Despite having a capital city that sits a snowball’s throw away from the North Pole and boasts a population smaller than that of the London borough of Barnet, Iceland has a growing musical and artistic culture that would leave many far larger populations shivering in its shadow.
It’s therefore unsurprising that the country has been famous for producing immense creative talent such as The Sugarcubes – famously championed by British DJ John Peel in 1987 and featuring the multi-Grammy Award nominated Björk –, the ubiquitous Sigur Rós and the increasinglyrenowned Múm, but relatively recent political and social changes affecting the cultural make up of this prosperous nation have been pivotal in propelling a new folk-inspired movement to the forefront of Iceland’s popular music scene. Not many people outside of the country realise that Iceland only gained independence in 1944, when Danish rule was consigned to the history books in favour of a constitutional republic system of government – this relatively recent upheaval has left many striving to regain and cement a strong cultural identity, something which often takes many decades to nurture and develop. So, just as popular troubadours like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell helped define American folk revivalist music, leaving their ideals and classic compositions imprinted on a restless generation of people who were looking to the horizon, rather than over their shoulders, a similar movement of tradition-inspired folkists are guiding the Icelandic people into a new dawn of international and localised recognition.
One of the most influential individuals in this movement is singer-songwriter Pétur Ben – a virtuoso guitar player (before going solo he played guitar with Mugison, another successful Icelandic folk rock artist) with a voice and song-writing talent to match. “I’m sure it has something to do with being a relatively small group of people defining itself as a nation. I wish we could be as independent politically as we are artistically but that’s another story,” Pétur explains, hinting at the political undertones of the music that won him an album of the year award at this year’s Icelandic Music Awards. Pétur’s music is typical of the type currently dominating the country’s charts, with lyrics and musicianship that have an ethereal quality which perfectly reflects the Icelandic landscape, flitting from dark visions of isolation accompanied by thumping acoustic guitar and grand soundscapes, such as in Wine For My Weakness, the title track of his award-winning album, to delicate strummed paeans to love, sorrow and happiness such as You Woke Me and Alone. He regularly plays alongside The Sugarcubes drummer, Sigtryggur Baldursson, and collaborated with members of Sigur Rós at the aforementioned awards ceremony – although Iceland is a relatively small place this is still an impressive endorsement of his talent and the movement of which he’s a part.
Thankfully, Pétur Ben is far from alone in propagating this new folk sound around his homeland. Others, such as Lay Low, a 23-year-old bluesdriven female singer songwriter and Lára Runars, another young Reykjavik-based acoustic artiste who’s recorded tracks with Damian Rice at his studio in Ireland, are also taking the lead with endless gigs in increasingly prominent venues around the world and well-received recorded material. Lay Low, in particular, has achieved widespread recognition around her home country and America by combining intricate, bluesy riffs with a sensational voice that sounds like she lights up a dozen Russian sailor cigarettes for breakfast and then washes the smoke down with a litre of blossom honey. For her sake I hope she doesn’t follow such a diet but delicately simple tracks such as Mojo Love and Please Don’t Hate Me are highly reminiscent of the raspy, rootsy blues that inspired Dylan et al yet they have an endearing, newer quality that’s quite different from the purer, darker Americana sound. It’s nursery rhyme folk blues, but in the best possible sense, and it earned her the best newcomer award at the Icelandic Music Awards last year.
A Mixture of Old and New
Both Lay Low (real name Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir), Lára Runars and others, such as My Summer As A Salvation Soldier and Esja, two other local folk bands, regularly pull in large, enthusiastic crowds at Reykjavik venues such as NASA, Organ and the annual Iceland Airwaves festival and have attracted increasing praise and attention from the Icelandic press for their fresh-sounding folk music and widespread credibility. My Summer As A Salvation Soldier is one of the most progressive folk singers and, at the tender age of 21, he has already won a best newcomer award at the Icelandic Music Awards in 2004. This is even more extraordinary when you find out that he is also in two hardcore metal bands and an assortment of other groups, none of which sound remotely like his gentle selfpenned songs which are reminiscent of Joe Cocker or a slightly sedated Lou Reed. Such versatility is common and it’s undoubtedly a reflection of both the level of musical talent demonstrated by the young artists and their refusal to play just one form of music, thus leaving the door open for endless cross-genre collaborations and side projects that are often folk-orientated.
It would, however, be entirely wrong to suggest that traditional music is a new concept in Iceland as, like in almost all cultures, generation after generation have entertained each other with folk songs and music passed from person to person. Sigur Rós, whose members have regularly been involved in folk-inspired side projects, recently revived one such tradition by recording a limited-edition EP of Icelandic Rímur – a chanted form of poetry depicting ancient battles and epic tales from Icelandic folklore – with a local fisherman and poet called Steindór Andersen. The resulting recording has a suitably religious quality with booming chanting accompanied by a gentle ambient backing over six narratives, each one a separate tale from ancient Iceland. One track was even recorded under a bridge by a stream for a more traditional effect but, given only a thousand copies of the EP exist, sadly it’s doubtful many will get to hear old meeting new in such a unique way.
Like Sigur Rós, Emiliana Torrini is one of Iceland’s more established acts and her hugely popular folk albums, such as the mesmerising Fisherman’s Woman, have helped raise her profile outside of her home country and connect the older forms of the genre, such as that explored by Sigur Rós’s rímur project, to the newer material being performed by the likes of Pétur Ben, My Summer As A Salvation Soldier and Lay Low. Emiliana Torrini also has another claim to fame – she sang the end song to Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. You’ll recognise her ice-pure whispered voice, described as “a beautiful instrument” in a review at the time, the moment you hear it (if you know the film) but maybe this moment in her career consigned her to the more old-fashioned school of Icelandic music. Recently some of her work has been criticised for being boring and, when compared with recent material from the newer artists mentioned, her tales about being a good fisherman’s wife seem a little too twee and self-satisfied in concept to sit alongside the more forward-looking work of others.
The Icelandic people’s strong, and constantly renewing, sense of self, combined with a huge pool of talented musicians filling venues and record shops around the country with fresh new folk music, have made the country home to one of the most forward-thinking folk scenes in the world. The music is instantly accessible and friendly, just like many of the people who penned the songs being played in coffee shops around Reykjavik and beyond, and proves that this fascinating country now offers a world of home-grown music beyond that already known to the outside world. However, as Pétur Ben confides, it’s not the easiest form of music to unpick: “There is something very unique about the Icelandic indie scene which many have tried to understand.” Coming from someone who should know, you’d have to agree with Pétur but, whilst it might be a little tricky to get to the bottom of this latest ripple in Iceland’s vibrant culture, you’d have to have a heart of ice not to fall in love with the new wave of folk coming from the border of the Arctic Circle.