At the beginning of 2006, Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir was just known as the girl from Benny Crespo’s Gang. And even that would be stretching it, since the band was only known by a small group of people who pay attention to the grassroots of the Reykjavík music scene. All that changed when she released her first attempt at solo work under the alias Lay Low on her myspace page in 2006. It was an instant hit and in a matter of months she had been signed by the Cod Music record label, published her first album, sold 9000 copies and won three categories at the Icelandic Music Awards. By the end of 2006, everyone knew Lay Low. As it turns out, things tend to move fast for Lovísa.
The moniker Lay Low is apt. It hints at the quiet, almost shy and subdued persona that is Lovísa Sigrúnardóttir. And just like Lay Low’s music, Lovísa has a very pleasant presence. To get the conversation flowing, I ask her when she first started to play an instrument.
“I started to play the piano when I was ten years old. I don’t really count the year I spent learning the flute when I was eight because I was not a very good student. I learned to play the piano for five years, but when I entered my teens, I gave it up. It was no longer cool. That’s when I started to play the bass.”
For a woman of her relatively small stature, the bass hardly seems like an obvious choice to replace the piano. “No it isn’t. I belonged to a church, and there was a band that always played there, young people with electric guitars and drums, and they needed a bass player and asked me if I would learn the bass. That’s what started it I guess. It was a lot of fun. I played the bass for many years, and it was my instrument up until I joined Benny Crespo’s Gang. That’s when I started to play the guitar in a band. I was awful. I could play a little guitar, by myself, but I had no idea how to play in a rock band. I could never keep the beat. Eventually, they had me play synthesisers as well to hide the fact that I wasn’t a very good guitar player. But playing in Benny Crespo’s Gang was the first time I really started to play the guitar. And think about it as an instrument. I started to write a little myself and it snowballed until I started as a solo artist. That’s my musical upbringing.”
The church Lovísa refers to is the free church congregation Kefas, which her parents belonged to. Lovísa was an active participator in organised youth operation in the church for many years, which remains somewhat responsible for her musical success. “I played with the church band for a long time. I only learned to play the bass in a music school for a year, a year and a half maybe. Almost everything I learned on the bass, I learned from playing in that band during mass once a week for a long, long time. But I don’t play with them anymore.”
Are you religious?
“Yes I am. I don’t belong to the congregation anymore, but I have my own faith.”
Lovísa is born in London to an Icelandic mother and a Sri Lankan father. Her parents divorced when she was three and her mother brought her back to Iceland, first to live in Kópavogur, but they eventually settled in the Laugarnes district of Reykjavík. Her father still lives in London and Lovísa and him still have a strong relation ship. But does she have any ties to her Sri Lankan heritage?
“I have a distant family in Sri Lanka. My grandmother’s siblings and their families. My grandfather came to London on a boat as a young man, like so many people at the time. He got a job there and has been living there for a long time. He doesn’t even speak the language anymore. Sadly, I’ve never been there. I am always planning to go. My grandmother and a part of my family in London still goes there often. The situation in Sri Lanka has been very difficult, so it’s not the best time to go, but I really hope to go there sometime. You have to know where you come from.”
I ask if she does anything special to foster that relationship with her Sri Lankan heritage, cook traditional food for example? “Not really. It is a very special place for me, but most of the time I’m not even aware of it… You know, I am just Icelandic. I don’t even notice that I have a darker complexion than most Icelanders. I never even think about it. But because I have a very good relationship with my family in London, I try to pay attention to what is happening there. But I have not really explored those roots.”
On Lovísa’s debut album, Please Don’t Hate Me, she plays what could best be described as country & western music, heavily influenced by American blues and roots music. On her new album, out next month, she takes an even more decisive step towards country music. How did a young girl from Laugarnes become fixated on country?
“There were so many different paths for me towards country. I think some of it goes back to my church band. Many songs we played were inspired by gospel, blues and country and that’s when I first started to appreciate country music, although I was not deeply interested in it at the time. When I got a little older, I got into country through a good friend of mine and I began to discover a lot of old country. People tend to think of country music and think of cowboys and horses, which is very far from what I am into. Country is such a wide music genre. I really don’t like a lot of the new stuff. I am more into the Nashville period, from around 1960. That’s really the period that inspired and influenced my new album.”
“It didn’t hurt that the producer who worked with me on this new album is a big fan of the same period in country music. He wanted to record the whole album with the technique used in that period. The whole album was recorded using analog technique, and all the equipment was old. I even think some of the strings had mould. But it was a lot of fun to do. There is a very different vibe through the whole album just from recording in that environment. You can really hear the difference.”
Lay Low is Born
The songs from Please Don’t Hate me are characterised by that same low key aura and easy demeanour that surrounds Lovísa. She openly admits that she was very sceptical about her abilities as a singer and had reservations about her music. A part of the charm on Please Don’t Hate Me is that this tentativeness is almost audible in her recordings. Was it difficult step to take to come out as a solo artist and publish her own material?
“Yes, I often wonder how I got myself into this position where I am today. I am putting out my second album, I have spent the last two months in London recording with experienced professionals, and it all feels very adult. I am still coming to grips with the fact that this could be a professional career for me.”
