From Iceland — Under Laufey’s Spell

Under Laufey’s Spell

Published September 22, 2023

Under Laufey’s Spell
Photo by
Lauren Kim
Gemma Warren

The world’s most popular jazz artist hasn’t finished her story

For decades, Iceland has boasted about its remarkable creative output – per capita, of course. A common theme in the world’s perception of Iceland is the recognition of artistic talent coming from the sparsely populated and homogenous island. One is quick to draw the cognitive line between Björk, Sigur Rós, Iceland and a sense of creative wonder fuelled by unspoiled nature.

In recent years, the international success of Icelandic artists like Kaleo and Of Monsters and Men demonstrates to a new generation of music lovers that Iceland’s creative output is a quantifiable force.

Now, there’s yet another generation being introduced to Icelandic music, as Laufey Lín Jónsdóttir is reaching global superstardom with the September 8 release of her latest album, Bewitched.

 

Initially appealing to the public through social media channels TikTok and Instagram, Laufey’s global fan base now counts in the millions. With Bewitched, Laufey broke Spotify’s all-time jazz streaming record, garnering 5.7 million streams in one day. It made the previous record held by Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett – a meagre 1.1 million – look paltry by comparison. This accomplishment comes as no surprise for anyone paying attention. After all, Laufey was Spotify’s most-streamed jazz artist of the year in 2022.

I started releasing and becoming an artist outside of Iceland to prove that I was something.

Presenting a revival of jazz and classical, Laufey’s music is a lush mix of post-war era jazz, modest classical music and a dreamy sense of romantic pop. She counts Chet Baker, Norah Jones and Amy Winehouse among her inspirations.

One would think that jazz and classical music were remnants of a bygone era, but Laufey’s efforts seem to successfully pull both genres into the present, to be delivered to an eager new and younger audience. Whether due to her remarkable songwriting, an intuitive social media strategy – or a mix of both – Laufey’s efforts are nothing but huge.

Laufey is now on tour, following up on her sophomore album. The album sounds a bit like Ella Fitzgerald went to Disneyworld and fell hopelessly in love. Exhibiting a more stripped-down approach compared to her previous album, Everything I Know About Love, Bewitched is a more mature representation of the artist’s thoughts and feelings on love and self-awareness, under witchingly brilliant instrumentation.

A global background

In a globalised world, popular media is still fixated on nationalities. In Iceland, that is especially true, given the country’s reputation for supplying world-class creative efforts. It’s become a brand in its own right. Being an Icelandic artist in the global pop landscape is often regarded as a seal of quality.

Building on the international success of aforementioned artists like Björk and Sigur Rós, Icelanders are quick to boast ownership of famous musicians – even though, in between bouts of global interest, the artists in question are not given the time of day by Icelanders. Out of Björk’s multiple Cornucopia international tour dates, Reykjavík was the only city to be hit with a cancellation of performances.

Starting her career in 2020 with the hit single “Street by Street,” Laufey’s popularity in Iceland was cemented with a grand concert with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra in 2022. In the wake of the album release, Laufey sold out two shows in Iceland in a matter of days. But to the artist, the interest of Icelandic fans seems newfound.

My songs are like my journals.

“I started releasing and becoming an artist outside of Iceland to prove that I was something, and then I brought it back to Iceland,” Laufey comments from a café in a Hong Kong mall, where she’s currently on tour. “Whereas, I think the usual trajectory is that artists become big in Iceland and then they break out, I was kind of the opposite where I broke outside and then Icelanders started noticing,” she continues, “and that definitely feels quite recent.”

Laufey’s rapid rise in popularity and success demonstrates a challenge to Iceland’s traditional concepts of nationalities. Although growing up in Iceland and speaking the language, everything about Laufey’s artistry feels global – from her music to the artist’s personal life.

Born into a musical household to an Icelandic father and a Chinese mother, Laufey also lived with her family in Washington, D.C., as a child and spent summers with her maternal family in China.

“Growing up in Iceland and going to school in America, but then also being half Chinese, I’ve just always had a very global outlook,” Laufey remarks. “And then of course, the music I write is in English, which immediately opens up a whole world.”

“I don’t think people really connect me with [being Icelandic]. I mean, people usually say, ‘Laufey, the Icelandic artist,’ but it doesn’t feel like I’m one thing or the other – both as a person and also musically,” she clarifies.

In addition, building on jazz and classical music – genres that trace their roots to African-American communities and Europe, respectively – Laufey’s prospects are as a global superstar, crossing cultural boundaries.

An alien in Reykjavík

Moving between continents at a young age, Laufey lived in the United States from the age of six to nine. There, she learned to speak English with an American accent. “I don’t sound Icelandic. Even though people ask me often about the Björk accent, which I obviously can do,” Laufey jokes, switching between American and Icelandic accents rapidly.

