Juta LIUTKEVIČIŪTĖ | Ambition for Less. Conversation with Free Finga

Interviewed by Juta Liutkevičiūtė

The middle of July in Vilnius. The rain is so heavy it’s dusk in the morning and it seems like the summer has gone and it’s autumn already. The upper floor of the café is almost empty, just a couple of customers behind me. I raise my head as I hear someone ascending the stairs. Tomas arrives dressed in warm clothes, a cup of coffee clinging softly in his hand as he approaches. In his other hand he has a small plate with a piece of cake known locally as the Sloth.

“Patricija and me, we sample it everywhere we can,” he says. In almost no time, it would turn out the cake here is far from ideal – too crumbly.

Tomas Narkevičius, a.k.a. Free Finga, made his stage debut at the age of three before becoming a star singer at Tele Bim-Bam, the Vilnius-based music studio for children. He spent his teens with Ąžuoliukas, the nation’s oldest boys’ choir, which took him on a number of tours across Lithuania and beyond.

Later he delved into electronic music in search of his artistic identity, then expressed via his stage name Fingalick. While in Berlin, he made an attempt to conquer the world, but returned home, now as Free Finga, in 2018 with his debut album, Pick Up Line, featuring Tu Maivais (You Pull Faces), his first hit as a grown-up. For it, he received gifts from the M.A.M.A. and T.Ė.T.Ė. awards, encouraging him to release, in 2021, his second album, Dėmesio! (Attention!). While working on that, he realised he didn’t want to be merely a musician.

How are you now, with this cake before you?

It feels like I haven’t slept for three days. I just came back from a summer camp we launched with the guys from Autostrada, our record label. Out there, our goal was to compose some music and compile an album featuring a number of diverse musicians. I had the same feeling I used to experience at children’s camps, not wanting to leave my new friends and the ties which, it seemed, would vanish before even reaching the city. The music hasn’t vanished, though.

It seems like you need a community as part of your creativity. First off, it was Tele Bim-Bam, then the Ąžuoliukas Boys’ Choir, followed by the Despotin Beat Club period, and Fingalick. Now you’re Free Finga and part of the Autostrada community.

I’m not a genius, not in any way, and there’s no chance I would accomplish something on my own. I’ve always been part of a team. It’s just that currently my team is bigger and more organised. For me, it’s more than a group of friends – it’s a musical community. I’ve already realised that the best I can do in the arts materialises when I’m surrounded by the right people, who reveal different creative qualities in me. I’ve found this in other men and women, so I know the ways I can be helpful when I deal with other creative folks. I see my goal in discovering diverse talents within myself and helping reveal them in other people, but that’s something you can achieve only surrounded by those who are better than you.

Do you consider yourself an introvert or extrovert?

There are omniverts too, a mixture of both. I am an omnivert, I believe, as both sides are very powerful in me. Often, I really need to be left alone, and that includes creative hours. I have my morning rituals, I need time for myself when I write music, I like it on my own in the evenings too. I love pacing at my own individual tempo without external influences. Although I consider myself a loner, I often become the life and soul of a party. I can dance and shout, kick the party off and then leave without saying a word. I go away whenever I feel the urge to spend some time on my own.

A kind of French leave, departure without notice?

French leave? We call it the Polish escape.

What is it that makes you feel you’ve reached the limit prior to leaving? Some people are used to partying for hours on end, or at least until some fuss breaks out. Don’t you sometimes end up amusing others at the expense of  your own peace of mind?

Finding the right balance, which depends on what day it is, is rather challenging. My wonderful partner, Patricija, is with me and she’s the one who tells me it’s time to go home and rest, especially when certain processes become pointless, a broken circuit. Very often I try to hang on hoping something new will happen to move the story on. My situational awareness is strong enough, but sometimes I fail to grasp very simple things. My belief in other people’s virtues is too much, so I am very susceptible to emotional influences. I always analyse situations and that fills me up, so I’m capable of a quick adjustment to a new environment. Whenever the situation calls for calm, I can be as meek as a lamb. But if there’s a need for energy, I’m right there to provide that as well. Sometimes it becomes an obstacle, because then people tend to think I have no guts at all, and yet I’ve learned emotional resilience.

You are sensitive to all things around you, and that’s what becomes your source of creativity, doesn’t it? I see it in your songs offering associations with other people, texts and situations.

Yes, my music is about human relations, interactions and the impact they have on our planet. I feel ever more attracted by the idea of revealing, through music, a human impact on all that has no voice to reply. How can you report on issues like climate change and war without ever mentioning them? As a still immature writer, I lack metaphors to describe these things. For a long time, I wrote about the search for closeness, warmth and human relations just because I needed them myself. Now I have that warmth and I am becoming interested in other things that are greater than relationships. I haven’t found the language to speak about them yet, but I’m already absorbing the information.

