I reach for my phone outside an old industrial building in Reykjavík’s Grandi neighbourhood. Once the main hub for the city’s fishing operations, it is now a gentrified landfill with two streets running parallel, separated by a row of refurbished fish-freezing plants. Afraid the furious North Atlantic winds might blow the phone out of my hands; I dial a number and tell the voice on the other end I’m outside our rendezvous point. Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir swings open a steel door, a smile on her face, and invites me in. She tells me the space used to be the warehouse of outdoor apparel brand Don Cano. My reaction likely betrayed my utter lack of knowledge about 90s fashion brands, but apparently everyone and their grandmother had a Don Cano piece — even former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.
Ascending a dark stairwell leading to the second floor, Nanna’s studio space is flooded by sunlight streaming through the wall-to-wall windows. I admire her instruments, which lay strewn across the room as wind kept blowing outside, noisily battering the windows.
Breaking out with Of Monsters and Men
My first memory of Nanna is from 2010, when I was 14 years old and participating in Músíktilraunir, Iceland’s annual battle of the bands. As luck would have it, we played the same night of the semi-finals. Then in her early 20s, Nanna was unaware of the impact her participation in the contest would have on her career. A previously unknown band, Of Monsters and Men won the competition and ultimately blew up the following year with the release of their debut single “Little Talks.”
Now, all these years later, it’s the impending release of Nanna’s debut solo album, How To Start A Garden, that brings us together.
Before meeting with Nanna, I was content calling her solo project a new direction for the artist. On the surface, there’s a completely different sound, texture, song structure and brand being mediated through this ‘new’ outing. After my conversations with Nanna, however, I have changed my mind. Although stylistically different from her band’s offerings, this new chapter in Nanna’s career doesn’t seem to be a new direction or a start of something different. As she explains, it’s a continuation of her earlier songwriting efforts; an extension of herself. “It was really a bit of a dilemma. I found it very difficult to call it a solo project,” she confesses.
Before embarking on an international adventure with Of Monsters and Men, Nanna wrote and performed under the moniker Songbird. In her sleepy hometown of Garður, at the very tip of the Reykjanes peninsula, the folksy singer-songwriter played around with music that she incorporated with her love of ghost tales. “I was an extremely dreamy child and spent a lot of time in my own world. I just played out in the fields making up stories, ” she tells me.
After moving to Reykjavík around the age of 20, Nanna worked at a video rental shop while studying at the Reykjavík School of Visual Arts. It was then that Nanna met Ragnar Þórhallsson, who introduced her to her future OMAM bandmates just in time for that fateful Músíktilraunir. “Something clicked,” she tells me. “I guess I was a bit shy, performing on my own,” she says when asked about the allure of forming a band. “I’ve always found it entertaining to play with other people and the result of people being excited together ends up being better, in a way.”
With no conscious plan for OMAM to release a record, the band gained experience playing various Reykjavík clubs, simultaneously finding and developing their sound. This nonchalance is representative of many Icelandic bands of the same time — the lack of an established music industry in Iceland left many artists with total creative control. That’s largely the case today.
OMAM’s debut album, My Head is an Animal, was released a year and a half after their Músíktilraunir victory and quickly rocketed them away from their humble beginnings. Subsequently, their breakout single “Little Talks” went on to rule airwaves around the world — its current Spotify numbers show it’s been streamed more than 860 million times. To this day, Nanna is perplexed by its success, “Suddenly, something happened abroad. Out of nowhere, a bunch of people had heard it on the internet. I have no idea how any of this happened.”
OMAM had developed into the superlative. Maximalist shows, extroverted performances and grandiose instrumentation all became a part of their presentation — a far departure from Nanna’s more introverted roots. As she tells it, How To Start A Garden is a return to her comfort zone.
“[In this] world I created, you’re sort of in your bedroom, completely engulfed by your own world.” Monsters – as Nanna calls her band – is the complete opposite of her new project. For Nanna, OMAM’s performances are all about emphasising her extrovert tendencies, riling up the audience through a riveting show. “In a way, I also think that’s a big part of me, something that the band brought out in me. Because I’m usually not like that. I like the calmness. Before all this success I was just an emo kid,” she says, poking fun at herself.
Nanna thrives in between these contradictions. “I’m very attracted to opposites. I feel a need to mirror myself against something.” A good example of this attraction is the song “Phantom,” originally a Songbird tune and re-released on the 10th-anniversary edition of My Head is an Animal. Written by a 16-year-old Nanna, the song had Nanna’s voice singing timidly and quietly. When dressed up as an OMAM effort, the energy levels are ratcheted up. “When I’m with the band, I get into position. There’s some kind of power and energy I acquire,” she says.
