Before we begin, let’s just go ahead and acknowledge the illustrious, dazzling elephant in the room: Björk. She’s always there. Our cultural ambassador: a symbol for independent womanhood, for creative freedom, for our supposed musical matriarchy.
Indeed, Björk’s success plays into a recent perception of Iceland as some sort of egalitarian paradise—following this year’s Airwaves, a journalist for The Quietus gleefully commented that: “with sell-out shows by Björk, Sinéad O’Connor and Yoko Ono, this year’s Airwaves is also the first music festival I have ever attended where the star attractions are all female […] It is tempting to suggest this girl-power bias reflects the traditionally matriarchal and egalitarian values of [this] Nordic nation.”
Likewise, Iceland’s recent media attention has focused on women as headliners—in September, Newsweek crowned Iceland the “best place to be a woman,” based on factors ranging from health care to political power; last year, an article on The Guardian website named us “the world’s most feminist country”; and for the past two years in a row, Iceland has been rated #1 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report.
And yet a poll conducted on behalf of the labour unions Efling, Hlíf and VFSK by Gallup shows a 25% discrepancy between the full-time salaries of men and women.
So what is the climate really like on the ground? Does the media’s emphasis on Iceland’s progressive social policy insinuate that cultural practices follow suit—attributing Björk’s success less to her own talent and resolve, and rather to a culture that has seemingly done away with gender bias?
WHERE ARE ALL THE GIRLS?
The bar was sparsely filled. Adda Ingólfsdóttir was performing a few original songs from her upcoming album, accompanied on vocals by her sister Sunna as they warmed up a release concert for their dad, Ingólfur Steinsson. “This is a song about things that don’t quite fit” said Adda mildly, smiling at a modest crowd, comprised mostly of friends and family.
Her melodies were minimal yet not simple, an ebb and flow of tempo and sentiment that came out sounding like a sigh of gentle relief. Like with the best poetry, there was a luscious intimacy to her expression, the carving out of another world. It was all bewitchingly understated. One couldn’t help but wonder where one had been all this time. Or where Adda had been hiding.
Indeed, there is an array of independent female singer-songwriters operating in Iceland at or just below the radar. A few have attained success on an international level—namely Emiliana Torrini and Ólöf Arnalds, who have toured with the likes of Sting and Blonde Redhead, respectively. But the truth is that there is no coherent scene built around female musicians in Iceland, no solid foundation on which women can choose to launch their careers. And while the number of female solo singer-songwriters in Reykjavík seems to be growing, many—like Adda—remain relatively unknown.
That first step onto the local music stage takes a ridiculous amount of not-giving-a-fuck. Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Elín Eyþórsdóttir—better known as Elín Ey—recognises this from when she started to play music live at age 13. “I totally started on my own,” she says. “I think my first gig was at Hljómalind. I was really young, so I mean it was scary. I remember my hands shaking so much that I could barely play the guitar. But it was very exciting. I liked it. At that point I had finally found myself in some way. I had found what I wanted to do.”
Elín says that when she started playing she knew of very few other solo female musicians playing at the local level. Although the numbers keep growing, the ‘scene’ is still difficult to identify. “There’s a lot of difference between us,” says Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir, better known as Lay Low.
Although none of the women we spoke with felt they were musically similar to each other, they all agreed there were links between them through friendship, collaboration or the act of mentoring. “I think you can find a connection from one to the other,” says Myrra Rós Þrastardóttir, who performs her original compositions as Myrra Rós. “You can find some sort of a link, even though not everyone knows each other.“
Following these threads of professed support reveals a tangled web.
“For me, it’s been Emiliana Torrini,” says Lovísa. “I was invited to join her [on tour] and I got the most experience I’ve ever had, playing shows and just learning how everything goes, getting advice from her and just seeing how she does it. Both on personal matters and musically, she has been a mentor to me.”
Adda, in turn, cites among others Lovísa as a supportive figure: “It has been really important for me to know other women in the music scene. Like Lovísa who has released all these records and has so much know-how and is so willing to help. And Ólöf, who is also a friend. My third concert was organised by Myrra Rós. She was doing interesting stuff, like this Trúbatrix thing. It was important for me to get to know her and Elín Ey.”
Sóley Stefánsdóttir, better known as sóley, cites Ólöf as having been encouraging to her in the field of music composition. And Myrra likewise cites Elín as an influence. “I saw this girl called Elín Ey perform, and I was just mesmerized. Around our friendship I started playing more shows. We have this connection through what it is that we do. It’s maybe corny but, yeah, nobody gets me like she actually does. We tried to make music together for some time but then we just both realised that we are our own acts.”
Ólöf, in turn, brings it all back to Björk: “The most helpful woman to my career has been Björk. She’s been very supportive of my work and I’m signed on her record label. And also artistically, her sort of bringing her cultural weight into supporting my music has been very beneficial.”
Sóley likewise admits Björk as an influence: “Though I don’t listen to her music everyday,” she says, “I really appreciate what she is doing. And you can look at her and say: ‘ok, I can also do this’. I’m not talking about like the same music or anything, but she’s so creative and so powerful and that’s really positive to know.”
