“Basically, the whole beginning of this whole album process was not a single note of music, it was the cover,” Magnús Jóhann states. He’s referring to his recently released effort ‘Without Listening,’ the cover of which shows a haphazardly constructed half-built house in an industrial wasteland. It’s from a series called ‘Waiting,’ which documented construction after Iceland’s economic crash.
“It’s a photograph that my oldest brother, Ingvar Högni Ragnarsson, took that was hanging in my bedroom so it was the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw before I went to sleep. One day, I thought ‘that might be a nice cover’ and then I had to start writing music because I had found a cover,” he laughs. “As soon as you’ve decided on some aesthetic or visual aspect, you immediately put yourself in some sort of mood. And that was the atmosphere that inspired the music.”
And like the differently coloured materials peppering the house on the cover, Magnús’s album is a surprising and delightfully contrasting sonic experience. Meandering through a murky area between post-classical, improvisational jazz and dark electronica, you could perhaps call his effort “genre-fluid.” But regardless of what soundscape the pianist is dipping his toes in, there’s an undeniable “Magnús Jóhann” thread about it. One that shows a deft understanding of sound, transitions and how you can meld them together into endless forms.
“I feel like the album is kind of two-sided,” he admits. “There’s a jazzier, more instrumental side with drums and saxophone and then there’s this ambient, totally electronic side. The most challenging thing about making it was how do I combine all of these sounds to tell a whole story?” He pauses. “I had to create a sonic world to fit them both.”
For Magnús, this collage of sounds is the culmination of a lifetime of musical consumption. Raised in a family of classical pianists, 70s rock devotees and hip-hop heads, Magnús was exposed to many sounds at a young age. As a teenager, he dove headfirst into jazz and piano, which he later studied at the university level.
Nowadays his work is even broader. Next year, he plans on releasing a film score, theatre score, as well as a collaboration with Skúli Sverrisson. At the same time, he’s producing works for Auður, Hipsumhaps and even played on the most recent Auðn release.
“It all represents different sides of me, but that’s what I represent—a lot of different things. I don’t want to be limited to one thing,” he concludes.
Releasing ‘Without Listening’ was a three-year effort for the artist, who began writing the album in late 2017 and then spent the next years recording and refining it. And while, of course, the midst of a global pandemic was perhaps not the best time to release it, Magnús sees a silver lining to the timing.
“It’s introverted music,” he explains. “The ideal listening situation is alone at home, so it’s good for your self-isolation or quarantine.” He pauses. “So it made sense for me to release it now. If not now, then when?”
Check out ‘Without Listening’ on all streaming platforms. Pick up the LP at the Grapevine store.
Note: Due to the effect the Coronavirus is having on tourism in Iceland, it’s become increasingly difficult for the Grapevine to survive. If you enjoy our content and want to help the Grapevine’s journalists do things like eat and pay rent, please consider joining our High Five Club.
You can also check out our shop, loaded with books, apparel and other cool merch, that you can buy and have delivered right to your door.
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!