While sitting at a straight-to-vinyl recording session, curated by the Icelandic artist Ásgeir at this year’s iteration of Iceland Airwaves festival in Reykjavik, it occurred to me that I hadn’t felt this excited about discovering an artist in years. The session I attended was for JFDR, one of the foremost local singer-songwriters at the fest, and she was performing a song I’d heard the previous night at a secret apartment show where she joined with two other Icelandic songwriters to form The Palace Muses, a group that paid homage to Renaissance music, while sprinkling in some of their own material.
Remembering the song from the night before, I felt a thrill of recognition that I hadn’t expected to feel while surrounded by mostly foreign acts; there was an intimacy at this fest that led me to not only discover a new act to be obsessed with, but afforded me the chance to see her in two wildly disparate settings — without even meaning to. That is the effortlessness that typifies Iceland Airwaves, a festival that is almost single-handedly responsible for the recent surge in Icelandic tourism, that is now entering its 20th anniversary as an event. Infamously beginning in an Icelandair hangar at the airport, the almost week-long festival now spans numerous venues across Reykjavik, and welcomes a whole host of international visitors every year.
It’s the type of event that is so important to this island nation that the Prime Minister of the country will share a playlist to help spotlight it. The mayor of Reykjavik was present to welcome visiting journalists on our first night in the country, and stateside indie superstars like Blood Orange, Bedouine and Soccer Mommy happily came to join the lineup. But even with a handful of American artists brought in to flesh out the bill, the emphasis for this fest has been and always will be focused inward. The entire ethos of the fest is bent toward spotlighting Icelandic artists, and the sheer force of talent contained on this tiny island is somewhat remarkable — and sizeable enough to sustain an event of this magnitude.
For those who are used hopping from stage to stage in a gated, coddled carnival for a two-day weekend experience, Iceland Airwaves would be a shock to the system. But for someone like me, who first considered a career in music journalism after being exposed to the early days of discovery-oriented festivals like New York’s CMJ and Brooklyn’s Northside Festival, Iceland Airwaves was a welcome reminder of why I got into this business in the first place: There is no greater thrill than falling in love with a new artist’s live set. And doing so while surrounded by a crowd of like-minded people is the kind of high that will get travelers returning year in and year out to Airwaves.