Cuprins

North and Low

by Ioana Cîrlig

Over the course of two weeks, I met with some of my favorite Icelandic artists to learn what makes up the place’s spirit and where the appetite for life comes from in darkness.

Music is your own thing. Even if you’re listening to it live, in a large area with people all around, it all seems to be playing just for you, in your room. You’re under a blanket and it slowly transforms the space into a fluffy, underwater universe with blue bears and fish in love. The chair squeaks, the blanket rustles, the wind blows through the curtain. All my favorite music comes from Iceland. The sounds I grew up with come from this place in the middle of the ocean. At the end of last year, I went to Reykjavík for a festival organized by Sigur Rós, a gathering of the entire Icelandic, artistic life, to meet the people who have been transforming my rooms for 15 years and changing the world of music.

Some of the photographs with the artists in the article share their music with you. To listen to a fragment, briefly wait at the images marked with AUDIO.

I asked everyone what was going on, what makes the music scene in Iceland so good, what makes the artists so different, each with so much character. People told me about the open, unpopulated spaces, about extreme weather and the changing of seasons (especially in relationship to light and darkness, as the temperature doesn’t much vary from one season to the next), and the extremely friendly, buoyant community in which all is shared. What’s more, you feel safe being vulnerable in this country, that no one will make fun of you for being sincere and open. And so you experiment. If you look at how the music is defined, you see experimental pop, avant rock, lo-fi analog, homemade electronic.

Chapter 1: “Eating, breathing, singing”

A voice I’ve been hearing in my headphones since I was 16 asks if I want a tea. Kristín Anna talks the same way she sings which somehow comes as a surprise. Kristín Anna and her twin sister Gyða Valtýsdóttir co-founded múm in 1997 as teenagers. Every time they start singing, it seems like a vital process—slightly painful, almost uncontrollable, something that must happen. Eating, breathing, singing. They both have childlike voices and both have a darkness and an air of unaffectedness like I’ve only seen in Iceland.

The wind plays flute
Through the cellar door
And on my window sill
Plays a sad old song
I hope tonight
You will touch my hair
And draw ghosts on my back

They’ve been making music together since they were young, then at school, then in all sorts of bands. Their newest project together is Kórus, a group of 30 artists, each contributing their own music. From time to time, they still sing with múm. “Music has always been in our lives. When we were little, singing all through the house with mom and our grandmothers from the north. That was just what we did. It was part of the daily needs.”

Kristín Anna looks out the large window of her small apartment in Reykjavík. She’s been living here for two months. Before, she’d only lived in dark houses and, although winter is her favorite season and she’s more comfortable when it’s dark, she enjoys the change. She has a small fir tree next to the window; a gift after her and her sister played at a Christmas market. She doesn’t like seeing how it dies a little each day, but she couldn’t refuse it. She starts playing first on guitar, then piano. The piano is a little out of tune, having taken some damage in the move.

Kristín Anna studied classical piano from 8 to 17 years old. “A year I did before I started studying the piano, we learned a little bit about music and we would play the recorder. There was a very great woman who taught us there and she told us some story from Africa and talked about the jungle. And there was this elephant baby and a hunter shot the mother of the elephant baby. And then she put this jungle music on and we were in a big room, sort of walking around, and I don’t know if we were supposed to do this, I don’t know if we were supposed to pretend that we were the elephant baby, but I just remember getting so into this moment. I really felt like I was the elephant baby who lost my mom listening to that music. I was in that landscape, scared and alone. And I think that opened up how song can help you travel through time and space and other lives. 

Kristín Anna

Composers like Bartók and Prokofiev showed her that it’s ok for music to be a little strange, a little dark, a little mysterious, that music can be exactly what you want it to be. “When I was 16 I got to know Gunnar [Gunnar Örn Tynes]. He asked if anyone knew how to play the accordion. And my dad had accordion so I started working with them. We played a show with them and just continued hanging out and exploring different sounds and instruments. This is how múm took off. And all of a sudden, I had this whole schedule where I was supposed to be for the whole year on tours. I started making a living like that and everything was planned. I loved it and it was also a bit weird. I remember after the first tour I was also a bit shocked about how people treated us, especially in America or Japan. Like we were special or something. I have this from classical training, always wanting to get better and feeling like you’re not good enough. […] After this first three-month tour I just got super depressed and didn’t know what to do. I went back to Iceland. And this is another beautiful thing about Iceland: the safety of the society here. It’s ok just to be who you are. I started teaching and playing and learning. It was a great contrast to being in a band and people trying to make some great product out of you; just playing music that’s nobody’s music, just music for music. […] My music is about personal stuff that I don’t know how to deal with.”

