From Iceland — The View From The Piano: Damon Albarn’s Love Affair With Iceland

The View From The Piano: Damon Albarn’s Love Affair With Iceland

The View From The Piano: Damon Albarn’s Love Affair With Iceland

Published November 5, 2021

Photo by
Einar Snorri

I’m at the Reykjavík home of Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame, sitting in his living room—an enormous space whose defining feature is the window spanning the entirety of one wall, offering a view of a more untouched part of Reykjavík harbour: black sand beaches, a small nearby island, the imposing figure of Mt. Esja rising into the clouds, and the expanse of slate-grey water that stretches to the horizon. Standing just inches from the window is an upright piano, its back to the breathtaking panorama.

It’s in this room where Albarn’s newest album, ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’, was composed. In fact, the view itself guides the harmonies and melodies on this album in a novel way.

“I’ve spent years just sitting at the piano and staring,” Damon says. “Once you start it’s like—,” he begins, but is suddenly distracted by the view from the window. “Oh my god, there’s a rainbow, there’s everything.”

He stands, picks up his tablet, and walks to the window to take some photos of the rainbow in question, singing softly as he does: “Rainbooooow… rainbowwwww!” I remark that it’s admirable he hasn’t grown jaded to this country’s features after more than 20 years of making Iceland a part of his life.

“It’s hard to get jaded to that,” he says, gesturing to the window. “It’s volatile. And the mood—it’s just crazy.”

Over the course of our conversation, Damon talks about how this view inspired his new album, his views on social justice, and how he fell in love with Iceland.

Flying over black sand beaches

“I had a very specific introduction to Iceland,” Damon says. “I used to have a recurring dream as a child, of flying over black sand. It wasn’t connected to anything, but I would always find myself, at night, in my dreams, flying over black sand. I kept having that dream for a long time. Then I became a young adult and forgot about the dream for a bit. Much later I was lying in a hotel room somewhere, on tour, and watched a National Geographic programme that happened to be about Iceland. Suddenly, I realised that Iceland was full of black sand beaches.”

The timing of making this connection was fortuitous for Damon, as the experience of fame was beginning to take its toll.

“It was at a moment in my life where I’d become far more famous than I’d ever anticipated or even imagined,” he says. “It gets beyond a point where your imagination can go, it becomes deeply psychological, its effect on you. It dawns on you that this is not straightforward, and it’s not the thing that you imagined as a kid, religiously watching Top Of The Pops. It’s way more than that, and way darker than that. I felt I needed to get out somewhere where no one would know me.”

This led to his first trip to Iceland, with a typewriter and guitar in tow, and re-connecting with the only person he knew in the country: musician, visual artist and former Sugarcubes vocalist Einar Örn Benediktsson, whom he previously met in Boston. Damon describes Einar as “my guide, really, into the world of Reykjavík.” The two soon became fast friends, and Damon began frequenting the downtown pub Kaffibarinn, which he would later, and temporarily, become part owner of. During this time, Damon fell hard for Iceland.

“I started waxing lyrical in every interview about how I’d found this place and how wonderful it was,” he says. “It spiraled out of control, really, and for 15 years after, there were huge amounts of people coming over just to go to my bar as one of the things they were going to do. That was a bit depressing, really, as I no longer had anything to do with that. I was only very briefly a co-owner of that place.”

Citizen Albarn

Earlier this year, Damon Albarn was granted Icelandic citizenship, some 24 years after first coming here. It’s something that he’s still quite excited about, as he eagerly shows me his Icelandic passport when I ask if he has one.

“What I’m really excited about is going back into the UK with this,” he says. “I only got this one. I didn’t bring my British one, just to see how far I could get with it. Going back to England, it’s going to be funny, because they always recognise me. They’re either going to think it’s cool or think I’m an asshole. Which is kind of how it is in my country.”

He pauses for a moment, reflecting on his home country.

