When I first meet Sóley Stefánsdóttir (aka Icelandic songstress sóley) at KEX Hostel, she’s flustered. “I just arrived in Iceland a few hours ago so I’ve only had the time to deal with my daughter and jump in the shower before coming here!” Suddenly I feel a bit guilty for asking her to come and meet me.
She’s just finished two months of touring Australia, Japan, and Europe to promote her new album ‘Ask The Deep’, which has received an overwhelmingly positive response from audiences. “Oh, it’s been awesome,” she says. “It was the first time I’ve been to Australia. It was really sunny and nice, especially for March! We were playing festivals—these kinds of family festivals, so there were all kinds of people in the audience.”
How it began
Success has been a long time in the making for Sóley. A member of Seabear, she had no real plans or intentions of being a pop musician until 2011, when she received an e-mail from Thomas Morr of Morr Records (Seabear’s label at the time) about the idea of releasing some of her own material. Three months later, her debut EP ‘Theater Island’ was released, followed shortly by her debut album ‘We Sink’. “Oh yes, I sometimes think that I am an accidental pop musician in a way,” she says. “Like many other musicians, I guess I wasn’t really planning on going anywhere. I’m just really happy that it turned out the way it did.”
Despite not having any such plans, Sóley’s blend of piano-driven melodies, underpinned by low-key rhythms, and dark gothic themes have become incredibly popular online—in particularly her single, “Pretty Face,” which has received over 18 million hits on YouTube. But the idea of being a singer with a hit song didn’t sit well with Sóley at first. “For a few years I hated playing it!” she laughs. “It was really funny at concerts when I played that song and all of a sudden all these phones would come out and they start taking pictures or use the lights. And for a while I was going ‘Noooo!’ when [everyone else] was going ‘Woooo!’ But still, it gets more people to come to the shows, and since then, I have come to love and appreciate the song again.”
Following her 2014 EP ‘Chromatik’, which contained several short-form piano compositions, last month saw the release of her second album, ‘Ask The Deep’, which is altogether grander in sound and concept than her previous work. Whereas much of the music in ‘We Sink’ and ‘Theater Island’ come across as a bit skeletal in parts, ‘Ask the Deep’ sees Sóley add flesh, skin and bones to her compositions, incorporating different sounds and textures, bigger rhythms, and stronger melodies.
The dark abyss
“I think for the first album, I was just more experimenting with how to make pop songs, because that was never a goal to start with—to be a pop musician,” explains Sóley. “So for ‘Ask the Deep’, I definitely knew more what I liked and wanted—what sounds, what lyrics I wanted to write. I had a whole album in my head and I wanted to make a whole piece of music again. And then, of course, I became pregnant and had my daughter, and for a while I was like ‘Fuck! It’s been such a long time since the last album!’ So when she was four months old, I was always rushing to the studio to simply get it finished and mixed. It was a case of go in, go back out, totally crying, hormones, and then back in again.”
From the album art and title, to songs such as “Follow Me Down”, “Ævintýr”, and “One Eyed Lady”, themes of water and drowning abound—something that Sóley says was deliberate when writing ‘Ask The Deep’. “Well, the album was supposed to be about the sea,” she explains. “I was jogging along the seaside in January two years ago and I just felt this feeling of creepiness from the area around me, so I wanted to make a lot of songs about the sea. I started to read poems and books about the sea and I also started reading books by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, who also writes these very dark, heavy stories. But from there, the album ended up not being so much about the sea but just about the deep in general: the abyss, the feeling of drowning and you can’t get out. I was often referring to the mind and how it can overtake and engulf you at certain times.”
While we talk about the album, themes of darkness and death seem to be constantly popping up in her music. I ask her what it is that continues to draw her to such themes. “It’s really fear. It’s a long story, but essentially it’s fear of life and death. I fear death big time, and almost every day, these ideas of mortality and the universe and what happens when you die. When I find myself dwelling and obsessing about things like that, and it’s like ‘fuuuck,’ it’s so scary when you think about it. I think that’s the problem with me. I find myself looking at things and situations to a hardcore level. I find myself taking everything in and I’m full of all these thoughts and things that are rather horrifying in the world. I don’t know if it’s good or bad how much I think about life and how much I fear everything, but that’s just me.”
A new chapter
It’s a little disarming for me to hear Sóley, who is bubbly and engaging when we chat, discussing her morbid fascination with existentialism and death, but she does note that things are brighter for her lately. “The thing is that since I’ve had my daughter, I’ve found that I am so busy looking after her that I find that I don’t have the time to dwell on such things, and in that way she has been really good for me.” With the album out, the prospect of an album release concert on June 11 at Fríkirkjan now looms. I ask her how she is going to approach the gig. “Well, it’s a small place, and the reason why I chose it was that I played there last Airwaves and it was a really good concert we had there. I’m also going to video the shows as well as run though and record us doing the songs.” While she has been comfortable in the past to not plan too far ahead and to allow things to happen, sóley tells me that she is far more sure about what she wants to do post-‘Ask The Deep’. “What I really want to is to make an organ instrumental album and an accordion album! I made the recent EP ‘Chromatik’, which was a collection of piano-based tunes, so I want to make a trilogy of releases that use these instruments. I don’t know what my record company is going to say about that or whether they’re would release it or not, but this is what I really want to do.”