Two singer–songwriters, Helgi Jonsson and Steinway Artist Markéta Irglová, live down the street from each other in Reykjavik, and are two of the most successful of the many Icelandic musicians now rising to the top in Iceland’s swelling music scene. (Irglová is Czech, but she’s firmly planted in Iceland now.) Despite the recent tourism boom, Reykjavik remains a quiet, tight-knit community, full of music, startling scenery, food and drink — and Icelandic sweaters knitted by local grandmas. Though trombone is Jonsson’s first instrument, his latest EP is for voice and piano, inspired by his purchase of a Steinway Model B. Irglová won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2008 for “Falling Slowly” (co-written with Glen Hansard) from Once, an independent film she also co-starred in with Hansard. Her Steinway Model D Crown Jewel sits in her recently opened recording studio overlooking the sea, where I spoke with both singer–songwriters over coffee, sandwiches, and Icelandic treats, purchased at a baker with Jonsson en route, where he was treated like the local celebrity he is.
Markéta, do you feel at home here? Do you feel like an Icelander?
Markéta Irglová: Part of me does. I have some sort of past-life connection with this place, for sure.
What do you mean by that?
MI: It was somehow already familiar to me when I came here for the first time — I already had a connection with it. When I was learning the language, it didn’t feel like I was learning it for the first time. It came all too easy.
Helgi Jonsson: I lived in Austria for eight years, and learned to speak German like they do out there; people from Berlin wouldn’t have understood me.
HJ: Grüß Gott! [Laughs.] And after eight years, I felt Austrian and knew I could live there, no problem. But I wanted to move back to Iceland. And Markéta learned the language in an incredibly short amount of time....
I hear she has a good ear.
MI: I like the language. I like the sound of it. It’s fun, it’s like learning a song.
Helgi, what drew you back to Iceland?
HJ: Friends and family, or rather, family and friends. Long-term, I would never have been happy somewhere else.
That’s a bold statement. What is it about Iceland that makes you happy that other places can’t?
HJ: It’s everything. To work here, to make music here, makes sense to me. It’s much easier. When you live abroad and tour abroad, you get a social circle. I am, at my core, a social person. When I came back, it was a reset button. You have all these sights and light around you. If you want, you can have peace and quiet, time to create. You don’t have to be out with friends all the time.
But you can be. I checked out part of downtown Reykjavik that is clearly a 5 a.m.–drinking situation.
HJ: Oh my God, very much.
HJ: I had my share of it. But it’s been great to become an adult here as well.
MI: I think it’s nice, getting older.
HJ: So nice. Of course, that has a lot to do with getting married and having children. It doesn’t sound so rock-and-roll and fun and exciting, but it really has been exciting. It’s been a natural progression, with Iceland. And we are lucky that we get to travel a lot.
And it’s nice to come back here and call this place home.
MI: Yes, I’ve found Iceland to be a very special place in the sense that what I look for in places is the energy of the earth beneath your feet. That’s the special thing about any place: the energy of the history, its nature, its weather, and the things a place brings out in a person. And a lot of places are built over all of that energy, stifled with concrete and overly manicured gardens and parks, and nothing to do with the wild nature and energy of the earth and what the earth wants to express. Because the earth is the greatest creative force there is. And all of us, we seek these places, when we go on holiday, where we can open our mind and our heart. We seek the wild places where we go and we look, and we’re speechless because we’re overwhelmed with the beauty around you and no one had to do anything to it: it just is; the earth expressed it. It’s strange to me how we all see the value of these wild, beautiful places on the edge of the earth, that charge your batteries inside, and yet we show them such little respect. And in a big city, you have a park, and that’s as good as it gets — and I could never live in a big city. I need fresh air, clean water, and to feel like I’m not drowning in toxins and pollution. And Iceland is an incredible place in this regard, especially before the tourist boom, it was almost like this secret.
Has the tourist boom hurt Reykjavik for you?
