Jófríður Ákadóttir is very tired. She sits slumped on the red leather sofa of a comfortably dim downtown basement café, sipping a coffee; her pale blue eyes stare out onto the street, where groups of people meander past, their laughter and American, German, French and Canadian accents drifting in through the window. It’s the peak of the Iceland Airwaves festival, and Reykjavík is buzzing.
“I’m just exhausted,” she says, in her quiet, articulate voice. “Just, life… personal stuff. It’s been really dark this year.”
The issue at hand is that her twin sister Ásthildur, her partner in the much-admired folk-pop band Pascal Pinon, has pulled out of a German tour that begins just a few days after the festival, for health reasons. As well as performing seven shows with three different bands, and despite countless engagements like soundchecks, interviews, photo shoots and sessions, Jófríður is hastily putting together an ensemble to carry out the tour, at the busiest time of the year for Icelandic musicians.
“I sometimes have to remind myself that I’m doing this because I enjoy it,” she says, sighing deply. “I forget sometimes. It’s addictive… just going, and going, and going. I’ve been doing it for the last two years. And finally in September I had a month to just chill. I collapsed, kind of. There were days where I couldn’t stand up. I was kind of depressed. I knew that it was coming, because I was pushing so hard. Then it came. But after five days, it just stopped.
“It was life telling me to rest.”
No sooner has she said those words than her phone lights up with a new message. We’ve already run over—it’s time for another interview around the corner before her next show, under her solo moniker of JFDR, an hour later. Jófríður pulls on a coat and with apologies, air kisses and a promise to regroup soon, she’s gone—back out into the busy streets, and the colourful, chaotic torrent of Airwaves.
Across the course of the festival, Jófríður is everywhere. One minute, she’s darting over a street crossing headed to her off-venue performance in Grandi with electronica trio Samaris; later on, she’s jumping around in Húrra at the show by her friends in aYia. Later still, she’s onstage once more at Gamla Bíó, resplendent in a white coat and fox-fur scarf, swaying and singing over the dreamy pop of GANGLY. For all of her understandable fatigue, she seems in high spirits and fine musical form.
When we convene again on Sunday, Airwaves is coming to a close. Jófríður collapses into a cushion-covered sofa, weary but cheerful. She is planning to pull an all-nighter and head to the airport at 3am for that German tour. Her last-minute band is coming together, and she’ll have a few nights of rest in Berlin. It seems like Jófríður’s journey never ends. But where did it begin?
“My mum played classical clarinet while we were in the womb,” she says. “So I have this romantic idea that me and Ásthildur had these sound waves going through us as we were growing. They met through music. My dad’s a trumpet player. They were kids themselves when they had us: just nineteen years old. Then we got another sister. We never lacked anything, but we did have to be a little independent. And we had each other.”
Deciding to follow in her mother’s footsteps, Jófríður took up the clarinet aged just six, and as they grew older the twins were often taken to their parents’ performances. “My dad was in lots of bands,” Jófríður says. “So when we were twelve we’d get to go to gigs and jump around and dance a bit, peek in the venue, or go backstage and get a free Sprite. It was really exciting. We got exposed to that world very early. Maybe that’s why we felt like we could just go ahead and do it—that world felt very accessible to us.”
Just doing it
The twins were barely fourteen when they started Pascal Pinon. But it wasn’t their first project together. “We’d been making music before then on Garageband,” smiles Jófríður. “We made an album for our dad as a birthday present. We started a band called Við og Tölvan, or ‘We And The Computer.’ We gave it to him and he said: ‘What’s this project called?’ And Ásthildur just said… ‘We… and the computer!’ I remember that so vividly.”
“That was such a beautiful era,” she continues. “We didn’t understand the purpose of headphones. We just recorded things, put funny MIDI sounds on top. There was click bleed and you could hear all kinds of background sound.” She pauses and laughs: “It was very experimental.”