“I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, but fuck ’em,” Damon says. “What you have to reconcile with yourself in life is that you’re not going to be able to please everyone all the time. It’s impossible. And if you are, you’re doing something terribly wrong. It used to hurt me so much when I was younger. ‘Why don’t they like me? I’m really good, I work really hard, and they’re so mean about me, certain people.’ Even when I’ve done something really good, they’re mean, and I know it’s because they just don’t like me.”

What did we gain from the Iraq War?

Damon has always had a strong sense of social justice, and has never shied away from taking a stand. He downplays this, saying it’s “just from being brought up by socially aware, liberal parents. In part coming from a Quaker background, pacifist, you’re hard wired into that straight away,” but even with such a background, it’s not a given that someone who’s been suddenly catapulted to fame will retain these values. One of the causes he was most outspoken about was his opposition to the then-impending invasion of Iraq, something he still feels strongly about to this day.

“It does astound me, and obviously you’re far more sensitive to your own folks’ bad decisions, but with the whole Iraq thing,” he says. “There were two million people who marched. It felt on that day like no way will Tony Blair be able to deal with this. This is a very physical expression of public opinion. Especially back then; this was pre-Twitter and everything. And yet it was just dismissed.”

In retrospect, he believes, simply marching wasn’t going far enough.

“What did anyone gain out of the Iraq War? Massive refugees, the Taliban, ISIS. None of that’s gone away.”

“If I was Captain Hindsight, I’d have been able to tell everyone that we can’t just march on this Saturday; we have to stay in London, all of us camp in Hyde Park, and just stay there,” he says. “It’s quite extraordinary, really, the power of the state to just undermine everything. And for what? What did anyone gain out of the Iraq War? Massive refugees, the Taliban, ISIS. None of that’s gone away. But what did we gain? I suppose if you’re right wing and support Brexit, you got what you wanted, because you scared everybody.”

Ultimately, it’s the cruelty at the heart of it all that astounds him.

“I just look at them and think, why are you like this?” he says. “What sort of world do you live in where you think it’s agreeable to be aggressive and negative to other people? However much I walk around these things, I always come back to ‘no, we have to keep trying to educate people.’ We’re all exactly the same. We’re just little specks of dust, and nothing any of us say is actually of any importance. But collectively…”, he trails off, leaving the possibilities open-ended, up to the imagination.

The journey from the sea to the island

On the topic of the new album, I mention a press release that quoted him as saying the album was a result, in part, of a “dark journey” he had taken.

“Sometimes I say things and they get frozen in time and come back to me,” he remarks. “It’s related in part to what we’re all going through, but I suppose when you get to 50, it’s the first time when you become really aware of people dying and getting ill, because you’re on the radar of all of that. It’s just a realisation that it is finite.”

To say that Iceland inspired the album, though, is an understatement. Some of the songs were literally written from things happening right outside his livingroom window.

“Someone came to me and said, ‘What would you like to do?’ And I said, ‘I’d love to make a record staring out my window in Iceland, with a group of orchestral musicians.’,” Damon explains. “I wasn’t going to write anything down; just get to some very simple harmonic destinations. But basically, we used to come here with everything all set up. Someone would be in charge of the clouds, someone would be in charge of the outline of Esja, someone would be on waves, and birds, and golf carts. We’d spend hours just playing, playing, playing. And once you take it out of the moment and the environment, you have a really great audio memory of what’s just happened, and immediately it becomes very abstract. You can really work with that. It was a great process. But then quite far into that process, the pandemic started, and I was kind of severed from my timeline to make this orchestral piece.”

Esja, the giantess

From there, it was back to the UK, to try and piece together what he had recorded into something more coherent.

“I went back to London, then I went back to the countryside, down by the sea, and left it for about eight months,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘I really want to articulate this somehow.’ All I had was rehearsal recordings of the orchestral stuff so it wasn’t a huge amount of use, but I was able to salvage some of it. A lot of the melodic ideas I came up with I played around with in this room. The lyrical ideas, for example in a song like “Royal Morning Blue,” are literally playing and then rain turning into snow, it’s as simple as that. Esja is very much my confidante. I imagine a giantess laying on its side. So ‘the road was its snow’, I mean, once you abstract that, it can mean anything, which is what songwriting’s all about, really.”

