Kerkko Koskinen does not look like a polished pop star. The young man sitting in a trendy Helsinki café is quiet and undemonstrative, nor could he be described as particularly fashionable in the sartorial sense, either. Besides, he has a rash on his face.
Yet, despite his confusing appearance, Kerkko Koskinen is right at the top of the Finnish pop scene right now. He is the group Ultra Bra's pianist, composer and leader.
Ultra Bra's concerts fill clubs all over Finland, and the band's breakthrough album Kroketti (which means "croquette") has been in the Finnish top ten for a year. What makes the band's popularity exceptional is not so much the level as the extent. One gains the impression right now that nearly all Finns irrespective of age, domicile or occupation have fallen in love with Koskinen's group.
Ultra Bra still enjoys fanatical support among students, who were the first to discover the group. At the same time, however, ordinary middle-aged Finns listen to the group's romantic hit songs on radio and hum along. The elderly see the members of the group as tidy, well-behaved youngsters, and their songs are even sung in day nurseries.
"Oh, yes, success and publicity are flattering and at their best quite enjoyable," Koskinen quietly says and stares into his coffee cup.
"But it doesn't affect my life all that much. I'm so shy that I'm not able to use success to my own advantage in any way."
When Koskinen founded Ultra Bra a couple of years ago, many regarded the band as just an inside joke.
Where other young musicians put together four-member rock groups or fiddled around with computers and music programmes on their own, Koskinen gathered an old-fashioned revue ensemble around him: three female and two male vocalists and an eight-strong backing orchestra with a complete brass section.
Ultra Bra's musical line was likewise odd. It had elements of jazz and soul, but also of 1970s-style protest songs. Even odder was the fact that Kerkko Koskinen openly acknowledged his liking for splendidly tasteless Eurovision songs and allowed them to have a clear influence on his own compositions.
Oddest of all were Ultra Bra's song lyrics. Some of the songs were political. Others told poetically of young human relations and urban life. A few were unambiguously absurd ditties about horses and fish. When three pretty girls and two tall and wiry young men sang the lyrics with straight faces, the impression they created was baffling.
When the album Kroketti was released in 1997, everything became more straightforward. The group's music still contained humour and personal turns of phrase, but their ambiguous irony had given way for timeless romance. The road to enormous success was open.
"Our audiences still consist mainly of young people, and they seem to like our fast- paced, rock-influenced line," says Koskinen. "Young urban-dwellers also find irony and all kinds of ideological structures in our music, even though they are not necessarily there. Older people are probably more interested in beautiful melodies and stylish adaptations."
Koskinen admits that popularity has increased pressures and expectations. Some of the band's most enthusiastic supporters have proposed that the next step should be to take up singing in English and have a shot at an international career. There are no such plans for the present, and indeed a lot of Ultra Bra's charm is that, in its own way, it is very Finnish.
Ultra Bra has become more and more polished as a group over the years, but composing and musical direction remain firmly in Koskinen's hands. His wife, Anni Sinnemäki, is one of the four lyric writers.
"Fortunately, Anni has a day job and does not play with the band. That reduces pressures a lot. She usually writes the lyrics at her own pace and I set them to music. We only have rows when she has to write lyrics for completed melodies. She is so hopelessly unmusical," Koskinen says with a gentle smile.
"The best of all this is that I can live my life the way I want. I sit at home, listen to albums and compose. Every now and then I go and sit in a café. You can call that an artistic life if you want. However, I do not see my life as being particularly cultural and artistic. I'm even petty bourgeois enough to enjoy watching panel games on TV."