On the Airwaves in Iceland

Iceland’s Airwaves festival is a buzzing showcase for the island’s hottest new musical acts. Ahead of this year’s event, we went to meet some of them

(First published in N by Norwegian, October 2017. Photography by River Thompson)

“Airwaves is my Christmas. It’s this magical time of the year, when the whole vibe of Reykjavik changes, and the city becomes one giant concert venue.” Icelandic electro pop act Hildur, born Hildur Kristín Stefánsdóttir, is explaining the appeal of the annual Airwaves Festival, held in venues from bookshops to barber shops across Reykjavik and the northern city of Akureyri, when the best Icelandic acts are joined by international talent – in this year’s case, the likes of Fleet Foxes, Benjamin Clementine, Billy Bragg and Norwegian pop sensation Sigrid.

The primary raison d’etre for Airwaves is as a showcase for Iceland’s impossibly healthy native music scene – which spans pop, indie and a thriving hip hop scene (no one seems able to tell us why this beautiful country produces so much hip hop). “Airwaves is when the world comes to look at the Icelandic scene,” says Hildur, who topped the Icelandic  charts last year with debut single ‘I’ll Walk With You’. “Everyone who plays is like: Will this be the night?”

For many, it has been. When indie band Of Monsters and Men played Airwaves in 2010, Seattle-based radio station KEXP recorded their single ‘Little Talks’, helping propel them to global stardom. There are countless similar stories.

But, really, it’s just a celebration of a music scene that punches well above its weight for a country of around 334,000 people – helped by an emphasis on musical learning at school, and a musical lineage exemplified by the art-meets-pop of Björk, whom most the musicians here adore (even if they pretend not to notice her when they see her in the hot tub at the public baths).

“It’s remarkable that this tiny country has produced so many strong artists,” says Melkorka Sigríður Magnúsdóttir of Milkywhale, the electropop duo that broke out at Airwaves 2015. “There’s a really nice togetherness about the scene here. It’s really supportive, and there are always good musicians to work with.”   

The best place to see the evidence of all that is at Airwaves. “Everyone builds up to their Airwaves show,” says Jóhanna Rakel of all-girl hip-hop trio Cyber. “It’s our harvest season, our new year. You seen everyone dragging instruments around town. It’s magical.”

Milkywhale

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When Milkywhale first played Airwaves in 2015, the duo had been together less than half a year. Trained dancer and choreographer Melkorka Sigríður Magnúsdóttir had joined forces with Árni Rúnar Hlöðverssson of respected Iceland electro-pop band FM Belfast – and together they’d built a band around the concept of a lonely whale and a shared desire “to expand the whole idea of what a concert is.”

Magnúsdóttir was more used to dancing in theatres than performing pop, but when she hit the stage that year, and “just started moving” in front of a huge screen, the crowd went crazy – and the duo were widely dubbed the breakout act of the year.

However, Magnúsdóttir likes the description of their 80s aerobics-style 2016 show in local ’zine The Reykjavik Grapevine: “A bowl of Skittles combined with eight double espressos, topped with the mania of receiving both a new puppy and a trampoline on Christmas morning.”

Like many Icelandic acts, Milkywhale are a curious blend of joyous performance and arty introspection. Magnúsdóttir wrote the lyrics to this year’s self-titled debut album with her mother, the novelist, playwright and poet Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, about “love, loneliness and a whale who is on a different frequency to the rest of the world.”  

Onstage, though, it’s more about a communal euphoria that Magnúsdóttir compares to laughter yoga. “I prefer to be silly than sexy,” she says, referring to a gig by Swedish singer Robyn that “blew me away with its energy. I just love being onstage, being able to control a crowd, and to make people leave a show happier than when they came in. It’s like being a priest, preaching pure joy.”

Cyber

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All-female trio Cyber are winning in the male-dominated world of Icelandic hip-hop – but it’s been a long time coming. Jóhanna Rakel Jónasdóttir and Salka Valsdóttir (pictured left and centre) are childhood friends who at 16 started a punk/thrash/disco duo called Cyber, named after a lipstick they both liked. “We had a very wellcurated tracklist,” says Valsdóttir. “Unfortunately, the songs were crap.”

