Friday the 13th in the year 2020 might seem an auspicious day, but the lovely songstress sóley has livened it up with today’s release of a new 10″ entitled ‘Harmóník I & II’—a conglomeration of her two previous sold-out Harmóník releases. The effort shows the artist journey into the world of experimental accordion drone music. Did you have that on your 2020 bingo card? We didn’t, but we’re so happy it happened.
We sat down with her—safely, over the internet—to talk about the release.
Thanks for talking to us, sóley! In the Harmóník series, you’re showing off an entirely different side of your musical nature. How did the project start?
This Harmóník project started way back around Iceland Airwaves 2015, when I was asked to play in a concert series in Harpa called Blikktromman. I remember at that time I had been touring a lot, playing pop music, and I felt like I needed to push myself in new directions. It always happens from time to time—I do something and I love it but after a while I feel the urge to explore new things and challenge myself.
We’ve heard—through the Grapevine, perhaps—that you have a long history with the accordion. Have you played it since you were a child?
Well… since a teenager! The accordion has always been a shadow following me. My grandfather played the accordion, my dad does too, so it runs in the family, but I guess I’m breaking with tradition here, away from the old waltzes, polkas and Icelandic seaman’s songs. 15 years ago me and my friends also formed a balkan band called Strakovsky Horo and we were actually quite good! The band was all about crazy energy, odd rhythms, and beautiful eastern European scales. So good.
It’s definitely an unexpected passion, but one you really shine in. What is it about the instrument that really speaks to you?
I have always played the piano, which is a huge piece of an instrument and I’ve sometimes envied people who play guitar because they can hold it. So I just wanted to hold an instrument too. The accordion is like an extension of the lungs. It breaths so heavily and sometimes I have no control over it.
I’m purely creating on it and have not attended one accordion class in my life. But the sound of the accordion is so diverse—it has these beautiful and eerie wood sounds like flute and clarinet, but it can also sound like deep strings and the best part is when it sounds like an insane out-of-tune organ.
You’ve been working on the Harmóník series for five years now. How is composing for it different than from your other works? Distilled down, what is the ethos of Harmóník?
It’s really been a side project that I’ve always wanted to spend more time doing. The beauty of our relationship—me and the accordions—is its limitation and how I have to think of new ways to create my sound. I can’t do everything on the accordion that I can on the piano, so I need to find a new and sometimes simpler way.
And what is so nice about that is that when you have an instrument you haven’t studied, all of a sudden simple things like a two-chord drone is enough—like the first track “2:05″—or simple broken chords like in “Never Change”. I would never have written that on a piano. Like the piano player in me be like, “Oh Sóley! Now what do you think people will say, so minimal, so nothing!?” So it teaches me a lot. It teaches me to relax on the technique for a bit and just focus on the sound and conversation with the instrument.
Is there a particularly personal song in the Harmóník series for you?
The first track “2:05” is the first track I made, and I was like “YEAH SÓLEY!” I was so happy I could finally make something loud and noisy and disturbing. “Never Change” has a special place in my heart, and when I listen to “Improvisations”, which was recorded live on a loop pedal in my old studio, it takes me back to the “always dark, always heavy” January 2017, when I improvised and recorded it.
You put out the first part of Harmóník in 2017. Looking back on it now, has the meaning changed for you? How does it relate to the recently released second iteration?
I really do feel like Harmóník is timeless. It’s all kind of written in the same time, or maybe not the same time, but it’s more that when I get into the Harmóník mood, I know where I’m going. It’s a lot of me just improvising and recording at the same time and then finding some parts I like and edit. Harmóník I I released in 2017 on Smit, which is a label run by me and my husband Héðinn Finnsson, where we release 7″ vinyls with our friend’s experimental and progressive compositions. Harmóník I is much closer to your ears. It’s very deep and drone-y. Harmóník II is all recorded live. Like I said before, it was just an era where I did nothing but sit and play the accordion and recorded it. For example, I just found the song “She felt like grieving him” recently in a hour-long improv session, just right before I released Harmóník II. I’m so glad I found it. It’s a short and kinda ghostly tribute to waltz music.
So you released the Harmóník just a month ago in the midst of the pandemic. What was composing during this turbulent—but weirdly static—time like? Also – how have you been during 2020!
Yeah… Well Harmóník has been ready for some time. I always thought of Harmóník as the second album in a trilogy of 10″‘ that I want to make. Krómantík (2014) is the first one, with short, weird and lofi piano pieces. Next is Harmóník and the third one will be called Organík, where I will create a few weird lofi pieces on organs around town.
But I have also been finishing my fourth LP, which is coming out early next year. It doesn’t sound like Harmóník, but it definitely has this vibe going. I was working on music for a beautiful paper cinema theatre piece called Tréð. We were so lucky to be able to have some shows before everything shut down again so now we’re just waiting—like everyone. I’ve also been working on a more classical piece for the band Elektra Ensemble, which will be performed soon, and working on a music for a short film too. So I can’t complain. All these projects would have been way more difficult with travels and tours, which take its toll. I’ve never been so relaxed like this year, and I’m starting to sleep too well, lol. But I really do miss performing live—really really do.
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