Around that age, I felt very different. I felt very foreign and very loud. 

Seeing as Iceland has a homogenous population, people with non-Icelandic backgrounds are quick to stick out. The track, “A Letter To My 13 Year Old Self ” off Bewitched, is dedicated to her childhood experiences. “Around that age, I felt very different. I felt very foreign and very loud,” Laufey confesses. “You have a room of 99 people that look the same and you walk in and you look different and you just feel different.” In the song, Laufey tactfully sings, “I’m so sorry that they pick you last / Try to say your foreign name and laugh,” while a muted piano joins the song’s structural mellow guitar.

As racial identities keep intertwining and evolving in a globalised world, a new generation of Icelandic artists is coming up in an environment not made for them. Expanding on her childhood experiences as a person of mixed heritage, Laufey shares: “I remember when I was in elementary school, people would ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ That was like an immediate way of just feeling like an outsider. When this kid who’s completely unfiltered is asking you, ‘Where are you from?’ And I say, ‘Well, I’m from Iceland.’ And the kids would be like, ‘Oh, no. Like, where are you from?’”

As the number of immigrants in Iceland has steadily increased throughout the years, Laufey feels there is a shift in the conversation about race and nationality. “I think people didn’t talk about it at all before, and now it’s an increasing conversation. And I do see more diversity every single time and go back to Iceland. So I think and hope that it continues to grow in a positive direction,” comments Laufey.

I remember when I was in elementary school, people would ask me, “Where are you from?” That was like an immediate way of just feeling like an outsider.

Old soul

In 2023, one might think gravitating toward both jazz and classical music would be an unpopular choice for an aspiring superstar. Laufey disagrees, growing up with classical music always playing in her home and watching Golden Age Hollywood films like Singin’ in the Rain.

“I think there’s a timeless quality to the music that I really love. I think growing up in Iceland with, for example, the financial crash in 2008 and growing up with all these bleak realities, my brain yearned for this timeless and simple beauty of Golden Age films and the romance,” Laufey explains. A big influence on the artist’s musical upbringing is her mother, who is a violinist at the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. Despite her mother’s choice of instrument, Laufey wanted nothing to do with violins, preferring to play the cello.

“Both my twin sister and I started on the piano. We were given violins at seven and I refused to play. I don’t like violins. But my sister ended up playing. I wanted to do something different,” says Laufey, who eventually studied the cello as a child. Her sister, Júnía Lín Jónsdóttir, works as the artist’s creative director and recently won the Nordic Music Export’s Nordic Music Biz 20 Under 30 award, given to young music industry professionals excelling in their work.

Júnía has been at Laufey’s side from the get-go – quite literally, since they’re twins – helping out on the business side of things. “At first it was just for fun,” Laufey says about her sister’s involvement, having taken her on full-time as a creative director in 2022. “She is just so important to the project. Having somebody who understands my vision so well and can translate it to business partners,” Laufey remarks.

Since releasing her first single independently in 2020, Laufey’s career has raced swiftly towards the top – with ensuing logistical requirements. “The project has expanded so fast. I am finding that I can’t do everything anymore. It’s just not possible. So having another person that understands the project so well and that I trust and who will always give me an honest opinion, helping me with those decisions and vision is so crucial. And obviously, my life is changing so fast. And having her as a constant with me is really important.”

Laufey has demonstrated a tremendous feat. In only three years – and during a pandemic that burned out a great number of musicians – Laufey is now living her lifelong dream. “I never thought it was possible. It was just a really fortunate wave of events.”

I don’t sound Icelandic. Even though people ask me often about the Björk accent, which I obviously can do.

How is the feeling of living one’s dream? Is it as good as people say it is? According to Laufey – yes. “It feels,” Laufey starts before hesitating for a moment. “I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. It’s very beyond me, especially coming from Iceland. Things like this don’t happen very often,” Laufey describes.

Which is true. Icelandic artists reaching global fame is a rare occurrence. Despite Laufey’s positive outlook, pop stardom isn’t for everyone. Laufey even admits her current lifestyle is mad. “My life is just so crazy right now with the amount of touring, promotion and recording I’m doing. I’m in a different city literally every week,” she says.

Through it all, Iceland remains home to Laufey and she expresses gratitude for being able to return every once in a while. “It’s good to have Iceland as a tether to go back to. I’m happy I have such a strong sense of home.”

Stripping it back

Although having always been very musical from an early age – even participating in the Icelandic version of The Voice at the age of 16 – Laufey’s songwriting efforts didn’t begin until her studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston (not to be confused with the University of Berkeley in California). Before starting her studies in Boston, Laufey was a student at the Icelandic Menntaskóli í Tónlist.

“I was very much in the classical side of MíT. And classical teaches you technique. It teaches you discipline. It teaches you the sound and beauty of music, but it doesn’t necessarily teach you to create music yourself,” Laufey explains.

