From Iceland — From 'What If' To Reality: GDRN Talks Storytelling Through Music And Acting

From ‘What If’ To Reality: GDRN Talks Storytelling Through Music And Acting

Published October 8, 2021

From ‘What If’ To Reality: GDRN Talks Storytelling Through Music And Acting
Desirai Thompson
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Telling your story takes courage. Telling someone else’s story takes empathy. Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð Jóhannesdóttir, or GDRN as she’s known in front of the mic, is no stranger to either. First launching into the public eye as a refreshing young voice in Iceland’s pop scene, she’s now known around the world as Gríma from Netflix’s mind-bending, chill-inducing hit series Katla, AKA one of the most popular Icelandic shows in history. When the pandemic turned the world upside down, Guðrún turned it into an opportunity to better herself, her craft and hopefully—her community.

“I want to be like her”

Growing up in an interdisciplinary artistic family, Guðrún began playing music when she was just five years old. She picked up a violin for the first time and began classical lessons after seeing Sigrún Eðvaldsdóttir performing on television with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, telling her mother, “I want to be like her.” Shrugging off the suggestion to learn the piano instead, Guðrún uncovered a passion that would accent her life for years to come. Eventually, she picked up jazz singing and jazz piano, two passions that would come to help define her signature GDRN style.

“I didn’t realise that it could actually happen—to be a musician like this, but I’m so thankful for it. I just stumbled upon the right self in life.”

Feeling adrift after high school, unsure of what step to take, Guðrún even considered studying medicine for a time. In the mid-2010’s, she decided to take a year off, begin working and keep herself open to possibility. It was during this time that fate revealed its plan for her.

“My two friends asked me if I wanted to check out some of their beats,” she reminisced. “They were starting to produce music under the name Ra:tio and they were like, ‘Do you want to sing something over it?’ We just had so much fun. We released the song ‘Ein’ in 2017 and two days later Alda Music reached out and said, ‘We want to sign you.’ It all happened pretty quickly.”

The beginning of something big

Guðrún’s star has been on the rise ever since. Her debut album ‘Hvað Ef’ (‘What If’) dropped in August 2018, garnering all manner of nominations at the Icelandic Music Awards including wins for Pop Singer of the Year and Pop Album of the Year, while her single “Lætur mig” was awarded Pop Single of the Year and Music Video of the Year. “It was surreal,” she shares, “I didn’t realize that it could actually happen—to be a musician like this, but I’m so thankful for it. I just stumbled upon the right self in life.”

It was then, in February 2020—right on the heels of the release of her second album, the eponymously titled GDRN—that fate struck again. “It was like fifteen minutes before COVID,” Guðrún quips about the timing of her album release. With a jarring swiftness, her release concert and all upcoming gigs were cancelled. In terrible irony, the album had been recorded with as many live instruments as possible—an attempt to be able to offer live shows as true-to-sound as the songs fans streamed at home. Now the potential for live shows has disappeared. She equated the experience to walking through a door but not being able to close it behind you. While the future of live music hung in the balance, Guðrún sought out positivity wherever it sprouted.

Making music, making moves

Guðrún credits her smooth transition from music to television to her performance in the National Theatre of Iceland’s 2019 production of ‘Shakespeare in Love.’ Not only was the play’s director, Selma Björnsdóttir, also  casting director for Katla—the experience itself introduced Guðrún to the acting world through music. “I was on the side playing violin the whole time and I would occasionally come out to sing,” she says, “I was really comfortable. I got to kind of dip my toes into this whole world without diving into it.”

“I wanted to create an atmosphere where you would listen to the song and see it in front of you.”

One day Selma reached out about a Netflix show she was scouting for Baltasar Kormákur. “At first I thought, ‘I’m not an actress’ but then I realised I have nothing to lose. If I get the part, which I really want, it’s going to be incredible. If not, then it’s amazing they wanted me to audition at all.”

She recalls, “I was so stressed about the audition, I decided to dress in all black so they wouldn’t see if I was sweating. And honestly, I don’t really remember how it went, I just kind of blacked out.” Luckily, her nerves didn’t show and she was offered the lead role of Gríma after reading with Íris Tanja Flygenring, the actress who would come to portray her sister Ása in the show.

Capturing Katla

Filming began for the Netflix sci-fi series in February 2020, and the cataclysmic downturn in Icelandic tourism in the early days of the pandemic actually worked out well for shooting. “It was pretty amazing because most of the story happens in Vík, which is usually a tourist place, but it was just empty. The series is supposed to happen where everyone has moved out of the town, so it was just perfect.”

The similarities of storytelling through music and television gave Guðrún a soft place to land. While her first album focused on emotions and aspects of her personal life, she set out to tell a story with her second album. “I wanted to create an atmosphere where you would listen to the song and see it in front of you,” she explains. “It’s always about love, but it’s put into this costume of a story. I was trying to paint a picture for someone to interpret into their own life and emotions. I feel as though my music and this show are like a mirror.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

When it came time to don the role of Gríma in the ashen landscape of Kalta, interpreting emotions came as second nature. Guðrún shares, “The first day I was kind of stressed because I didn’t know if I was going to see the cameras and become all stiff. I was worried if it was going to work. Then, as soon as we started, I realised that it’s kind of the same as being on stage, performing music for a live crowd, because you’re just trying to get your emotions to the audience.”

“When you’re acting, you have this emotion and you’re just trying to deliver it to the camera so you kind of forget everything that’s around you. It’s just so pure. I think that the reason it went so well is because of my music experience. I’ve been performing music on stage since I was five years old. It’s really similar but at the same time, it’s really different—I realised I could use so many things I’d learned through performing music and apply them to acting.”

