When you’re a singer from a country that hasn’t produced a major pop star before, the normal rules don’t apply. Alma-Sofia Miettinen, who trades as Alma, lives in Helsinki with her parents and is both visually and geographically a very long way from mainstream pop’s glossy perfectionism.
“I never had dreams of being Katy Perry. That’s unreachable for me. Look around – this is a small place,” she says, gesturing across the sparsely populated, surprisingly quiet office of her Finnish record company. “If you grew up here, Katy Perry is not real.”
Yet last year the 22-year-old cracked the UK top 20 with the strident synthpop of her single, Chasing Highs, she’s about to support major US star Halsey on tour, and when we meet she’s just back from a two month stay in LA, where she’s been working on her debut album with top tier co-writers including Justin Tranter (who has also written songs for Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani and Kesha), Andrew Wyatt (Bruno Mars, Dua Lipa, Liam Gallagher) and BloodPop (Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Madonna). Not bad for a school dropout from what she half-jokingly calls the “ghetto” outskirts of Helsinki, whose singing career began with a fifth place finish on Finnish television’s Idols talent show.
I first bump into her coincidentally, on the flight to her hometown. She’s changing planes at Gatwick on her way back from LA, for a few days of seeing old friends before a headline tour begins and she’ll be back in London again. She’s trying to travel incognito, with her signature fluorescent yellow hair hidden beneath a white hoodie, but her platform trainers and the presence of her twin sister Anna, who regularly performs with her on stage, give the game away. In Finland, she says, she’s at the can’t-go-out level of fame.
“A lot of artists enjoy that a lot, but I hate that I can’t just go to a bar,” she tells me. “When I was a teenager I would go to the clubs and make people laugh, and people would say, ‘You should hang out with Alma – she’s so funny!’ Now in two years I haven’t had that, because everyone knows something about me, whether they like me or hate me. I hate that feeling.”
She could always dye her hair a different colour, I suggest. Her sister did it first, when they were 17, and she copied it, though now Anna has shaved her head. It’s apparently called “Lemon Daisy” but more accurately it’s “Lemon Daisy After a Nuclear Apocalypse”.
“I’ve been thinking about orange,” she says. “Obviously it’s my brand and my label would be like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ but if I want to change it I’ll just change it.”
It makes her recognisable instantly. On a walk through the city she looms down from a billboard. It’s not an advert for her music, she explains, but a campaign to improve mental health awareness in Finland, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. “People always talk about how happy Finnish people are, and we have good educations and nature, but actually we have a lot of mental health issues,” she says. “It’s super important to me to take that stigma away. People should talk about how they feel. I have days when I’m super anxious or panic. I was diagnosed with a panic disorder when I was a kid. Those kind of things don’t disappear.”
Her teen years weren’t easy, she says, even with her (non-identical) sister in tow. “I was just a bit slow, and also I had other stuff, like I was bullied by a couple of boys. Now when I look back, I think obviously I had no information going in my brain because I was just scared.” Alma and Anna have matching tattoos saying “cybertwinz” on their forearms, and also “DAD” within a barbed wire heart. He has MS and has been in a wheelchair for many years. “We got it on Father’s Day when we were in LA, to show we’ll always protect him even when we’re gone,” she says.
“If I didn’t have my sister doing this with me, I never would have started,” she continues. “The culture that I come from, I would never have been able to go to America and say, ‘Hey, let’s do this!’ I would have been crying. She’s the only person I really need for this thing. We always have each other’s back. People assume she’ll feel like, ‘Alma is the star and I’m nothing,’ but she’s just enjoying it. She sees everything, we have money to do stuff, we travel, but then she doesn’t have the fame.”
It sounds like Anna has the better deal in Alma’s eyes, but she does think some of her negative experiences have helped her to become the uncompromising musician that she is today. As a young girl with pink hair and a loud voice on the Idols series, “People fell in love with my personality,” she says. She sang songs including Price Tag by Jessie J and In the Shadows by big Finnish rock band The Rasmus, and was immediately offered record deals by major labels. She turned them down.
“They all wanted to sign me as a pop singer and already had a couple of songs for me, and I was like, ‘Fuck no.’ I signed to this indie label because they let me do what I wanted to do,” she says. She started writing her own songs, and in 2016 released her attitude-packed debut single, Karma. It went to number five in the Finnish charts and the major labels realised what they were missing. “They reached out again and I got a good deal. After that they’ve never tried to change me. Nobody says what I should wear or what I should sing.”
We can credit her early years with making her so determined to stick to her guns. At a time when the public has easier access to their stars than ever and the comments section is invariably a cruel place, it takes strength to have staying power. “I kind of even thank the people that were bullying me, because I created this monster and nobody can break me any more. I understood that it doesn’t actually matter what other people think about you if you’re happy and you don’t hurt anybody else,” she tells me. “When I got famous here, I got a lot of rude comments. I was like, if I want to live this life, I need to stop caring. Obviously on Instagram you can see what people write there. You can’t avoid the comments. Everybody has that one thing that they don’t want anybody to say out loud. But when you’re successful in your own life, you can be happy.”
And she is a success. Her recent mixtape, Heavy Rules, is fantastic fun, as is her guest spot on Out of My Head, a recent track by her friend Charli XCX, and her team-up with ubiquitous rapper French Montana on Phases. She says she has something like 200 songs to choose from for a debut album. Even from far away in Finland, that fluorescent hairdo is going to be even more visible.
Alma’s Heavy Rules mixtape is out now. She plays May 23, Heaven, WC2. heaven-live.co.uk