Picture a place with beautiful and haunting landscapes, marvelous mountains and foaming seas. It’s full of artists who all make music that reflects the natural beauty, expressed in honest and creative ways. Every song has an interesting story that it tells, and it all comes alive in beautiful and haunting ways, and makes you feel it all. There’s magic here. Does it actually exist? Yes, and it’s called Iceland. Seriously, there must be something in the water there that makes everyone so inspired. The latest musical talent out of an already impressive history of imaginative and innovative artists singer and multi-instrumentalist Sóley. She’s already spent years playing and touring with Seabear and Sin Fang, but now she’s focusing on her solo project, where she can tell her own stories. She’s been touring with fellow Icelandic creatives Of Monsters and Men, with more intimate solo shows tucked in between the bigger dates. It was one of these dates when I spoke with her, and she talked about her inspirations, how she wants her fans to learn to play her songs, and how the artist community in Iceland is really positive and good energy.
Kelly Knapp: You’re touring right now, in support of your new album, We Sink. How’s the tour going?
Sóley Stefánsdóttir: The tour has been going really well. It’s a different market that I’m playing for, because I’m supporting Of Monsters and Men, and I think the crowd that comes to their shows…it’s a little bit different from maybe my ideal crowd. I don’t know. But I hopefully pick out a few people who are interested in my music. I think that’s probably what goes with opening up for a band – you know how it’s going to be. But it’s been really fun, and the crowds have been really good, though they’re a bit chatty. It’s just not my ideal venues also, because they’re huge and my music is so low. But, it’s lovely and they’re lovely, and it’s just a really good experience.
KK: How do you tell who your ideal fans are?
SS: This summer I had a European tour, and I was in Germany. When I played there, more people came, and they knew this was the music so they didn’t talk. I get really angry when people are talking. I was so happy with that, that people just came and listened. That’s probably what I would say my ideal crowd is.
KK: Someone who listens.
SS: Someone who listens, because with that you can do so much more magic.
KK: You’ve gotten a lot of buzz for your song “Pretty Face.” What was the inspiration behind that?
SS: Well, when I made the songs, I remember that I made the chords on piano before I made the lyrics, and I had a really hard time doing the lyrics. When I write lyrics I try to make up a small story or a poem, like something that begins and ends and has an end. So, I guess I just started with the first sentence, and then just try to make up…it’s like a love story, but still it has surreal stuff in it also. I don’t know what’s my inspiration. You start by trying to make a song, and you keep on until you’re happy with it. Actually, I was almost going to skip that song for the album, because there were some things I didn’t like about it, but in the end I was like, ok, let’s have it there. And apparently that’s the most famous song, which is really funny.
KK: Yeah, I was noticing that the songs on your album, they all seem to be little stories. Are you writing specifically with being a storyteller to an audience in mind?
SS: Yes and no, I would say. I really like that if I sing a song, then the people can imagine their own visuals, because I try to keep it open so each one who’s listening to a song can imagine how this could look and all that. But I think it’s also that I just started writing like that. It’s all coming from like, I would be sitting in a chair and talking. I haven’t really realized that it’s like that. It’s like I would be a grandmother telling stories.
KK: And so how do you put music to that? Or the music usually comes first?
SS: Music usually comes first, because it’s easier to make some chords and put lyrics over it. If I would write a poem and I would try to put music to it, sometimes it would be like ah, this word doesn’t fit, and blah blah. It’s more like a puzzle you have to get everything together. But, what I’m going to do for the next album, and that I already started, is that I started writing a lot of poems, because I really like writing poems. I want to go there, I want to try to go the opposite way, doing the lyrics first so the lyrics are there, not that I’m just trying to fit any word to the music. So, it will be more focused on the lyrics.
KK: You’re also in a couple other bands as well, like Seabear and Sin Fang. How do you differentiate creatively between all these projects?
SS: Well, Seabear is a band, and my project is a solo project, so the biggest difference is that when we make a song – when Seabear makes a song – you bring in an idea, and then the bass player comes and plays over it, and it’s like everyone brings their idea in. When I do my solo project, it’s more I’m my own boss. I can choose what I want, and I can do whatever I want. I can choose how I want to do sound and all that. But I think it’s really good to do both. I really like working with myself, but if you’re working on a song for a long time you get so stuck in it you can’t see anymore from the outside, so and then it’s really good to let people hear it. But I’m always so shy that I’m like, I don’t want anyone to hear it until it’s finished! I learned so much after the last album, so I want to let people, my friends, hear the songs and not really tell me what to do, but give me comments. I think that’s really important.
KK: Do you think playing in Seabear is good preparation? Like you give a little bit of yourself there and you give all of yourself with your own project?
SS: Yeah, it’s kind of different because in Seabear I was not singing that much. I was just playing piano, and I have no problem doing that. But, with this project I have to be more up front, and stand and fall with what I do and say, and sing on stage. It’s more of a challenge, but at the same time it’s more fun, because if you succeed and do something good, you’re like, ok I can do this. It takes time to get used to standing in front of people and singing.
