From Iceland — An Exhibition of Healing Songs

An Exhibition of Healing Songs

Published May 24, 2023

An Exhibition of Healing Songs
Rex Beckett

Entering the Halls of JFDR’s Museum

It’s a hectic morning for Jófríður Ákadóttir, known as JFDR, when I arrive at her bright and charming apartment on the west side of Reykjavík. Having just returned from a series of soft-launch performances ahead of the release of her third solo studio album, Museum (released April 28th), the enigmatic musician is getting ready to go right back out on tour shortly after we talk. She floats around her flat doing this and that with a softness that seems contrary to how busy she is describing her life to be right now. Whatever the opposite of a bull in a china shop is, such is Jófríður.

We sit down at her dining room table and she proudly reveals the just arrived vinyl copy of the album, the cover of which is a stark, stunning black and white portrait of her positioned as a statue — standing on a pedestal, stoic, draped in a white gaussian shroud, staring back at the viewer both as subject and object. “I don’t feel like I’ve been put on a pedestal,” she says about the symbolism, regarding the fact that she’s been a prominently successful musician since her teens. “I think what I do is kind of niche enough that it’s maybe celebrated, but there isn’t really a space for being like some celebrity singer-songwriter type person. That’s not really what it’s about.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

The symbolism of the statue on the cover seems to rather speak to her songwriting process in the creation of Museum. “It’s like when you’re sculpting something, like a feeling or you’re presenting an idea, but you could also say you’re presenting a thought or a story,” she describes the form of preservation of fleeting moments that this album became. “It just felt like a very kind of easy sort of visual connection to that. I work a lot more with the moment. I would just sit down and I would just start writing on a piece of paper and then those would often end up being the words I would use. And those would be the moments where I was processing and you know, sculpting.”

The sculptural songs on the album are works she composed after a long period of creative stasis resulting from the grip of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The onset of the pandemic coincided with the release of her second solo album New Dreams, prompting her to cancel planned tours.

“The album to me as much as it’s about sculpting, it’s also about healing,” she says about the process, a catharsis in its truest sense. “It’s about healing yourself as an artist and clearing the paths for creating something new. I’ve been on such a continuous path since I was 14, and COVID kind of halted that. Not just for me, for everybody. But then dealing with that, you have the time to reflect and think like, ‘Am I on the right path?’”

Photo by Art Bicnick

Jófríður spent most of the initial COVID-19 pandemic living in Brisbane, Australia, the hometown of her husband and musical partner Josh Wilkinson. Experiencing the same collective isolation, shock and grief as the rest of the world, she spent the time much like a lot of people did: glued to the couch, crocheting, watching TV, freaked out. It took nearly two years for the urge, possibly even the ability, to write music to come back to her. Once back in Iceland in 2021, she took to her small home studio where she began tinkering and laying down melodies in Ableton, using piano, guitar and her favourite plugins.

Naturally, however, returning to the practice of composition presented its own challenges. “Every time you start a new thing, it’s kind of impossible to go back or to recreate something that you’ve done once, just because of your situation or the people you have around you,” she says. “So for this, I was a bit lost. I was like, ‘I don’t really know what my process is, I don’t really know what people I have at the moment, and I don’t really know who I want to do this with.’ So those were the challenges. It was quite heavy at the start.”

Her writing process then veered toward instinct and simplicity. Playing her primary instruments of guitar and piano in a similar finger picking style, she filled the songs with lush, intricate arpeggiated motifs that became almost percussive on their own terms. The final album notably features almost no unpitched percussion instruments. She let her tools guide the way. “There are a lot of songs in 120bpm because that’s literally how I opened the session in Ableton and it’s like a canvas,” she once again alludes to visual arts in her process. “I didn’t even think about it until afterwards. It’s like painting these different sorts of similar patterns.”

Eventually her sculpture began to take shape. “It was late 2021 when I started working on this record, fully. I came to Josh and I was like, ‘I have nine songs. I think they could be an album. Should we just do it?’ I was just really impatient.”

With this sense of immediacy, in early 2022 she booked a week at Figure 8 studios in New York, run by her long-time collaborator Shahzad Ismaily, where they got started on tracking. They quickly gained such momentum that she decided to book another five days to mix it all, and by the end of February 2022, she hit her deadline and the album was complete.

Photo by Art Bicnick

“We were working really hard,” she says, “There was like a period in January and February where we were going crazy. Every moment that we had just went into trying to finish this. I was trying to create that urgency. I think when you’re young and you’re just starting out, and maybe making your first record or your first song, you have this sense of urgency, because it’s like, ‘This is my moment, this is my manifesto, this is who I am.’ And to have such a strict deadline was a way to recreate that urgency again.”

Along with her partner, Josh, and collaborator, Shahzad, the players on the album were mostly rounded out by those closest to her — her twin sister and Pascal Pinon-bandmate Ásthildur Ákadóttir played piano on much of the record, while the strings (sparse but significant) were rounded out by Gyða Valtýsdóttir and Viktor Orri Árnason. The result of the album is, simply put, beautiful. With songs ranging from hypnotically sensual, intensely heartbreaking, and refreshingly motivating, it is a decidedly cohesive collection. Like walking into a meticulously curated exhibition. In a museum.

Despite accidentally (or subconsciously) falling on the language of visual arts many times as we chat, Jófríður does not see herself as a curator, but that it makes some order out of the chaos. “It’s a way to deal with it,” she says. “The more you are inside of it, the more you have to put your understanding into it. I didn’t used to be like that either. That’s also something that’s more recent, kind of questioning and analysing, whereas music is very intuitive and a very non-tangible thing. But I think that this is about coming to terms with the process. Now I feel a lot more comfortable going forward, because I kind of know how I did it. That’s the way I was dealing with that dilemma.”

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