When you think of the spectral music of Sóley Stefansdóttir, folk is perhaps not the first genre that springs to mind. But the more you think about it, the more her presence at the annual Reykjavík Folk Festival starts to make sense. Sóley is a singer-songwriter who sometimes performs onstage alone—when we meet, she has just returned from a UK tour, opening solo for John Grant—and her eerie, spidery songs contain stories that seem to offer half-glimpses of other worlds, whether dreams, dark imaginings, or tall tales from a faraway past.
“I do like to tell stories, more than doing personal lyrics,” says Sóley, who’s friendly, warm, and not at all spooky in person. “I’m getting into a routine when I write lyrics where I’ll read a lot of poems. I like poems because they’re short, and they get to the point right away. I’m actually planning on writing a book—I write poetry and stories, and have since I was young.”
Sóley has never identified primarily as a folk musician. But as we talk about what folk music is—from its historic roots through to the postmodern age, where boundaries between genres are continually dissolving—connections start to form, and doors open in her memory.
“Actually, now that I think about it, before I started making music I was working at Café Hljómalind,” she recalls. “It was a not-for-profit café, where Brennslan is now, and Hemmi og Valdi before that—a beautiful old house. I heard ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender’, the first Joanna Newsom album, and it totally opened my mind. I’d been listening to a lot of male musicians my whole life, and some female, but hadn’t really found that thing that I love. Hearing that weird voice and that harp, and the weird songs with beautiful lyrics… I’d never heard anything like that before. It pushed me into making music. It was a real turning point in my life.”
Sóley was fascinated by Newsom’s thoroughly individual take on traditional folk songwriting, constructed of spiralling song structures and poetic lyrics that can be pithy, personal, or epic in scale. “I guess people were calling it freak folk,” says Sóley. “It wasn’t the same four chords all the time, like Bob Dylan and all that stuff… it was an evolution of folk music. But still acoustic, and still a person who just sits down with an instrument to play a song, and tell a story.”
The big subjects
Iceland’s literary culture is long and rich, but it’s not something that Sóley taps into directly. “I’ve been trying not to go into the whole ‘inspired by Iceland’ thing,” she says. “People ask about that all the time. But, some of those old stories really are very dark, like ‘Sofðu unga ástin mín,’ in which Halla, wife of the bandit Fjalla-Eyvindur, threw a baby over the edge of a waterfall. It would certainly be somewhere to get inspiration for some dark and horrible lyrics.”
And while Sóley’s signature sound is similarly gothic and spooky, it’s something she’s thinking about moving away from. She has just bought a grand piano that’s squeezed into a garage space at home, and has been composing new material, some of which may get a first airing at the festival.
“I’m going to try and turn a little bit away from darkness,” she says. “I’m not going to depress myself by writing lyrics that make me sad. It’s good to get that stuff out, but when you’re always thinking about it, your mind and soul end up being nourished by that fear. Because life is scary.”
We end by discussing Sam Amidon, another musician who has moved folk music forward by deconstructing and reworking traditional tunes and lyrics into new compositions. Sóley remarks that the lyrical inspirations of the past—love, loss, journeying through life and staving off death—are ever present. “I guess those big subjects haven’t changed over the years,” she finishes. “On those, we never get to a conclusion.”