Environmental protection and war are huge, complex subjects. Being abstract, however, the state of the Lithuanian music scene is incapable of answering. Is that why you speak about this in your album Dėmesio!?

Yes, but bear in mind that the music industry is low-hanging fruit, easily laughed at and criticised. It is, on the other hand, also capable of inspiring and encouraging, and this is why I sing “may the invertebrates disseminate” [in the track Atlanta], meaning those fledgling performers who have not found their own style yet and encouraging them to move on. Writing these things is not difficult. Back then, I was doing this driven by rage and dissatisfaction regarding my own situation. Now things are getting better. I have written about the music market and criticised it, and yet I haven’t done enough as a person to change it, partly by building bridges between me and other performers. You have to act decisively; your action eventually becomes a job in its own right. Getting back to tough questions, climate change and people’s impact on nature has already become a separate segment within me, a topic that interests me more and more.

Do you experience eco-anxiety for the future of our planet?

I used to get anxious, but that period is gone now. I’ve read Being Ecological, a book by Timothy Morton, who explains the main issues plainly. Morton says that we usually base our assumptions on statistics. But what does statistical data tell us? It provides no other impulse apart from being oppressive. It's not just a personal responsibility. What he stresses is greater involvement in political processes and other aspects that might influence your personal footprint on this planet. I still drive a car that pollutes the environment, because I can’t yet afford to buy an electric one. I try to limit my time behind the wheel, but I am not able to get rid of the car entirely, and that’s the way the world is. I can, on the other hand, vote for politicians who are concerned about climate issues, a topic I often discuss with the people around me. Ecology is not exactly my calling, but I am interested in energy-related issues, as long as they are linked to environmental concerns. I’m interested in science. A proper activist should know these things well and teach other people.

While working on Dėmesio! I realised I didn’t want to be just a musician. To create in general terms is what I want. I crossed the threshold the moment it occurred to me that having a creative vision eradicates all boundaries. If my goal is an album, I can erect a monument to my album simultaneously, or write a book, or publish a magazine, or shoot a film. This is where I feel the impact of contemporary art inside me, because it adds contexts to creativity, and sometimes the context becomes more important than the piece of art itself. Some people, understandably, do their best to avoid this, because they doubt if this is art at all. But I like it very much. For me, context is important. It adds depth to a music album. There’s so much content in the world, we need more depth rather than breadth.

Contemporary art is often criticised for its incomprehensible forms, often too symbolic, employed to convey otherwise nice ideas. Where is the right balance between form and substance? Ecology is important, but how should this issue be addressed to avoid the kind of moralising that drives audiences away?

Kaip Radai (As You Found It) is my most recent attempt to address the topic of ecology. After the war broke out in Ukraine, I was bursting with ecology-related information. “Leave it as you found it,” my piece says. Why should we change anything when everything is functioning properly without your intervention? I don’t mean halting progress, what I mean is our impact on nature. If I was ever in charge of a music show addressing ecology, it would probably be hard to stage something similar to Nelieskite Mėlyno Gaublio[1], and yet we are coming closer, gradually, to productions like this. My music is not for connoisseurs of contemporary art, it’s for ordinary people, and this is why I always care about the form so much. The substance is important, but nobody will listen to your music if the form isn’t right.

We’ve just touched on your plans and the serious topics you’ve recently begun exploring in your music. What I have in my head now, though, is a line from your song Klubas (The Club): “I won’t ever be Kurt Cobain.” There’s something about the abandoned ambitions in it, I guess. When did you realise that achieving everything was impossible?

Becoming a real celebrity was my greatest ambition. Since my early childhood, I’ve lived with the implanted knowledge that I have to reach for the skies in music, so I wanted to be recognised internationally. I was twenty-something back then, I remember, and I just wasn’t capable of bearing it all. I realised I wasn’t good enough to become a world-class performer and this broke me. While I was living in Berlin, I was trying, as Fingalick, to enter a wider scene, but my music was rather mediocre and I saw my ambition didn’t materialise however hard I tried. I then started looking for other forms, and this was when I began writing texts in Lithuanian. Later still, I found another compelling genre, R&B, for myself, which has made me part with electronic music and revitalised my ambitions, at least partially. Now I want to be big and to be heard – again – only this time in Lithuania and not anywhere else.

