Why An Icelandic Pop Act With Millions Of Streams Is Shifting To Ambient Drone Music

Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir

The music industry is a tough place for an independent artist no matter where in the world they are. Obviously, those outside big hubs like New York and Los Angeles, or say, London or Toronto, things are a little trickier. Now, imagine living on one of the smallest islands in the world? The difficulty level increases exponentially. That’s what Sóley explains to me as we sat in the lobby of a seaside hotel in Reykjavik, hashing out the impact Iceland Airwaves has had on her life and her work.

The challenges Icelandic artists face are steeper than just living in a smaller market — they quite literally live in the middle of nowhere, and any potential tour includes the cost international airfare, every single time. That’s one of the reasons why the community on the island, which includes plenty of prolific musical talent, helped organize and support the Iceland Airwaves festival, the inaugural artist discovery fest for the country that just celebrated its 20th anniversary this year.

Though it’s my first year at the fest, which I found to be one of the best artist discovery events of the year, Sóley has played it for the past ten years now. The night before we spoke, I’d caught her festival set at the National Theatre of Iceland, where she’d strayed from the playful indie pop that has typified her work — not just as a solo artist but also across several bands she’s been involved with — and moved into ambient drone music. So given all the other challenges of being an Icelandic musician, why did she move into a genre that’s even more inaccessible and difficult to parse? Read our conversation below, which has been condensed and edited, to find out.

Since we’re here during the fest, let’s start by talking a little bit about what Iceland Airwaves has meant to you as an artist? How long have you been involved wit the event?

I was trying to remember it yesterday. My first time playing it was 2008, so ten years ago. I played with a band I was in called Seabear. Since then, I think I’ve played every festival. My first solo gig was 2011, and I was playing a small room but there was this huge line. It was all this buzz and I didn’t know what to expect, but it was really amazing for my first showcase festival. It was nice to be in my own city — because I’m used to traveling and used to touring. But, at the same time, it’s so weird to just go home after and take a shower. It’s really exciting to have a crazy big festival in your hometown but, at the same time, it’s so weird not to be somewhere. It’s so weird to be in your own cafe.

It’s almost like a celebration of your city.

Yeah, exactly. It means a lot to me. It wouldn’t be a year of music if it didn’t include Airwaves. It’s always good when it’s done, as well, because everyone is so f*cking busy.

Do you have a favorite memory from over the years?

I remember one year, it must have been 2012 or something. I was playing so many shows then. A ton of unofficial shows — like you walk into a gas station and there’s a show there. It was getting like that, pretty crazy, and I was just overbooked… I had so many shows and I was teaching at the time. I remember I was teaching, and I knew I was supposed to play at some point but I was kind of confused, so I was teaching in my hometown and everyone was calling me on the phone. I was turning off my phone like, ‘God, why is everyone calling me?’

Then, my mom knocks on the door at the music school. She was like, ‘Sóley, your show is on.’ I was like, ‘Okay, you students, get out,’ and ran into my mom’s car so she could drive me to the show. In the car, I just started crying because I was half an hour late to my own show. I showed up and there were all these people waiting. I came up on stage drying my tears. I was like, ‘Hi, I’m sorry.’ It’s always like that. It’s like you just don’t know where you’re supposed to be at some time, but it’s like, you can laugh about it afterward.

Well, my first time seeing you perform was during the festival at the National Theatre. Can you talk a little bit about what you were doing at that set in particular, because you mentioned a couple times a lot of it was newer?

Trying to get a focus right here. Ok, so I’m a piano player and I’ve made three albums, three LPs, that are kind of piano-based. I have this love-hate relationship with the piano. I make an album and I love it and then, after it, I’m like, ‘Oh, f*ck. I can’t make any more music on it.’ What I did now, was like I have an accordion… so I took that and I was like, ‘Why don’t I just make an accordion album?’ I was telling everyone I wanted to make an accordion album but everyone thought it would be like a polka or something.

But what I had in mind was drone, like accordion drone. I started listening to a lot of female experimental musicians — because there’s a ton of them in the past that just didn’t get recognized because they’re women. I started checking them out and checking out modular synthesizers. I’m right there right now and I can’t even listen to pop music anymore. I’m really focused on just sound and soundscape and stuff like that.

That’s why I’m making the kind of music that I played on Friday. It was just an experiment. I have those songs but they’re really free, the form is not ready. The band is the three of us, my drummer and the bass player and synths and stuff. There were times at the show where we all just stopped playing because I thought he was supposed to play and he thought I was supposed, and there was just this silence.

I don’t think any of that uncertainty came across, though.

I’m happy to hear that. I’m so used to having everything so strictly nailed down. My compositions are just like, ‘we start here, you come in there.’ I really need to conduct everything so this is a big step out of the box for me to let the guys improvise, and go more into the jazz, or an improvised feeling. I was really happy to do it because it’s not the way to popularity or to getting famous. I know that for certain, but this is just where my heart needs to be.

I’m constantly trying to tell myself that I have to follow what I wanted to and not what everyone else wants me to do. It’s a struggle because you always have those industry people telling you what to do. Then, I met my friends after the show and I was kind of sad because I was like, ‘What am I doing? Why don’t I just make pop music or whatever?’ Everyone’s just like, ‘We should just always do what we want to do.’