MI: Not at all. But tourism is about money, and money corrupts a little bit, like, the politics of a country, I guess, and then decisions get made...
HJ: ...made based on the wrong things.
MI: Yeah, not protecting the thing that makes the place special.
For many people outside Iceland, the Icelandic music scene is Björk and, maybe, Sigur Rós. That’s neither fair nor accurate, and it’s reductive to boot. Tell us what we’re missing.
HJ: If you look at Ireland, and you take U2 and Sinéad O’Connor and Glen [Hansard] and Damien [Rice]...
And The Dubliners. And Riverdance....
HJ: Exactly. That’s just taking some names. It’s a bit hard to pinpoint, if you want to look a bit deeper and see where it all comes from, because the truth is that our infrastructure around music is so young here. We hardly had any instruments here until the late nineteenth century, when the harmonium was new here! After the Second World War, a lot of people fled here from Germany. And they were the ones who founded our music schools and any infrastucture around teaching people how to make music. We have some really old-time singing and singing in parallel fifths. Lovely stuff. [Laughs.] It’s harsh! Our cultural heritage is really literature. Because of this clean slate, there is perhaps less of a form that people are already pressed into in kindergarten, and I think it has helped bands do something quirky or different. And then, out of every fifty bands, one of them happens to pop up!
Does it perhaps help not living under the burden of tradition and the rules that come with that tradition?
HJ: I think this is valid for pop music, as it has helped local musicians do whatever they want to do. I wouldn’t say that there’s a direct connection to Icelandic musicians spending a lot of time in nature, per se. I think it has more to do with weather. The weather is extremely important and the contrasts between summer and winter, light and dark. Those things are definitely important, and also practically speaking, in the winter, there will be months where you don’t have any activity outside. With the light, there are hormonal changes, as well. What do we do to make us feel better?
‘The earth is the greatest creative force there is.’
You have to get cozy!
HJ: Yes! I love the winter here. I love the autumn. All the parts of the year, really. [Laughs.]
MI: And in Iceland, you don’t have to go into nature to feel it. It’s not suppressed here. We’re in the capital of Iceland and you look out the window and you see mountains and sea — from the center! The buildings aren’t too tall. They don’t overpower the surroundings. Everywhere you go, it’s underneath your feet. I feel that must have an effect on people. I notice it, not just in music, but people are much more harmonious with each other, too. There is a softness in people. There’s a coming together. I like that about the people here. Even in the musical community, it’s not like there’s one band, and then there’s another band, and they’re rivals, and if one of them plays with the other band, they’re cheating on their original band. Here, there is a constant flow.
And that’s the raison d’être of your studio here, is to have a constant flow of creative people.
MI: That would be my hope! We haven’t yet officially opened. But yes, just have fun, come together, and create.
HJ: A lot of musicians don’t have money. And you can still work on a professional level here by helping other people out, who in return will help you. And that’s such a beautiful thing. And this attitude finds its way into the music virtually, people saying, “I’m here to help this person make their best album.” That can-do attitude, which is super Icelandic, is not great for running banks, but it’s great for the arts. People have this really strong belief, and they miserably fail most of the time, and it doesn’t matter. They just start the next project. And of course, no one that has had fun doing something has failed.
That’s good to hear. As a music journalist, I see and hear that spirit already in jazz (“sidemen”) and hip hop (“sitting in on a track”). But, as you say, in rock and pop, maybe Dave Grohl can occasionally play drums for someone else....
MI: But then they have to say “featuring!”
HJ: This is so true. And jazz is like forming a new group every time.
Jazz is always a collaboration at its heart. But it could be this way for other genres!
HJ: But the pop world is so persona-focused. You take this one person and put them on a pedestal.
MI: And if the members of the band change, the band has to change its name.
Or think, in rock, of the supergroups: Crosby, Stills & Nash. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
MI: And they probably spent five days arguing whose name is third.
HJ: That band particularly!
