Kari Jahnsen, aka Farao, sits in a downtown Reykjavík cafe on a typically unsettled Icelandic day. We’re chatting amiably over coffee and watching people slide down Laugavegur through the frozen snow, when suddenly a violent downpour of hailstones begins, rattling the windows in their frames. The street outside empties, and we dissolve into laughter at the absurdity of the rapid-fire weather.
But despite the hardships of the Northern winter, something continually draws Kari back to Iceland. This is her ninth visit, and like so many other artists and musicians, Kari finds that Iceland provides an ideal setting for her creative endeavours. The first Farao EP was recorded entirely in Reykjavík with musician and producer Mike Lindsay, during a similarly turbulent period a few Februaries ago.
“I didn’t know anyone, that first time,” smiles Kari. “But I’d grown up with Icelandic music—or at least, Björk and Sigur Rós—and the thought of coming here was so tempting. I just had to do it.”
The trip almost didn’t happen when a close family member died unexpectedly just days before Kari was due to fly out. “It was a really intense time,” she recalls. “His death was a real shock to the family. I was thinking of cancelling, but I ended up coming here, and thinking, ‘It’s what he would have wanted me to do.’”
The EP is an entrancing collection that bears the hallmarks of this dark time, speaking of grief and loss with a haunting, sombre quality. The vocals are often multi-tracked, with different melodic lines tangling together; the percussion, by Magnús Trygvason Eliassen, has a muted, rainy-day feel. The sense of catharsis is audible.
“I totally lost myself in the recording,” says Kari. “I was working and even sleeping in the studio. I was there almost 24 hours a day. I couldn’t really cry, and had no one to turn to. But it was still an amazing experience, and that’s why I came back to record the album.”
Kari’s new material promises much. Farao has developed into a band in the interim, creating a dark, seductive pop sound and leaving its folk-noir roots behind. The new troupe have grown together via a series of increasingly high-profile shows around Europe, including a tour with Ásgeir that culminated in a string of Iceland dates over Christmas 2013.
“The tour was an amazing time,” Kari says. “We went up to Akureyri and lots of other places, and played in Ásgeir’s hometown. Literally half the town came to the gig, and it was broadcast live on the radio. We hung out with his family. I can’t imagine living in such a small place, but it’s so interesting to see other people doing it, and loving it.”
But small-town life is nothing new to Kari, who grew up deep in rural Norway. Having been a Londoner for several years now, she’s developed a love-hate relationship with big-city life, and enjoys the familiar intimate scale of 101. Kari also finds Reykjavík’s tight-knit music community inspiring—in particular the carefree, cooperative attitude that permeates the scene.
“I have realised how much the energy of the sessions is present in the final recordings,” she explains. “I’ve never had so much fun in the studio as here. I loved recording with Maggi [Magnús], the drummer—we danced around, having a laugh. We were taking the outcome seriously, of course, but also just enjoying the process so much. It was very impulsive and spontaneous. People who’ve heard the album say it sounds so playful. That’s why I wanted to come back, to maintain that feeling of playfulness.”
The question of how a country the size of Iceland produces such a diverse range of excellent musicians is an evergreen topic of conversation amongst overseas musicians, journalists, and listeners alike. We end up gravitating naturally to pinning down why this might be.
“I’ve found that people here play for the love of it as much as anything else,” says Kari, thoughtfully. “People encourage you to be yourself here, and not to copy anyone or whatever—they have confidence in your decisions, your ability to find the best way to do things, putting the music first and the industry second. That, for me, is a major reason why Iceland has one of the most exciting music scenes in the world.”
But as much as different places might shape the process of making music, it’s individuals, life experiences and relationships that lie at the core of Farao’s subject matter. “The new songs are still about loss—but no longer about mourning,” Kari explains. “It’s that mix of desperately wanting something, whilst not really caring if you actually get it. Like an… apathetic desperation. Those two things might seem to cancel each other out, but they don’t. The album is about losing something, but slowly realising you never really had it in the first place. It’s been a confusing process, trying to understand how I feel about these things.”
As pop music continually proves, sad music doesn’t have to be saddening. With that in mind, Kari is looking forward to unveiling Farao’s next chapter. “The first record was something I needed to get out of the way,” she finishes. “The new stuff is so much more confident, and hopeful, and fun. Now I wanna make people dance.”