AUDIO Gyða

Experiencing international success at 17 changed them. By the end of their teens, they’d already played all over the world. They had a series of deep depressions during those years and, through them, come the Gyða and Kristín Anna of today. As neither of them relate well with that type of success, it made them feel uneasy rather than flattered. They felt they didn’t deserve the attention or praise, that it was too early, and for too little. After leaving múm, Gyða spent the next 5 years travelling for different projects, never staying anywhere for more than a month or two, following one collaboration after the next or, simply, her curiosity. Then she finished a master’s in Switzerland and continued studying cello and piano in Moscow.

Gyða plays several instruments and sings with her perfectly childlike voice. In 2016, she released Epicycle, an album which reinterprets 9 pieces of classical music over the last 2,000 years. She describes the album as a love letter to the sounds of her solar system where there are no borders or walls or time—everything is infinite. “Seikilos Epitaph”, 100 AD, is the oldest song on the album and “God Music”, 1970, composed by George Crumb, is the newest. 

As we’re speaking, the sun disappears and it gets dark. Kristín Anna is full of energy at night. She lives and creates the best in winter. She has several candles throughout the house, a black and white portrait above the piano of their mother, and a picture of her and Gyða as children, dressed in identical red outfits, smiling in front of a mountain.

Iceland has 130 volcanoes, among which about 30 are currently active, baring their teeth about once every 5 years. On 23 January 1973, in the Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago, 10 km (6.2 mi) off the southern coast, the Eldfell volcano suddenly erupted over Heimaey Island after 5,000 years of calm. 5,300 people were evacuated to emergency from 400 houses, unable to take much with them. The eruption lasted 6 months, during which the area was almost completely destroyed by lava, ash and fire. A year later, most of Heimaey Island’s inhabitants had gone back home.

In 1783, there was a record lava flow of 14 cubic kilometers (3.35 cubic miles), from Lakagígar, a volcanic chain that erupted for 8 months. As much from the ash, lava and toxic gases as from the famine that followed the disappearance of crops, approximately one quarter of Iceland’s inhabitants died.

Nature in Iceland reminds you how small you are more so than any other place I’ve visited. The spaces are vast and, besides a few tourist areas that are always crowded with people, you get the feeling of an enormous seclusion. There are icebergs running into the ocean through lagoons of such beautiful turquoise that you feel like you’ve cracked, mauve and green mountains, hot springs gushing from the earth, massive black sand beaches. Two thirds of the national population of 330,000 live in and around Reykjavík. The middle of the country is completely unpopulated. 

Before Christmas, Icelanders go to cemeteries to adorn the crosses of loved ones with lights, snow globes  and  tinsel, they sing carols. After the first neon cemetery and the first girl who cheerfully shows me a mountain off in the distance, sweetly saying ‘look! it’s hell’s gate,’ I start to see the atmosphere of music in the magic of day-to-day life, in equal parts light and darkness. The humor of the Icelanders is dark, and the sadness is balanced with charm. All the tourist points warn that you can be taken off by a wave or the wind, you can fall through the ice, you can get snowed in. Every town has a monument to those called to sacrifice by the ocean-mother.

Nature in Iceland reminds you how small you are more so than any other place I’ve visited. The spaces are vast and, besides a few tourist areas that are always crowded with people, you get the feeling of an enormous seclusion. There are icebergs running into the ocean through lagoons of such beautiful turquoise that you feel like you’ve cracked, mauve and green mountains, hot springs gushing from the earth, massive black sand beaches. Two thirds of the national population of 330,000 live in and around Reykjavík. The middle of the country is completely unpopulated. 

In every town, there are artists’ residencies all over. The former canneries in isolated, abandoned villages have been made into museums and  artistic  spaces during the summer. Fríða Ísberg, poet  and  cultural journalist, tells me about her father’s efforts to give the Garður lighthouse a cultural purpose. The closing of the Keflavik military base and the withdrawal of the American army had an economic impact on the area. Some of the former military housing was made into housing for refugees. Fríða’s father is a photographer and he spent his life in the Garður lighthouse capturing images of the northern lights. In the last years, he set up an artists’ residency in the town with exhibitions in the lighthouse, reopened the neighboring restaurant, and he’s been trying to get financing to transform the former house of the lighthouse guard into accommodations for artists. People have donated chairs, arm chairs, blankets  and  lamps. I tell her about the efforts of architects who dream of transforming the industrial buildings in Petrila and Anina into cultural centers. 