They hadn’t tried hip-hop until 2013, when Jónasdóttir went to an all-girl hip-hop night that would eventually form the basis of the Reykjavíkurdætur collective – part of Iceland’s massive hip-hop scene. “It’s become this cult for hipsters to like Icelandic hip-hop,” Jónasdóttir says. “It’s a bit like Eskimos playing punk.”

“At the time, Jóhanna was in Russia, training as a gymnast,” says Valsdóttir. “I called her to say, ‘Come home, we’re doing a rap show.’”

Cyber’s first song was “basically random words with a beat,” says Jónasdóttir. “We were too cheap to buy the Beats app, so we’d play it from our phone at gigs. Then my mum would call in the middle of the show.”

Things look very different now. After touring with Reykjavíkurdætur, they brought in DJ Þura Stína (right), and last year released the EP Crap, a languid slice of Icelandic cool that earned them the respect of the scene. Now they’re working on a 13-song concept album called Horror, which Jónasdóttir says has been “tragically hard to make – but a proper, cohesive album”.

“Basically, we’ve got better,” says Valsdóttir. “We’re not amateurs anymore.”

Auður

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Auður (Auðunn Lúthersson to his parents) might describe himself as a “weirdo” but the electronic musician is one very talented weirdo.

Describing his influences as everything from Dalí to butterflies, Stanley Kubrick and Pulp Fiction, probably the most telling is the influence of dreamy British electropopper James Blake, whose 2013 gig at Sónar Reykjavík inspired Auður to go solo. “Seeing the melodic decisions he takes was an epiphany,” he says.

Until then, Auður’s musical journey was eclectic – from death metal to jazz guitar, dabbling with experimental noise and producing for Icelandic hip-hop acts. Now his music might be described as dreamy electronic R&B. “I want music that has depth and layers, but is still accessible. I just want to make music that resonates with people,” he says of his songs, some of which deal with missing his girlfriend during her trip to South America.

He filmed a visual version of his well-received debut album, Alone, in an abandoned power station, playing it on live loop at Reykjavík’s iconic Harpa theatre. Now he’s planning a visual spectacular for Airwaves, involving a mix of BBC nature documentary series Planet Earth and Surrealism. Expect it to be brilliant – and weird.

Hildur

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“I’m not afraid to admit that I like Justin Bieber,” says Hildur Kristín Stefánsdóttir, who writes classic Scandi-pop songs, and who this year won the best pop song at this year’s Icelandic Music Awards for the earworm-y hit, ‘I’ll Walk With You’.

Hildur is very much a self-made pop star, and a serious musician. Having played cello since the age of six, she started writing songs at 15, and by 18 had formed ambient pop band Rökkurró, who toured for nine years and released three albums. She’s also played cello for Icelandic acts including globally successful musician and producer Ólafur Arnalds.

“But I’d always wanted to make music that was closer to what I was listening to,” she says of her decision to go solo after Rökkurró disbanded three years ago. She was inspired by Grimes, the Canadian artist who writes and produces all her own music. “I just kept watching videos of her, trying to figure out what she was doing,” says Hildur.

She got the impetus in 2015, when a friend asked her to produce the music for a short film she was making. “At first I was like, I can’t; but then, I thought, No, I definitely can.” The film never got made, but Hildur was on her way.

Later that year, she sent a few demo tapes to Sónar Reykjavik, the other big festival in town. They accepted. “I was like: Oh God, I have two months to create a whole live act.”

Needing at least six songs and a single, in February 2016, she put out ‘I’ll Walk With You’, which became a smash and topped the Icelandic charts. “It was sort of right place and right time,” says Hildur, who says melodies often come to her as she’s falling asleep. “There are so many great musicians in Iceland, but actually not that many female artists doing pure pop.”

Now, she’s in the process of writing new songs “without too much pressure”. Watch this space for what Iceland’s new pop queen does next.

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