Eyþór Ingi Gunnlaugsson is off to Malmö to represent Iceland in the annual Eurovision Song Contest. He will be singing the song “Ég á líf” in Icelandic, marking the first time in 16 years that Iceland’s song hasn’t been translated to English. When the 23-year-old from Dalvík decided to take part in the preliminary song contest in Iceland, he had no idea how seriously Icelanders took it. “I thought it was crazy, but it’s even crazier than I thought,” he told us the night before he left for Sweden. “Evidently everyone in Iceland watches Eurovision, and if they don’t watch it, they know something about it, and even if they don’t know anything about it, they still have opinions about it.” In many ways, he said it was a relief to be finally going abroad.
Tell me about the song, “Ég á líf.”
What’s it about?
Well, it’s really open for interpretation. The line “Ég á líf vegna þín,” (“I owe my life to you”) can mean different things to different people. I’ve been singing it at weddings and, interestingly enough, funerals too. So some people relate the lyrics to happy times in their life while others relate to them at difficult times. We’re pretty happy with that.
Iceland hasn’t entered a song with Icelandic lyrics since Páll Óskar performed “Minn hinsti dans” (“My Final Dance”) in 1997, the last year that is was obligatory for countries to sing in their mother tongue. What kinds of pros and cons weighed heaviest in the decision to stick to Icelandic?
There was never really any question about it. Since Icelanders have been given the choice of singing in their mother tongue or English, we’ve always chosen English. I personally think it’s nicer for countries sing in their language. Not only because you’re most sincere when you speak your own language, but also because it’s just fun to do something different, to take the risk. You know, why not?
Have you gotten to hear it from people who are unhappy with the decision?
Oh yeah, random people on the street stop me and ask, ‘Why did you do that? Our chances of winning are so much slimmer now.’ It’s so funny, it’s like they’re asking some handball team, ‘why didn’t you play Óli [Stefánsson, Iceland’s premier handball player, now retired] in the match?’ It’s like all of a sudden, I’ve been put into the role of a sports hero, which I don’t think is the right way of looking at this. It’s not about showing everyone what we’ve got or about winning the thing. It’s about all of Europe meeting and having a good time. It’s about the glitz and the glamour, about throwing a party.
You don’t think that the rest of Europe will be missing something important given that they don’t understand Icelandic?
Well, yeah, maybe. If you don’t understand the language you might not connect with it in the same way as people do here at home, but I think it still works, and if anything it’ll be more unique. “Ég á líf” is a bit international too. I don’t think it’s difficult for a Dane or a Norwegian or a Swede to imagine what it means. You know, “líf,” “life,” So there’s maybe that underlying impulse, and then people can interpret it as they want. And I think it’s just a fun idea. This is a language spoken by a very small percentage of the world, and it will sound, well maybe it will sound horrible, but at least it’ll be interesting.
PREJUDICES ABOUT EUROVISION
You’ve been performing, acting and singing for years now, but you’ve never taken part in Eurovision. Why not? Why now?
This is a really difficult question to answer and I’m still asking myself the same question today. Personally I’ve never been a big Eurovision fan or had an urge to take part in it, but this year it was a bit more personal. When my good friend Pétur Jesú from the band Dúndurfréttur called me and said he had a song that had made it in a competition, my first reaction was, ‘Yeah, yeah Pétur, I’m not going to enter this competition.’ After I listened to it though, I immediately felt a connection, and I could tell that this was coming from Pétur’s heart. So I thought, okay, it’s totally different from everything else I’ve done, but why not? Why not do it and do it well, and then go back to making my album? I never expected it to go all the way. And then it won.
Do you feel like entering the Eurovision contest will compromise your identity as an actor and singer? Will you be branded ‘EUROVISION.’?
That’s maybe what I always feared, but then I think, “Wow, does it matter? Why am I thinking it this way? It’s not a big deal, it’s just Eurovision. Come on. But now I don’t know. I think the nation as a whole takes it too seriously and that scares me. It’s a bit scary if the nation takes it so seriously that, by participating in this contest, one comes back branded. But hey, Daníel Ágúst went to Eurovision [and scored zero points], and then he went on to become the frontman of GusGus.
Tell me about your experience since winning the local Icelandic song contest. What’s it like to be in the Eurovision spotlight? Is there a lot of pressure?
I started to feel the pressure even before the song contest finals. Already then I started to feel just how crazy people were about it all. I told Öggi [Örlygur Smári, composer], who’s a big Eurovision fan, that I didn’t know if I could deal with these people and with the media. And he looked at me and he said, ‘Eyþór, I’m going to warn you, Eurovision changes people into monsters.’ And it’s true.
For me it was just a rash decision. I thought if I somehow went all the way, that it would be just like going to meet a bunch of good friends for a fun board game and what matters is, when its done, that we would a good time, and when it’s done, I can say, ‘hey remember when we played that game.’
I think the Icelandic nation should think of it that way too, and I want to believe that that’s the majority view. I want to believe that the nation’s inferiority complex is a thing of the past. I want to believe that we have realised that it’s just a TV show, that it’s a night of glamour, that it can be fun because it’s so ridiculous or because people think it’s such fun music. I want to believe that.
IN IT TO WIN IT
But is your experience that the Icelandic nation wants to win it maybe even more than you do?
I have to admit, because people around me are so relaxed around Eurovision, I thought everyone thought this was just for fun. But I think a lot of people take this too seriously and then I mean both those who have an uncanny interest in Eurovision and just want us to win it, and those who are prejudiced against it.
People stop me when I’m out on the town or when I’m walking to Bónus and criticise me for not showing what I’m made of, because maybe they’ve seen me perform Led Zeppelin or Freddie Mercury at a concert in the past. They’re like, ‘Why don’t you show your whole vocal range? Why don’t you show them what you can do?’ Imagine if someone suggested that we perform it like Robert Plant. That would be ridiculous.
If you’re on one extreme, we have to win it, then you’re taking it too seriously. If you’re on the other extreme, criticising harshly everything around this, well then you’re also taking it too seriously. Then you’re a bit silly.
So how do you feel now, as you
get ready to go off to Sweden?
It’s been an interesting rollercoaster and I haven’t even gone abroad. At some point I told Pétur I don’t think I can deal with all of this criticism in the media—the criticising of my clothes, the way that I wore a Band-Aid, how I cut a red fish, the music video—what will it be like when I go abroad, and he said, ‘it’s much easier abroad. It’s Iceland that’s difficult.’
Why do you think Iceland is this way?
It’s hard to say. We are all steered by the media, so it’s difficult to say that it’s the whole nation. There are people out there who don’t take everything so seriously. But I’m sure it comes from our old inferiority complex before we got our independence. Since then it seems like we feel like we need to prove ourselves to everyone else. A good example of this is how Björk and Sigur Rós didn’t get the deserved attention here in Iceland before they got it abroad. That’s so typical Iceland. But it’s important to remember, we’re not competing in an athletic match. We’re just going to play cards.
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