The Rumpus Interview with Sóley Stefánsdóttir

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Icelandic singer-songwriter Sóley Stefánsdóttir has released her first full-length record, We Sink (Morr). This comes after Stefánsdóttir’s debut EP, Theater Island.

On We Sink, Stefánsdóttir shows off her musical training by playing piano, guitar, organ, and percussion on the album, in addition to singing all the songs.  And her writing chops are finely honed as well–this record is full of enchanting, quirky story-songs like “Kill the Clown” and the surprisingly delicate “Smashed Birds,” which features Stefánsdóttir singing, “And I took all your birds and I smashed them in my pockets.”

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The Rumpus: I read that it took you some time to find and trust your singing voice. Can you tell me more about that?

Sóley Stefánsdóttir: Yes, I think I was just shy. I had friends who were studying singing when we were teenagers and I was playing piano. Well, I didn’t think about it; I thought singing and making music was just not for me, but that’s because I had never tried it!

Rumpus: Iceland has an impressive musical output these days (Bjork, Emiliana Torrini, Bedroom Community artists, Olafur Arnalds, Sigur Ros, FM Belfast, to name a few).  How do you perceive that community? What do you think about Iceland fosters that kind of musical prolificness?

Stefánsdóttir: I have been thinking about this a lot. Because when I’m asked, what bands I can recommend from Iceland, me and I think all other Icelanders can name at least 5-10 bands/musicians. I have asked around when I’m touring, in Europe for example, what bands are new and cool in this and that country and the answer is often maybe one or two bands… so Iceland is a good country for musicians; it’s inspiring to know of that many people at your age doing the same thing as you are. We know of each other and everyone is helping each other out, recording, playing shows, etc.

But a little money help from the government could be more, they are really proud of Icelandic music scene but it’s almost impossible to live on it here. You either have to sell your song to an advertisement somewhere around the world or be very very popular so they play you a lot on Icelandic radio stations. If we play somewhere abroad we always have to fly and it’s quite expensive if you do it a lot.

Rumpus:  What can you tell me about “Smashed Birds?”

Stefánsdóttir:  It’s a song that I wrote first on the piano but I’m glad I changed it in the recording process to guitar. It’s a song about a girl’s last day on earth… kind of. I’m really bad talking about my songs because they are often more about feelings and something you can’t describe. When I play my songs I always see the same “short movie” inside my head and I hope people see their own “short movie”. I’m not telling people what to see or think while listening to these songs, it’s more they can experience it on their own.

Rumpus: Who helped you make “We Sink,” and what did they contribute to it?

Stefánsdóttir:  I had my friend Jón Óskar Jónsson to play drums, the drumset on the album. I did all the percussion though.  My friend Simon Nykjær plays bass in some songs and my brother Eiríkur Rafn Stefánsson sings in two songs, like a choir. Sindri Már Sigfússon who I also play with in Seabear and his project Sin Fang plays electrical guitar in two songs.

I did almost all the “pre” mixing, with a little help from Sindri and my boyfriend Héðinn. I did the final mixing in Sundlaugin, which is owned by Birgir Jón Birgisson who helped me with final mixing.  Everything else I did by myself.

Rumpus: What instruments do you play on the record?

Stefánsdóttir:  Piano, organs, voices, guitars, all percussion, noises and yeah, I think that’s it.

Rumpus:  When it comes to writing lyrics, what is your process like?

Stefánsdóttir:  Sometimes I only need one word to start. If I’m all empty I take some good book I like, and just read for a bit and then I’m back on track.  I want my lyrics to be stories, short stories. I want it kind of to begin and end. Sometimes I have some feeling or color in mind when I write them. It’s all different. Sometimes I just can’t stop writing. But I always have to re write some stuff in the process. Write something and then wait for few days and then read it over. Something that can be very cool when you write it can be very uncool few days later.

Rumpus: Are there any visuals (art, film, etc.) that inspire you?

Stefánsdóttir:  I have it all in my head. One of my favorite poets is Davíð Stefánsson. I love his poems.  Dreams are also a great inspiration. I love how inspirational they can be. I dream a lot and though I don’t use my dreams, I use the idea of how dream can be. The idea of Tim Burton’s movies are also sometimes good inspiration. This dark color, weird people and strange stories. There are probably many inspirations I don’t know of also.

Rumpus:  Did you have a very musical upbringing?

Stefánsdóttir:  Yes I have been in music school since I was a kid. You can always learn more and more from good teachers. My dad is a trombone player and a music teacher, my younger brother is studying jazz trumpet and my little sister plays French horn.

Rumpus: Can you tell me a little more about “Bad Dream” and “Kill the Clown?”

Stefánsdóttir:  ”Bad Dream”  is about a nightmare. It’s about these two people who are escaping from this rabbit. It’s surreal also because it’s supposed to be a dream. Something that could never happen in real life.

“Kill The Clown” is about this war against this crazy clown and the people. He is planning to attack them, but still it’s a passionate song and lyrics. When I wrote this song I kind of fell in love with this bad clown and I still do [love him]. This song has a special meaning to me because it was released on my EP, Theater Island. Maybe one of my first songs, lyric and sound that I liked and kind of found myself through that song.

Rumpus: Who are your favorite writers?

Stefánsdóttir: Davíð Stefánsson (Poet), Steinn Steinarr (Poet), Edgar Allan Poe, Leonard Cohen and Joanna Newsom.

 


Erin Lyndal Martin is the assistant music editor for The Rumpus. She is also an associate interviews editor for PopMatters, and she runs the music journalism site Euterpe's Notebook in addition to also contributing to The Quietus. Her poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and critical prose have also appeared widely. She can be followed on Twitter at @erinlyndal. More from this author →