The beach in Vík

The beach in Vík is the most beautiful place in the world. The ocean rumbles, the wind howls, the light from the little town has dissipated. The foam of giant waves runs over the black sand. I can’t believe that I’m back here and a tender anxiety comes over me, as it usually does when I’m in surrounded by nature and my being, raised in Balta Albă, can’t handle all the space.

Chapter II: Tender music, quiet corners

“North and low” (“Norður og Niður”) is an Icelandic expression that was translated for me as “everything is going to hell”: a taste of the dark local humor. Last year, during the days with the least amount of natural light in the year, 27-30 December, Sigur Rós organized the first edition of the “Norður og Niður” festival in Reykjavík. They brought the entire local music community: Sin Fang, Sóley & Örvar Smárason; KÓRUS; Kristín Anna and Gyða Valtýsdóttir; Mr Silla; Iceland Dance Company; Mammút; Sigrún; Gus Gus. Sigur Rós and Alex Somers played every night. “Norður og Niður” was a meeting of friends and collaborators, but also heroes of Sigur Rós: Dan Deacon, Jarvis Cocker, Mogwai, Peaches, JFDR, Kevin Shields, Mary Lattimore, Julianna Barwick, Duston O’Halloran, and Stars of the Lid. In the various halls of the Harpa—the most spacious event venue in Reykjavík—concerts were happening simultaneously: you could run from Mogwai softly whispering “Old songs stay till the end / Sad songs remind me of friends” to Peaches urging you to shout with her “Put your dick in the air / Dick dick dick, balls and dick”. 

Everyone’s sitting, eyes closed. The Port of Reykjavík is in view, and Alex Somers is playing “Siblings”, a performance with 12 gramophones, two cassette players playing the tape in reverse, two reel-to-reels and three pianos in the dark. He’s small and shy. He has a bowl cut and wears a little red sweater. 

Alex is a musician, producer and visual artist. He was born in Baltimore and moved to Reykjavík 12 years ago. “The other music communities I’ve been a part of seem a little bit scary, like it’s harder to put yourself out there. I feel like there’s a little bit less judgement here somehow, and people are less afraid. Also, a really great thing here is that people share equipment. They’re not uptight about this. If you own some expensive thing or anything rare, everyone shares anything. I’ve never heard anyone say ‘sorry, that’s too important to share’. I tried to take on that attitude as well and be really cool about that. More good things come out of it. Everyone feels better and wins. The Icelandic music community has a good attitude, it’s very healthy. It’s a very creative place to work and live. The schools are also great. Kids study music and it’s so reasonable here. In Baltimore it was so dumb, it was a struggle. […] Artists here don’t just have one project. People collaborate and you see the same person play in four or five different groups. A kid is a drummer in a hardcore band and a bass player in a jazz band and a singer in an ambient thing”. I tell him about our high school music classes, which started with us singing the school anthem, followed by us drawing notes on musical staffs without understanding what they were. We kept the rhythm of some pieces by gesturing lazily up and down with our right hand, not knowing what we were doing. It seems that music classes without music are one of the things in common between Bucharest and Baltimore.

Alex Somers

Alex performs “Siblings” every evening of the festival at 22:25. It’s a musical installation: voice and piano, the sound of pedals clapping, the tape popping, a recording of a children’s choir played at reduced speed, running in reverse through the cassette player. Everything is analog with many subtle details. Tender music, quiet corners.

AUDIO - Alex Somers

Chapter III: Femínismi

My list of Icelandic women is a kind of letter to Santa Claus I’ve had since I first got a whiff of their music and felt like I was at home. They transformed my childhood room with their voices, they spoke to me when I was in high school and no one understood me, wearing heavy eyeliner, boots in the summer, and a Dimmu Borgir hoody with “God is Dead” written across it.

So, I sent emails, made contact with Alex Somers through a mutual friend and, after the first yesses, I got a plane ticket. I said that if I meet Sóley, Gyða and Kristín Anna, I can deal with just 3 hours of daylight.