AND YET, NO SCENE!
This mutual admiration and support, however, has not translated into a more concrete allegiance between these singer-songwriters.
“I would find it interesting to know the female influences within Iceland” says Adda, “because I would think that there might be a hesitation for women to identify too strongly with each other. I know, for example, that I have felt hesitant in naming Björk as an influence, but she’s one of my biggest influences.”
Adda points out that frequently when a woman engages in or becomes prominent in a particular field, she is seen as being the spokesperson for all women—a litmus test for the entire gender to be gauged by. This pressure in turn affects how women perceive each other and their own abilities and fuels a possible hesitancy to align with other women.
“I don’t think I would want to align myself [with any scene],” says Elín. “I feel like I’m not ready to set myself in some kind of category of music yet. It’s nice to have support. It’s different than playing with just men. In some way women are more like your equals. But the Icelandic music scene is corrupted in some ways. I just feel like people sometimes lose their heads in competition. I feel like everyone should have a shot at what they want to do.”
NO MAN’S LAND
Adda and Lovísa have targeted the issue of competitiveness through direct action by putting together a series of concert nights at Barbara showcasing queer women performers—in the broadest sense of those terms. Adda attributes her motivation for creating these nights to a sense of insecurity she felt when she began playing music in 1998, completely surrounded by boys.
“At that point I was really shy,” Adda says. “No, shy is not the right word—I had a massive inferiority complex. Huge. I was especially insecure towards boys. Onstage I was free, but off-stage I was like, 2% of myself. I wasn’t a feminist back then so I didn’t recognise this pattern at all. I just thought that the disempowering feeling was because I was such a loser.” Adda moved away to study sonology—once again surrounded exclusively by men—and upon her return made the conscious decision to work mainly within the context of friendships with women, she says, such as with Lovísa.
It was in this context that Adda and Lovísa decided to create a women-dominated platform called ‘Skyndilega greip mig óstjórnleg löngun’ (“Suddenly I’m Seized by an Uncontrollable Urge”) with the intention of building a safe-space in which to explore different sides of their musical selves, while also targeting their cultural environment.
“As a group of friends, we would go to places [like Trúnó, and Barbara] and feel that it was a bit disco-dominant, a bit gay-male dominant,” Adda says. “We wanted to diversify the scene, feminise it and also queerify it. We wanted to break out of the bounds of straight and gay, but also to create a space where people could play with gender and their sexual orientation in a musical, artistic sense.” These nights frequently featured musician Björg Sveinbjörnsdóttir, comedian and historian Íris Ellenberger and performance artists Eva Rún Snorradóttir and Eva Björk Kaaber.
Indeed, the gay community seems to be one of the more receptive spaces for female performers. Both Lovísa and Elín identify as queer women and agree that the gay community has been supportive of their careers. Myrra also finds a sense of comfort within the walls of gay-friendly bars. “I like the people who run the clubs and the people who go to the clubs,” she says. “It’s different to be in a gay bar than in a straight bar. There’s a different kind of vibe you get.”
Despite drawing a good turn out and a regular audience to their nights, Adda and Lovísa point out that there was very little attendance from non-queer people—especially men. That is, until they did a woman-featured hip hop show titled ‘Mellur Strike Back, Elskið’a’ (“Sluts Strike Back, Take That”), a play on words of a misogynistic song title by local rapper Blazroca, which Adda says drew the largest and most diverse crowd the group had seen at their nights. This was due in no small part to a rare performance by Ragna, AKA Cell7, from legendary ‘90s hip-hop group Subterranean: “I think it was also the fact that the girls were gonna do the ‘boys’ stuff now,” Adda says.
The question remains if these so-called safe-spaces for some may be alienating to others. “I think there are a lot of people who don’t even go here [Trúnó], not because they are prejudiced but because they just don’t feel like it’s their home,” Adda says. “For me, it’s much more important to create this platform and forge connections between women and queer-women musicians rather than to [focus on] inclusion. I was just thinking ‘Hey, people are missing out! This is cool stuff! Where are they?’”
THE BOYS JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND
A general sentiment amongst the women we spoke to is that, on some level, the guys just don’t get it; that, at the very least in the professional field of music, men do not have quite the same experiences as women, either in their interactions with other musicians or with members of the press.
While touring with and opening for Sin Fang, Sóley noted inconsistencies between the ways in which she was spoken to as opposed to the guys, being the only female in the bunch. “I was always pointing out things I saw as wrong and they would agree, but not in the way another girl would,” she says. “I love the guys, they are really nice, but it’s so hard to talk to people when they have not experienced that feeling. Like once, this guy asked me why I was drinking red wine before a gig. But he didn’t ask the other guys. Only me. We were all standing there.”
“It’s a male scene,” Ólöf agrees. “But I feel like all those girls that are making music of my generation are really supportive of each other and will sort of seek advice from each other about business related things. It’s a complicated business. I feel that if someone is in a tough spot or is in some kind of trouble that, yeah… the girls call each other.”