My ambitions dwell in cycles and sometimes crash and die, hence Kurt Cobain. You shouldn’t aspire to more than you’re really capable of achieving, because you definitely have a sense of your own limits somewhere deep inside. I am a ruthless realist, and sometimes even a pessimist. I would never think of myself singing to a 40,000-strong audience in Vilnius. It simply isn’t possible to have such numbers at my shows knowing what my music is like and what I like as a musician. I accept this and start thinking of just where my own limits are and what can I do within them? Watching Kendrick Lamar’s shows, I realise I will never have his millions to arrange something like that, but there’s still something I can borrow to display before my one thousand fans in Vilnius. Now I have a feeling that limiting yourself gives you more energy. Perhaps it’s like making music with just one instrument. After examining that instrument thoroughly, you might achieve a great deal more than having all of the world’s instruments at your disposal in a studio. Now I am ambitious about lesser things.

You mentioned your failures due to a lack of skills. But did you really dream of becoming a global star? What does a guy know about himself when he’s twenty-something? Or was it perhaps what the people around you expected you to do? Like little Tomas who was a star at Tele Bim-Bam and thinks he must remain a celebrity.

Yes, we get many things encoded in ourselves in childhood. My case is unique, because appearing on stage since the age of three is something of a destiny. Now I consider twenty-year-olds much greater realists. There are several very young hyperpop artists, aged 15 to 17, quite well-known in Latvia, their songs are bilingual, part Latvian and part Lithuanian. That's proof that you should rather explore your chosen micro-genre than try becoming a superstar. For me, the status of a global star has been declining gradually and now I can’t even name a world-famous celebrity who truly excites me. Lesser ambitions are more realistic and they ruin fewer people who fail on their way towards goals that are out of reach.

Let’s stay in your childhood for a while. You’re three and apparently showing certain artistic traits. But it’s your parents who decided to get you on stage. Have you ever discussed it in detail?

Yes we have. My mum has been reflecting on it a lot. My parents were 27 at the time they brought me, their first child, to the Tele Bim-Bam studio. I am 30 now, which means that, living in a parallel universe, I would have taken a similar decision too. Scourging my parents for that, I believe, would not be fair, because they did what they thought was right back then. They saw I had a talent and took me to a hub that develops such talents. And my personality fitted that place. I would probably want to become a scientist, but I lack the patience that’s needed, delve into too many things at a time, and sometimes become lazy. All my personal traits, I guess, have led me to where I am now. Many people visit psychologists nowadays to scrutinise their parents’ impact on their lives, but you can’t blame everything on your parents.

That sounds like a natural course of thinking, because psychologists might tell you just how profound your parents’ influence on your life is, but after digesting it you eventually stop overestimating it, because otherwise it would be too much. You’re an adult now, free to live your life as you think appropriate.

Exactly. Once you’ve acquired your tools, you are free to use them whichever way you like. I am amazed to see, I have to say, the renaissance my parents have been through recently in the search for their own identities. Back in 1992 or 1994, our parents’ generation had to devote all of their time and effort to make ends meet, because everything in their lives had changed abruptly. Now they have time to take care of themselves. My mum has given half of her life to her children. My life was full of action and she sacrificed all of her interests to make me happy. I feel jealous of myself to have had parents like mine. They’ve devoted a lot of time to me.

You’re a very nice kid, your mum will love this interview. It’s alright for parents to seek their inner selves, but let’s find out more about you. While talking about your album Dėmesio!, you’ve said on many occasions now that you finally recall your time at Tele Bim-Bam with ease. Its impact on your life, on the other hand, has become an area of special interest for you, leading you to the archives to dig in. Is there something in your musical career that you can’t yet so easily accept?

It’s EGO, the last EP by Fingalick. I recall my feelings back then whenever I listen to it. The piece is about ego, fame and aloofness, but the form I chose has proven to be tricky to communicate to the world, so people found it hard to grasp. I hear my ambitions in it and, while listening, I feel a rising feeling of guilt born out of that grand ambition that would never materialise. I feel my ego.

Is it pretentiousness you feel?

Oh yes, definitely! Whenever I listen to music with pretension, I feel put off. It’s sincerity and simplicity that attract people. That’s why I grimace whenever I listen to my own music with English lyrics. This wasn’t me or, rather, this wasn’t the best version of me. Listening to not the best version of yourself hurts you. I still find it difficult to accept, because the wound is quite recent and hasn’t yet healed.

It reminds me of a line from Leak Freestyle, another song of yours: “Relax, that’s not the stage, that’s just the corridor”.

Yes, and that was a total corridor in my case. People think they have reached the summit, but there’s often another world waiting just beyond the folding screen. Happiness and self-acceptance are key. I’m not afraid of a script where I quit making music and find happiness doing something else. Compared to the Fingalick times, I am a much calmer individual. It took a lot of time, though. I returned to Lithuania, found new friends and love. Today I am happy with who I am – imperfect, a non-genius.