When it was time for university, for a moment it looked like Laufey might not continue her music studies. “I wanted to go to university to study economics, which is funny. I was too scared of becoming a musician. I thought it was so unrealistic,” Laufey admits.

It wasn’t until Laufey was offered a Presidential Scholarship from Berklee, covering everything from tuition to accommodation, that she decided to pursue further education in music. At Berklee, Laufey started her songwriting efforts, which are anchored in her storytelling. “I write from personal stories. I always have a concept ready before I go and always know what I’m going to write about before I start,” explains Laufey.

Growing up with all these bleak realities, my brain yearned for this timeless and simple beauty of Golden Age films and romance.

The storytelling aspect is an important part of not only Laufey’s writing but her performances as well. “Especially when I play solo, I always talk about the songs before I play them. My songs are like my journals,” Laufey concludes.

There are a host of factors that make Bewitched an outstanding record. The storytelling, creative direction, songwriting and production all contribute to a truly consistent effort in everything it wants to portray. With 14 tracks on the album, the disparate songs all bring their special flavour. Each is a unique component of Laufey’s marvellous curation.

“I knew exactly what I wanted,” Laufey says about the album. “It came together quickly because of that.”

Implementing the common soundscapes of jazz, pop and classical, Laufey’s particular talent is in imbuing the music with a sense of romance, wonder and hopeful dreams. In “Dreamer,” the album opens up with a vocal harmony straight from the 1950s, as Laufey sings. “Let me be a dreamer, let me float / I can see the whole world from my own little cloud.”

Another song, “California and Me,” evokes images of driving in sunny California with the wind in your hair – imagine Lana Del Rey minus the WASPy condescension. The song is certainly a tribute to Laufey’s admiration of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Tying all the tracks together is the motif of the hopeless romantic. “From the Start” has Laufey pining over a person, experiencing unrequited love. “Oh, the burning pain / Listening to you harp on ’bout some new soulmate / ‘She’s so perfect,’ blah, blah, blah,” Laufey mockingly sings.

“I wanted it to be a love album,” says Laufey when asked about the concepts behind the record. “I wanted it to be more mature than my last album. I’ve grown a lot in the past year and I’ve learned a lot. I wanted this album to kind of reflect that,” she comments. Entrenched in this album is the magical aspect of being spellbound by someone.

It doesn’t feel like I’m one thing or the other. Both as a person and also musically.

Layered over the physical record itself is Laufey’s photograph, where she is depicted as a mid-century witch, in a silver dress and a star placed on her shoulder. Even the picture is made to look slightly dreamy, like a glamorous Fata Morgana.

“[Bewitched] is the perfect word for that kind of feeling. It’s being in love, but almost something a little ominous,” Laufey explains. “It’s like you have no control over it.”

Like the music itself being a call-back to post-war era jazz standards, the album’s production methods are rooted in simplicity. “I think it was just stripping it back,” Laufey says about the difference between Bewitched and 2022’s Everything I Know About Love. “There’s no processing on the vocal, no reverb or auto-tune. Every instrument you hear is being performed, which I thought was really important to me,” Laufey clarifies.

Diverse audience

With the release of Bewitched and the subsequent tours, Laufey hopes to introduce the beauty of jazz and classical music to a new audience. “My goal as a musician is to keep jazz and classical alive by breathing new life into it and introducing it to new listeners,” she states.

According to the numbers, that seems to be working. Most of Laufey’s fans (called Lau-vers) belong to the late millennial and Z generations – people born approximately between the 90s and early 00s.

“It’s funny, though,” Laufey starts. “I find in Iceland, I have an older audience. Because in the [United] States, Asia, and Europe, it’s a very Gen Z audience,” she wonders.

Without a solid reason as to why, Laufey attributes this to her Icelandic promotion being geared towards an older audience. “I think I get a lot of radio play in Iceland, which is an older audience. My first two concerts in Iceland were with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. It’s interesting,” Laufey hypothesises.

An important part of Laufey’s strategy for world domination is her connection with fans and social media followers – of which there are nearly 3 million on TikTok alone. Laufey even hosts regular book clubs with her fans, who recently finished reading Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. “I just wanted to create a community within the community,” Laufey says. “To find a reason to just turn on a live stream at the end of each month and talk about a book, talk about life. It’s a way to tie us all together,” she concludes.

For Laufey, who is celebrating her biggest accomplishment yet, the aim is to, “continue writing my story. For me, this music is meant to bring generations together,” Laufey says.

That is the essence of Laufey’s artistry. Spanning borders, generations and cultures, Laufey’s charm is universal, sparking hope within her listeners for a magical romance of their own.

Listen to Laufey’s stellar sophomore album on all streaming platforms. The artist will tour North America throughout 2023, with European dates in the spring of 2024. We’d tell you to get tickets, but it looks like everything is sold out.

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