“My heroes were the poet Steinn Steinarr and the drummer John Bonham,” says singer-songwriter Bjartmar Guðlaugsson who at 60 can still bang together a couplet or two. He was one of Iceland’s biggest pop stars in the late ’80s, which in retrospect can be seen as the golden age of Icelandic verse set to music. People like Bubbi, Megas, Hörður Torfa and even the joyful Stuðmenn competed in writing lyrics that were both instantly catchy and yet often scathingly critical in content.
Then Björk and Sigur Rós started being heard abroad, and for the first time since Icelandic rock’s infancy in the ’60s, English became the language of choice. Indeed, by the late ’90s it seemed that the only people who still sang in Icelandic were inane pop groups who toured drunken gatherings in the countryside, while those with any real ambition concentrated on the outside world. Icelandic music became increasingly eclectic and original, but the words sometimes seemed like something of an afterthought. By this time, at the age of 40, Bjartmar packed his bags, sold all his belongings and moved to Denmark to study painting.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that his music only started being widely heard again after the economic collapse, when he re-emerged with his new band, Bergrisarnir, and the album ‘Skrýtin veröld’ (“Strange World”), which dealt specifically with those tumultuous times. At the same time, younger acts like Mugison have also switched to their native language to widespread local acclaim. “I don’t really care in which language people sing,” Bjartmar says, “but I am an Icelandic writer and I’m happy about it. We have a lot of great writers here. Laxness and Þórbergur may still be the giants, but they have cast a light over what has come after, rather than a shadow.”
Too sentimental for love
Bjartmar, originally from the east coast of Iceland and of half-Faroese origin, started his career as a drummer in Vestmannaeyjar in the ’70s. “We had all been working as sailors back then, so we had the money to buy the best equipment,” he says. A housepainter by trade, he also designed band posters and when lyrics were needed, he tried his hand at that too. This would eventually lead him to write for big name artists (including the track “Afi,” sung by a teenage Björk).
Many of his tracks are, like “Afi,” (“Grandpa”), seen from a child’s point of view. “I don’t write children’s songs, but I write songs about the world of children,” he says. “There’s a difference. Children don’t think in the same cynical way I do.” The trend was apparent through his biggest hits, the albums ‘Í fylgd með fullorðnum’ (“Accompanied By Adults”), ‘Vottorð í leikfimi’ (“Skipping Gym Class”) and ‘Það er puð að vera strákur’ (“It’s Hard To Be A Boy”).
Another fixture of Bjartmar’s verse is his alter ego, the braggart and drunkard ‘Sumarliði,’ who has so far appeared in nine songs and is also known to pop up in his pictures. “It’s a form of black humour very prevalent on the east coast. My father said I grinned so much as a baby that I couldn’t use a pacifier,” Bjartmar explains. “I have a hard time writing love poems. I think my wife María would get tired if, after 30 years of marriage, I would constantly be writing love songs about her. I don’t remember ever writing a love song, but María says it’s ok because they are really all love songs. I think I am just too sentimental to write love songs. I could never watch ‘The Little House On The Prairie’ while hung over. It was on at a difficult time, at four on Sunday afternoons.”
The poetry of colours
As we switch gears, from the sarcasm of his lyrics to his painting, a different Bjartmar emerges. His texts are littered with colourful characters, but his canvases show landscapes largely devoid of people. His current series is dedicated to glaciers. “Laxness says somewhere that the grass was so green it was red. People thought he was being pretentious, but he was right. This was the kind of poetry I wanted to learn when I went to study in Denmark, the poetry of colours,” he says.
Bjartmar, the housepainter, songwriter, sailor and landscape artist, finds that these various pursuits augment one another. “Laxness drew, played piano and wrote,” he says. “Icelanders by nature like to dabble in different fields, although this is not always considered cool.” Some might beg to differ, as this might be seen as the very definition of Icelandic cool. Perhaps it comes with the smallness of the country; instead of spending years promoting your latest album, you can do something else, like paint.
Tonsils and the city
Bjartmar still has a home on the east coast, although he claims it’s the city that inspires him most. “I have loved Reykjavík since I first came here at the age of three to have my tonsils removed,” he says. “I have never gotten the hang of relaxing in the countryside. I suppose cities have a particular fascination for those who grow up in sparsely populated areas.” Nonetheless, he does not agree with the views of many of those on the east coast who want to build aluminium smelters all over the place: “All Icelanders should become nature conservationists. We should learn to love the country. All of it.”
Bjartmar’s phone rings. “That must be Sumarliði,” he says, seeming intent on turning our conversation into a Paul Auster novel. It is not, in fact, his alter ego on the line, but rather his wife. Both seem equally indispensable to Bjartmar. “I’ve never gotten the point of this whole rock star thing. Icelanders are all one big family,” he says. “I work with words, but I’ve never grabbed my testicles on stage.”
Don’t forget the sheep gun, darling
Rather than rock and roll, it was his job as a housepainter that nearly proved fatal. At some point, he fell off a platform and severely injured his leg. For years, he experienced excruciating pain as a result. Doctors did not know what to do and he even went so far as to ask his wife to get the neighbour’s sheep gun to end it all until, in 2007, a new laser treatment finally solved the problem.
While this partially accounts for his long absence from the music scene, he also had problems with local record companies. His self-titled 1994 album, ‘Bjartmar,’ which he claims is his best, was distributed in Sweden but not in Iceland. Still, he says he has no sour grapes. “We all have stories like that, but when you turn 60, you just want to give life a big hug. That’s what I say to everyone my age. In 20 years time, we might all be together at the old folks’ home and not even recognise each other, so we should hug each other now. After all, we are not taking out 50 year mortgages anymore.”
Bjartmar may be back in vogue, but he still has some doubts about the future. “It’s as if the boom is just on pause. Someone sat on the remote control, but the tape is still in the VCR,” he says a bit anachronistically, adding, “I don’t think young people have ever been as smart as they are now, but I worry about all the soon-to-be retired members of parliament and cognac sautéed ambassadors who will all be drawing triple or quadruple retirement benefits. At this rate, there won’t be much left for poor Sumarliði.”