Kristjan Karmo, Testing Area Manager on Music & Songwriting

What I love the most about music and songwriting is the sense of accomplishment when a song is finished, especially when it gets airplay – I also don’t mind getting a bit of good feedback in the form of an applause or even just a good word from an audience member. The exchange of energy between the artist and the audience is magical and can be quite addictive.

My name is Kristjan Karmo, I’m the Testing Area Manager at Coop Pank, and the CFO at a little video production house called Must Post, where we mainly take complex topics and make them easy for the audience to digest. A few times a year, I also train software testers at ASA Quality Academy. In summer 2020, I became the project manager of ScamLab at TalTech – guiding students in researching online scams.

There are several reasons why I chose a career in tech. One of them is that I’ve always had a strong tendency to nitpick. This can be put to good use in the world of software testing and QA. On the other hand, there’s always been a strong pull towards all things tech. The teaching part has evolved later, and some people who have known me longer are amazed at how patient I’ve managed to become over the years. Testing is a versatile career path in that it can both be your first IT job, but it’s also useful to have a wider tech background. For me, I tried almost all other roles before graduating to testing – I started as a freelance web designer, before moving more towards back-end development and spending some years in project management. After that, I went and got my college diploma in IT systems administration – that was the only curriculum available in distance-learning at that point in time, but aren’t most of us de facto sysadmins in our own circles anyway?

I was born and raised in Tallinn, Estonia. I’ve moved a few times within the town, but apart from spending a few summers with relatives in Pärnu, I’ve never even lived elsewhere in Estonia. But I’ve had the fortune of travelling the world over the years — most of Europe, North and South America, Africa, South-East Asia … so the only missing continents on my checklist are Australia and Antarctica, but I doubt I’ll ever venture to the latter!

Outside of my job, I love music and I’ve been singing since early childhood. Despite being rather sickly and only spending a total of ~4 months in kindergarten, I remember singing at almost every party there. Being such a diva, I once told the music teacher not to stop playing, as there was another verse in the song!

I started dabbling in songwriting in high school. Despite not being able to play any instruments at the time, I found friends who would provide rhythm guitar tracks for my first songs. Also, I used software called Sound Club (which was by the team who later went on to build Skype). Despite experimenting with similar applications and sometimes even getting great feedback, I never really got into electronic music. Especially when I taught myself to play the guitar after Priit, a good friend of mine and an inspiration in many ways, passed away following a freak traffic accident.

As regards songwriting, my process of writing songs used to always be lyrics first, then chord progression, then melody. I haven’t been as productive in the last 10 years, mostly writing good-humoured parody lyrics to existing melodies. The workflow in this has been more and more iterative – where I once hammered out the details in my head before writing anything down, I’ve recently become willing to write down placeholders just to circle back to them a few times. Sometimes, it turns out the first instinct was actually pretty good, but more often the brain just needs more time to work on it subconsciously before spitting out the really good stuff. I feel like I do my best work when I have a writing partner to throw ideas back and forth with.

At first, my musical genre was all-in rock, with its screaming guitars and earth-shattering drums. But I’ve calmed down a bit and turned more towards an acoustic sound. And then, there’s my other great love: big band jazz.

My musical focus changed from rock towards jazz a bit over 10 years ago. Through a series of happy accidents, I got the invitation to audition to sing with a big band (the jazz ensemble kind). It had been a dream of mine ever since I discovered Frank Sinatra in high school, so I jumped at the chance – I’ve been singing with TalTech Big Band ever since. And as priorities have shifted and new ways of entertaining ourselves have become more accessible over the years, I haven’t really had enough “boring” time to get myself into a songwriting mode lately. So it needs to be planned, even pushed, and I guess I haven’t really prioritised it enough, or set enough time aside in my calendar to really do songwriting. So I guess I go for the low-hanging fruit and just sing every chance I get.

With my band Neljapäev (Thursday) back in 2011. (L-R): Oliver Vare, Kristjan Karmo, Heido Aas, Allan Albert, and Mart Liivand (All rights reserved to original photographer).

One of my favourite experiences with music was a gig at a company Christmas party. The girl who contacted us asked us to rock out as hard as possible, because “the old ones have had their share of parties; this one is for us young people”. So we set everything up, do our soundcheck, wait for the agreed time, walk on stage … only to find our entire audience has just sat down to dinner. A deal is a deal, so we start rocking out, feeling a bit sorry about the people almost choking on their food because we’re way too loud for them and they’re clearly not drunk enough to rock. After the set, the CFO comes to the backstage and starts yelling at us about how what we’ve done is highly inappropriate.

As we’ve already been paid for the gig, we briefly consider leaving in a huff — like the divas we are — but decide to regroup, and see what tools we have available to save the day. Turns out, there’s a piano in the main hall right next to the stage, which fortunately happens to be in tune as well. Our bass player also happens to have studied piano in music school for several years, so we send him out to play some Christmas classics, jazz standards, etc. After a few songs, I join in on vocals, and the solo guitarist also comes in to add his touch to the now completely improvised setlist. Finally, the drummer comes in on brushes. So now the whole band is back on stage, winning over the audience with song after song we’ve never rehearsed.

At some point, we switch back to our predefined setlist and finish up the gig rocking out as originally agreed. And who’s that in front of the stage yelling for encore after encore? Why, it’s our old friend Mr. CFO, of course! 🙂

Singing Hard Rock Hallelujah with the Tallinn University of Technology Male Choir in 2008 (All rights reserved to original photographer).

Unfortunately, the past year has been difficult for live music, but you learn and you adapt. So we have managed to record a few songs adhering to Covid protocols. In the future, it would be so great to get back to writing complete original songs again, but I definitely need a writing partner for that. I somehow feel a part of me is missing for over 10 years now. Don’t get me wrong, I love all the parodies and singing with the big band, but I just feel I could do even more.

My advice to anyone interested in music and songwriting is to just do it! Find friends with a similar skill level, so you can learn from each other and develop at a similar pace. If they’re too far ahead and you can’t catch up, neither side ends up having too much fun with it. Also, before going public, seek some honest feedback outside your closest circles. Or just take the plunge and see what happens. These days, there are so many ways to get your stuff out there: SoundCloud and YouTube, to name the most obvious ones. And if it doesn’t work, you can learn something from the feedback. Of course, there’s always the chance it’s not for you, but don’t worry about that too much. I recall classmates telling me I didn’t have the voice to be a lead singer. But now, I sometimes get calls or texts when friends hear my voice on the radio!

With Neljapäev at Lelle Alternatiiv in 2010 (All rights reserved to original photographer).

There are a few similarities between my music and my current occupation. The creative process is pretty similar, especially when you take the iterative approach, release early and often, and hammer out the finer details in later iterations. So there’s a lot of overlap, and you can also use the process of writing lyrics to tell easy-to-grasp stories and explain the concepts through that. Music and my career have both benefited each other, but mostly I would highlight the stage experience. Being able to hype myself up (or calm myself down) enough to go on stage for even just one song can be quite useful, for example, if you have a 5-minute presentation slot at a board meeting.

There is always more than tech. Technology is a tool, but many of us need more than one creative output – or an outlet to just rock out and reset our stress. Thanks for spreading the inspiration!


Feature Photo is of Kristjan singing with TalTech Big Band in early 2020. Photo by Teet Raik.

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