“It’s nice here, isn’t it?” offers Faroese musician Eivør Pálsdóttir as she settles into an office chair. “I miss it all the time.” Of course, she’s not referring to The Grapevine’s pleasant but essentially rather functional business premises. She’s referring to Iceland; her erstwhile home, and a place long close to her heart.
Eivør’s love affair with this country began back in the late nineties, when Reykjavík vocal coach Ólöf Kolbrún would travel to the Faroe Islands to teach singing. The teenaged Eivør was taking lessons with her by day, but by night was straining her larynx fronting Nordic-noir rock band Clickhaze. Alarmed by how her student’s pure soprano was tumbling towards Janis Joplin territory—and not in a good way— Ólöf Kolbrún invited Eivør to stay with her in Reykjavík for a spell of vocal rest and rehabilitation. Eivør packed her bag, and flew the next day.
“It turned out to be life-changing for me, and it really just put me on a different route,” Eivør says of Ólöf Kolbrún’s kind act. “We became very good friends, and she was my vocal teacher for many years. And I made so many friends here in Iceland, including musicians, that I ended up staying here for five years.”
In the two decades since, Eivør has divided her time between Reykjavík, Copenhagen and her home in the Faroes. And she has forged a remarkable career, developing her distinctive and diverse sound to encompass folk, jazz, world and dark electronic pop influences; collecting their threads together, and tethering them to an anchor of roots music that has struck a chord with folk around the globe. Her top ten tracks on Spotify now have a combined total of 34 million plays, and last month she received the prestigious Nordic Council Music Prize.
Fertile lands for creative roots
The Faroe Islands are a tiny set of rocks rising out of the north Atlantic, roughly halfway between Iceland and the coast of Norway. It’s a geographically remote place to grow up, but the archipelago supports a culturally fertile society.
“There is so much great art and music that’s being created all the time,” Eivør says, when asked about her creative roots. “I think it might have something to do with it being a small community and so people know each other. Maybe that puts rings in the water; you inspire each other to create, because you’re closer. But another theory is that it’s a small place and people get bored, so they have to be creative!”
Faroese folk music puts the singing voice at the centre of its tradition, so it comes as no surprise that Eivør chose that instrument as her first means of musical expression. And her expansive world view led her to write in either Faroese or English. Or both, as was the case when she simultaneously wrote and released two albums in 2015: ‘Slør’ in Faroese, and ‘Bridges’ in English.
But that point in her career represented a change in approach, Eivør recalls: “After that, I just started not worrying so much about the language. Now when I write a song, I just start writing it. And if it wants to be in Faroese I just let it be, but some songs sound better in English. It’s like instrumentation. I might choose the electric guitar because it just fits better than the acoustic. It’s a sound.”
The purest instrument
The idea of voice as a pure instrument of music—rather than language—is reflected in Eivør’s adoption of throat singing, a style that crept into her repertoire after she met Canadian vocalist Tanya Tagaq.
“She taught me a little trick once, just for fun, then I didn’t think about it for years,” Eivør recalls. “Then at one of my shows, I was singing my song ‘Trøllabundin’ and all of a sudden I was feeling it. And I was like, ‘Whoa! What’s happening?’”
At this point a deep, striking, percussive sound starts to flow from Eivør; it resembles how a wild animal might sound, having mastered the art of beatboxing. And then the sound stops. “So then that just became a part of the song,” she concludes.
“Trøllabundin” is by far her most streamed track, with the current count of 13.5 million Spotify plays making it three times more popular than its closest rival in her canon. It has become a staple of her live set, and concert versions now often include the throat singing component. It’s the dynamic nature of stage performance—the freedom that songs have to grow as they’re performed—which appeals to Eivør about live music.
“Because I play so many shows, along the way I feel like ‘Let’s loosen this part up. Let’s make it longer. I’m gonna sing it like this.’ And that is something that can only happen when you play something 100 times,” she says. “So that’s why I love making live albums, because they always have something that I can’t capture in the studio. For me, that’s where all the magic lives—in a live concert. That’s where I discover stuff.”
Old traditions, new directions
Another staple of Eivør’s live shows is her shamanic drum, which has become somewhat emblematic for her and forms her sole accompaniment on “Trøllabundin”.
“That drum is not a Faroese instrument. We don’t have any traditional Faroese instruments; like in Iceland, it’s all about the singing,” she says. “But I was walking down the street in Norway, and I met a shaman who was selling drums. I had never in my life played a drum, and I had never even thought about buying a drum. But he made such beautiful instruments, I bought this drum. I just took it to my hotel and immediately wrote ‘Trøllabundin’, and the drum has been with me ever since.”
That track, with its simple primal beat, and guttural throat singing, has taken Eivør’s career in unexpected directions. Composer John Lunn—who had been commissioned to soundtrack the British Viking drama ‘The Last Kingdom’—heard “Trøllabundin” and got in touch to see if Eivør would be interested in providing some vocals. They got together in London, hit it off straight away, and the singer’s role in the project quickly expanded into composition.
Taking on this novel challenge has led her into a whole new area of creativity, since writing for film requires a very different approach to writing for yourself. “You write in a different way to when you write a song,” Eivør observes. “Film music is all about the emotion that you have to provoke from that scene. You can’t overrule the scene; you have to support it.”
More soundtrack work is on her slate for next year, and with a new album on the way and headline tours in the US and Europe, Eivør will no doubt continue to expand her horizons. Her remarkable creative energy will always be welcome in Iceland, and no doubt anywhere else on the globe that she chooses to call home.
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