The poet, Gerður Kristný, tells me that, in a few hundred years, the northern lights won’t be visible from Iceland anymore, but it’s ok because by then we’ll all be dead anyways. She lives in a house with large windows opening to the sea and a minimalist ensemble of houses where the president lives. “Icelandic nature tends to be very dramatic. It’s a bit scary to experience an earthquake, feeling your house moving and you can’t do anything, not knowing when it will stop or if there’s another earthquake coming in a few minutes. You don’t know what to do in that sort of situation. Or when there is a volcano eruption and we can’t tell exactly when the eruption will start or when it will finish. So, this is what we have to deal with. It’s a cause of a lot of insecurity. […] We live on an island far away from other countries and it has its minuses. But it’s also nice. We’re a close-knit community and we have to help each other out. We don’t know what nature will do to us next. It’s always plotting, coming back to show us who’s the boss and we just have to obey nature. And that’s what it’s like being an Icelander. You sleep fully clothed because you might have to run out in the middle of the night from an earthquake or whatever. Or a polar bear. They sometimes come floating on ice from the North Pole. That can be scary too, but it also means that you have the stuff for a good story—a polar bear knocking on your door. That’s something.”

Gerður is among the most successful Icelandic authors, writing poetry and children’s books. Her volume, Blóðhófnir (Bloodhoof), is inspired by an old Norse poem which tells the story of the giant Gerður who was kidnapped and forced to marry the god Freyr, written from the point of view of the servant who kidnapped her. Gerður Kristný has rewritten the story in the voice of the giant. On 25 October 2010, when Icelandic women took to the streets protesting the wage gap between women and men, as well as the violence that women are exposed to throughout the world, the poet Gerður read the story of the giant Gerður and her strife:

He wrapped
my hair
around his hand
and led me

away

Freyr’s paws
pawed me

reducing me
to terror

scored
a new scar
on my skin each night.

AUDIO - Bára Gísladóttir

I talked about feminism with all the ladies in the most natural way because, in Iceland, feminism is like music. 

To help Iceland out of the economic crisis, Björk and Audur Capital (established by the financial experts Halla Tómasdóttir and Kristin Petursdóttir) created the Björk Fund which supports startups focusing in green energy. Tómasdóttir said that the purpose of the Björk fund is to finance and support businesses with realistic plans for sustainable growth: “Iceland was the first in the world into the crisis, but we could be the first out, and women have a big role to play in that. It goes back to our Viking women. While the men were out there raping and pillaging, the women were running the show at home.

Fast Facts: The Best Party, crisis and light
  • Jón Gunnar Kristinsson was the mayor of Reykjavík from 2010 to 2014. The comedic actor, punk rocker (member of the band Nefrennsli), anarchist, and former taxi driver convinced Icelanders that the solution is for politicians to not be politicians but artists who satirize corruption and lies. The Best Party was the humorous response to the financial crisis of 2008 by a group of artists with no political experience whatsoever. Their electoral campaign was full of ironic promises (polar bears in the zoo, free towels at public pools, no drugs in parliament until 2020). Their introduction video features them singing “Simply the Best” with the lines, “We are the best, the bestest of parties, best for Reykjavík, best city of every week.” Six months later, Jón was elected mayor.
  • In 2016, Prime Minister Sigmundur David resigned after information about his offshore account was published in the Panama Papers. In June 2017, the father of the Prime Minister-to-be, Bjarni Benediktsson, wrote a letter in support of Hjalti Sigurjon Hauksson, convicted in 2004 of sexually abusing his step-daughter for 12 years.
  • Iceland is the only country that convicted bankers following the financial crisis of 2008: 29 bankers received sentences of up to 5 years in prison.
  • On 21 December, the shortest day of the year, the sun rises at 11:30 and sets at 3:30. They have midnight sun from May to August. Around the summer solstice, Reykjavík has 21 hours of sun, and slightly to the west, the sun shines for 24 hours.
  • Piece by piece, Icelanders have dismantled common fears. This year, a law came into force requiring public and private companies to pay their employees equally, regardless of gender, ethnicity or nationality. Iceland is one of the first democracies in the world. Their parliament was created in the year 930. In 1980, they had the first democratically elected female president in the world, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir: a single mother, former teacher and director of the Reykjavík Theatre Company. She was president of Iceland for 16 years. In 2009, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became the first gay woman in the world elected to the head of government. Since 30 November 2017, the prime minister has been Katrín Jakobsdóttir, 41, feminist, pacifist, environmental activist.