For me, the situation is scary. You live a life where music gives you happiness. And then suddenly you realise there’s no happiness in it. What’s the way out? Is there something wrong with you or with your music? Where should you look for your happiness now?

For me, this was a key question before discovering what I really like doing. This is just what some of my friends are currently trying to figure out. They, unfortunately, consider the whole thing a certain deficiency of their personality as if their personalities are defined by the jobs they do. I used to live like this too, thinking I’m a musician or music itself, so I shouldn’t be doing anything else. This is when happiness fades away. Linking yourself to any area of activity is a very damaging point of view.

You’ve said you’re a realist, and now I hear how critical you are about yourself as Fingalick. I’ve read in more than one of your interviews that you want some real music criticism. What would you do with critical reviews by other people? Just imagine such people exist here.

Yes, let’s imagine a Lithuania where music critics exist… To be criticised, in public, for the things you’ve failed to accomplish properly is, I believe, good for you. Mediocrity should be criticised. Critics should speak publicly, through the media, to make their voices heard and be part of the public debate. Critical reviews should evolve into a discussion we definitely need, that concern the obstacles impeding us from doing more.

But there are no such reviews. Would you agree with my hypothesis that we prevent criticism by throwing it back against the critics. This one tries hard but he is too young. This one’s too old. This one has no proper education. This one dresses weirdly. This one never attends parties and doesn’t know the people he writes about in person. Who’s the one to be allowed to criticise? Who has the right competence?

This is what the culture of jeering looks like. It can clearly be seen in the domestic discourse. On television, half the prime-time shows are pure jeering. It has reflections in culture too, only under other names, like criticism or satire. There must be someone who dares to speak up. Until now, we’ve been too afraid to criticise each other because we instantly start thinking of what consequences it would have on you. Lithuanian-language Facebook, for instance, is overloaded with verbal attacks and comments with no end of this in sight. All this is far from insightful remarks or criticism, it’s just bullying. For a very long time I kept silent because I was too afraid of criticism, but now I think we must rise on both fronts. We must learn to speak and accept critical remarks without ever thinking they’ll ruin us.

These times might come when that half of Lithuania will have succeeded in completing their therapies. I also wanted to ask you about maturity. Jonas Narbutas-Kabloonak told me in a recent interview he had no idea why established musicians continue writing songs for teenagers. You’ve said, also in an interview, that your audience is getting younger and that very few of them still remember Tomas from Tele Bim-Bam. Do you feel free when you have to display your maturity in music, and how it has changed with the majority of your listeners belonging to other stages of coming of age?

I’ve been contemplating this a lot. My creative process has its stages reflected in my albums. Pick Up Line was youngish and about the search for closeness. Dėmesio! speaks of self-acceptance and the balance between mortality and fame. To accept that message, it has to be said, you need to be the one who has tried that same route. People my age would probably perceive the album differently, while the younger generation would perhaps only accept the music or some of it, or certain hints. I will remain young, I believe, as long as I enjoy young energy around me, something that enables me to do things I consider important. Getting old together with your audience is a beautiful idea, it might seem, but in this case your listener is always the same. I don’t want my music to sound according to my age. I want it to be free of any age restrictions and gender-free. I want to experiment. This is what being young is all about.

Your experiments cover your music, your style and the entire aesthetic related to Free Finga. Does that mean your audience expects from you more than just your songs?

Our world is based on visuals. A video clip is a continuation of a song; style is a continuation of a personality; a poster is a continuation of a show, and so on. Those who fail to grasp such things employ just a fraction of their potential in music. I love details, a lot of which are related both to music and the aesthetic image of a performer. I consider style important so I seek it out, but my physical and financial resources are limited and my personal wardrobe isn’t big enough. Which means I always find myself in a kind of aesthetic compromise. I can’t help but admire singers who display themselves by means of many details. A performer is a personality we follow, which involves a certain disadvantage, in Lithuania in particular. Half of the people think I am their friend, but they don’t really know me. Yet it’s the details that expose an artist’s world, and that’s exactly what I want to reveal. I am interested in broader contexts, not just music.

Would you like to get back to any of the earlier questions to add something?

I’m thinking of my words about harbouring ambitions that are too big. I’ll put it another way. When you’re twenty, I suppose, you should try your best, because you never know what leads to success. Never ever. Having ambition is much more enjoyable than trimming it down at the outset.

Read more texts from this Lithuanian Music Link issue here. 

[1] Do Not Touch the Blue Globe, an anti-war oratorio by Lithuanian composer Eduardas Balsys (1919-1984)