Two years ago, musician Jöran Steinhauer became the most talked-about German in Latvia when his song, “Paldies Latiņam”, a paean to the country’s now-obsolete currency, became an unexpected viral hit. His band, Aarzemnieki, went on to represent Latvia at the following year’s Eurovision, and were described by UK paper The Guardian as “the kind of cross-cultural collaboration other competitors can only dream about”. Steinhauer lives permanently in Latvia, and now, with his new project De Jorans, first premiered on the Latvian social media site, he is back in the country’s attention. Steinhauer caught up with Deep Baltic to talk about his unique experience of Latvia, his new projects and what the country means to him.

What were your initial connections with Latvia?
My first connection was in fact the Eurovision Song Contest in 2000 when BrainStorm [Latvia’s most internationally successful rock group; Latvian name: Prāta Vētra] took part in it, and I was sitting in front of the television with my family. And I had no idea about Latvia at all; it was the first time Latvia were competing, and Eurovision was always the window through which we could see different parts of Europe. And it was the first time I saw something about Latvia, and I liked the song so much. It was a weird song, but catchy. And I went to a shop in my home town in Germany, and bought two discs of BrainStorm, not knowing that five years later I would have the possibility to go as an exchange student to Latvia.
How did that come about?
We had the possibility at our school to spend three weeks at a foreign school, and there were many places already occupied at other schools in Europe, so I ended up going to Latvia. It was a kind of European project: “Europe course”, it was called – Europe lessons. So I spent my exchange weeks in Latvia – in Talsi. So this was how I got to know Latvia for the first time. And I decided to do my social year after school in Latvia – at the time it was still obligatory in Germany to serve your state after school. Usually you had to go into the army, and if you didn’t want to go into the army, there was this social service instead you could do. I could go to a foreign country to do my social work, as long as I did it at a German organisation. And I did my social year at the German Church of Latvia, and the street children centre in Maskačka [the district of Maskavas Forštate in Riga].

Talsi, a small town in western Latvia [Image:]

What were your first impressions of Latvia?

I remember when my exchange partner picked me up, I asked him what his name was, and he told me it was Jānis. There was a second guy standing next to him, and he was Jānis as well. I thought “what kind of country is this? Everyone has the same name”. And then I remember the road to Talsi was not very good. When I arrived in Talsi, the mum of the family couldn’t believe that I didn’t eat meat. The only thing she would say in English was “eat meat, Jöran”. So it was difficult at first, but I adjusted. I spent my first Easter in Latvia, and for the first time I coloured eggs in a natural way – in Germany we use chemical colours to do this, but in Latvia you just take some onion pieces and whatever you can find in the garden.
I spent three weeks in the Czech Republic the year before, and I was fascinated to see something different. I felt better in my home town than abroad. I had never been happy where I lived, so these kinds of European exchanges gave me the chance to see something different. So I went to the Czech Republic and Latvia, where the living conditions were poorer than in Germany, but I felt better.
What are your memories of working in Maskačka?
Well, they were street children, which did not mean they were living on the streets, but that they were spending most of their time there because of the living conditions at home. When I first went there, with what at the start was my poor Latvian, and I tried to get in contact with the children there, and I asked one girl “kā tevi sauc?” [“what is your name?” in Latvian], and one girl just replied “go to the cock” in Russian. The children were laughing, and after some time they went to the boss of the centre, saying that I was using all the time bad Russian words. So I got a piece of paper where everything that I was not allowed to say was written down. So it was very interesting at the beginning.
I started to learn even more Latvian; I learnt Russian songs, with which I could connect, even if I wasn’t fluent in the language. I even learnt some Romani.
It made me very sad sometimes. I wanted to play football with them, so they didn’t go and smoke at lunch – you had eleven-year-old kids going to smoke. A few weeks ago, I met a social worker, and asked how they were doing – she said some were doing well, some were dead already – heroin and so on.
But I learnt a lot of things, because I was always hearing “Maskačka, such a bad region” – but I didn’t feel worse or more in danger than in other European cities. The city I’m from has just 400,000 people, and at any time of the night I feel more insecure there than in Maskačka.
Maskavas Forštate (Maskačka], a poor and predominantly ethnic Russian inner-city district of Riga [Image: Creative Commons]

Most people in Latvia know you best for your music, especially “Paldies Latiņam”. What was the story behind that?