“Feminism doesn’t surprise anyone in Iceland, it’s self-evident that we are equal,” Bára Gísladóttir tells me, a composer and double bassist. When we met, I was expecting a giant to show up. But Bára is petite with light blue eyes, and she hauls her massive double bass through the hall of the Harpa. She tells me she has a terrible cold and she fractured a rib coughing. She started studying violin at 5 years old, and afterwards discovered her favorite instrument: the double bass. In 2015, Bára released her debut album, Different Rooftops, and, in 2016, released B R I M S L Ó Ð, an electronic composition for the double bass in 3 movements, each representing a different ocean layer. B R I M S L Ó Ð is dark, cagey, epic. She composes with textures, colors, volume and movement in mind. When she moved to Denmark, she realized that feminism is a taboo subject in many circles, a word many people—including some women—avoid. She can’t reason with this fear: for her, feminism is a part of the natural order, common sense. “Of course, we still have a long way to go here [in Iceland], too, but the situation is much better than in other countries I’ve lived in or traveled to. Here, women aren’t afraid, and that’s also felt in the music we make.”

Piece by piece, Icelanders have dismantled common fears. This year, a law came into force requiring public and private companies to pay their employees equally, regardless of gender, ethnicity or nationality. Iceland is one of the first democracies in the world. Their parliament was created in the year 930. In 1980, they had the first democratically elected female president in the world, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir: a single mother, former teacher and director of the Reykjavík Theatre Company. She was president of Iceland for 16 years. In 2009, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became the first gay woman in the world elected to the head of government. Since 30 November 2017, the prime minister has been Katrín Jakobsdóttir, 41, feminist, pacifist, environmental activist.

Chapter IV: MAMMÚT

In the Nordic literature that Katrína Kata Mo, Vilborg Ása Dýradóttir and Alexandra Baldursdóttiro studied at school, women built their houses and rode on horseback. “We’re a feminist country. We had the first female president and we have Björk. We were raised with several examples of strong women,” they say. Their band, MAMMÚT, came out in 2003, first as a rock group of the three girls, 13 years old at the time, singing and playing bass and guitar. The band grew to include Andri Bjartur Jakobsson on drums and Arnar Pétursson on guitar. MAMMÚT plays a kind of alternative rock/post-punk with psychedelic features.

We met just after Norður og Niður in a pool closed to the public. It’s one of the first pools built in Reykjavík. On its walls were black-and-white photos of the workers who built it, dressed in outfits of trousers to their ankles and Oliver Twist flat caps. All Icelanders go to the geothermal pools to lounge in the warm water while their eyebrows freeze. They’re all over, in every neighborhood, in every small village. There are also naturally-occurring basins formed in the wild around hot springs. Andri says he doesn’t think he could live in Iceland without this kind of relaxation to forget the cold. For MAMMÚT, the festival was an occasion to see all their friends in one place, a kind of big get together where they felt the whole community’s presence, where they remembered what’s great about being a musician in Iceland, even if you don’t make enough money to throw around: you feel like you are  part of a freely creative organism.

When I cry over you
I find it hard to calm down
So I rest my head in the grass
and I make it rain
I wish it would rain
I let it rain

AUDIO - MAMMÚT

We stand barefoot in the middle of the drained pool. We mostly talk about the weather and the dark, how the seasons influence the Icelandic creative process. At one point, a man in a bathing suit appears through the door and happily shouts: MAMMÚT! Because they’ve been playing since they were kids, MAMMÚT is one of the bands closest to the heart of Icelanders. They spend a lot of time together in the studio or making music at home during winter, waiting for the darkness to pass. “The weather’s extreme here. It messes with your mind even if you don’t realize it. It has a huge impact on you. You get very creative in winter, then spring comes and everything you created in winter starts to bloom, and you harvest in summer. And in summer you feel pressured to go outside, to enjoy the light and the midnight sun. You’re afraid to lose that spirit. If the weather’s good you have to be outside.” They remember how free they were growing up, how they were always outside when they were kids because there was nothing to be afraid of. And Iceland is still a very safe country. “I was 6 years old and my family said: come back by midnight. It was normal, it was still light.”

