From Iceland — Renaissance Man: Magnús Jóhann

Renaissance Man: Magnús Jóhann

Published January 10, 2022

Renaissance Man: Magnús Jóhann
John Pearson
Photo by
Dóra Dúna

Magnús Jóhann is a tad late for his Grapevine interview. Not rockstar late, you understand, although given his emergent position in the Icelandic music scene he could probably pull that kind of crap and get away with it, if he wanted. But that’s not really Magnús.

Instead he politely excuses his mild tardiness, revealing that he has just been for a COVID test in order for him to play six gigs in two days; clearly, Magnús is a musician with a remarkable work ethic. And a refreshingly candid one, to boot. “I guess if I’m super honest I almost forgot about this,” he says of the interview as he settles in. “But I’m very happy that I didn’t.”

No tinkering, no tarting, no bullshit

The theme of candid honesty permeates ‘Án Tillits’, the remarkable record that Magnús made last year in collaboration with legendary bass guitarist Skúli Sverrisson. All ten tracks were laid down live by the pair in a single day, with none of the overdubbing, tarting and tinkering that can rob a performance of its vital organic nature. Instead this was an exercise in two elite musicians being present in the studio together, and simply weaving their magic to capture a moment.

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“In this day and age when everything can be edited and fixed, it feels refreshing to do it this way,” Magnús reflects. “Just like ‘OK, we’re together in the studio. And the takes are just gonna be the takes. And no bullshit.’”

The resulting record is a beautiful bullshit-free jazzy blend of Magnús’ piano and Skúli’s acoustic bass guitar, based on scores sketched out by Magnús for use as improvisational springboards. Skúli has decades of experience as a professional musician, working with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and was always the collaborator that Magnús had in mind for ‘Án Tillits’.

Mutual appreciation

“He has incredible chops,” Magnus says of his musical counterpart. “What I really like about Skúli is that he is one of the most accomplished and most skilled, dexterical musicians I know. Like he can play sixteenth notes at 300 beats per minute, but it’s never about musical showmanship; he plays what is being called for.”

The admiration is mutual. The pair met in 2018 when Magnús needed a tutor for the final year of his studies at FÍH/MÍT, a jazz conservatory in Reykjavík. He approached Skúli who agreed, having been impressed by the potential he saw in Magnús. Their professional relationship grew as the mentorship developed, with the album emerging from the music that Magnús composed for the two of them to play at his graduation concert.

My generation

Since graduating Magnús has released a solo album—’Without Listening’and carved himself numerous niches in Iceland’s musical landscape. The range of projects on which Magnús has worked reflects his skills not just as a composer and keyboard player, but as a producer, arranger and musical director; he even played vibes on a recording with Ingibjörg Turchi. Consequently he has become the go-to guy for many young Icelandic musicians—such as GDRN, Bríet and Hipsumhaps—who need someone with the experience and the chops to take their craft to the next level. But, crucially, also someone who is still in their early twenties, and is rooted as much in Icelandic hip-hop as in le conservatoire.

“I tend to get involved with my generation of musicians when they’re doing big shows, or want to start playing with a band or something,” he says. “Then I’m one of the guys that has experience in arranging some of that modern music for performance. Programming the playback, synthesiser sounds, drum pads and so forth. So I’ve been heavily involved in that whole scene in various different ways.”

You might need a sit down after all that

Asking Magnús about current and future projects elicits a dizzying torrent of examples, including: a solo album sculpted from material he wrote for a theatre piece; a score for a short film; a piano and vocals duet record with GDRN; and the release concert for ‘Án Tillits’, so far denied to him and Skúli by the pandemic.

It sounds like his recent experience of six gigs in two days will have been a good rehearsal to get Magnús through the next 12 months. It’s already in his diary to meet up with The Grapevine at the end of 2022 to tell us how it all went. Let’s hope he remembers.

You can buy vinyl copies of ‘Án Tillits’ and ‘Without Listening’ here at the Grapevine shop.

Photo by Dóra Dúna

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