It’s time once again for Iceland Airwaves – the country’s biggest and most ambitious music festival.
Also known as “the busiest week to be a musician” or “the musician’s holiday,” the festival has been an essential part of Icelandic music ever since a bunch of bands came together to party in an airplane hangar 20-some years ago. It’s a week to discover promising acts, make new friends and bathe in the beauty of early Icelandic winter.
Every year, up-and-coming artists surface for a showcase spot at the festival. While more than 100 artists will be performing over five days across several Reykjavík venues, we sought out the four most exciting newcomers debuting at Iceland Airwaves 2023.
By way of nothing less than the Icelandic Eurovision National Finals, this synth-pop trio rocked the nation with their boppy dystopian anthem “Doomsday Dancing.” Did we mention they’re siblings?
Hailing from Suðureyri, trio Valgeir Orri, Katla Vigdís and Hrafnkell Hugi – all children of Vernharður – bring considerable musical experience to the band. Both brothers were members of the indie-pop band Rythmatik; Katla started in the folk-pop duo Between Mountains. On separate occasions, both outfits demonstrated their talents in Músíktilraunir, charming the jury panel and subsequently landing on top. Their victories led both acts to considerable success.
The idea behind Celebs came to Valgeir Orri – a drummer and the eldest of the three – during a Christmas break before the onset of the pandemic. “I wanted to start a project focusing on amusement and entertainment,” Valgeir says, lamenting the fact that “fun bands” were hard to come by at the time.
“I had noticed there was a shortage of what you’d call ‘party bands,’ focused on the live element. There had been this wave of..,” he pauses, choosing his words carefully. “Everybody needed to be so extremely cool all the time and keep up this try-hard attitude,” he continues. “You never could be a bit silly. There hadn’t been anything considerable come up – in my opinion – since Retro Stefson or FM Belfast.”
Raising the topic of FM Belfast, I needed to address the apparent similarities between that beloved veteran band and newcomers Celebs. With both artists emphasising dance music, glitter and confetti, was it a conscious decision to emulate the group? “Well, it was sort of a blueprint I guess,” states Hrafnkell, with Valgeir agreeing. “They’re definitely an influence, but we bring more of a rock aspect into the music,” he comments, joking: “I heard the other day that we sound like punk FM Belfast,” Valgeir jokes.
Katla chimes in: “What shapes us is your live drumming,” she says to Valgeir. “Starting out, that influenced the music a lot, being live music and not computer programmed.” In addition to the drums, there are certain elements within Celebs’ ethos, songwriting and overall style that only further support the argument of them being FM Belfast’s punk cousin.
Winning Hearts And Minds
And then there’s Eurovision. Although they didn’t make it to the European, Celebs were chosen as wild card finalists following the national qualifying rounds. The decision to enter the national competition was a straightforward one.
“So, Hrafnkell suggested this to us, expecting a huge fight,” Valgeir starts explaining. Hrafnkell interjects: “It’s a funny contradiction, since you’re talking about these bands that take themselves too seriously,” he says, referring to an earlier point in our conversation, “But I was definitely expecting both of you to be too cool to participate in [Eurovision].”
“I thought it was a no-brainer. We were playing at Innipúkinn when somebody from RÚV (Icelandic National Radio) spotted us.”
“Not just anyone,” Valgeir interrupts, “It was RÚV’s Head of TV. Anyway, he starts chatting and encouraged us to participate in the Eurovision qualifiers.”
Though Diljá brought her “Power” to Liverpool, Celebs certainly won the hearts and minds of the Icelandic audience. Through the combination of the infectiously catchy “Doomsday Dancing,” a mysterious onstage dancer dubbed “The Party Monster” and Hrafnkell’s hilarious stage antics, Celebs became a household name.
“It was exactly what we intended to do. To firmly place ourselves into the national consciousness,” Valgeir adds. Consider that mission accomplished.
As for their upcoming Airwaves gig, Hrafnkell says the trio is “way more excited than nervous. This is a harvest festival for Icelandic musicians.”
“But there’s one thing,” Valgeir adds. “We never know what Hrafnkell is going to say onstage.” Hrafnkell replies assuringly, “I just catch the spirit when it comes to me. I usually try to say something strange that people can’t read too much into. There’s nothing to read into, really.”
Catch Celebs perform at the Iceland Airwaves Center, Friday November 3, at 22:50.
Kári Egilsson burst onto the Icelandic music scene seemingly out of nowhere in late October 2022. His first single “Something Better / Moonbeams” was released to the acclaim of Icelandic media. The son of illustrious TV show host and cultural potentate Egill Helgason, Kári is the spitting image of his father.