Reykjavík seems like a toy city. With the exception of a few office buildings along the seafront and the futuristic-looking concert hall, the Harpa, you don’t really see tall buildings. It’s the northernmost capital in the world and it means “bay of smokes”. From the city center, you can see the ocean and Esja mountain. The houses are far apart and the few fences are purely decorative. On the narrow streets in the center, you hear live music from the bars in the evening. 

CHAPTER V: Sóley laughs and says “See?”

I love Sóley Stefánsdóttir’s music. With her delicate voice and seemingly huge accordion, she plays me her new song sitting on the floor in front of a window through which a storm can be seen gathering over a snowy mountain. The weather changes frequently, her moods change with the weather. When the wind blows hard and it’s storming, she’s restless, she’s tired when the nights are long, and when it’s sunny, she’s ecstatic. It’s December now, and depression hangs heavy around her neck: “There was Christmas, then Norður og Niður, then New Year’s. On 2 January, I took my girl to nursery, I came home and said: ‘now what do I do?’ It’s very dark, very dark and cold. So it’s kind of the time to be depressed and, from there, to create something. I usually compose in January and February, stay at home and make music, think about music, record. It’s a really good time to work if you can wake up because then summer comes and you want to be outside.”

15 years ago, she discovered Joanna Newsome and Ólöf Arnalds. “Before then, I was listening to a lot of music made by guys, and before discovering them, I didn’t think it was something I could do, too. So, I think it’s important that many women are there to inspire other women to make music—to be present, to be visible. We’re equal, we’re all artists but, for me, it was very important to see other women expressing themselves this way. I look and say, oh great, I can do it, too! […] At the Art Academy I had many classmates that are singing and composing today, having a lot of success outside of Iceland, as well. It makes me so happy.”

AUDIO - Sóley

After she plays, we go out to take pictures. As we’re going down from the third floor to the ground level, it starts pouring rain. Then the rain becomes snow and we run through the large snowflakes to the seaside. I take two pictures and the sun comes out. Sóley laughs and says “See?” While we stand with our faces glued to the window, waiting for the rain to stop, she tells me she just bought an alarm clock that changed her life—a clock with a sun. Shortly before the alarm goes off, a little light bulb starts lighting up, tricking your mind into believing the sun is out so it’s easier to wake up.

CHAPTER VI: Myrkur / Dark

I visited Iceland for the first time in August 2011. I landed at around midnight and the sun was just setting. After a month, the sky began erupting in purple, green and yellow lights, that would dance for hours. I was in Seyðisfjörður, a small town in the east, when I saw the northern lights at their peak. I was in an empty parking lot, I laid out on my back and marveled while people were going by in cars to the supermarket or the pool. 

I wanted to see the place múm, Slowblow, and Seabear came from. I camped out for three months in other-worldly landscapes. It seemed like the sun was permanently setting or rising.. It rose slightly and stayed there, in that magic point , perfect for making pictures,  that I wait for on summer days at home. When I think about that trip now, I have the feeling that it didn’t actually happen, that I couldn’t have been  camping on a black shore with chunks of ice all around, living out of a tent for two weeks. There’s no way. I was hitchhiking around the island which I hadn’t initially planned on, but during the first longer roadside walk, a girl stopped in a giant Jeep and asked where I was heading. Afterwards, I realized hitchhiking was a great solution in a country of elves, that there was no risk in Iceland where crime is almost zero. They have no army, the police are unarmed and the children play in the streets unsupervised—the way things used to be, as my folks would say. When you arrive in Iceland from Europe, there’s no passport control in the airport or harbor. In departures, a young man next to baggage check-in calmly asks which country you’re from, but he doesn’t write it down anywhere.

CHAPTER VII: Forsæla / Safe place

I visit Kristin Björk Kristjansdottir in her small hometown, Mosfellsbær. We’re on the waterfront, talking about music, community, her latest album, Alchemy & Friends, until we freeze over. She is at the center of the Icelandic music industry by way of the enthusiasm with which she always brings people together for new projects. Under the name Kira Kira, she composes, makes films and experimental projects bordering between audio and visual. Every song on her last album is written for a friend and is meant to help them get through a difficult time. It’s an alchemical exercise in intervention and healing through music. Talk to Your Hands, for example, is dedicated to a pianist friend who, for mysterious reasons, could not move his hands for a year and a half: “I told him he should talk to his hands, to ask what’s going on, what’s happening, how can I help?”