“There should be some kind of support,” Sóley continues, “because we’re all thinking the same things and we are probably all experiencing the same things when we tour or when we play.”
Beyond having one’s motivations for enjoying a nice glass of red questioned, the phenomenon of being singled out for being female often crosses into the territory of being condescended to about musical abilities.
“When I was first starting out, people were amazed,” Lovísa says. “They couldn’t believe I was so good at playing guitar—for a girl!”
“Sometimes I get comments from guys that are like ‘It’s so crazy that you’re a girl and you play guitar so well,’” Ólöf says. “Is that a compliment?”
Many of Sóley’s frustrations similarly lie with presumptions regarding her basic technical knowledge, like whether or not she knows how to plug in her own keyboard. “So many times,” she says, “I get told ‘You’re doing it wrong!’ I mean, goddamn it! I’ve done it a thousand times! They are probably just trying to be nice, but they wouldn’t do it to Robbi, the guitarist in Sin Fang. They wouldn’t tell our drummer how to put a cymbal on.”
In their events at Barbara, Adda and Lovísa stress the importance for them of every role being filled by a woman. “I find it very important that when you are organising a concert with just women on the bill, that the sound engineer is a woman,” Adda explains. “Our soundwoman is Úlfhildur Eysteinsdóttir and if she’s not available we only call other girls. And if they can’t come, we do it ourselves. When I am around other women, I feel more comfortable making mistakes, not being great or perfect. That might be something personal with me or whatever, but I feel others have talked about it as well. Not knowing what to do with a cable and being able to figure it out yourself without some guy coming and mansplaining it to you.”
In feminist vernacular, ‘mansplaining’ is a phenomenon in which men attempt to explain things to women as though the former were the assumed authority. This is often an absent-minded or well-intentioned error, yet it does impact the environment in which some women work.
“I have this new policy now compared to when I was making music before, to only rely on other women,” Adda says. “There used to only be guys to call if you needed to borrow some equipment. This time I’ve been really, really careful and I only call girls.”
MIXING IT UP
Nonetheless, it’s a shallow pond. For example female sound engineers in Iceland are few and far between, to the point that even women musicians are pleasantly surprised whenever they see one. “We were in Sweden on tour and there were two girls and one guy doing sound,” Sóley recollects. “It was so funny, because when we saw them we were like, ‘Hey, girls!’ Why would I think like that? But I did. Everyone did.”
This imbalance in the roles that women fill in the music industry also applies to the local stage. Sóley points out that few women play the drums in Icelandic bands, and that there is for example only one notable female jazz pianist in Iceland—Sunna Gunnlaugs. The women who choose less conventional instruments, Sóley point out, receive a disproportionate level of scrutiny.
“If there is a girl playing the drums in a band,” she says, “you always have to focus really hard on her. Kind of waiting for her to fail or something. It’s really important to have women in every type of music. I know that we have few female drummers, most of them are young and studying at music schools but why do they quit? Nor are there any women playing bass in a jazz band. Who said to the world that these things were not for women? There are some out there, that’s cool, but we need more.”
Sóley herself is no stranger to being the target of ridicule for her unconventional musical choices. Having played in her school’s marching band as a teenager, she opted for the bass drum and cymbals, rather than the more customary choice of flute. “My schoolmates made fun of me,” she admits. “It was not very cool. I mean, people think it’s not very feminine to play a big bass drum in a parade but only because someone said so long time ago.”
HOW DOES THE GROUND FEEL NOW?
Ultimately, there are very few visible women who occupy musical roles other than being singers. Beyond that tendency, there is also a seeming hesitancy to see those women as artists, the originators of ideas and the real creators of their work; to see them as the women behind as well as in front of the curtain.
“The media always say I’m a singer,” Sóley says. “I know I’m a singer but I also play instruments—almost every instrument on my album. But still people say ‘Sóley the singer’. I think people will always think that there must be someone doing all this stuff. ‘You couldn’t record this all by yourself!’ I’m waiting for it to be asked. And maybe people think that I didn’t do it, but I really want them to know that I did it, because it’s a lot of work. You want to get credit for what you do.”
This trend rises all the way to the top. In August of 2008, Björk issued a statement on her website in response to comments by local DJ B-Ruff, published in the Grapevine, in which he attributed the instrumentals on her album ‘Vespertine’ to Valgeir Sigurðsson, despite the fact that Valgeir, according to Björk’s statement, only acted as “a computer programmer for a third of [the recording process], and a recording engineer for a third.”
What could have contributed to such a misunderstanding, for a solo performer who is so clearly in control of her own artistry, her own work?
“Very often it’s conceived that women are in less control of their work,” Ólöf says. “There’s a danger for female songwriters and artists, that they just get sort of written out of history.”
Glowing as though illuminated solely by the candlelight scattered across tables, the wood-paneled interior of Rósenberg could not have existed at that moment in a more welcomed juxtaposition to the frost outside. Before launching into her last song, Adda speaks into the microphone: “Am I speaking too loudly?”
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