At the young age of 20, Kári delivers articulate, concise and confident lyricism and composition on his debut record Palm Trees In The Snow. In-person, Kári’s manner is nonchalant; he speaks with the certainty of a seasoned performer. This demeanour shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Kári’s musical journey actually started way back in primary school.
“I started playing the piano at seven. It wasn’t this one, though,” he says pointing towards the grand piano in his living room. “It was my mother’s upright piano, which she got as a confirmation gift. After starting my lessons, I soon began to write my own songs,” Kári explains.
Kári’s music is imbued with groovy blue-eyed soul with obvious derivations from jazz. His songs sound like something I’ve heard before, perhaps in a past life. Maybe onboard a yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean. His debut album title certainly indicates that Kári wants to transport the listener to a warmer climate. Despite his age, his songwriting conveys a great deal of maturity.
The artist’s pursuit towards composition led Kári to develop an interest in the border between pop music and jazz. “I’ve always been interested in pop music and remember having played with some garage bands when I was 10,” Kári reminisces.
Keeping his head in the books and his fingers on the ivory, the young artist’s songwriting prowess attracted the interest of the ASCAP Foundation – the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. In 2018, Kári was invited to receive the Desmond Child Anthem Award, bestowed upon young and promising composers.
“I got to play a jazz piece at the Lincoln Center in New York City,” Kári says, unclear of what effects it had on the aspiring artist. “I guess it was a good encouragement to keep on going.”
Cooking Up Something Good
Like many other artists from Iceland, Kári isn’t stuck exclusively working on a single musical project. Aside from his eponymous project KÁRI, the group Kári Egilsson Band released their debut album in September 2023. There, Kári pushes pop to the side to focus on more traditional jazz music. Asked how he came to found a second band, Kári replies, “It just sort of came naturally.”
Performing as KÁRI for the first time at Iceland Airwaves, nerves are nowhere to be found. “I’m mostly excited. Maybe a bit of stress, but nothing that will kill me,” he jokes. Having experienced the pandemic during his late adolescent years – the prime age for Airwaves festivalgoers – Kári has only managed to attend the official festival once before, but he has enjoyed the spontaneity of the off-venue scene.
Despite this lack of contact with the festival in previous years, Kári is all confidence and nonchalance – just like his music. Playing four brand-new songs, one of which has never been performed live before, Kári mentions that he’s working on a new record. “I’m very happy with the first one. But there’ll be a lot of development on the next,” he says, with a hint of mystery in his voice.
Supported by equally talented instrumentalists as he is, Kári performs at Gamla Bíó on November 2.
Walking onto the stage in Harpa’s Silfurberg, clad in leather jackets, is the five-piece alternative rock band Fókus. It’s the final night of the seminal Músíktilraunir – Iceland’s annual music competition known to further the careers of hopeful artists. The group gets ready to play and, although this is only their second time performing, they’re confident in their talents. They’ve come too far to lose.
More accurately, they’ve come from Höfn í Hornafjörður – a fishing town in East Iceland with a population of about 1,800 people. It’s a six-hour drive from Reykjavík in clear conditions. That’s not all, Fókus’ drummer Arnbjörg Ýr Sigurðardóttir – Abba– lives in Selfoss, five hours from the rest of the band.
Despite logistical challenges that would drive even the seasoned project manager up the wall, Fókus triumphed at Músíktilraunir on April 1. “I’m not gonna lie, I thought it was an April fools’ joke,” exclaims pianist Anna Lára Grétarsdóttir, about Fókus landing first place. Moving forward onto the finals as a wild card contender, the results came as a surprise to the band. “I was so proud of us. We put a lot of effort into it,” states singer and guitarist Amylee Trindade.
Amylee says that sheonly first heard about Músíktilraunir a year before entering. Joined by her songwriting partner, bassist and singer Alexandra Hernandez, the duo decided to form the band and subsequently searched for additional members – a simple task when you’re in Höfn. “It’s a very small town and everybody knows each other. There weren’t a lot of options when we were looking for members,” Anna says, half-jokingly.
Alexandra and Amylee met Anna in their music school, while meeting drummer Abba in the South Iceland Symphony Band. A fifth member, Pia Wrede, participated with the band at Músíktilraunir and performed on their latest EP. However, the group tells me that Pia is no longer a member of the band, as she was a German exchange student and moved back home. There’s no drama, though.
Not Enough Hours In The Day
The aspiring musicians speak fondly of their hometown – though the local music scene is lacking. “There aren’t a lot of bands our age. But there are bands that the teachers put together,” replies Alexandra when asked about other artists in Höfn. “There are groups with old men that play jazz and some cover bands. But not artists that write and record on their own music,” says Anna.
Although some people would consider it a deal-breaker having one band member living 400 kilometres away, Fókus makes things work with diligent organising and time management. “Initially it wasn’t that difficult,” says Alexandra, before confessing, “As time goes on, it becomes harder.”
