander: You also co-operated once writing the song for Prime Minister 2002, what can you tell about that co-operation? What has happened with Prime Minister now?
Karen: I liked to work with Prime Minister. We even used to hang out together as families though I am much older and have a conviction that there can be no friendship with the stage people. At the Eurovision 2002 they presented a pretty good song very tonelessly. But it really did’t matter to me – I treated them like brothers. What happened next is one of those stories that leave scars on your heart. When they became the celebs they broke the contract with the producer, a good buddy of mine, and also decided to take over the brand. Any person in Europe properly brought up to respect the idea of the private property and copyright wouldn’t imagine such thing possible. But that’s what happened, a clear fraud. But they have failed to get away with it and now there is a court case and a total oblivion for the group in the future. Too bad.
Alexander: Any plans for the ESC 2007? Will Russia win the ESC 2007!?
Karen: Though I am basically indifferent towards the Eurovision style of music I’d still want to participate again, and not only in 2007, but over and over again. That’s because I really want to win something significant in Europe since in Russia I have already won every possible and impossible award’s. But winning the Eurovision requires a lot of factors coming together. I don’t expect it to happen in 2007. Russia probably will be represented by a great celebrity, but I don’t think there is any winning chance.
Alexander: What else music projects do you do currently?
Karen: Unfortunately everything I do now is only meant for the inner music market. It’s just an everyday routine. It’s probably not fair to call the “routine” something that makes 5-6 of your songs a year win. But like I said, I have already achieved everything in Russia. For me writing another hit here is no longer a thrill.
Alexander: Do you only write lyrics or do you also compose music?
Karen: I only create song lyrics. Though my uncle, a famous pianist in Russia, did his best to lure me into the world of music, I always find it more interesting to combine words than to combine notes.
Alexander: I have learnt that your son wrote the 2005 Junior Eurovision entry for Russia! Can you tell us a little about that? And how come? Is your family a very musical one?
Karen: My son together with Kim Breitburg’s grandson wrote this song for Kim’s 50th anniversary. They got together several times, made some noises with a little Yamaha, yelled and giggled. At some point my son showed me the text of the song. It found it pretty acceptable but for a couple of crooked rhymes and rythmical slips. I showed him his mistakes, he worked on them. I can’t say that he knocked me down with his lyrics, I was a better poet when I was nine and did not have a writing father, but still I agreed to the result. Earlier he had the experience of writing short stories and even won the “Nestle” children’s contest. I know, a lot of people doubted that those lyrics had been written by him, but just remember that he has been sitting besides the writing father since the age of 3. If you were him, by the age of 9 you’d as well be able to write something sane for sure. So the kids recorded the song at the studio and gave it to Kim as a present. Later when TV Channel RUSSIA expressed interest in Junior Eurovision contest almost no time prior to the actual event, Kim showed his “present” to the channel authorities and they liked it. And why not? It sounded pretty professional making allowance for their age and the fact that the musical arrangements were made by the adults.
Alexander: When did you start with music and write lyrics yourself?
Karen: I never thought about anything but writing in my life. I used to always either read or write. I write poetry for as long as I remember myself and I got interested in the song lyrics when I was a student at the age of about 20, when I heard Cole Porter’s songbook by Ella Fitzgerald. I went through the entire Hollywood Classics and realized that writing song lyrics is still another art concept. I can confess that for me 24 hours of any music on any popular radio channel are not worthwhile even four bars by Cole Porter, Johny Mercer or Irving Berlin. Considering both music and words.
Alexander: For those of our readers that doesn’t know so much about the contemporary Russian music scene, (except those we see in the Eurovision every year) can you explain and tell us a little about some artists or groups you would like to recommend?
Karen: I believe that everything interesting in the Russian music scene can only be found in the underground. It is only in the clubs that one can listen to the live sound. The shows of the majority of the national celebs are done with the playback. Even those who used to really sing in the past have forgotten how to sing live nowadays. The Russian mainsream tends to break up with the European and not only concerning music. So I’d rather not recommend any name here. But undoubtedly I feel like mentioning Leonid Agutin who recently recorded the album together with Al de Meola. What happened this year is a happy-go-lucky situation. For no particular reason, accidentally the song by the western mentality authors was properly screened during the national selection. But I remember rejecting it by virtually all the members of the selection committee in the beginning. So I don’t expect anything similar to happen in the near future. The next song is to be written by some acknowledged national songwriter or borrowed from abroad.
Alexander: Thank you very much for taking your time for this interview! We wish you Good luck in the future and hope to hear more great lyrics from you soon!
Karen: Thank YOU very much for your attention and for the questions. They allowed me to talk about the things that I honestly care about.