How the artist manoeuvres between acting and music
Reykjavík theatre Borgarleikhúsið has been centre stage of Elín Hall’s life for the past year. When she’s not performing as Bubbi Morthens in the hit musical Níu Líf — based on the biography of the Icelandic national treasure — Elín spends her days rehearsing for her next stage production, the musical Eitruð Lítil Pilla (Jagged Little Pill), by Alanis Morrisette and Glen Ballard, which is set to premiere at Borgarleikhúsið in February 2024.
Between her rigorous acting itinerary, Elín Hall has cemented herself as one of Iceland’s surging pop stars. Among other things, her latest album heyrist í mér, explores the concept of discovering one’s voice, framed within fantasies, nightmares and semi-biographical accounts.
A teenage crisis
Elín Hall’s assignment in Borgarleikhúsið is only a chapter of her lengthy involvement in performance art. She made her first steps into ballet, which ended abruptly. “It was a big decision to quit dance at the time. Because I had gone abroad, starting a professional dancer programme, 14 years old in Canada,” Elín reminisces.
“I quit school. Quit 9th grade and went all in,” she explains. “I came back home and I sensed the gravity of Listdanskólinn. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with the first crisis in my life, thinking, ‘I don’t know if I’m on the right track.’ I’ve described it as my first heartbreak.”
Through her upbringing, Elín discovered her love of music. It was Elín’s mother who taught her the guitar, birthing the artist’s initial steps into songwriting.
“I had more of a storyteller within me, which I didn’t have the platform to express in dance,” Elín states. “I used music to deal with my emotions regarding quitting ballet. I had no life except ballet and school. When I needed to discover myself all over again, [music] saved me.”
The edge of breaking
The act of discovering one’s voice — in this context, Elín’s voice — is the core theme of her latest album, as referenced by the title heyrist í mér (can you hear me?). “I’ve always been occupied with the question of whether I’m being heard,” Elín explains. “In dance, I thought I was just a body. heyrist í mér, you know, it’s just a sentence that the musician says before they tap the microphone,” she continues.
For Elín, that title also holds alternative meanings — one pertaining to her experience as a woman. “In a feminist context, do the things I’m saying matter? I’ve experienced that you need to make an effort to be heard. You need to express things more clearly as a woman. Nobody is handing you the microphone. You need to go onstage and say it,” Elín opines.
At first glance, heyrist í mér assumes the role of an honest singer/songwriter album, opening up on the mellow, acoustic driven tracks “he i m” and “vinir”. It may seem like Elín is wearing her heart on her sleeve, but reality — like great art — is never so convenient.
Stripping back the album’s accessible layer of pop music, the listener is exposed to heart-wrenching lyrics, nostalgic reminiscence and multitudinal stories. Although the occasional voyeur might feel like they’re peeping into Elín’s personal life, the album’s ingenuity lies in its ability to instead serve as a mirror to the listeners’ own lives and emotions.
On the verge of screaming
Coloured by the isolation clouding society during covid, Elín says her writing is, “generally personal, not realistically personal.” She continues, half-jokingly, “I don’t think I’m opening my underwear drawer. But I use my own life as a building block.”
“I was examining the boundaries between nightmares and fantasies, trauma and nostalgia, and the edges of these phenomena. And the edge of breaking,” Elín says, referencing the recording process of “Júpíter” as an example.
“That’s a song that started out as a simple guitar song. Reynir [Snær Magnússon, Elín’s collaborator on the album] and I were never happy with the arrangement. The more we worked on it, the more rock-influenced it became,” Elín starts.
“Halfway into the song, it ended up with a change, so it got transformed into a rock song where I start screaming. That’s very descriptive of the whole album. I’m always dancing on the line of screaming, to demand that people listen to me. Or demanding to be taken seriously, both as a musician but also in my personal life,” she concludes.
In a very Fleetwood Mac-esque moment, Elín and her longtime partner and album collaborator Reynir broke up as work got underway. “When we’re starting work on the album, we break up. We’d been together for five years as a couple. That also put its dent in things, because we decided to continue working together on the record. And I think that we’d hit a sort of spiral,” Elín confides.
Ultimately unhappy with the outcome, Elín turned to producer Árni Árnason. “Árni shows up, and I don’t know what he’s doing in that computer of his. But all of sudden,” Elín snaps her fingers, “it started to sound right. Everything became easy.”
Swapping between characters
Alongside her musical career, which is now firmly cemented with the release of heyrist í mér, Elín has developed a flourishing acting career that includes starring roles in two feature-length films. One of those, the 2023 release Kuldi, features Elín’s track “rauðir draumar,” which was written from the perspective of one of the characters. Considering the opportunities for overlap, does Elín’s acting career influence her music?
“[For one] it allows me to step into the role of Elín Hall, the musician. My name isn’t Elín Hall. It’s an artist name I took up when I was abroad, because Halldórsdóttir was a bit too long,” she explains.
“Acting can help me step into a character to follow through with my art. I need to have clear boundaries. And acting gives me the confidence to step in and out of something. I’m in character right now while I’m doing this interview.”
Although acting was never on Elín’s bingo card in life, she doesn’t regret the path she’s currently taking. As rehearsals for Jagged Little Pill are underway, Elín plans to finally host an album release show for heyrist í mér in March before releasing new music further into 2024.
Catch Elín Hall’s next move on her Instagram, @elinsifhall. Listen to heyrist í mér on available streaming platforms.
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