Pascal Pinon started as a four-piece band. Jófríður slipped into a leadership role, finding that songwriting came naturally—so naturally, in fact, that it caused some early tensions with her young collaborators. “I didn’t understand, being young and naive, that it just wasn’t as easy for the others in Pascal Pinon to write songs,” she says. “I remember being angry and saying: ‘Why don’t you write a song his time?’ I wasn’t approaching it in a positive way. In the end, we had a conversation about it and decided to continue the band as just me and Ásthildur, and save the friendship.”
The duo went on to self-produce and self-release their first album in Iceland. “We were fifteen years old and going into business,” she says, “going into record shops and signing deals. There were people who wanted to release it, but our dad encouraged us to do it all ourselves. We were never like: ‘We’re too young to be doing this.’ We just did it.”
Pascal Pinon have released two more acclaimed albums since, and proven enduringly popular. But it wasn’t until Jófríður’s next project, Samaris, that she would be catapulted to the forefront of Iceland’s music scene. Samaris combined 90s inflected beats, sonorous clarinet and synth washes, with Jófríður’s trademark emotive, wavering, breathy vocals. The trio released a series of early EPs before signing with One Little Indian—home of Björk, Ólöf Arnalds, and Ásgeir, amongst others. After two years of packed-out gigs and gradual development in Iceland, they began touring all over the world.
“It was a huge learning curve,” says Jófríður. “Samaris was a more popular band, and playing less kid-friendly situations—clubs and people partying and all that. We won the Músiktilraunir contest, so we felt that we had to live up to the title, somehow. It was very DIY, with me kind of keeping it together a little bit. It wasn’t always easy, but it was responsibility I enjoyed taking on. It’s fun running a band—I enjoyed running Samaris for a while.”
The early Samaris material included “Góða Tungl” (“Good Moon,” in English)—a memorable and mesmerising electronic lullaby, with lyrics based on old Icelandic poetry. It’s still a staple of their live set oday. “I love that early stuff,” says Jófríður. “There was something very special in that material, that I think we’ve lost a little. I say that very freely, because I stepped back from the writing on the last Samaris record. It went in a really fearless direction—dark and driven. There’s one track on the new album called ‘Gradient Sky’—we had to push for it to be on the album. It’s softer—it shows something that’s feminine. The early stuff was more feminine and gentle than anything we do today. It takes so much strength to be vulnerable. In the new stuff, we’ve lost that.”
But Jófríður speaks with warmth and affection of the Samaris project, and of her bandmates Doddi and Áslaug. “Today we’re like siblings—there’s no filter,” she says. “We’ve talked about things you wouldn’t talk about with anyone, and been in so many situations together—we’ve argued, laughed, cried. We love each other, and we hate each other, like brother and sister.”
It’s a very different dynamic to that of GANGLY—a project that started with the anonymous release of the simmering, catchy, low-key pop song “Fuck With Someone Else” in 2015. While Jófríður’s voice is distinctive and recognisable, speculation was rife on the question of who else was behind the project. Before long it revealed that it was Sindri Sigfússon of Sin Fang and Úlfur Einarsson of Oyama.
“GANGLY works more like a commune,” says Jófríður. “We all bring in songs and build smething together. We’re all in our own world and our own corner. It’s more like a government—the songs go through the other members, and they edit and make changes. Everything is very comfortable and laid-back with GANGLY.”
“It’s a very different process to how I make music in general,” she continues. “I don’t have passion for details, like listening to a thousand different snares from a bank. It’s not why I do music, to have the right snare sound. With all due respect to people to people who nerd out with a million snares and hi-hats, I’m the kind of person who would pay someone to do that part.”
The GANGLY project is still just beginning, but it has already offered Jófríður the opportunity to try out new ways of writing, singing, and performing. Broadening her range is something she continues to enjoy. “This Airwaves actually brought that contrast out in me—trying to see the differences in the way I perform with each of those groups,” she explains. “Doing the shows all next to each other has made it really clear. I challenged myself because of that by trying to push each performance in whatever direction needs to go. It’s necessary for me to do that, so that I can be myself in JFDR.”