Hitting the reset button
On May 5, 13 years after forming OMAM, Nanna released How to Start a Garden. Though she’s undoubtedly a more confident, experienced and fully-fledged artist than her pre-OMAM self, Nanna clings to her singer-songwriter roots and her affinity for stories told in the depths of dark Icelandic winters.
Starting out her career as a solo artist, I wondered if this was a nod to her past. Having founded one of Iceland’s most successful bands, what’s motivating her to present herself as a stand-alone artist? When I posed this question, we had been chatting for some time, with many cups of coffee between us. “I have been thinking about this a lot,” Nanna tells me before jumping on her feet and fetching still more caffeine. “First of all, when I started working on the album, although I left it to happen organically, I had a strong idea about the concept. When you work as part of a group, you’re working as a group,” Nanna emphasises. “You don’t control everything and that’s the beauty of working in a group, but also the challenge.”
The idea of returning to a starker, more authentic display of herself had been lurking in the back of Nanna’s mind for a long time. “I thought to myself, ‘Now I’ve been in a band for a very long time,’ and I just found this desire to do my own thing,” she says. It wasn’t until 2020 that she found the opportunity to fully conceive of her new undertaking. “When COVID came, I thought it was time. Suddenly, I had all this time to start working on the album. In fact, I’m not starting anything, but visiting something that’s always been a part of me,” she tells me.
As all of us experienced in one way or another, the pandemic put a stop to our normal ways of life. For Nanna, that meant a stop to touring with OMAM. “It was like someone hit the reset button,” she describes to me. “Even if it hadn’t happened, I think I would’ve started working on the album. I even started working on it when we were touring. I have this very vivid memory of being in a New York hotel room on tour, actively working on the album. I don’t necessarily know if the album would’ve taken more time or if it would’ve turned out completely different if not for COVID. Ideas were able to marinate and they reflect a specific time in my life; the last three years or so.”
The album, Nanna says, is about that in-between state — one pushed on us by a period of global flux, but also one that’s experienced on a smaller scale in our personal lives during times of change. “[On the album] you’re not sure where things are going. Everything’s at a complete stop,” Nanna explains. While the album paints a picture of the standstill that both undecidedness and powerlessness create, the piece also evokes emotions of tumultuousness and movement — like driving past a series of signposts all pointing in the right direction. “It documents a specific time in my life, something of a limbo. Maybe because of COVID, but also because I was personally experiencing change,” Nanna says.
Alone, not lonely
How To Start A Garden was recorded at multiple locations, most notably in upstate New York and in Nanna’s cabin in rural Iceland. In New York, Nanna worked in the Dreamland Recording Studio, a picturesque 19th-century church-cum-studio. The album was produced by Nanna in collaboration with Aaron Dessner of The National and Josh Kaufman, a collaborator on The National’s previous works.
“The National is one of my favourite bands and it was interesting to have reached a peer-level status with my idols,” she tells me.
In her new solo outfit, Nanna addresses the individual in a sincere manner. You get the feeling Nanna has written these songs for you personally, as her calm yet powerful voice addresses the frailty of being human, making mistakes and not knowing what to do. “On the album, I’m extremely relaxed and singing very softly. There’s a lot of room to manoeuvre.”
The solitary state of being that Nanna projects onto the album is also a reflection of its production process. As Nanna states, “When mixing the album, I went on long walks alone, late at night.” That feeling of solitude echoes throughout her music.
While listening, I got the sensation of Nanna being present in the room with me, strumming her guitar. Everything feels very close, like you’re on the verge of being sucked into Nanna’s garden of lonesome opposites. “I find the moments you have with yourself so beautiful,” Nanna muses. “I think so many things happen when you’re by yourself. Alone, but not lonely.”
The album’s opener and title track introduce that ambiguous feeling of the in-between Nanna refers to. In the song, Nanna explores a rapid change in sonic environments. With sound alone, she conjures up a lush green garden, with birdsong and fragments of conversation. To the cue of muted piano, the listener is quickly transported into the middle of a desolate winter.
“It’s that feeling of yearning and hope, but then you realise you’re back at square one. The question is asked, ‘How do you figure this out?’ And the answer is simply, ‘I don’t know,’” Nanna says light-heartedly.
Nowhere on the album is the answer found. It’s up to the listener to make sense of it for themselves. Philosophical underpinnings also characterised Nanna’s process, as she mentions stoicism being a major theme. The narrator finds herself ending up in a vortex that doesn’t seem to end. “To be stoic is to just allow yourself to swirl around. That can be positive and there’s a whole lot that comes from it,” Nanna tells me. Spectacularly executed, the opening track sets the tone for what’s to come.