It was long after I was in Maskačka. I was there between 2006 and 2007, and then I went away from Latvia and spent many years in foreign countries – in Germany, Italy and Denmark – but in 2013, I broke up with my girlfriend and I lost myself a bit. I wanted to understand what the things were that made me happy at this point. I remembered my times in Latvia, and I remembered that I always wanted to write Latvian songs. An English friend of mine asked me at that time “hey, would you like to go to Latvia to do some music with me?”. He wanted to go to Positivus Festival to jam around, and I said “no no, I would like to do something special.”
So I sat down one week in July 2013 and started to write Latvian songs. I was in Bremen, and I needed some help with the lyrics, and the only Latvian and German-speaking friend who was online was Aija, who I knew from 2006. So she helped me with the lyrics, corrected some of them. When my mum heard that I was writing Latvian lyrics, she said “why don’t you write about the lats, because it’s going soon” [referring to Latvia’s currency from 1992 to 2014, when it was replaced by the euro].
So I started to write “Paldies Latiņam” (“Thank You, Little Lats”). Two weeks later, I met with Nick – the English guy – in Latvia, and we just took a simple camera and filmed ourselves singing some songs, just for fun. The song about the lats should actually have been released in a much bigger way, but the producer who promised to help us with it just didn’t do it. So when I was back in Germany, I just thought: it’s a very good idea, but if I have no one to help me with it I have absolutely no idea how to do it. By that time it was the middle of September, and time was passing faster, and I thought, what happens to the song because soon the euro’s going to come, and then the song won’t be appropriate anymore. So I just put the song with me and Nick online. The only promotion I did was just sharing the song on Facebook – putting it in groups of Latvians in Mexico, Latvians in Italy, Latvians all over the world. And those people were watching the song – a simple version of two guys singing in front of the camera.

We called ourselves Aarzemnieki [from the Latvian word for “foreigners”, “ārzemnieki”] because we were two foreigners singing about the Latvian currency in Latvia. After three days, 10,000 people had watched it on YouTube, and I thought “this is something big”. People started calling from Latvian TV shows, but I was in Germany. The main Latvian news service tried to get me for a Skype interview, and I said “OK, then I have to go to Latvia”. I had one guitar, one bag, one song and on the 1st October I started my time in Latvia again. My sister said “if you go to Latvia, you won’t return very quickly.” Younger sisters are often right, and yeah, I’m still here.
Why do you think this song struck a chord with people in Latvia?
The fact that two foreigners made a song about a Latvian topic. The lats was connected very much to the Latvian soul – it’s a symbol of independence. Then the way the song was made – it was not demanding something from the people; it was just there. There was no pressure – we didn’t produce it in a big way and say “you have to like it and you have to see it”; people found it themselves and started to like it themselves, it went very deep to their emotions. Sometimes I compare “Paldies Latiņam” to a funeral – if some close person to you dies, you can’t change that fact, but you can give the space and the time to remember this person in a positive way. It supported them as they were saying goodbye to their beloved currency.

Quite soon after “Paldies, Latiņam” you were entered in the Eurovision Song Contest for Latvia. How did that come about?
That happened because the Eurovision Song Contest was already something important to me, because it was one of the events we could spend together as a whole family in front of the television, so when I had the opportunity to apply for Eurovision, I took it. When I applied, I didn’t actually have a lot of time, because I needed to write a new song the night before the deadline, then we had to go to the studio, and then it was the deadline – but it was a huge rush. I thought about what kind of song would win – which Latvians would understand and which would not be strange to the European crowd either.
In the end I thought we should combine languages [Latvian and English], because I wanted to show that there is a Latvian language. In Germany people ask me all the time “where is this Latvia? What do they speak – Russian or what?’ or “give greetings to Santa Claus” because they think it’s Lapland. Then I thought I should – in a playful way, an easy way – show people that there is a Latvian language. The topic of cakes is not very commonly used, but Latvians bring cakes everywhere they go. So I included “I got a cake to bake, ain’t got no clue at all” – and “cep, cep, kūku” [“bake, bake a cake”] sounds quite rhythmic.

Did you feel disappointed when it didn’t make it to the final?
No, and I say that with deep conviction, because I think it was a success – everything I wanted I achieved. Everything wasn’t so well planned or organised before, but then I was in the newspapers – I was in every newspaper in Germany. And what I liked is that they told about my story – the guy who went to Latvia, the song about the lats, and so on. And I really really liked this. If I had gone to the final… The Eurovision Song Contest in Germany is becoming more and more a trash contest, and I was afraid if I got to the finals I would get something like twelfth place – because no one talks about the result if you don’t win. The top three is interesting and the last one, and that’s it.
I was afraid that the yellow press in Germany or wherever – the guy with the long hair and… I was so happy with the way they wrote about me before that I didn’t need more, I didn’t need any more attention. I was absolutely happy with everything I achieved. By the way, I was also very tired after all of this, because most things I managed myself, which was a lot.
When I met you for the first time you were living in Liepāja. What was it that brought you there?
It was around a year ago, I felt that I needed a break. I needed more human contact. I needed silence, maybe… basic stuff. I was living in Riga in a flat, and I had to pay the rent and I thought “hey, you know, after all of this, I’m not in shape… I need to recover a bit”. Riga is a very good city, but I’ve always wanted to spend some time by the sea – I’d never lived by the sea. And I had a lot of friends in Liepāja and I thought “what speaks against moving there? Nothing”. I needed time and space, and that’s why I decided to go to Liepāja.
And I had a very good time there. It was not all easy – it was not always happy, alwayss spending nice summer holidays by the sea – but I got in contact with a lot of people in a very special way. I wrote songs, and I learnt how it is to live in a different part of Latvia from Riga. There’s a certain aura or emotion that people in Latvia have about hearing the word “Liepāja” – it’s connected very much to the sea and bands that come from there, but on the other hand Liepāja is a very self-contained place. For the people living there Liepāja is – not the centre of the universe – but they are proud and happy to live there. The problem is only the money – that many people would like to go and live at the Latvian coast – it has a lot of things, including the social factor, but, on the other hand, it’s hard to earn money there.
In Riga if you go to a bar, you always need a reason to talk to people; in Liepāja you need a reason not to talk to them. For example, in 2015 I went for breakfast with Renārs Kaupers, the singer of BrainStorm and the biggest star in Latvia – and this happened because I was in Liepāja. We met each other on the beach, and then we said ‘OK, let’s meet for breakfast’, and I met with him and his family – which wouldn’t have happened in Riga probably.