Anna interjects, “We’ve travelled a lot in just this year. We rehearsed for Músíktilraunir. We recorded an EP [in Mosfellsbær]. We played a music festival in The Netherlands. These are intense periods. Sure, we get tired. But it’s all worth it.”
Perhaps things would be easier if there wasn’t also secondary school to juggle. “I’m very behind in school,” confesses Amylee. “We’re mindful of stress and we manage things by prioritising. When we’re rehearsing, we don’t think about school. When we’re in school, we don’t think about music. Life goes on,” says Anna, sharing her wisdom.
As part of Músíktilraunir, the winning band receives 20 hours of studio time in Sundlaugin – more frequently known as Sigur Rós’ studio. The girls used those hours in collaboration with producer Albert Finnbogason to work on their first EP, Obsessed, out October 31.
“They write most of the songs,” Anna says pointing to Alexandra and Amylee. “We all have different tastes in music and it includes elements from each of us. For example, I like listening to 17th century baroque,” she continues, interrupted by Amylee – “I don’t!”
“I was inspired by a lot of 80s, 90s, and early 2000s music,” continues Amylee. “I also listened to a lot of Evanescence when I was younger. My mom named me after Evanescence’s singer, Amy Lee, so there’s slight inspiration there too,” she concludes.
Regarding their AIrwaves set, Fókus says audience members can expect great music, vibe, and outfits. With enough on their plate as it is, Fókus hope to take a break over Christmas. They return to Reykjavík in the spring to play Upprásin.
Fókus performs at Gaukurinn on Thursday, November 2. You can also catch them performing off-venue at Hitt Húsið and Jörgensen on Saturday, November 4.
Belonging to Iceland’s contemporary wave of composers, Herdís Stefánsdóttir divides her time scoring Hollywood films and writing grandiose electronic compositions. The moniker Kónguló (Spider) is a fitting one for Herdís, as she possesses great versatility in her craft, weaving together intricate rhythms and melodies.
Herdís is no stranger to the Airwaves’ limelight, having previously served as one-half of the now-defunct duo East Of My Youth. However, Kónguló is debuting this year.
Before the young composer turned her focus to scoring films, Herdís’ solo material had already been taking shape. “I’d started writing my solo record before I went full-on into the movie business,” she says.
“Somehow, I got sucked into the job at full force, with three or four years passing by where I scored movie after movie, always tending to my own material on the side,” she explains. Having finished her latest feature film earlier in 2023 – Knock at the Cabin by director M. Night. Shyamalan – Herdís decided it was time to take a well-deserved break and focus on her own projects.
Serendipitously, that decision coincided with the Hollywood screenwriters strike, so there were no films to be scored anyhow. “Suddenly, I had the whole year to work on my record. It was a blessing in disguise,” Herdís confesses. With newfound time on her hands, Herdís slowly realised that the album she’d been working on was turning into a completely different entity. She states that the two singles Kónguló has now released – “Be Human” and “The Water In Me” – contrast her newer music creations.
Jumping Into The Deep End
Previously occupied with grand electronic compositions, working tirelessly in front of her digital workstation, Herdís reversed her creative process. Instead of writing, she played.
“Working as a composer, where I sit at a program the whole day, I’d started to miss just sitting down and playing an instrument. So, after exploring all these different sound ideas and notions of boundary-pushing, I found myself at the start,” she contemplates.
“I’d bought a mellotron in LA, which I found a bit funny. I don’t play the guitar – I’m a pianist – but there was a super tacky vintage guitar preset in the mellotron. So I started playing way different music. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a film composer, but I can’t get married to one idea,” she concludes about her upcoming record.
Despite being a relatively seasoned Airwaves performer, Herdís finds it a big step to debut her material in front of a live audience. “Because there are so few individuals that have heard it. Most of this album was written in the last few months,” she explains. “It would be much more difficult if there’d been many years since I wrote these songs. You keep distancing yourself from the stuff you did in the past, that’s why it’s important to not wait, and just release it,” Herdís concludes.
With her new material leaning towards psychedelia, Herdís expects to move the audience from one emotion to the next.
“I look forward to performing,” she says. “Being a musician today, social media has taken over how you approach and engage with people. I’ve always thought that performing live is the deepest, most beautiful and most real connection with people. And it’s been so long since I’ve done it, the most important step is just to start playing.”
Featured on her upcoming record – release date to be announced – are artists neonme and Rakel Sigurðardóttir. “And then it’s me for the rest of the songs, which is very scary,” Herdís says. “I have terrible stage fright and I find it a particularly mad idea to be singing these songs since I’ve never looked at myself as a singer. This is very much the deep end,” she confesses.
See Kónguló spin her web in Fríkirkjan on Saturday, November 4 at 19:50.
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