Jófríður started doing low key shows under the new moniker of JFDR last year, and from the very first performances it was apparent that something special was coming. Her solo songs seem to possess a more developed poetic voice than before, and they’re delivered with a subtle but noticeable sense of belief and assurance. From the opening notes of the dreamlike “White Sun,” to the spine-tingling, pin-drop quiet “Anything Goes” and the cyclical chord progression of closing track “Journey,” the album—entitled ‘Brazil’—is a wonderful collection.
It began almost by accident. “I’d never had that vision of being a solo artist until I met [producer, drummer, multi-instrumentalist] Shahzad Ismaily,” says Jófríður. “He said, ‘I feel like you shouldn’t be in a band, you should do something solo.’ I just laughed, I had my bands and my projects. Then we met one day walking down the street, and we said: ‘Hey, we were going to do something together, shall we just go and do it?’ We went to his studio in the middle of the night and recorded ‘White Sun.’ That recording is the version on the album.”
The two worked on the record intensively, with Shahzad encouraging Jófríður to take control in the studio. “We put so much into it,” she continues. “Shahzad and I put everything we have into that record—we allowed ourselves to do that. We did sessions in the middle of the night, and invited different people to contribute. I learned that you gain so much when you let people be themselves inside your music.”
The dominant themes of the album, which was written during a twelve-month period of near-constant travel, are journeys and cycles—whether it’s the journey undertaken in the course of a year, or the opening and closing cycle of a relationship. The lyrics are littered with insights, small revelations, and quiet, unassuming wisdom.
“I write a lot of lyrics, and I keep learning things about myself from them later,” says Jófríður. “One time, there was this strange thing… when I wrote ‘White Sun’ in 2014, I was at the very beginning of a relationship. We were living in different countries, so it’s about waiting for someone and having this ‘parted heart’ you have when you want someone to be there, and you’re very much in love. It’s also about finding a path, and having a home, or not having a home; having a heart, but not really having the heart, you know?
“But around that time, I had a journey from the Keflavík airport into the city for a few days,” she continues. “I was watching the sun—it was white, and I started thinking about that, and it became lyrics. Exactly a year later, that same relationship was fading. It had been a journey of tumbling, learning, experiencing; finding things and figuring things out. There was a verse in the song that I wrote, not knowing what I meant by it at the time: ‘The sun will be white tonight, tomorrow will be red and bright.’ I had an evening flight in the middle of summer, and the sun was literally bright red—so very bright. I stared at it, I thought about everything: how it had been a year. I started crying. It was this strange feeling of me telling myself something from the past to my future self, and knowing things I had no idea I knew at the time. I just knew that the relationship was over. It was the end of the cycle. I’d seen the sign.”
Jófríður speaks fondly about the collaborative, easygoing and spontaneous process of making ‘Brazil’. Written and recorded during a personally challenging time period, the resulting record is something special—an accomplished work that captures and expresses a complex range of feelings, moments, experiences and thoughts.
“I didn’t think I’d be a person who sang about love,” Jófríður says. “But there’s something very human and beautiful and inspiring about it. I think it’s important to do a love record. It’s a heart record! It’s about the heart. Breaking something, starting something—doing something, that then melts away. It’s about the cycles opening and closing. Maybe wherever you are in the cycle of a relationship, you can place yourself in those songs.”
The album, with its themes of journeys and cycles, endings and beginnings, marks the start of an exciting new chapter for Jófríður. “Pascal Pinon was about getting material written in my bedroom out of there—anywhere,” she says. “Samaris was finding that the bedroom wasn’t fearless enough—we wanted to dance and wear wonky costumes. GANGLY is a collaborative project between myself and two other songwriters. It’s anonymous and highly conceptual.
“JFDR is combining all these and finding my true voice,” she finishes. “It’s tender and pure, like it was in the bedroom; it’s fearless and wild like the sixteen-year-old me who wanted to crank it up and dance. It’s elegant, like the carefully curated songwriting and production of GANGLY. I want to present all of this in my solo project. It’s a new and long journey I’m entering.”