KK: How do you feel about the music scene in Iceland in general? We never really hear of any Iceland hip hop groups or heavy metal or anything that’s as prominent as this kind of artistic indie pop that seems to be unique to Iceland. How do you feel about that musical community?
SS: I really love it. The music scene seems like it’s really big, but there are so many bands. The people who are in this music scene – I play in three bands, and everyone else plays in three, four different types of bands. What I think is if you play in three different bands, you don’t want to do the same thing the next time also, so everyone kind of tries to find their own path, rather than everyone…like if some bands get famous, everyone would sound like Sigur Ros or something. It’s not like it’s often when another band gets famous like that, than all the other bands follow. In Iceland, people are musicians, and they try to be unique or special; try to find their sound.
KK: But if everyone is in multiple bands, does it still end up being a tight community where everyone kind of knows everyone else?
SS: It is, really, yeah. It’s really like you know everyone in the music scene in Iceland. It’s really small, it’s really nice because if a guy calls me and asks me if I can play piano on his album, I’ll go there and then I know I can borrow a mic from him. You know, it’s all about helping and giving, and the competition – I would say it’s a positive competition – like it’s more people who want to help other bands to get out, to get to Europe, because you don’t really live on being a musician in Iceland. So, for example, if I’ve been touring and I can give people names or places, or whatever and just help people out to go play somewhere else. It’s really good. I really love being there. It’s really positive and good energy, I think.
KK: What other artists do you think are really inspiring right now in Iceland?
SS: There’s an Icelandic bass player called Skúli Sverrisson. He played bass with Blonde Redhead for a little bit. His music is so good, it’s so beautiful. It’s instrumental bass layers. It sounds weird maybe, but it’s so beautiful. And then there’s a band called Ojba Rasta – they’re a reggae band, and they sing in Icelandic, which is really cool. And Albert who plays keys and guitar with me, he’s in a band called Heavy Experience. They play really slow, instrumental rock. It’s really cool. Ah, there are so many bands. Ólöf Arnalds, she’s a singer. I could go on…
KK: Do you have any other projects that you’re working on?
SS: Yeah, I just finished music I was doing for a theater, like for puppetry. We just finished showing that in November. I’ll keep on with that next year. I was also doing music for a dance piece, and I’ve been doing a lot of things. But now, I want to try to take a break from the tour when I come back, and I want to start doing the next album. I really need to start.
KK: Are these songs already old for you?
SS: I don’t think so, no. I still like playing them. And I still like that my band – we’re still trying to figure out what we like sound-wise and tempo-wise, and all that. We’re kind of still experimenting with the sound and the live set. Maybe I’m too open for always changing the songs, but I kind of get bored if the song is played always the same for three or four years. It’s fun to try to raise the tempo a bit or just to keep the people on stage on toes, to be excited.
KK: Do you improvise live?
SS: Not improvise, but we all studied jazz. I think it’s really important to be able to, not really improvise, but it’s so easy to go to your comfort zone and routine. It’s so easy, and then you just stop thinking on stage. It’s good to just fuck it a little bit up, oh, let’s add this, and you have to think there and push this pedal there. I wouldn’t say it’s improvised, but we try to keep it open. And it’s really good to have those two guys - Jón Óskar (on drums) and Albert, because they’re not classically trained. They’re both jazzy, poppy, rock stuff.
KK: What’s the best thing about performing live for you?
SS: I think the best thing about it is when I get a silent, respectful crowd, I might start crying on stage. Germany has been treating me so well. This summer, it wasn’t really big venues, but every show was sold out, and everyone was so supportive, and it was just really beautiful. Those shows are my favorite, when you can feel the silence and let the sound and music be as it is.
KK: That’s awesome. And we’ve already kind of talked about what the future is looking like. There’s a new album you’re working towards…
SS: Yeah, my dream was that it would come out next fall, but since I haven’t started I just have to see how fast (I can do it). And I don’t want to rush anything just to get it out there. Because you can also do – like me and my management - we’re thinking of what we can do just merchandise-wise. We’re thinking of doing an EP, or maybe a little book with all the lyrics or something.
KK: I think the little book would be perfect, because it would be like the storybook for your songs.
SS: I really want to do it. And I really want to do sheet music for the piano, because people are always sending me like…
KK: “What are the chords to this song?”
SS: Yeah exactly. It would be really cool to do that. So I think I’ll just do everything like that, between also touring – I’m coming back to America in February, and yeah, just keep on with this project.
KK: Then you would be like a music teacher, teaching people how to play your songs.
SS: Yeah, exactly. It would be really cool. I haven’t really heard many covers of my songs, which might be because they’re not only four chords a song, so I’m really interested. Because people have been sending me, “I really want to learn this song, I really want to learn this song,” but I haven’t seen any videos. So I’m like, ok I’ll put it out there.