This living room we’re chatting in is, it turns out, the key to understanding the entire process of creating the album.

“There were all these things I’d accumulated while being here, and they became the bedrock of how I wrote the album.”

“You get a very good sense of how it was made being in this room,” he says. “I had these fragments of words and melodies that had come in situ here. So I just turned them into something that felt coherent. For example, the song ‘Particles,’ that came out of flying here and being put next to a very chatty old lady. At first I was like ‘oh god, she’s going to talk to me the whole of the flight.’ Which is my idea of hell, because at some point they’re going to ask me what I do, and then I just hate that. I hate the journey of that conversation because it’s not something that you can put simply into a conversation. If they don’t know who you are it requires a detailed explanation.

“But she was fantastic, she turned out to be a rabbi from Winnipeg who lived in Montreal. We started talking about life on an atomic scale, and how there are certain particles in the universe that will find you, and you cannot avoid them. That was something I really wanted to articulate.”

After arriving again in Iceland, the inspiration continued, sometimes in the most unlikely ways.

“There were all these things I’d accumulated while being here, and they became the bedrock of how I wrote the album,” he says. “Like the song ‘Daft Wader’ was from me and my friends one summer night, at low tide like this. It looked possible to get [to the small island offshore], we were drinking, and then Einar [Snorri], who’s a break dancer of some repute, he decided he wanted to do some naked break dancing. So he started off, and I joined him, and some other people got involved, and we had this big Viking break dancing. Then we decided to go down to the island. That was the start of ‘Daft Wader’, but it ended up in Iran. It’s a nice process. Most importantly, it all started in here. Everything on the record started here. The orchestral bit follows the outline of Esja.”

The Amish, trains and capitalism

One of the things that makes a conversation with Damon fun is the almost stream-of-consciousness way he has of telling a story; one subject sort of bleeds into the next, sometimes unexpectedly, but it’s never not entertaining.

When discussing the Quakers, I bring up that I was born in Pennsylvania, a state rich in Quaker heritage. Damon knows Pennsylvania because of the Amish, though, and proceeds to describe a train journey he took from Boston to Chicago.

“It’s a real shame we don’t have trains here. You could really sort so much stuff out here just by getting a train, an electric train that’s run by geothermal energy.”

“It was amazing really, for two reasons,” he says. “Firstly, I was suddenly introduced, from a nice perspective, to the city of Albany. That’s a whole different kind of America, isn’t it? All the Amish out at the train station with their horse-drawn-carts. In that context they’d seem like straddling two realities. Secondly, the guard who was running the night cabins happened to be a massive Gorillaz fan and lost it when he came to my little cabin, and ended up letting me go and smoke weed in the mail car with the doors opened up in the middle of the night. So I’m just sitting on the side, with my legs dangling down, smoking weed and it was a really bright moon, going through the forest. That’s sort of the thing about America, all those expanses that you see in movies, I felt like I was in that for a moment.”

This leads to: “It’s a real shame we don’t have trains here. You could really sort so much stuff out here just by getting a train, an electric train that’s run by geothermal energy.” Like most Icelanders, the lack of trains means he gets around primarily by car, which is a new experience for him.

Expressing the freedom that having a car brings, he admits that he now rides his bike less and feels guilty about it. When I point out how much emphasis is placed on our individual choices while polluting corporations are let off the hook, he says, “That’s capitalism for you. Where did all that start? I guess it’s not fair to blame America, because the Victorians were arch-capitalists, weren’t they?”

Our interview is cut short by Einar. There are more reporters coming that day, and one is on his way at the moment. With that, we say our goodbyes, and I head out into the wind and rain—a feature that, while usually unpleasant, somehow now has a certain charm after an hour spent with an artist so deeply in love with this country.

‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’ releases digitally on November 12th, and you can pre-order it here. You can also buy it from the Grapevine Shop, which also includes a copy of the issue of Grapevine with Damon on the cover.

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