He is tow-headed and unassuming, sitting on a patio, fidgeting as he lights a cigarette. He is driving to the airport in four hours to go on a two-week tour in support of his latest album, … and they have escaped the weight of darkness, which was released at the end of April. The critics seem to love him. He is often called a ‘genius’ and a ‘wunderkind.’ He is barely twenty-three, yet he seems to fit the bill of a very hard-working musician. In fact, he seems to be two steps ahead of himself at all times. For now, he has taken a quick moment before jumping on a plane to vent to Grapevine to his heart’s content.
You’ve had a lot of success at a young age, especially given your chosen genre. It’s all come on pretty fast. How have you coped with that? Has it affected you?
Well, I like to believe that I worked for it. I like to believe that I did everything myself and I feel fully responsible for the fact that I am not sitting in my living room writing music on my piano. I’m actually down here because I went out and did stuff. In the beginning, I went on tours that I booked myself; I spoke to friends who were starting up a record label and they released my stuff. Through that work, the bigger entities discovered me so I don’t have to do everything myself anymore.
But coping methods? It can still be a bit weird, especially when you lose control of it. I have to admit I’ve had quite a hard time coping with it. There is also this attention, everything is always about me. This I’ve never really liked. I’m a closed off person, I’m a loner. People always come to me and I need to give so much of myself. That’s just expected of me. I had a period last year when I was just really tense. I didn’t like it, I hated it actually. At one point, something just turned in my head and I just approached it full on.
Do you enjoy touring?
Yeah. I get sick of the songs sometimes when I’m doing sound-check, but when I go onstage and play them for an audience the experience is always different. It’s almost like playing a new song every night. The reception is different, the atmosphere in the room is different and it changes our perception of the music, so it almost changes the music itself. I never get bored of playing my own songs. There’s some songs that I’ve played at every single one of my shows, not to mention sound-check, rehearsals, recording, but I always give myself into it every time. I really enjoy touring.
It’s a labour of love, where you have to give yourself entirely over…
Of course, because if I don’t I won’t enjoy it. On one tour we made the mistake of playing the same set-list every night. That order of songs made the most sense, but by the twenty-fourth show without a day off, it was becoming such a routine that I automatically didn’t put myself into it. I really hated that show and after it we had a band meeting where we said “never again!” It’s just as important that we like the show. Why do this if you’re not enjoying it? If I was just doing it for the money then I could just be a lawyer.
Where have your most memorable gigs been?
I always like the places that aren’t really spoiled. In a city like London, hypothetically, they have bands coming all the time and nothing’s new to them. They’re very jaded. I feel it in the audience. They clap less, they buy less CDs after the show, and they’re not as enthusiastic about the whole experience.
One of my favourite places is Eastern Europe, Poland for example, where they don’t have a lot of bands come through. They are all waiting outside for the doors to open and they are so excited and they go completely silent during the show. The atmosphere becomes completely different. After the show they’re all waiting to meet you and they all want autographs. I don’t really handle it very well because I’m an awkward person, but I appreciate it. In the bigger cities, I’m just one of a hundred other artists playing in that city that night.
Then you toured China. How was that?
That’s another country that I really liked playing in. It was weird, but the whole culture is just so different. But there is so much respect and gratitude. They are quiet at the shows but not intensely. Not because they don’t appreciate it, but in their culture you can go enjoy good music, even in a classic theatre setting, and still chat. I felt like they could still take it all in without being as quiet as the Polish people are.
That can be a bit intimidating too.
It can. It can make you nervous, especially when I’m not feeling that way and I don’t make that connection. But sometimes you make that connection with the people and the atmosphere is so fragile. I also felt like they really appreciated me coming all that way. They don’t get a lot of international artists into the country.
Here as well, there aren’t many international artists that come frequently now.
Yeah, but here people don’t actually appreciate it very much. It’s a one of a kind market actually. In all my deals, record deals, management deals, agency deals, whatever, I always exclude Iceland. First, because I know this market better than any foreign people, but also because they just wouldn’t understand it. It’s so small, it’s just so tiny. Sending an artist over here doesn’t make sense. It’s not worth the money for a management company. It’s not worth the investment. I don’t want to stop bands from coming, but I don’t encourage it. The market here is not very open for foreign artists.
Say what now?
If you look at the music sale charts in Iceland, for Icelandic bands it’s still going up, selling more and more CDs. For foreign bands, sales have dropped down to almost nothing. Stores sell almost no foreign CDs. The division of fees when you’re played on the radio is almost all given to Icelandic artists.
Are there Icelandic content laws for radio?
No, but there is discussion of it because we want more Icelandic music on the radio. I mean, we as musicians want the exposure and also for the copyright society which I am part of, that is our income. That’s where we make the money that we can divide to all the artists so they can try to make a living off their work. We try to lobby the radio stations and try to get them to play more local music and there are ideas about forcing them to. But I’m not really into forcing anything.
It’s interesting that you work with the Icelandic copyright association which deals with the issue of illegal downloading, since you sort of bridged that gap last year with your Found Songs project, where you gave away your songs for free.
Fun fact about Found Songs: that was actually illegal to do that.
No way. So you were like “Fuck you! I’m doing it anyway” ?
Basically, according to the law you can’t give away a song for free. There has to be a copyright fee for the composer of the song. The same rule has to apply for everyone in order for it to work, so there’s a reason for this, but one of the things I want to do as part of the association is to find a way around this. So what I did was actually illegal. I take full responsibility for that! The thing is no one will do anything about it because they know I’m the composer of the song.
Hitting the fast-forward button
I hear elements of your previous work on this album, but it also seems like you’re going in a new direction as well.
I want to call it more ‘pop’. What I want to do is reach the most people. Not to make money, I wouldn’t call myself a sell-out. I want to open peoples’ eyes to this kind of music. Most of the people who buy my albums don’t listen to classical music at all, so it was both conscious and subconscious to go in this direction. It was very natural for me to go this way, but I was also thinking “yeah, this is a good way to go,” because I want to be accessible.
You just put out this album, but what do you see on your horizons now? Do you know what you want to do next?
I’m already doing it. I finished this album a couple of months ago and then went straight on. At the moment I am orchestrating a new album for a full orchestra. We’re premiering that on July 1st in Manchester with a British orchestra, but I will perform it with different orchestras in different cities in the autumn and in Shanghai as part of the Expo in September. Hopefully we’ll be doing it in London, Berlin, Cologne and other cities later.
Do you foresee yourself making other kinds of music at any point in your life?
When I get the time. I’d like to produce bands that make different stuff from my own. I’d like to add my personality into that. I added the strings to the Bloodgroup album, I produced one track by Árstíðir and I’m doing their next album. I do the techno thing with Janus [from Bloodgroup] as Kiasmos. I need to branch out. It’s like staying in the house too long and you need to get out. I get that when I am touring a lot, playing my own songs over and over again and going in the studio. I need to get out and do something else.
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