Let’s talk about songwriting, since we’ve landed on CSNY. Helgi, you were telling me that when you are writing a song, the melody comes first and then you often vocalize in an Icelandic —
— Icelandic-ish sing-song before the words come in.
HJ: I came to it because it creates this problem that I make this gibberish of made-up sounds, that sounds a bit like Icelandic. I do it as an improvisation, but it’s there to serve the music, to serve the melody. I may have everything arranged — to the end — but I don’t have the lyrics. And then, if I want to have lyrics, it’s a problem.
Does it become a puzzle?
HJ: It becomes a compromise. I’ll try and find words and vowels but I also want the lyrics to make sense. Often I say, “Okay, I have to sacrifice this sound here.” I’m lucky that I’m married to a woman who is an incredible songwriter, who writes wonderful lyrics — for free! We often collaborate, on her music and mine.
Markéta, songwriting is such a personal process. Are there any rituals that you keep from song to song?
MI: It depends on whether I’m writing for my own project or for a film.
I’d love to hear about your process for both. I just spoke to Lalo Schifrin, who wrote the theme to the television show Mission: Impossible and the score to Cool Hand Luke, which is one of the great all-time film scores. When you hear John Williams or Hans Zimmer, you know it’s them immediately. But Schifrin is so deep in the idiom and such a chameleon, you may not know it’s him until you get to the credits! No ego, no signature, just him serving the film. I imagine that is a totally different outlook from “I, the singer–songwriter, now give you my song.”
MI: Yes, it is, and it’s like that for me, too! For a film or a play, you’re not going all the way, you’re going sort of halfway to where the other people working on the project are — the director, whoever the person with the vision is — as when you are working on someone else’s record. You’re meeting their vision and try to serve the project, working in a way that will serve it best without expressing your own agenda. I recently worked on a film where I took inspiration by projecting myself into the characters and feel what they were feeling, or what I imagine they were feeling. And if they were singing the song, what would it sound like? Because it has to fit them. And I like that, because it brings something out that I wouldn’t get if I were writing for my own record — which would be only my own experience, whatever is on the surface of my consciousness, whatever I’m struggling with or thinking about. But if someone else has created these characters and has tried to create a certain energy or atmosphere, then you must take that into account.
You’re fitting a narrative rather than creating one.
MI: Yes, exactly. And you’re helping! Music and imagery is a really beautiful marriage. It’s like riding the bus and looking out the window with your headphones on.
But if I’m writing for my record, lyrics are really important. I don’t think I would ever write poems, per se, lyrics without music, but my process usually begins at the piano to find something that resonates with me.
Do you write at the piano?
MI: Yes, I start there and develop the melody a bit. And then I have to go away from the piano, usually for a walk, and I think about the lyrics. And I develop a few lines that I remember. And then I go back to the piano and see how those lines fit with the melody, and that brings me further with the melody. And then the process is repeated. And eventually I will chisel at the lyrics until I feel they are perfect, as far as what I want to say, how I want to say it, and how it fits with the music. One completes the other.
I understand what Helgi was saying about the sounds that we make are really important. And we’re creating sounds. And we’re making vibrations. You change the sound, you change the vibration. And every word has its own sound.
HJ: And I think the process you’re describing is, in fact, better. I think you will end up with something better when both things are serving each other. So you can have the best lyrics and exactly the right music for those lyrics. But in my case, I see it as a limitation. I can be very free with the music, because my background is that of an instrumentalist. But I think what you’re describing there...
Helgi would like to do that.
HJ: Yeah, maybe I should just stop being so lazy. [Laughs.]
I don’t know if there’s one path to victory.
MI: Sure, it depends. I know people inthe pop world where it’s not about lyrics at all, they just repeat the same lines over and over again.
MI: Katy Perry probably has a team of five different writers writing songs for her!