Another track, “Sputnik,” is based on Nanna’s experimental tendencies during the recording process. Although not an experimental song per se – the piano refrain reminds me of an old Sigur Rós track – “Sputnik” is the result of sampling laid over a simple piano melody. “I find it very entertaining to make samples, so I was often recording all sorts of sounds wherever I was,” Nanna says.
“Sputnik” is produced with a collection of recordings made both in Dreamland Studios as well as in Nanna’s cabin. “Recording in my cabin had a big effect on me. You know how you get into the country?” she asks, not pausing for an answer, “You just get all muted like,” she continues.
Nanna’s dog even makes an appearance in one track. “We were recording a song and my dog keeps walking around the room. We just let it stand as it were. We weren’t afraid of letting some of these sounds that were picked up stay in the final version,” she says. Even though the album’s subject matter ranges from sombre to serious, it’s Nanna’s earnest playfulness that ends up being one of the album’s key takeaways. It’s how she phrases her words and the colourful explosions of small sounds embedded all over the album that exhibits her artistry.
How do you actually start a garden?
“I’m going to play a bit more for you,” Nanna says, fetching her laptop. It takes her a while to find the correct file, while she’s also trying to organise her desktop folders. “I’m trying to find the best way to play this. I don’t know about you, but I’m not very organised,” she says and takes a bite out of her pain au chocolat as “Disaster Master” begins to play.
“This song is recorded in Dreamland and what’s so fantastic is that you can hear the space. It’s such a beautiful studio and it’s just a church. Everything’s warm and nice. You can hear every sound being made there. And the guitar, how soft it is.” With most of the instrumentation recorded in the grand church hall of Dreamland, you’d expect the album to feel bigger than it is. Instead the vocals feel very close to the listener, creating an intimate soundscape.
The album’s lyrics also reflect Nanna’s vision of intimacy. “I like lyrics that portray micro-moments. You’re not painting the whole picture, but rather zooming into a specific moment and speaking about something very particular. Like how to start a garden. I was in the middle of COVID and had this hope, this question of how to actually start a garden. I had recently moved into a new house and was watching my neighbour tending to his garden. I just found it so romantic and beautiful.
“When I started working on the song and the lyrics, it was winter. At its core, it’s about this simple question which is so loaded. I’m visiting some memories but also looking forward. Just at home looking out the window and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of snow.’”
This introspection is a major theme on How To Start A Garden, which Nanna confesses is one of her biggest achievements. “For me, this piece sums up pretty much everything I’ve learned on the way. As I see it, this is a project that will be a part of me from now on. It always has, but now I’ve opened it up,” she says.
Time to hit the road
Starting in July, Nanna is set to tour the U.S. with her session band, consisting of Icelandic musicians Magnús Trygvason Eliassen, Tómas Jónsson, Rakel Sigurðardóttir and Bjarni Þór Jensson.
I later learn that Nanna will be in New York during the weekend of her release. “That’s a secret,” she tells me when asked about the occasion, ultimately giving in due to her excitement. “OK, I’m playing Jimmy Fallon on May 3,” she confesses.
When asked how the session band is coming together, Nanna is clearly pleased. “I’ve been with [OMAM] for so long. Now, I’m joining another group of extremely skilled people and it’s so fun to develop something new together. I’m very excited about that cooperation. America can be a weird one, but I enjoy touring there, going to In-N-Out or something,” Nanna says with a laugh.
About the rumours circulating about OMAM’s disbandment, Nanna is clear: “I’ve heard people claim that the band has quit. We’ve never said that.” In fact, out of all the countless milestones the band reached, Nanna is proudest of its longevity, having been active since 2010. “I’m proud of the fact that we still have the drive to record music and release albums. Even today.”
“The band is far from over and we’re working on a new album right now, so I’ll be jumping between projects back and forth. And it’s so nurturing. I somehow thought it would become overwhelming, but I feel like I’ve become stronger with the band than I’ve been before.”
Released May 5 via Republic Records, How To Start A Garden is an honest portrait of the artist’s experiences of love, loss, ambiguity and contentment. It is an album that celebrates solitude and loneliness, while affirming that you don’t always need to know how everything will pan out. How To Start A Garden is an album that is deserving of the listener’s undivided attention, preferably while enjoying the beauty of a moment alone on a solitary walk.
Dive even deeper into How To Start A Garden with Nanna herself in a fresh episode of Sound On – our brand-new video series where we take a closer look into the minds of musicians.
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