“When I put that one song on my myspace site. I was really shy about letting people hear me sing. I had done some singing with Benny Crespo’s Gang, but it was totally different. I had a whole band behind me, and the singing was completely different. But all of a sudden I was there, alone with an acoustic guitar, singing by myself. That evolved into an album contract and all of I sudden I had an album to record. I didn’t even have enough songs for an album. First I had to write more material for an album. I essentially just released a demo. The songs are just how they came to me originally. There was not a lot of thought put into it.”
Despite the album being published as essentially a first draft, the Icelandic public fell in love with it. It sold 9000 copies and won three categories at the Icelandic music awards. In a matter of months Lovísa had gone from being a minor myspace sensation to playing international music festivals and having her songs featured on hit television dramas like Grey’s Anatomy. It all happened fast.
“The album came out two years ago, and at the time I never thought anyone would buy it. I wasn’t even thinking about it, I was just glad to able to do it. I was really surprised when it started to sell like it did. There were a few people who knew our band, Benny Crespo’s Gang, and at first I was just the girl from Benny Crespo’s Gang. When the album came out in October, I was working in Skífan record store, and people would come up to me and ask about the album: “who is this?” and asked me to describe the music and if I would recommend it, without even knowing that they had my album in their hands. Just before Christmas I started to notice that people had begun to recognise me, and ask if I was this Lay Low person. That was new for me as well. I have never gotten used to calling myself Lay Low.
How did it all come about?
In 2005 I had access to a rehearsal space through Benny Crespo’s Gang had a rehearsal space and some of my friends and I decided to start a band. We were just fooling around with some country songs and soon we had three original songs, but we didn’t have a singer. Since I had mostly written of the basis of the songs, I tried to sing some of them myself. It was awful. I used a lot of effects, a lot of overdrive and overload to hide my voice because I was so shy. But my friends liked it and said I sang well. I didn’t really believe them. Soon after that, two of them moved abroad to go to school so the band broke up.
“I continued to write and do some singing though, and my first song was Please Don’t Hate Me, which, again I recorded with a lot of overdrive because I was so shy. I let a friend of mine hear it and she encouraged me to put it on myspace, which I did for two weeks before taking it out again. In the meantime, people from the Cod Music label had heard it and they asked me to play a gig for them. I had never played live by myself before and I only had 3 songs. That’s when the name came. There was no real thought behind it. I just needed a name for the poster because I was playing my first show and I didn’t want to be Lovísa, because I thought everyone would relate that to Benny Crespo’s Gang, so I wanted it sound like it was maybe a band. My friend suggested Lay Low, it sounded a bit like Lovísa so… Soon people started to call me Lay Low. I never do that myself. I always introduce myself as Lovísa. That’s how it started. This was in February 2006 and I had an album out in October.”
In Sickness and in Health
But it wasn’t always this easy. Before she ever became known as Lay Low, she had to struggle to just be Lovísa. “I was very sick for two years, and for a long time nobody knew what was wrong with me,” she tells me. “The first year I was able to work and go to school, but as it progressed I wasn’t able to do anything. I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t talk and I needed help to shower. The second year, I was constantly going through treatments to try to >>> get better. I was in persistent pain. At last I was discovered to have non-malignant tumour by my pituitary gland. It was extremely difficult because I also had a very rare neurological decease on top of it. Eventually I had an operation and it all got better. That was a new beginning. It was a very special experience.
She says this experience taught her to put things in perspective, and I ask her how this has affected her as a musician. “What I learned from this was to appreciate the smaller things. And your health. I look at this as a second chance at live. Nobody knew what was wrong with me and nobody could say for certain that I would be OK again. I was nineteen and I thought I would spend the rest of my life like this, not be able to do anything. That was not a very uplifting vision for the future.”
“Nobody knew if the operation would be a success but it went better than anyone believed it would, so for me it was a second chance. That makes you re-evaluate things. Sometimes I forget it. I can remember it know when I talk about it now. I have to remind myself more often that I am on my second chance so that this was not all for nothing. Sadly, there are a lot of people who are not as lucky as me to be able to stand up again after a difficult struggle so I have to be thankful for that. This is reflected in some of the lyrics on my first album, it was closer to me then. But I think this also changed me a lot as a person. I was so young. I was still in school and I had no idea what to do with my life. You learn from that experience.”
Lovísa and fellow band-member from Benny Crespo’s Gang, Magnús Öder, had been married, but around the same time she started to make a comeback from her illness, she also got divorced. “We were very young. Just kids really. I think it is kind of cute to think about it afterwards. We are very good friends today, but it wasn’t working out as a relationship. I don’t think we are any worse off for having tried it. We could have done something a lot more awful. I find it funny to be able to say that I was divorced by the age of 22. Thankfully there were no kids. There is just a dog that goes back and forth between us.”
Lovísa and Magnús maintain a very close personal and professional relationship, and apart from playing together in Benny Crespo’s Gang, Magnús has been a permanent fixture in her live back-up band, both in Iceland and abroad. “We worked it all out between us. We are just very good friends. We are more like brothers and sister really. I am very glad for that. Not everybody can be such good friends after they break up.”
All in all, Lovísa seems to have been rather fortunate through life?
Or perhaps, more fortunate in your unfortune really?
“Yes. A lot of good has come out of the bad things.”
Lay Low’s new album Farewell to Goodnight’s Sleep, is out October 16. That same day, Lay Low will play a release concert in Fríkirkjan and play the Iceland Airwaves festival.
Please Don’t Hate me
Benny Crespo’s Gang
Benny Crespo’s Gang
Farewell Good Night Sleep