“Computers crashed several times… I recorded vocals four or five times. But on the other hand, I started doing my job alone, learning many things”: Why Tarja Turunen recruited Mike Oldfield, Trevor Rabin and Steve Rothery for Outlanders

Tarja Turunen
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Tarja Turunen can remember the first time she set foot on Antigua. It was 2007, and a “chaotic” period in the Finnish soprano’s life: two years after her very public, acrimonious split from symphonic giants Nightwish, the band with whom she made her name, and one year after the launch of her solo career. What she needed, more than anything, was anonymity. Immediately, she fell in love with the beautiful scenery, easy-going way of life and the overwhelming sense of seclusion.

“You will find a beach where you will be alone the whole day. It’s so chilled and so positive,” she says over Zoom from her current home in the Andalusia region of southern Spain, the memory of her first visit to the Caribbean still vivid so many years on. “It was like, ‘Wow. I love this. I can be no one here.’”

By the end of the holiday, she and her husband-manager, Marcelo Cabuli, had bought a holiday house facing out over Antigua’s turquoise sea and forest-covered mountains. Since then, it’s been her second home and her happy place, as well as the source of inspiration for her long-awaited, all-star project, Outlanders.

An album of the same name, which was mostly written and mixed on the island over the last 10-plus years, was released in June 2023 and is unlike anything we’ve heard from Tarja before. Working with her long-term friend and Tubular Beats collaborator, EDM DJ Torsten Stenzel, it pairs her soaring, operatic vocals with the sort of pulsating, blissful ambient, proggy electronica you’d hear in a beachside bar. The guitars come courtesy of some of prog’s most influential players, with Mike Oldfield, Trevor Rabin and Marillion’s Steve Rothery among a star-studded guest list featuring on different tracks. 

The result is miles apart from the orchestral drama we’ve come to expect from Tarja’s solo work – it’s a chilled-out, sun-drenched love letter to Antigua. “The energy on the island has always made me create,” she says. “The nature. The people. Antiguan history. The ocean. I wanted the listeners to find that kind of inner peace while listening to these songs.”

Turunen and Stenzel met in Ibiza in 2006, where they worked together during the writing sessions for her solo debut, My Winter Storm. By the time they started Outlanders, Stenzel had relocated to Antigua and Turunen had taken up residence in Argentina. “We were people living in countries other than our home countries,” the vocalist says, explaining that the theme of belonging runs throughout their self-titled album. “I have always felt like home is where your heart is, really. Where you feel your heart is safe.”

The seeds for Outlanders were first sown in 2010 when Tarja wrote a song she knew didn’t fit with the icy material she was creating for her day job. “I wanted to use it and I couldn’t find a way,” she remembers. Back then, she’d only had one brush with electronic music – working with German producer Schiller on 2005 club track Tired Of Being Alone, an experience she had enjoyed, and wanted to explore further.

“Electronic music has always been something that has appealed to me,” she says. “It felt very natural.” She took the new song to Stenzel and together they turned it into Outlanders’ dreamy title track. “I didn’t feel like I needed to write a certain kind of song. It was just a mindflow: free and easy,” she recalls.

I felt like I’d always known Trevor Rabin. He is such a gentleman; such a sweet person, and he came up with incredible things

The result truly is mesmerising. It includes sublime guitar work from Rata Blanca’s Walter Giardino, whose soaring solo evokes the sensation of the weight of the world dropping from your shoulders. It’s a soft ambient haze that rises and falls like lapping waves and sets the mood for further electronic material. Although Giardino appears on three of the eventual album’s tracks, Turunen invited a revolving cast of guitarists to contribute to the rest of the project. She credits Return To Tunguska, a collaboration between Alan Parsons and David Gilmour from the former’s 2004 A Valid Path album, for giving her the idea.

“I had a long, long list of names,” she says with a laugh, explaining that for each song, she had considered the style and sound of each musician before approaching them directly with a demo. The finished album features 10 guitarists: alongside Oldfield, Rabin and Rothery are Walter Giardino, Joe Satriani, Michael Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten, jazz fusion artist Al Di Meola, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal and ex-Megadeth man Marty Friedman.

The first person to agree to the project was Rabin, whose expansive solos merge with Stenzel’s Balearic beats and piano on the gently euphoric Closer To The Sky. “I’ve been a huge fan of Trevor’s work with Yes and as a film composer,” she says. “I felt like I’d always known this man. He is such a gentleman; such a sweet person, and he came up with incredible things.”

While she held back from being too prescriptive about how she wanted each musician to perform (“I wanted to give them freedom to express themselves”), some songs – like the spiritual Echoes featuring Jennifer Batten – warranted more direction. “It was a song written a long time ago, but it made sense [to make it an Outlanders song],” says Tarja, who wrote the lyrics to honour Antigua’s African heritage. “I wanted to somehow capture female sensitivity. I said, ‘Just think about the whole history of Africa, just give it your sensitive touch,’ and Jennifer did insanely beautiful work.”

We were at home, isolated, and I said, ‘I need to wrap this up.’ God knows how long it might have taken us otherwise

While Outlanders was an opportunity for Tarja to push herself creatively, it’s also a labour of love that’s seen her tick some special collaborations from her bucket list. “I’ve been listening to Marillion for a long, long time. I went to see their shows,” she says of the Steve Rothery-featuring track Mystique Voyage, a dreamy reworking of a song from her 2013 solo album, Colours In The Dark.

“I had a clear idea in mind and he understood my song,” she says. “Instead of me singing the chorus melody, he was playing the melody with his guitar. In that sense, the song has more space for guitars, but it doesn’t need more. It was a pleasure to work with him, but I felt we had a deeper connection. I would love to work with him in the future, too.”

Had it not been for the pandemic, the material that makes up Outlanders would probably still be languishing on a hard drive in Antigua. Although Turunen had been able to join Walter Giardino in the studio in Argentina where he had recorded his instrumentation, balancing a solo career with raising a young daughter had made it difficult for the vocalist to focus on finishing the album. As the world went into lockdown and her tour was cancelled, things gathered speed. “We were at home, isolated, and I said, ‘I need to wrap this up,’” she recalls. “God knows how long it might have taken us otherwise.”

She began recording her vocals on her own, working for the first time without the help of a producer. “Computers crashed several times during the process,” she remembers. “I recorded vocals for some of the songs, I think, four or five times. But on the other hand, I started doing my job alone, learning many things.”

My confidence grew. I’m more open-minded and ready for new challenges

The remaining guitarists recorded their parts remotely, while Stenzel finished off the mixing from Antigua. “It was insanely nice to have a purpose,” she remembers. “I felt really miserable during those first couple of months without knowing how long we would be in this situation, then I started working on Outlanders. It gave me a lot of positive energy.”

As she looks back, she recognises the experience of finishing the album was more than just a way to fill her days. “My confidence grew,” she says, “I’m more open-minded and ready for new challenges. The music on the album will surprise people, but the feedback I have got from my fans – from rock followers, from metal fans – is that they love the project. They really have enjoyed it very much. They find me in a completely different light as a vocalist.”

That positive momentum has spilled out from the Outlanders sessions. Already Turunen – who has recently released another album of seasonal favourites, Dark Christmas – is planning a follow-up with an all-new wish list of guitarists. Although this time she has no intention of taking a decade to release it.

“I have some people in mind, and I have contacted them already,” she says with a laugh. “So, no, this is not the end of Outlanders!”

Dannii Leivers

Danniii Leivers writes for Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog, The Guardian, NME, Alternative Press, Rock Sound, The Line Of Best Fit and more. She loves the 90s, and is happy where the sea is bluest.