“Forsæla is my favorite word. We have so much wind here that, in Icelandic, we have more words for wind than any other language, and forsæla means a safe place—that perfect place next to a boulder where you’re protected from the wind.” It’s a difficult word to translate because it describes something typically Icelandic. It means a quiet place where you feel almost bliss, something great is going to happen and this is your first contact with that feeling. “For me, it means tenderness and the song Forsæla is about the time you decide to be gentle all the time, with the whole world.” Tiny waves break on the frozen shore, the light is pink and Kristin motions with a bird feather in her hand as she talks about the story behind each song and her connection to nature here. At one point, we noticed our fingers were completely numb. It’s a feeling that makes you appreciate everything all the more, as it’s happening in summer when everything is on break for a warm day, everyone stays outside like cats sitting in a sunlit spot next to the radiator.

CHAPTER VIII: SiGRÚN

SiGRÚN (Sigrún Jónsdóttir) has a small Jeep, pink like a piece of candy, and a wicked sense of humor. She did a video for her friend’s piece, the composer Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir, Skeletons Having Sex on a Tin Roof, which went viral with over 2 million people watching it on Youtube. That’s six times the population of Iceland. The song is a type of psychedelic, experimental-surrealist jazz, and Sigrún dances in a bathing suit and space boots with a plastic crown on her head.

I arrive at her house in the morning and she’s waiting for me with tea, dressed in a Titanic hoody with silver socks. We take her pink Jeep out on frozen roads, rising and falling between black hills, covered in white lines of snow until we arrive at the Kleifarvatn lakeshore. In her music, Sigrún uses rocks, sand and other everyday elements, transforming them into experimental music (experimental sound design, more precisely). She seeks to create soundscapes, every song being a self-contained world, an entire universe. She also writes for, and plays, several instruments. In 2016, she released her first albums, Hringsjá and Tog. She toured with Björk, Florence and the Machine and Sigur Rós.

SiGRÚN

She says it’s fun being a musician in Iceland because everyone is playful. What’s more, you have the best of both worlds: landscape, sounds and textures from nature to inspire you, and you have access to technology, great recording, performance spaces and a community to feed you energetically. And Icelanders seem to be having the most fun. Sigrún has been everywhere, travelled to all continents and the thing she feels is unique to Iceland, the thing she can’t find anywhere else, is space. “Everyone has a lot of space and I think we’re used to having room in all directions. A lot of sky, a lot of water, a lot of room to think. You drive ten minutes and you get to an incredible landscape where you’re completely alone.” She was walking one day and felt that she wanted to create something out of nothing so she found some rocks, painted them gold and got a program that can make sounds out of anything.

As we’re talking, the sun rises and starts setting. We’re alone on a black beach, Sigrún is dressed in red, holding a golden rock, the wind is blowing hard and my questions seem off—the answer is too obvious.

CHAPTER IX: When I step on Björk’s foot

Icelanders decorate their houses and little trees—trees don’t grow very tall because of the wind—with Christmas lights. This is yet another way to fight off the darkness and sadness that come with long winters. They buy fireworks for home like New Year’s Eve parties organized by the Sector 5 City Hall. They want their city to rumble. At 10 pm, men wearing suits and slippers start carrying massive boxes of fireworks out to the middle of the street to light them up. I imagine how their little star explosions would look in the sky from the middle of the ocean.

The festival’s New Year’s party is held in a restaurant next to the lake. I dance next to Jarvis Cocker to “Dragostea din Tei”, I hear him crooning in the Pulp accent “nu muh nu muh nu muh yay”, I step on Björk’s foot because we both dance hard to “No Scrubs” by TLC, I see Afronosky moving with a reserved salaciousness to “I’m A Slave 4 U” by Britney, and I wait in line for the girl’s bathroom in front of Peaches. There’s a ton of glitter on everything and, at 4 am, a sort of super group gets on stage, playing “Say My name”, a punk cover of “Nothing Compares to You” and an impassioned “Dreams” with live instruments and several voices. Sigrún is wearing an enormous, white balloon attached to her shirt.

There’s a windstorm on the day I go home. It’s not raining or snowing, but the wind is insane. It’s so bad that the buses can’t even go out on the wide highways to get to the airport. The Japanese are devastated and ask that the schedule be followed, the Canadians wearing shorts say it’s not that bad, the Americans evoke their rights. The young man at the counter explains that they don’t drive when the weather’s like this, that we should just relax for now because the wind’s blowing, and we’ll see how it is a little later.

Translated by Andrew K. Davidson

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