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.
Plenty of the journalists I traveled with had been to the fest upwards of six or seven times, and one, David Fricke of Rolling Stone, had made the trek so many times that this year he was awarded a lifetime pass to attend. You see, the massive scale that has infiltrated the festival market, the unrelenting focus on big names, headliner announcements, and ticket sales, has insidiously undermined one of the things that used to give festival their necessary and enjoyable chaotic good: Artist discovery. Even during my first (and only) Coachella in 2007, I discovered Jack’s Mannequin, playing a set lodged in between Hot Chip and Regina Spektor. Yes, seeing the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Arcade Fire was a priority of mine that night — crowd surfing to the former and getting shotgun high to the latter are both priceless experiences — but discovering Jack’s Mannequin led me to Something Corporate and a whole pop-punk scene.
So it was on my first night, watching the Palace Muses with their cheeky, animated style and absolutely flooring harmonies that I felt the real pull of the event. It was a tiny, magical show in an apartment, but it couldn’t have occurred anywhere else in the world. Then, walking into a vinyl listening session the next day, I quickly realized I’d ended up at a set for the same artist when she began playing the song that had captivated me just the night before. Small world, just the way a good festival should be. I’m not saying JFDR will be as influential as Jack’s Mannequin (The Glass Passenger forever), but given the level of professionalism I saw her exhibit in two separate very stressful performances, there’s a good chance she’ll still find a way to break out stateside.
In Iceland, of course, her band is already very well-known, as was the case with most of the local acts we saw; their sets were packed out, wall-to-wall, while bigger names who had come in from America weren’t as well attended. Even for locals, the thrill is seeing their own take the stage, and whether it was well established glam-rock acts like Mammút, or a breakout throwback soul band like Júníus Meyvant (who just signed a record deal with Glassnote), or an indie pop stalwart switching gears to ambient drone, like Sóley, the heart of the event was clearly beating strongest for these bands, who are holding out against all odds on a tiny island, to pursue their dreams of making music the world will hear.
And as long as Iceland Airwaves continues on in the vein it has for the past twenty years, spotlighting their own and curating a lineup impressive enough to draw in international visitors the world over, then these bands do have a chance of making it to the world stage. In the meantime, I’ll be doing everything in my power to head back to Iceland each year and discover more of them. With so few fests still hewing close to this now rare tenet of artist discovery, Airwaves stands a chance of being the best place to discover a young new band before they get huge. As a music festival, that’s the best reputation they could have.
Uproxx was hosted by Icelandair and Iceland Airwaves for this story. You can find out more about our policy on press trips/hostings here.