As the Icelandic winter draws in we’re reaching for our comfy traditional lopapeysa sweaters, the beautiful woollen garments which have been keeping Icelanders warm for generations. They’re available for international delivery through our online shop, and ours are hand-knitted right here in Iceland from local wool.

“It’s like performing a cover of a song that really resonates with you, and the things that are being told are not your story but you’re trying to perform it as if it is your story. When I was doing the part of Gríma, I tried to find the things that were alike between us, like she’s really proud and strong. She doesn’t have any attitude, but she really goes for things and she gets stuff done. I know that feeling, so I was like, ‘you go, girl!’ On the other hand, when I found things that were different, I would try to dig deep into those things to understand the core of it and apply it to myself.”

Goading grief

So much of the series is centred on grief—not only personal grief, but the trauma of an entire community. Guðrún took such care to research the experience of trauma and what it does to a person that she often had restless nights, dreaming of traumatic events that left her unable to sleep.

“You watch the show and it’s so much about the personal journey. It really makes you wonder, ‘if everything you wish for would come true, is it really what you wanted?’ Or do you need to look inside of yourself and try to understand how you can move forward. It’s like a sci-fi show, but in the end it really gets you thinking about ourselves as people, our community and the trauma in our lives.”

“It’s so funny to think of the contrast between the first day of shooting and the last because the difference is gigantic. It was like I got an acting crash course. I feel like there was a point where it clicked and I just kept growing and growing and growing. I think there’s nothing more rewarding as an artist than when you feel this growth.”

When asked if the eruption of Fagradalsfjall on March 19th, just three months before the release of Katla, felt like the greatest teaser trailer of all time, Guðrún shared “It felt like the best PR move ever. It’s not an eruption that’s dangerous, it’s just pretty so we were like, ‘wow, this is meant to be.’”

Industry equality

 In 2017, the landscape of many industries, especially in entertainment, began shifting with the virality of the #metoo movement. Guðrún entered the scene in the midst of all this. Simultaneously she noticed the vast presence of men in the industry and an underrepresentation of women and non-binary people. Luckily, she felt the public was ready for a dynamic shift.

“It’s so important to have women and non-binary people in the music industry to show people who have dreams that this is possible.”

“People were happy to see a young woman unafraid of expressing herself in this way. Now there’s so many young women that have so much talent who are stepping up at the moment,” she shares. Guðrún credits Ragga Gísla, Birgitta Haukdal and Sigríður Thorlacius, among other female Icelandic musicians, as inspiring her to believe she had this potential from a young age. “I hope I’m helping to pave the way for other women.”

“It’s so important to have women and non-binary people in the music industry to show people who have dreams that this is possible, that you can step up. I want people to think, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”

Covid and community

Guðrún speaks with such infectious positivity, it’s easy to forget that we’re in the midst of a pandemic—but she doesn’t shy away from its impact on her. “Of course living through the pandemic is hard but I don’t think I would’ve had this growth as a person without this experience. I think a lot of people feel this way,” she muses, “ Everything stopped and we were kind of forced to look at our lives and reconsider things. A lot of people are always looking at the future, one step ahead of themselves, and Covid forced us all to live more in the moment.”

“People realised they needed change—for themselves and for their communities—and the time is now, you can’t wait for the future to happen. With movements like Black Lives Matter, we’re all realising we have to make changes now. So of course, Covid has been devastating but if you want to be super positive, you can take away so many good things from this time.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

Inspiration abounds

“It’s been a bit hard trying to record another album. For the longest time, having written an album but being unable to perform it felt like I’d walked through a door but that door was still open behind me. I was so proud of this album, but I hadn’t closed the door on it yet,” she shares.

On September 24th, after a year and a half of uncertainty, GDRN finally graced the stage of Háskólabíó, accompanied by a string quartet, to perform her largest and most anticipated concert to date.

“​​I am up in the sky. It went so well,” she says, her voice gleaming with excitement. “I had a couple of panic attacks in the days before, but when it came down to the day of the concert, I was done with that. The only thing I had left was to just have fun and perform this music.”

“I always want to try something new and expand myself as an artist. I don’t want to get stuck in one place just because it’s selling.”

Anyone with their ear to the ground can tell you that there’s a noticeable tonal shift when GDRN comes up in conversation. Her enthusiasm radiates an energy that fills a room. It’s as if the whole country is rooting for this young artist—and she values every ounce of it. “There was not one thing I think that could’ve been better,” she shares with a laugh. “The day after I just felt such relief. The whole audience was so happy, and I was so happy about it.”

Now that she’s finally had the chance to perform her namesake album, Guðrún is ready to dive into new projects. “For a year and a half I’ve had my mind on this release concert and now I feel a bit like, ‘What am I going to do now?’ But I feel a lot of inspiration for new music.” With this long awaited milestone now a warm memory, Guðrún feels the experience has come full circle. “I think this was a barrier that I had to get through to be able to move on.”

She also hopes to continue acting, she shares, “I want to find more opportunities and exciting roles because I feel that my role in Katla actually made me a better musician. It’s just inspiring to be around such professionals who are so good at what they do.” She goes on, “I always want to try something new and expand myself as an artist. I don’t want to get stuck in one place just because it’s selling.”

“In the end, it’s all about, ‘does this bring me happiness?’ If I’m not doing it for my happiness or because it drives me, then I’m not doing the right thing in life.”

GDRN’s dreamy new single, ‘Næsta Líf’ is out now. It might be wise to set a Google Alert for this artist now, because there’s no telling what her next endeavour may be.

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