Aarzemnieki in Riga [Image: Aarzemnieki]

Tell me about your more recent projects

It took me some time to learn the Latvian language, to understand Latvian culture. I never had the aim to assimilate – I always wanted to be myself, but as I’m living in the country, I have the wish to understand the people as best I can. I never felt pressure, like I had to learn the language, but because I had the option to do it and people were motivating me positively – it wasn’t like “if you want to live here, then you have to learn the language”, I felt welcome, and I wanted to give this feeling back by writing the song “Savējais”. It really was funny to write about myself – because this is a kind of autobiographical song, but before I continue my musical career here in Latvia, I really wanted to close one chapter, and that was why I chose to tell some parts of my story in this song.

What was the message you wanted to convey?
The message is, if you translate the lyrics, “I like a certain country, where time goes differently/where women lead you, and guys even sing/and although I’m not a local, I’m one of you.” “Savējais” means “one of us” but it’s not exclusive, it’s inclusive. We have in Germany a word “Freundeskreis”, which means “circle of friends”, but it is excluding, because if you’re not in, you’re not in. But I’m a foreigner, and people still tell me – “hey, you’re savējais – you’re one of us” and this is not connected to my tautība (nationality or ethnicity).
There’s also a connection to the refugee crisis. Latvia’s a very homogenic society – or maybe two homogenic societies – the Russians and the Latvians. But in the city I grew up – in my house lived Turks, at my football club I played together with Italians, Albanians, people from Sri Lanka, from all over the world – this was totally normal. For Latvians, this is something strange; even if a black person crosses the street in Latvia, people turn their heads and say “oh”. It’s not a bad attitude, it’s just something different – which is very human. But I’m not happy that the word “bēgļi” (refugees) is now mixed up in all kinds of contexts. It’s suddenly the same – migrants or Muslims, everything’s bēgļi. It doesn’t help people to understand each other.
I think the whole crisis with refugees just underlines that we all live in one world – we have freedom in Europe, which is a great achievement, but in other parts of the world they don’t. The good thing about it is that we are not being forced to see that there are other parts of the world; we have to come out of our comfort zones. Nobody knows how the whole refugee crisis will end, but for me it’s very clear that if people are in need of help, I will give them it, the same way that Latvians gave me refuge. I’m myself a kind of refugee, although I haven’t come for economic reasons, but I have different reasons which are very deep inside of my soul. The song is not about the refugee crisis, but it’s something I thought about in parallel.
The reaction to that song was phenomenal. I put that song on, which I think is still the only social network in all the world that is still more used than Facebook. The first day that the song was published, I was on the front page – and at the end of the first day, 80,000 people were watching the song, and there were only positive reactions. I read the comments – there were like three out of 300 that were bad.
What are your plans for the future? Are you planning to stay in Latvia?
At the moment I feel that Latvia’s a very interesting place to be because it’s right in the middle of a country that has come from socialism and is looking at capitalism – some things they have taken and they like a lot, but at the same time the Latvian community, the identification with their own country is still very strong, which I really like. So I don’t want people to be afraid of losing their culture or their own identity, I want them to be happy to have such a gift. In Germany, people often have a problem of identification – they don’t know who they are, and everything goes very much into the private sphere. You’re not looking at each other, it’s hard to connect with others, and people get lonely, but I’m very happy that Latvia still offers such a choice – as long as it doesn’t mean that they don’t exclude others, that they’re too afraid of losing it. I want them to be happy to be Latvians, but not to be afraid of losing their identity.
So my plans for the future are to write three or four songs that should be known in Latvia, so I can share my emotions about the country and about other things with Latvians – songs which can touch the people and give them a good feeling. If I can do that, I will have achieved a lot.
What does Latvia mean to you? How is your life different from if you hadn’t been to Latvia?
The first destination I thought of travelling when going abroad has always been Latvia. I felt free whenever I came to Latvia. I felt free to decide, I felt like it was a new beginning; I felt like I could move something. I connect this feeling of freedom with Latvia. And wherever you feel free, you can develop and feel also welcome. All these things I experienced are connected with Latvia, so Latvia is connected somehow with the word “home” for me.

Jöran is currently performing in Latvia and elsewhere under the name De Jorans
Header image: Gunta Lapsina
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