She’s what Helgi was terming a pop “persona,” and she has to have a team to maintain that persona. As an example, Katy Perry had a recent “shift” in direction. So there was a piece in The New York Times about how Katy Perry is all grown up now and she wants to shift direction. How did that happen? It didn’t happen because she produced an amazing work of art, a critic took note, and pitched his editor. Rather, her team went to the Times and said, “Ms. Perry, who has sold x albums (and streams), is now ready for a Shift in Direction. And we can give you an exclusive about her new, mature, yada yada yada.” So it’s all part of this thoroughly preordained, calculated narrative that has to be managed not by one person but by a team of people.
MI: And for me, lyrics don’t come out of a team; they are very personal. I can’tenjoy a song, or singing a song, that I don’t connect to the lyrics. Because when my heart connects to the lyrics, then I can do the song justice. Otherwise, it’s an empty experience. So I have to pay attention in my own music that the lyrics are personal enough for me in my journey, but they’re not too specific that, a year from now, I wouldn’t be able to sing them anymore. It has to be wide enough to be universal, that everyone can connect to it — because essentially, we all go through the same experiences and challenges and struggles.
That’s songwriting in a nutshell, right? The personal wedded to the universal.
HJ: And that’s it, what makes it so you are able to return to the song. And there is a lot of good pop music out there and the pop world is a very wide spectrum —
But maybe Phil Collins doesn’t feel it in the air tonight... anymore.
HJ: [Laughs.] But there’s a lot of effort put in to serve or hit what is hot right now. And sadly, a lot of that comes from pop producers trying to make their artists popular.
And that’s it. It’s popular. It’s here this year.
HJ: But normally, they’re already too late! The album comes out and it’s already on to something else.
Helgi, you have a piano album out now [Vængjatak (“Flapping Wings”)]. Piano is not your first instrument; it’s the trombone. Yet your press release tells me the album was inspired by nothing less than your recent purchase of a Steinway! So, of course, I have to ask you about that.
HJ: [Laughs.] Absolutely! I remember going into the Steinway showroom — and there was this big picture of [Steinway Artist] Martha Argerich, one of the most amazing artists ever. And I sat at that instrument over which her picture hung and thought, “Oh, that doesn’t do anything for me!” It had a lot of tone, projection, not too bright — but it wasn’t for me. And I tried different Steinways until I found mine.
Markéta was saying earlier that there is always a range of warmth and brightness, and you have to find the instrument that hits the right spot for you.
HJ: The guy working at the store, Marco, after my third visit, playing and thinking about how I could justify the investment in myself, he said, “You know what? Listening to you play, I really think this instrument is just like you!” And that might sound like a total cliché from a salesman, but it’s not. It’s absolutely true. The instrument is mild, friendly, but also very dynamic; it goes with you long distance, if you work it.
Markéta, when you played your Steinway initially, was it the same reaction? You felt it suited you?
MI: Yes, I’ve been blessed to play so many different pianos over the years, touring live. Some of them were Steinways because the band I was playing with was doing really well and we were playing these beautiful theaters and concert halls. And I noticed that even if it was the same model, they were different. And some Steinways I really clicked with — and you could hear the difference in the concert. I really connected with the instrument and felt it was working with me and it made for a richer experience. And maybe that doesn’t matter much for a concert, but it means a great deal if you’re composing or if you’re recording. You want it to be perfect. So from this experience with the Steinways, I realized what I like in an instrument, in terms of sound.
HJ: It’s like you’re speaking directly from my heart, this story. Getting the opportunity, which is a blessing, to play all these great instruments. But every oncein a while, it’s “Wow!” and then you are educated in what you want your dream instrument to be. Sometimes it just clicks. When those overtones are right — which, admittedly, has a lot to do with tuning — you will be guided toward certain sounds. That’s why I think anyone will agree that it’s almost impossible to compose on an electronic instrument or a sampled instrument. It’s just really difficult. Acoustics are so complex, and natural acoustics are so important. And for this album, I got to play that Steinway every day and write this music. And this music came to me as a result of having this beautiful instrument and being inspired.
Photos: Jonatan Gretarsson, Michelle Pullen / EyeEm