Photos: Kristiin Koosalu
MUA: Liisa Leetmaa
Stylist: Aili Sture
Models: Brilliance Entertainment (Teele Alas, Janika Aavamägi, Kaisa Rannala, Maria Vähi and Triin Toomsalu)
Dresses: Many thanks to everyone at Tallinn-based designer label Iris Janvier
Socks: Happy Socks
Text: Stuart Garlick
The moment Daniel Levi came to my attention was the same as for many people – that moment when, fearlessly, the singer launched himself off the stage, while performing the final chorus of his band’s song ‘Burning Lights’, into the arms of fans, keeping on singing, note-perfect, while being carried at head-height. No-one who saw that moment will forget the lead single off Daniel’s planned second album.
The leap was an incredible thing to watch, particularly the first time, looking dangerous but thrilling. Daniel, real name Daniel Viinalass, explains that the idea came from a chat with his band. “It was when we were brainstorming, what’s the identity of the song going to be on stage, how are we going to get the emotional feel of the song. We knew it was a kind of stadium anthem, so that’s just the feel we went for. Instead of a studio with 200, what about if it was a stadium with 10,000, what would we do? We wanted to make sure the people at the back thought we were talking to them.”
It worked – ‘Burning Lights’ reached the very end stages of Eesti Laul, only being beaten by the unstoppable juggernaut that was Elina Born and Stig Rasta’s ‘Goodbye to Yesterday’. Though Daniel had released an album in 2014, this was the big launchpad for his music career. As with our previous cover stars Grete Paia and Flank, Daniel feels that the contest gives his music a new life.
“When we wrote Burning Lights, it was just the right time to enter it for Eesti Laul. When I was involved in Eesti Laul the previous year [he had been a backing singer for his friend Norman Salumäe], I thought the process was really fun. [This time,] there was nothing to lose, and we felt the song really had a good chance of getting a really good place at Eurovision, so we entered and things took their course. We’re happy to have a wider audience than we ever did before, and to play concerts to more people than before.”
Born in the United States into a family descended from Estonians (his grandfather was Estonian), Daniel’s father met his wife in Canada. The name Levi can be explained because Daniel’s uncle’s second name was Leevi, Daniel being given the middle name Levi. ‘Daniel Levi’ sounded like a good name for a musician and his band, he felt, though he is very keen to emphasise that the music is a whole-band venture, and not a solo project.
I was interested in why Daniel’s father felt the need to retrace his family’s steps to Estonia. “It was like a spiritual kind of calling, like a supernatural calling. He was going through this one magazine that my grandfather subscribed to that was all in Estonian, and he came to this one article that was in English, that said ‘come teach English in Estonia,’ he felt like that was a real powerful message to him. He felt like it was the right thing to do, to pack us all up and head to Estonia.”
“It was a pretty bold decision, about twenty years ago, when it had just recently come out of the Soviet regime. This place was a lot different than it is now. I think it’s one of the reasons I respect my dad, that he was able to make that tough call. It paved the way for me and my brothers and sisters, and we can’t imagine our life any other way now. It’s great.”
Daniel explains how certain things seemed to just fall into place at the right time, when they were meant to. He met Eleri, the woman who would ultimately become his wife, within the first few weeks of moving to Estonia, as she was a classmate at his junior school. They married in July 2011, and with the couple having moved to Tallinn from Tartu, where 27 year-old Daniel spent his first 18 years in Estonia, his wife now works in the capital as a school psychologist.
He sees no need to explore the world as yet – he and his wife are fully settled in Estonia. “This is definitely the right place for this chapter in life right now, we’re very happy.”
26, when Daniel’s first record came out, seems relatively old to come into the pop music business these days. However, as he describes it, it was just that it seemed like the right time. “I don’t think it was a really conscious decision, it was something that happened organically and it happened when it happened. There was never NOT a decision to enter ‘the scene’, so to say, earlier. It just happened because we’d always been trying to write better songs.”
And about those songs: universal and rocky they might be, and indeed a lot of Daniel’s repertoire seems expertly-tuned for the arenas, but the singer reckons every lyric comes from a personal place. “I felt like these songs were straight from my heart and emotions and experiences in life. The name, the songs, it’s part of who I am.”
Daniel’s band are his brother Josh Viinalass (drums), Timo Ilves (guitar), Liivi-Kalli Lätte (keys) and Kata Lige (bass). Daniel and his band met at their church in Tartu, a close community that seems to have been of great comfort and support to all of them.
“I think there’s something about when you are in church, there’s this community, and there’s something about human relationships that seems to go to a different level. It’s about a love towards living, towards life, those are the really inspiring things for me. Being part of a church that’s all about acceptance, not about condemnation, that’s a huge help for me, and it’s such a huge place of inspiration for my songwriting.”
I ask if it upsets Daniel that many in Estonia do not share his Christian faith – Estonia is well-known as the least-religious EU country.
“I don’t think it makes me sad, I think it gives me a big opportunity to be one of the first Christians they meet. It’s cool to talk to them about those things, I usually find people are quite open to talking, and that generation of atheism, I think we’re already past that in Estonia, and the younger generation is really looking, searching, for a bigger meaning to life than, you know, working nine-to-five and whatever.”
He elaborates, as we talk about how there is such a wide choice of leisure pursuits and activities, it can make it difficult to know where to turn, sometimes. “On social media, nothing has value, or truth, everything is here one minute and gone the next. I think maybe society is cultivating a better ground for searching for the truth… does that make sense?”
Searching for the truth… it’s a welcome thing, to hear a pop musician talking in such a philosophical way. Behind these rock anthems is a very deep-thinking man, who seems destined to become a star.
Dance is a major part of Estonian culture and for four years, Brilliance Entertainment has been providing kinetic pyrotechnics all around Estonia. Teele Alas, the CEO of the company and longest-serving dancer in the group, began by dancing with her close friends and grew the group to involve young women from all over the country.
They make movement look easy on occasion – but as Janika Aavamägi, dancer and personal trainer, says, they need a specialist fitness regime alongside their 90-minute twice-weekly practice sessions. Though it might be assumed cardio was the most important exercise, Jaanika tells me that weight training is equally important.
“In the clubs, we dance for 15 minutes, on heels – most of the time we bend your knees, you have to make your calves and hamstring muscles work, otherwise you won’t be able to do such a good-quality dance. You’re down, you’re up, you’re constantly using your whole body. You need to be ready.” One of the exercises Janika recommends is yoga. “I do it in the morning, it helps – you need to do specific exercises, so you can do the splits and so on.”
These days, Brilliance dance at all kinds of entertainment functions, from massive club nights to small private parties. “I think the thing we most enjoy is the private events, like birthday parties – we can put on a real cabaret show, and it’s a different kind of choreography.”
“Even if it’s only 15 people, at a surprise birthday party, they’re amazed, and it’s wonderful. But then there was Pühajärve Jaanituli (the annual midsummer celebration in south Estonia), there were 1000 people waiting while we warmed up for Tanel Padar and the Sun. The feeling was indescribable.”
As Teele concludes, “it’s good when you have butterflies inside you – it means you care!”