Trust yourself.

My project has been going on for 10 years and I’ve worked with a lot of people and a lot of men, males, guys, whatever we call them, and they’ve been advising me what to do. When I was starting, I was just 20. I had no idea what I was doing so I was like, ‘Okay, I trust them.’ It’s just like having a father. They were just my dads. When I look back, I’m like, ‘wow. Did I really… where was I in all this, all my ideas and everything that I wanted to do? Why didn’t my ideas cut through? Because they were too weird or too dark or too whatever?’ At this moment, I’m kind of free. I don’t have a record deal or anything, and that’s what allows me to do it for some reason. It’s f*cked up but that’s reality.

Okay, so you started doing music about 10 years ago? Is that the timeline?

Right. Solo stuff.

Then, the stuff you’re working on now, is that for an album to come out next year?

Probably next year. I’ve been working on it on and off for probably about a year but I’ve been taking a lot of other projects so I haven’t been focusing 100% on that, which I think is also good because I’m used to just focusing 100% on my album and just releasing it. Now, I’ve been giving it the time it needs in a way. I’m probably just growing old, getting older. I have a kid now and I’m just so emotional. I’m like, ‘We’re all just in it for the music, guys. We’re.. we don’t think about money.’

Well, that ties into what I was going to ask you, what do you think are the unique challenges that face Icelandic musicians? Is making money off music something that’s possible here?

Well, it’s super expensive to live here. I also feel like before and after I had a child, and an apartment, and a loan — before that, when I got some big advance, I just spent it. Now, I’m like, ‘Okay. I have to save money because I have to buy boots or something for my kid.’ It’s not that horrible but it is quite expensive to live here. Food is expensive. Those are the challenges, definitely, the money, but I’ve somehow made it possible to be a musician. I’ve just been traveling a lot and I work a lot. I tour a lot and I take — sometimes I take gigs that I’m like, ‘Why? Why am I doing this?’ Also, the problem is we always have to fly everywhere, so the fee — most of the time — half of the fee goes into buying tickets. You can’t play once a month here because it’s not that many people who can come to the show. It’s the same people who come, same 50 people.

Someone told me that a couple years ago, you had this huge single blow up, “Pretty Face.” Can you tell me a little bit about the story there?

Yeah, it’s so funny. That’s a song that came out on my first album, We Sink, in 2011. It was just completely out of the blue. I didn’t even like the song. I don’t even like it anymore. I never liked it. It’s so funny, how life turns out and what songs become popular. I just put out the album. I remember I got a phone call from a newspaper here or something in Iceland and they were like, ‘Now, I can see you have a few million views on your song and it’s not even a video and stuff,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, what?’ I had just woken up. I went to the computer and the song was just climbing.

Then, it was maybe five million, so it was like in the really early stages. I think it’s over 20 million now. It was just a snowball effect. No one paid for anything. It was just a German guy who uploaded the song, with the really blurry album cover image on Youtube. Even though I didn’t like the song, it helped me a lot, and helped me to gain an audience. I was able to go places. And I’m happy that it came out naturally, it was really organic. I think the people who liked it, I’m hoping that they’re open to the new styles and new ideas that I’m doing right now.

As far as your new album and your new direction are you recording here? What is that process like?

I have a tiny studio or a garage that’s not really a proper studio, but that’s where I do everything. When I started making music I really wanted to do it myself. I’d had both heard and experienced my friends going to work with producers who kind of took over, talking again about the industry and telling people what they’re supposed to be. I got super afraid and I was like, ‘no, I’m not going there,’ so I was like, ‘I’m going to do everything myself.’ I’m not technically the best technician, sound technician, but I’ve learned so much by doing it myself.

I have to tell people that I do it. People think someone else did it. ‘You’re a singer.’ That’s what they tell me. That’s what everyone thinks I am, a singer. I’m not a singer. I’m trying to fix that, fix that misunderstanding. I would never consider myself a singer. I studied composition. My favorite place is to be in my garage and just making music and recording it. I’ve done it with all my albums but I do go record drums somewhere else, and then I mix it. I pre-mix it but I finish mixing it with someone else. Now, I’ve been thinking about maybe recording it live or recording it on tape or doing something different with my next album.

Have you heard Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith? That’s who I thinking when I saw your show.

Yeah. She is amazing. It’s so funny that she came … She was playing here last year at Norður og Niður, a festival curated by Sigur Rós in Harpa. I was talking about modular synthesizers, and she has the Buchla synth. Before I saw her or even heard her music, I had seen all those synthesizers and the modular things and I was like, ‘No, it’s not for me. No. No, it’s not for me.’ Then, I saw her and… it’s so funny.

That’s when I just started googling modular synthesizers and reading a lot about it — and I bought myself a Moog, a new Grandmother Moog. I’ve had those moments in my life, hearing about some female musicians or composers that it changes everything. She’s one of the ones I was like, ‘Wow, what is she doing?’ Just because she was doing it and just because she was a woman, it’s something that I connected to. I was like, ‘I want to do that, too.’